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March 22, 2015

Across The Aisle: Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty

To most Indians, the story of the struggle for Independence ended on August 15, 1947. In fact, the struggle began on that day.

The idea of an open and free society was unknown in most parts of India and to several generations of Indians. Many of them lived their whole lives under a king or a satrap. Many lived their whole lives in fear of God and godmen. Many accepted the societal rules and restrictions as if they were scripture. As a result, we have inherited layer upon layer of dogma, myth, superstition, prejudice and discrimination. Many of us believe, wrongly, that this is our ‘culture’, and believe, wrongly, that we should be proud of our ‘culture’. Dissent has to struggle to find a place in this culture. It is not a culture of tolerance, as we sometimes rationalise, but a culture of intolerance.

In such an infertile soil, it is hardly to be expected that liberalism will take roots.

John Stuart Mill, in his book On Liberty, proposed a simple principle of liberalism. He wrote, “the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.”

Our sense of liberty is the exact opposite. We exercise power over another member of society, against his will, because, as Mill cautioned, we think that it is for “his own good, …because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise or even right”.

Intolerance on the rise

The rising tide of illiberalism and intolerance is frightening. Look at what is happening around us: ban the book (Wendy Doniger), ban the documentary (India’s Daughter), ban beef (in Maharashtra). Attack the writer (Puliyur Murugesan), lynch the rape accused (in Nagaland), kill the rationalist (Govind Pansare). Return to your forefather’s religion (ghar wapsi), vandalise the church (in Delhi), add the Gita to the syllabus (in Haryana).

The common thread that runs through most of these eruptions is a reactionary ideology, Hindutva. I fear that illiberalism and intolerance are on the rise because the zealots believe that the State is on their side and they can silence the voice of the liberal or the dissenter. They also believe that if they gather sufficient numbers, they will be the ‘State’ and their word will be the ‘law’.

There is another kind of intolerance. The new Chairman of the Censor Board believes that it is his duty to ban cuss words in films. The Chief Passport Officer believes that it is his duty to direct that Ms Priya Pillai should be off-loaded if she boarded an aircraftto deliver a talk on human rights violations to a group of British MPs. A duty magistrate believes that he is obliged to pass an ex parte order banning the telecast of an interviewwith a convict that was recorded with the express permission of the jail authorities. These worthies believe that by doing what they did they will be on the ‘right’ side of the State.

Let us examine the ban on beef. Let us assume that most Hindus do not eat beef, believe that cow slaughter is heresy, and believe that the cow must be protected even after it has stopped yielding milk. Thus far, there is no issue.

Nearly all Muslims do not eat pork, believe that the pig is an unclean animal, and believe that eating pork is heresy. Here too, there is no issue.

Illiberalism raises its head when we allow people to rule that beef (or pork) shall not be served or sold or eaten. Beef is the poor man’s meat. It is a rich source of protein.People belonging to faiths other than Hinduism eat beef. Young Indians, especially inforeign countries, enjoy their hamburger. Pork is the meat of choice in many countries of Europe and East Asia. When a small number of the majority, because it is in government or because it is the Taliban, decides to ban beef or pork, it violates the principle of liberalism.

Majoritarianism will fail

In most cases, the intolerance is foolish and will be swept away by the force of technology. Thanks to Skype, Ms Priya Pillai did address her audience and, what would have been a little-noticed lecture, became a cause célèbre. Thanks to YouTube, India’s Daughter, was viewed in millions of homes.

I think we should pause and ask ourselves, “Can the State really succeed in banning beef without throwing thousands of people out of employment and perhaps hundreds of people in jail?” In the same vein, the Supreme Court should ask itself, “Can you really prosecute and punish consenting adults for violating Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code?”

Moral majoritarians do not realise the futility or the foolishness of their words and deeds. They also undermine the fundamental principles of an open and free society: diversity, pluralism and choice. They will fail, but the true democrat and liberal must speak up and ensure that the moral majoritarians fail comprehensively.

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