When I was little, I watched a film called Born Free. It was about a lioness whose mother was killed, and who was then raised by humans. I have never revisited the film, but have never forgotten it. The title and the film’s argument — that lions belong in forests, not in zoos — stayed in my head in the form of questions about identity and rights.
Is a lion truly born free, more than humans? Elsa, the film’s protagonist, was more a giant cat than a lioness. When her adoptive “mother” decided to teach her how to live in the wild, she found that Elsa could not fend for herself. Not only was she reluctant to hunt, she was getting attacked by other beasts. It took several attempts at distancing her from humans before Elsa finally started hunting, eventually finding acceptance among other lions.
What did freedom mean to a lioness raised by humans? Does she really want to live in a forest? Elsa’s early behaviour indicated that she would rather not. On the other hand, Elsa could not know what she wanted until she had actually experienced freedom and the full range of her own capabilities. She had her own cubs, and she did not look back once she had learnt to hunt. This didn’t mean that she forgot the people who raised her. She remembered, but now she knew who she was.
Freedom is not simply a matter of being fed. The technical lack of a cage also does not define freedom. She may be trained to perform on stage through a judicious mix of fear, pain and food, but a lioness balancing on a chair and being ridden by a clown cannot be called free.
Hunting and killing also do not necessarily translate to freedom. A lioness must also be free to not hunt and not kill when she chooses. One who is expected to tear into a gladiator, or an unarmed Christian convert, is no freer than the human she will kill.
Freedom, then, is a form of self-determination. Being able to make one’s own choices is vital to the process of achieving it, and inhabiting it. And what is the republic if not a human attempt towards self-determination?
A republic is not a landmass, after all. It is not a cluster of people contained within a landmass. A republic is a state that defines itself as being of the people, emerging from res publica, a matter that concerns the public.

Ancient Rome was one of the earliest republics in the world, with a complex system wherein free men had a say in electing representatives and the appointment of magistrates. But all men were not free. None of the women were truly free either, and did not rise to positions of power. Then there were immigrants, or communities that found themselves controlled by Rome after losing in wars, and they were not full citizens, and could not vote. Therefore, one may argue that the “public” in the word republic was a feint, a little fragment of truth that served as a cover for the bigger lie. People who lived in and served Rome — even those who literally gave birth to the senators and magistrates of Rome — remained unrepresented, their ideas unvoiced.
The heart of a republic is not elections and voting; it is freedom. This is why countries like modern India adopted a Constitution that, first and foremost, described the shape of our freedom: Our fundamental rights. The Constitution is our self-determination. We may lose our way, forget who we are, but a description of our fundamental rights will always remind us that we are born free. That we owe ourselves our liberties — 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 each other or large beasts such as lions and bears — included freeborn men (a few women too) who pledged away their freedoms and agreed to submit to flogging, binding, and to being killed. They may have done this to secure food or for glory in the bloody “games” of the arena. However, if a man gives up his free-man status, effectively his right to life, in exchange for a regular supply of food, how free was he in the first place?
Free citizens don’t choose between bread and fighting. The corollary to this is: If citizens can no longer participate, either as witnesses or as challengers to public policy, they risk losing their free status. If citizens cannot feed themselves, or if they cannot gather to freely exchange information and form new opinions without risking their lives, the republic itself is compromised.
We know that the Covid-19 pandemic severely limited people’s mobility, their right to seek work, to gather and to confront their representatives, even if those representatives fail to hold themselves to the same safety standards. We now also know that many more Indians, hundreds of millions, are hungrier, have limited or no access to healthcare, have limited or no digital access. Can they still behave as free citizens do — hold the assemblies of representatives to account? How?
We must beware. Our freedoms were already fragmented, with the largest chunks affixed to the collars of the elite, the patricians, but we must pull back from a vision of the republic where freedom as represented by justice and equality before law, is no longer guaranteed. That way lies a republic leached of meaning, a “public” that doesn’t necessarily translate into people.
This column first appeared in the print edition on January 26, 2022 under the title ‘The shape of our freedoms’. Zaidi is a novelist and poet
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