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Let freedom reign!

We must fiercely protect everyone's rights or else we risk losing our own, writes Sunil Lala.
PTI | By BOSTON DIARY | Sunil Lala
UPDATED ON JUL 07, 2005 04:55 PM IST

A Happy Fourth of July, from the land of Liberty, to all my readers!

My last column - Born Free - seems to have evoked some raw passions. I have received countless emails and comments on how I could ever support a concept as brazen as absolute freedom. People have offered numerous justifications for the government's proposed policy of denying us our vote.

What has absolutely amazed me though, is the apparent willingness of people to give up their freedoms so easily. We have been so brainwashed into believing that absolute freedom is an impossible concept, the government does not even pretend to justify potentially illegal actions anymore. They have a ready army of loyal citizens marching to the drumbeat of propaganda and fear mongering - and that, my friends, is a scary scenario.

Of course, when people support the idea of diluting someone's freedom, the thought that this could happen to them, is far from their minds. It is always us versus them, the definitions of "us" and "them" being completely fluid, and changing according to the need of the hour.

So, "our" voting rights are important, but "those NRIs" don't really deserve it. "We" are mature enough to make decisions for ourselves, but "those illiterate villagers" can't be trusted. "We" can handle adult content in movies, but the censor board is needed to prevent "the youth" from being corrupted. And on and on it goes.

What we fail to realise is that a strike against the freedom of any citizen is a strike against the freedom of all. A clarification about my last column is in order here. I did not claim the right of dual citizenship for NRIs. I understand well that there is no such right, and that the government of India can indeed decide to not grant NRIs the privilege of dual citizenship. My argument was that once citizenship is granted to us, we automatically come under the protection of the Constitution, and the State then loses all power to deny us rights on a piecemeal basis.

Want to know why people thought that was a bad idea? Here's a sampling of some arguments:

1. The "no taxes no vote" Argument: The logic behind this argument is, unfortunately, too simplistic - NRIs do not pay any taxes in India, so they do not deserve the right to vote. This is the most flawed argument of all, and is easily debunked. Voting rights are neither based on, nor representative of one's economic status or tax bracket. Citizens' rights are not for sale to the highest bidder. American citizens, who live abroad and do not pay any taxes to Uncle Sam, regularly mail in their votes, come election time.

If one were to apply this absurd reasoning, all unemployed people in India would automatically lose their voting rights. So would all people who evade taxes. And that, by my calculation, would include a large number of our "holier than thou" citizens.

2. The "Duties versus Rights" Argument: A colleague walked up to me the other day and suggested that I do not fulfil my duties towards India, and so, do not deserve the right to vote. This argument is ill informed, jingoistic and extremely dangerous.

I do not know how this person came to the conclusion that the level of my patriotism was less than his. However, that is a moot point. Let us accept the premise that one citizen of India is somehow "less patriotic" than another. Does it then give the government the power to take away the rights of this "less patriotic" person? The answer is a resounding - NO!

And who decides which one of us is patriotic and which one isn't? The Prime Minister? A kangaroo court? Your local MLA or Congressman? The Internal Revenue Service? Is residing outside India somehow indicative of lack of loyalty?

"Patriotism" is the last refuge of the scoundrel, and has for centuries been a convenient excuse for abuse of power. From the Soviet Union to North Korea, governments have used it as a tool for oppression. The United States and India have not remained untouched. The Red scare and the communist witch-hunts unleashed by Senator Joseph McCarthy, and our own Emergency should serve as dire warnings. We cannot give the government or our politicians the power to measure our level of patriotism and use that as a weapon against us, the people.

3. The "Security" Argument: This was the most bizarre argument made in support of disenfranchisement of NRIs. The argument goes like this - if voting rights were given to NRIs, India's security will be compromised and criminals and terrorists of all persuasion would flood the country and annihilate it!

Huh? Did I miss something? Let me get this straight. OK, I got it - this is how it works: there are terrorists and criminals who want to harm India. Fair enough. But, here's the caveat - they are waiting for just the right opportunity before they can embark on their evil mission. Stay with me now, readers - the next set of events is critical.

One fine day, the Indian government gives us NRIs the option of dual citizenship. The evil terrorists and criminals continue to wait patiently. You see, they have no other option. They cannot destroy India yet - the NRIs haven't been given the right to vote! Then, the government buckles under tremendous pressure from my Boston based attorneys, and restores our voting rights.

WHAM! This is the moment these wicked people have been waiting for! As soon as they hear about it, they all crawl out of their mysterious hideouts, and enter India in droves, because obviously, the restoration of voting rights for NRIs has completely destroyed our immigration and airport security systems, and left the country completely vulnerable. Enough said!

The bottom-line, dear friends, is that we, as citizens, must fiercely protect everyone's rights or else we risk losing our own. So, let the light of Liberty shine brightly upon us. Let us not make lame excuses for our governments. Let us not surrender our freedoms so casually, no matter how trivial they may seem at the time. Let us fight every government regulation, every MLA, every cop that encroaches upon our rights under the pretext of patriotism or duty or moral obligation or national security.

Let us fight as if our very life depended on it. Believe me - it does.

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