Freedom is the heart of a republic

When I was little, I watched a movie called Born Free. It was a lioness whose mother was killed, and who was then raised by humans. I never saw the movie again, but I never forgot it. The film’s title and argument – ​​that lions belong in forests, not zoos – stuck in my head in the form of questions about identity and rights.

Is a lion really born free, more so than humans? Elsa, the film’s protagonist, was more of a giant cat than a lioness. When her adoptive “mother” decided to teach her how to live in nature, she discovered that Elsa couldn’t manage on her own. Not only was she reluctant to hunt, but she was getting attacked by other beasts. It took several attempts to get her away from humans before Elsa finally began to hunt, eventually finding acceptance among the other lions.

What did freedom mean to a lioness raised by humans? Does she really want to live in a forest? Elsa’s early behavior indicated that she preferred not to. On the other hand, Elsa couldn’t know what she wanted until she experienced freedom and the full range of her own abilities. She had her own cubs and she didn’t look back once she learned to hunt. That doesn’t mean she’s forgotten the people who raised her. She remembered, but now she knew who she was.
Freedom is not just a matter of being nurtured. Nor does the technical absence of a cage define freedom. She can be trained to perform on stage through a judicious mix of fear, pain, and food, but a lioness balanced on a chair and ridden by a clown cannot be called free.

Hunting and killing does not necessarily translate into freedom. A lioness should also be free not to hunt and kill when she chooses. Whoever is supposed to tear apart a gladiator, or an unarmed Christian convert, is no freer than the human he will kill.

Freedom is therefore a form of self-determination. Being able to make your own choices is essential to realize it and live in it. And what is the republic if not a human attempt at self-determination?

A republic is not a landmass, after all. It is not a group of people contained in a landmass. A republic is a state that defines itself as being of the people, coming out of the res publica, a matter that concerns the public.

Ancient Rome was one of the first republics in the world, with a complex system in which free men had a say in the election of representatives and the appointment of magistrates. But not all men were free. None of the women were truly free either and rose to positions of power. Then there were immigrants, or communities that found themselves controlled by Rome after losing in wars, and they weren’t full citizens and couldn’t vote. Therefore, it can be argued that the “public” in the word republic was a feint, a small fragment of truth that served as a cover for the bigger lie. The people who lived and served Rome – even those who literally gave birth to Rome’s senators and magistrates – remained unrepresented, their ideas unspoken.

The heart of a republic is not elections and voting; it’s freedom. This is why countries like modern India adopted a Constitution which, above all, described the form of our freedom: Our fundamental rights. The Constitution is our self-determination. We may wander off, forget who we are, but a description of our basic rights will always remind us that we are born free. That we owe each other our freedoms – of thought and belief, faith and worship – and equality, but before these words comes “justice”. Without social, economic and political justice, equality is not possible, and without equality, justice is not possible. Indeed, without economic and political equity, freedom is not possible.

In ancient Roman gladiators – trained warriors who fought among themselves or great beasts such as lions and bears – included freeborn men (a few women too) who gave up their freedoms and agreed to submit to flogging, binding and death. They may have done this for food or for glory in the bloody “games” of the arena. However, if a man gives up his free status, in effect his right to life, in exchange for a steady supply of food, how free was he in the first place?

Free citizens do not choose between bread and fighting. The corollary is this: if citizens can no longer participate, whether as witnesses or as challengers to public policies, they risk losing their status of freedom. If citizens cannot feed themselves, or if they cannot come together to freely exchange information and form new opinions without risking their lives, the republic itself is compromised.

We know that the Covid-19 pandemic has severely limited the mobility of people, their right to seek work, to assemble and to confront their representatives, even if the latter do not respect the same safety standards. We also know now that many more Indians, hundreds of millions, are hungrier, have limited or no access to healthcare, limited or no access to digital. Can they still behave as free citizens do—hold assemblies of representatives to account? How? ‘Or’ What?

We must beware. Our liberties were already fragmented, with the biggest pieces affixed to the collars of the elite, the patricians, but we must retreat from a vision of the republic where freedom represented by justice and equality before the law does not is no longer guaranteed. This is how a republic washed out of meaning is found, a “public” that does not necessarily translate into people.

Zaidi is a novelist and poet

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