I’m afraid

Hiya Chowdhury | Updated on August 14, 2020

We are teaching young India that they cannot speak their mind without being attacked for it

I always thought I’d find freedom in writing. It was the only place where I could be myself, the only way I could express myself freely and leave my mark on something meaningful. It was supposed to be a space where freedom was a prerequisite, a given. And I wrote in that belief for a while; I was fearless and bold and vulnerable, all at the same time. I wrote with reckless abandon, a very loose leash on my words, and it felt like pure magic.

This was until I found myself on the receiving end of a conversation with my mother, as she implored me to not use the name Gandhi in a satirical poem I had written. I was defensive at first; it was just a name, that too in a satire. It wasn’t supposed to be offensive at all. And yet, “It might offend someone,” she said, although I know she really wanted to say, “It might offend the wrong people, the ones who don’t just tweet their disapproval but show up at your doorstep with their disapproval.”


As a college student, I am writing this today because my mother’s words stirred fear in me. If in writing I had found what, perhaps, only birds feel like in free flight, that night I felt like someone had clipped my wings. I stared at that poem for hours, finally backspacing away the name Gandhi. I am writing this piece precisely because I am scared of writing it. Right now, I’m far more afraid of offending the wrong people than I am of impacting the right ones. And while that may feel juvenile to some, I can tell you why I feel it is not.

I sometimes fear that we as a society don’t nip problems in the bud. Instead, we let them fester till the buds grow into trees far too strong to cut down. The problem starts when children grow up believing that something as innocent as a joke can be weaponised. We ask ourselves, how does asking one child to be more ‘delicate’ in how they express themselves impinge on the condition of freedom in society? We keep asking ourselves this till it is no longer about a joke or a simple statement. It is about bigger, more important things.

When a Dalit child is bullied in the schoolyard, they are asked to keep quiet about it lest they be bullied any further. When young girls watch their mothers being beaten up at home, we ask them to say nothing or the same harm might befall them. When a teenager belonging to a minority religion talks about his father’s shop being vandalised, we dismiss him and we ask him to stop talking about things “he doesn’t understand”. Soon, these children grow into adults, the ‘personal’ problems they faced morph into systemic social evils, and we wonder where we went wrong. We do not see that when we asked the Dalit child to censor their experiences, we allowed the echo chamber of casteism to keep amplifying. That when we asked the girls to keep quiet about what they knew to be true, we normalised domestic violence. That when we asked the child belonging to a minority religion to tread carefully around the topic of violence, we let communal hatred sink its claws deeper into our fabric.

We find it difficult to reconcile with the possibility that it all starts here: With a single joke on a political figure, an innocuous sentence in a school article, or a dinner table conversation with an uncle who doesn’t agree with you.

I am afraid that if we teach young people that they can never be honest without the fear of being attacked for it, they will learn that they are not free enough to speak truth to power. I am afraid that if we teach them to stick to the status quo, we are actually teaching them that they do not have the freedom to carve their own path and speak their own truth. I fear that if we teach them that the price for their honesty is heavy and painful, they will grow up believing that they do not have the freedom to be protected from violence. And in all these teachings, the implied message is singular and unsettling: Our children and young adults are not free enough to enjoy the freedom we all claim we have.

As a young person this Independence Day, I am looking at us — at all the young people who are holding their breath, waiting to speak their minds without fear. I am looking at all the aspiring poets and journalists and scientists and stand-up comics who fear that their expression is punishable. I am looking at those who are too afraid to be free, to pursue their dreams, and to create resounding change. And today I am writing this, to find out if young people know and recognise freedom well enough to fight for it.

Hiya Chowdhury is a college student in New Delhi

Published on August 14, 2020

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