Part I: Individual liberty
In The Indica, ancient historian Arrian writes: “This also is remarkable in India that all Indians are free, and no Indian at all is a slave.” Those were the times of Greek conqueror Alexander.
A modern India, again, while striving to uphold what is popularly perceived as its culture, cannot have a government that pries into the private lives of the citizens. We have a whole lot of laws enacted by a British government that was driven by Victorian puritanism that, contrary to the popular perception now, are not upheld by our ancient values. All such laws should go and no effort should be made to replace them with newer legislations that are prone to abuse by the police or that promote the idea of moral policing.
This writer was a part of the BJP’s intellectual cell deliberations before this year’s Lok Sabha election. I witnessed a visibly perturbed Prof MD Nalapat while reacting to a statement by then party president Rajnath Singh (now the Home Minister) against homosexuality. It is not that he or I promote this sexual orientation, but we cannot figure out how it matters to the state how two mutually consenting adults behave in the privacy of their bedroom. “I would like to see the BJP emerge as a party of the middle class with a modern outlook,” Prof Nalapat had said in that meeting.
At the same time, if Baba Ramdev — or anybody in the capacity of a citizen — speaks against the LGBT community, I stand for his right to hold the opinion, irrespective of whether the view is right or wrong. Thus, the liberty to private life is a right of the private person, not an area of jurisdiction of the state. Since a political party is supposed to run the state on being elected, it should shy away from issuing statements either in favour or against individuals’ private conduct. It follows that laws on ‘unnatural’ sex must go.
Laws on homosexuality are anachronistic and unscientific, too. The scientifically termed question is whether it is genetic or an outcome of other biological processes occurring in one’s body, which is best determined by scientists and not politicians. As of now, as peer-reviewed journals tell us, it is an unfinished research and the scientists concerned have not given their final word on the topic. Even when they do, if there are medical risks involved in homosexuality, it should be up to therapists to deal with the issue. The government should have a role to play only in cases of crimes committed by this minority community, but there, too, those crimes must be treated on par with the same heinous acts committed by heterosexual people: sexual assault, for example.
Next, while there are no laws on celebration of occasions, if some people are irked by imported, consumerist annual celebrations like Valentine’s Day, they have no business resorting to vandalism or violence to harass or injure those who do not share their views. The state must protect the citizens who are celebrating an occasion in their own way without disrupting public life. The protesters albeit have the right to protest peacefully.
On the social front, at the same time, social organisations may promote what they think is in accordance with the local ethos. Vasant Panchami, for instance, may be promoted so much that the occasion of Valentine’s Day promoted by gift-and-greeting-card companies pales in comparison and the crowds are drawn closer to their indigenous roots by virtue of natural attraction rather than coercion.
This is another bone of contention. It is true that alcoholism is a menace, but whenever the state has tried to deal with it using prohibition, the measure has only led to bootlegging, pushing addicts to spurious drinks and sundry crimes associated with smuggled liquor. Fortunately, women are seen in rural as well
as urban landscapes to be by and large untouched by this vice. Unfortunately, they are also the most prominent — but mute — victims of alcoholism of the menfolk. It will, therefore, be judicious to leave the sanction to liquor manufacturing as well as sales to women of any locality. A facility of either has to be approved by local women bodies across the country. Since no part of society is bereft of women, they can effectively sustain the vigil, provided their associations are adequately empowered by the state. At the same time, if a section of the urban elite cannot do without alcohol as a vehicle of communication — in certain corporate circles, for example — women of that section wouldn’t object to the product’s limited use either. From the state’s point of view, the only important aspect is to ensure that the merriment of one citizen does not turn out to be a disaster for another.
An authoritative study must be instituted to address this anomaly: A citizen obtains the most crucial right to vote — that is, decide on who should be the rulers of the country — at the age of 18. At the same age, s/he is considered safe enough to be handed a driving licence, whose misuse risks the lives of other users of public roads. However, s/he is not considered mature enough to consume hard drinks before s/he is 25! The state must make up its mind on the exact age when it thinks its citizens are ripe.
When it comes to violence, since it subjects persons other than its practitioner to hazards, it cannot be a personal issue. Laws against domestic violence must, hence, be continued with. If found inadequate or ineffective, they must be strengthened. Where it is found prone to abuse, safeguards must be put in place. While a safeguard against abuse is already in place in the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005, making the law gender-neutral will go a further distance in ensuring the safety of innocent husbands. Even if more women than men are victims of domestic violence, which is a fact, making the law gender-neutral does not affect their cause.
Where personal laws do not permit polygamy, the complainant need not be the first wife of the accused alone. Often it is difficult for an aggrieved woman to lodge an FIR against her husband who has brought home another woman who is otherwise illegally wedded to him. The state should empower itself to take suo motu cognisance of such affairs. Polygamy is a case of mental torture perpetrated on all the women wedded to a man, beginning with his first wife.
Viewing the scenario from the perspective of individual liberty, if the state is scared of stirring the hornet’s nest by abolishing Muslim polygamy, it must have the courage to lift the law against other Indians’ polygamy. Thereafter, it could be considered a woman’s stupidity to agree to marry an already married man, whatever be the religion(s) of the partners concerned! What will such pockets of Indian society do then, where a woman is not the master of her destiny? There, we must leave it to the wisdom of the woman’s family. Why would a father want his daughter to undergo the pain of having to share her husband? What if the father is indebted to the already married man? For this, the government could enact a law that prohibits the use of women to settle debts or other obligations.
An aspect of policing also comes into the picture of individual liberties granted to Indian citizens. Our imperial but largely inefficient police are ill-famed for apprehending a suspect, keeping him/her in custody without subjecting him/her to a court trial for days and months on end while trying to lay their hands on further evidence to build a strong case against the accused. And there is no compensation for the accused if s/he is eventually found innocent! This regime must be replaced by one where enough evidence is first collected, which makes the suspect look guilty prima facie, and only then the arrest is made.
In cases of art, literature and cinema, if a certain creation causes an outrage in a section of society, the best way to deal with the situation is boycott of the production by that section rather than a ban imposed by the state. However, the freedom thus granted to artists, littérateurs, filmmakers and commercial vendors cannot include wanton distortion of history or tradition, if not insult to religious beliefs. What the law must regard as an offence in such cases must be explained by the respective scriptures and not the clergy.
It is often argued by liberals that Bharat has been an ancient civilisation promoting nudity, homosexuality and open sex, with even gods indulging in such acts. This claim is bogus — a result of partial reading of Indian history. First, the mere depiction of an act in ancient art does not certify its popularity or degree of acceptance in the society of that era. Second, it is important to study what parts of the ancient society had access to that exhibition of art. Third, which is the most important, there is no work of ancient art in the country that defies a mythological story. Many modern artists, unfortunately, are either not well versed with that tradition, or they wish to deliberately cause an offence for fame and money. To cite a hypothetical example, if a deity is described in the scriptures as normally nude, her nudity in a piece of modern art may not raise anybody’s hackles, but if she is depicted in the company of another mythological or imaginary character in a way not described by mythology or traditional lore, then it is certainly an act of mischief. Next, a mythological character whom the holy texts do not describe as nude cannot be painted or sculpted naked.
It should not be hard to imagine that the depiction of a deity in shirts will not cause any offence, but if painted on undergarments or accessories inside a toilet, it most certainly will. In Islam, Allah is formless and Prophet Mohammed cannot be put on a canvas. This is respected by creators of art and films. Sikhs do not like an actor to play the role of any of their 10 Gurus in a play or a film. This is respected as well. Creative people of the West and India alike take liberties only with beliefs of Hinduism. Their alibi that Hindu lores have multiple narratives is specious. They are actually not educated enough to know each of those traditions. What the ilk of MF Husain tries to pull off is a neo tradition of its own.
If this is a bid to sell the product through sensationalism, the hue and cry caused by Hindu right wing groups only help their cause further. In this age of declining interest in reading, Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History would have been read at the most by the motley group of too-clever-by-half leftist intellectuals and nobody else. If the author had not got scared of both the legal suit against her, asking publisher Penguin India to reduce it to shreds, her atrocious depiction of India’s most popular faith was almost a guaranteed marketing formula of success because of the Hindutva activism the book had evoked.
Muslim activists go a step further. Unlike a Dina Nath Batra, whose books are utterly funny by the way, they rarely approach the courts — which they have a right to, otherwise. Their processions vandalise public property like Shiv Sainiks ravage gift shops on Valentine’s Day or the way Sri Rama Sene assault women for visiting pubs or discos.
This difference aside, while a citizen is within his/her rights to visit a court of law, the fact that these cases are not dismissed on the very first day indicate that the laws of the land entertain such objections. This is problematic in a modern democracy. Such activism started with gusto following Rajiv Gandhi’s proscription of The Satanic Verses, the book by Salman Rushdie that was made more popular worldwide by the fatwa on his head issued by Ayatollah Khomeini. Ironically, the Arab and Persian Muslim states were not the first to sense the outrage; it was a Congress-ruled India. That was a real bad precedent set by the Indian state.
But wasn’t Rushidie’s book an author’s take on the scriptures of a certain religion? Well, there’s a difference between interpreting a code — which the Qur’an is — and doing so with a storyline, for example of the Ramayana. Somebody may say he does not subscribe to the Vedas or the Bible or the Qur’an, but none is entitled to attribute to characters things that they were not or acts that they did not commit, either by historical or traditional accounts. One is not entitled to write a book in which it is said, for instance, that Khadijah, Prophet Mohammed’s first wife, was a lesbian. That would be outrageous. No account about her would substantiate this claim. Similarly, there is no account, either in Sanskrit or Tamil or any other language of India, which says Sita had an affair with Ravana, or that she roamed around naked or that she was stripped. It was, therefore, nothing, but sickness of Maqbool Fida Husain’s mind that produced that painting where the character revered by Hindus was shown nude on a warring Ravana’s lap.
The court and the state, thus, have a very well laid out parameter to judge what art is right and what isn’t: Go by the holy books, beyond which the creator must issue a disclaimer as issued in films: “All characters in this piece are fictitious. Their resemblance, if any, with persons living, dead or holy is purely a coincidence.”
And in all cases where the scriptures are ambiguous, the decision of whether or not a certain depiction should be allowed publicly must be left to an authorised body meant to sanction the show: in case of films, for example, the Central Board of Film Certification. Such a board, in turn, must comprise people who are thoroughly educated in heritage as well as contemporary art. Once such a state institution gives a green signal to a production, no objection to its release from any individual citizen or a social group should be entertained. Thereafter, the law must protect the exhibitor and not the protesters’ concerns.
I have proposed guidelines for governing bodies. I am, in principle, against bans.
There must be more aspects of personal liberty this document has not yet covered. Readers are requested to come up with constructive, modernist advices in this regard, keeping in mind the principle, “The freedom of one ends where that of another begins.”
The second and concluding part of the article will be on business.