The power of One: Speak up for individual freedoms

It is time for citizens to speak up for individual freedoms rather than advocate group rights, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: Jan 17, 2015 08:40 IST
Charlie Hebdo attacks,Indian liberalism

Now that the dust from the Charlie Hebdo case is beginning to settle, we need to ask ourselves what lessons we can draw from the tragedy. And, more specifically, what are the implications for us in India?

While outwardly, India subscribes to the same liberal values as most Western democracies, the reality is a little more complex. Modern Western liberal democracy is founded on the notion that individual liberty is an absolute value. Hence the dedication to the preservation of freedom of speech, the uproar over any wrongful confinement, the reluctance to countenance any form of preventive detention, and the protests over the use of torture.

Indian liberalism, on the other hand, while it pays lip service to all of those values, downplays the rights of individuals and focuses on the rights of groups. Thus, India’s laws, and indeed our democracy itself, are more focused on the rights of groups: Dalits must get reservation, communities must have their own religious laws and more recently, the poor must have the right to food, to a minimum wage, etc.

Classic liberals might argue that the foundations of Indian democratic philosophy are built on what Isaiah Berlin famously described as two completely different concepts of liberty. But let’s also accept that, by and large, this groups-based approach has worked. Against the odds, a country as diverse and multi-religious as India has not only defied early predictions and held together, but it has also remained a liberal democracy.

And you could also argue that both Gandhiji and Jawaharlal Nehru, who were proponents of this groups-based approach to rights and democracy, were aware of the Indian reality. Their position was that India was not a melting pot from which we would all emerge with a single Indian identity that completely overshadowed all other identities. Instead, India was a mosaic, made up of different communities, groups and religions, each retaining its own distinct identity and then being awarded group-defined rights and entitlements.

The problem with this approach, however, is that not only does it turn electoral politics into a vote-bank exercise — you appeal to groups rather than individuals — but that it may also foster a sense of unfairness. Many of the debates we have seen over the last two or three decades stem from dissatisfaction with this approach: Why should Dalits get reservation? Should Muslims be allowed to retain their own Personal Law? Why should we implement the Mandal recommendations? And so on.

Many of us — including me — would prefer an approach to liberal values that was based on individual rights rather than an accommodation with groups. But the reality is that even if India were to change focus, this cannot happen overnight. It will have to be a slow and gradual shift.

That leaves us with the here and now. And we have a problem. What do we do when the rights of an individual conflict with Indian democracy’s groups-based approach?

This problem is felt most acutely in the area of freedom of speech. While, in theory, we guarantee freedom of expression, all of the institutions of Indian democracy (the government, the courts, the legislatures, etc.) are only too willing to curtail free speech if they can be convinced that it offends a particular group. From the days of Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold, which was banned by Nehru on the grounds that it offended Hindu sensibilities, to Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, whose import was prohibited by Rajiv Gandhi for fear of hurting Muslim sentiment, the rights of groups often seem to take precedence over the individual’s right to free speech — as the more recent example of Wendy Doniger’s books demonstrates.

My view is that India is now a mature enough democracy for us not to care if some group claims that it is offended and that all organs of the State must learn to value individual freedom of expression.

But, for that to happen, people within each community or group must begin to speak out for individual freedom. So far, at least, only liberal Hindus have been especially vocal. MF Husain got more support from Hindus than he did from his own community. The uproar about the ban on the Doniger book was initiated by Hindus. And were it not for the outrage expressed by liberal Hindus, PK might well have been banned.

The onus is now on other groups and communities to also speak out. For instance when the Church made the ridiculous claim that The Da Vinci Code movie should be banned, some Indian states promptly acceded to the demand because there was not enough liberal dissent from within the Christian community. If more Christians had told the Church not to be so silly, the demand for the ban would have been dismissed as idiotic.

So it is with liberal Muslims. We must accept that as much as we disapprove of those who caricature the Prophet, the caricaturists and cartoonists have a perfect right to do so. Yes, Islam has injunctions against visual representations of the Prophet but those are valid only within the faith — they can have no legal or Constitutional validity in a secular country. Unless more liberal Muslims speak out for the freedom of speech, it is the mullahs who will continue to speak for the community. And this, as we have seen, can be a slippery slope. In Pakistan, it is the inability (or unwillingness) of large numbers of liberals to fight the fanatics that has led that country into chaos.

So the final lesson for us from the Charlie Hebdo affair is this: Even if Indian liberalism is a balancing act between groups, there are times when we must speak up for individual freedom. Otherwise it is the fanatics within the groups who will always set the agenda.

letters@hindustantimes.comThe views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Jan 16, 2015 22:31 IST