The Meaning of Swaraj on Independence Day

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Independence Day fireworks and parades aside, many young friends and family members express their despair and disappointment in the moral bankruptcy of those elected to lead the world’s democracies by asking me, “Why vote?”

I open with a Gandhian quote: “The very essence of democracy is that every person represents all the varied interests which compose the nation.”

And then I follow-up with a little history from Amartya Sen, and then a little “my-story,” and finally a clarification that without Gandhiji’s sense of swaraj, independence would be meaningless.

In his wonderful book The Argumentative Indian, Sen writes: “Democracy is intimately connected with public discussion and interactive reasoning.  Traditions of public discussion exist across the world, not just the West… The Greek and Roman heritage on public discussion is, of course, rightly celebrated, but the importance attached to public deliberation also has a remarkable history in India… In the history of public reasoning in India, considerable credit must be given to the early Indian Buddhists, who had a great commitment to discussion as a means of social progress… ”

From Ashoka to Obama, from Akbar to Trump, we’ve had the opportunity to give voice to what matters. In 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy seemingly took away hope from many American voices.  When my parents brought my siblings and me to the United States a year later, I was too young to lose hope. Indeed, I looked to the moon landing and could see only possibility. More than three decades later, I lost my voice in the aftermath of 9/11. I felt that I couldn’t speak up in public about racial profiling or write letters to the editor about a shameful war. Although I resided in a country that constitutionally ensured its citizens the freedom of speech, I lived in fear of a knock on the door in the middle of the night. So I became careful about what I said and what I wrote. Enough. It’s time to represent our “varied interests which compose the nation” by voting with our ballots, our pencils, our voices. That’s what happened in the United States in 2008, and the pendulum swung from McCain to Obama. And then again it happened in 2016, and the pendulum swung from Clinton to Trump. The 2020 elections will take place a mere 13 months after Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, and the outcome is far from certain. Will the pendulum swing further right, over to the left, or a stabilizing center?

So why vote? If one considers Gandhiji’s concept of swaraj in its fullness, one realizes that political swaraj means self-government in a sovereign state, and individual swaraj means self-mastery in a private space. Voting is a wonderfully expressive means of conflating the public and the private, of integrating political and individual swaraj.

In honor of Gandhiji’s 150th birth anniversary, Dr. Rajesh C. Oza recently published “Satyalogue // Truthtalk: A Gandhian Guide to (Post)Modern-Day Dilemmas” which  is available on Amazon or at www.satyalogue.com.

Cover photo credit: A Creative Commons image by Eduardo Francisco Vazquez Murillo.

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