//In Defence of A Liberal Society

In Defence of A Liberal Society

OVER the past few weeks, different parts of India have witnessed an explosion of intolerance, censorship, hate-speech, and physical harassment of people who differ from the �mainstream�. This should shake all public-spirited citizens out of the smug assumption that Indian society is basically tolerant and mature, and that India has internalised the spirit of a liberal democracy, or at least embraced the rule of law and norms of minimum civility in the conduct of public life.Consider just three recent examples of intolerance.

In Maharashtra, where burning books has become a cult thanks to the quasi-fascist Shiv Sena, the government has banned yet another book on Shivaji by American scholar James Laine on the flimsy ground that he discusses the potentially competitive, complex relationship between Shivaji and his father. (When Laines last book was banned, goons attacked the prestigious Bhandarkar Institute in Pune, destroying invaluable ancient manuscripts.) In Tamil Nadu, another state with a century-long history of social reform, chauvinists have been busy attacking actress Khushboo for making the perfectly sensible statement that young women should take precautions when engaging in pre-marital sex which, a survey shows, is widely prevalent. They have declared Khushboos views incompatible with the �Tamil ethos�.

Equally distressingly, Film Censor Board chairperson Sharmila Tagore invited the Defence Minister and the Defence services chiefs to vet Aamir Khan�s Rang De Basanti, which is woven around the lives of MiG-21 pilots. The apparent purpose was to reassure the Defence forces that the film doesn�t throw uncomplimentary light on the poor safety record of that accident-prone aircraft. This is shocking. The MiG-21, unfondly called the ‘Flying Coffin’in Indian Air Force parlance, does have a horrible record of failures and crashes. The IAF has lost no fewer than 320 MiG-21s, a number higher than its entire aircraft inventory today.

However, that’s not the real issue. The pertinent point is that the services chiefs have no business to vet a film because it deals with defence matters. The army chief wants the minister depicted in the film not to be identified as the Defence Minister and the movie not to be dedicated specifically to dead MiG-21 pilots, but to all the IAF�s dead pilots.

Now, the armed forces, like all other institutions and organs of the state, have their place in our democracy. They perform an important job in defending our borders and providing emergency relief. But they are gravely mistaken to demand they be deified and lionised, and never criticised. That can only create an unhealthy cult of military hero-worship. Even countries not known to be particularly liberal ‘for example, the United States ‘don’t subject films critical of war (like Catch-22, Apocalypse Now, or The Deer Hunter) to censorship by the military. Ms Tagore is one of the more sensible of our film personalities. It�s unfortunate that she set a bad precedent ‘probably out of good intentions. But intentions are not as important as her principal task ‘which is to defend the independence of the arts.

However, all these lapses pale beside the egregious police attacks under way on homosexual men and lesbian women in Uttar Pradesh, which are driving women to the brink of suicide. A month ago, the UP police disgraced themselves when they rounded up and beat up amorous couples in parks in Meerut �although they had not indulged in obscene acts. Now, they have surpassed themselves by arresting four homosexuals in Lucknow and fabricating the charge that they were running an on-line gay network ‘which is not a crime. The real reason for this harassment is crass prejudice against gays.

Lucknow�s police chief, Mr Ashutosh Pandey has committed an egregious offence. He invoked, perhaps the first time in decades in Northern India, Section 377 of the IPC to arrest gays. He is brazenly homophobic and hates sexual �deviance�.

Section 377 is a throwback to Victorian morality, itself hypocritical. It should have been removed from the IPC decades ago. It criminalises �carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal.’This ‘order’is a bogus, unscientific and egregious concept. Worse, it�s an invitation to tyranny in the name of �higher’social mores. Heterosexuals constitute a majority in society. But they have no right to impose their preferences upon those who have different inclinations. Every adult has an inviolable right to his/her sexual preference and the freedom to exercise that preference and experience pleasure.

India belongs to the not-so-free group, along with countries with unflattering human rights records like Israel, Singapore, Sudan and Nigeria and much of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Even the US, a highly conservative society, belongs to the upper end of the same group. The recent happenings show the ugly, gross, uncivilised, even barbarian, side of India. This should concern us all for a simple reason. A modern, enlightened, democratic society is based on fundamental rights. These are not granted or bestowed by the state. They are intrinsic, inherent to human beings. The most basic of these rights is the right to life and limb. A persons body is inviolate. No agency, institution or individual can inflict harm upon it without breaking a fundamental freedom. The right to privacy, including the pursuit of one�s sexual preferences, is linked to the right to one�s body, and to another fundamental right, namely, the freedom of thought, belief and expression.

Fundamental rights cannot be suppressed or abridged in the name of some �higher’consideration such as ‘mainstream’morality and majority ‘sensitivity’. Those who do so practise the worst form of majoritarianism, which is the anti-thesis of democracy. They indulge in hate campaigns and mob violence, which are indistinguishable from medieval witchhunts: you name a person a witch or the devil�s agent and stone her or him to death. If India is to lay claim to a minimal level of civilisation and aspire to a liberal-democratic culture, it must not tolerate such crass intolerance, bigotry and violence. That aspiration will only be fulfilled when enlightened citizens speak up for freedom and liberty.

Praful Bidwai, Jan 26, 2006, Copyright Navhind Papers & Publications Ltd.