India’s march towards illiberalism continues unabated. A diverse society is currently unable to live with diversity and difference except on the basis of a mutual acquiescence in one another’s illiberalism. We are no longer open to new ideas, criticism or even satire and mockery of our beliefs. We have become so thin-skinned that we see every voice expressing a different opinion as an existential threat to ourselves, our in-groups, our communities.
Pick up any day’s newspapers or switch on any TV news channel and this march towards illiberalism will be clear to anybody. Some government wants to ban beef or meat-eating on some days to propitiate a pressure group. Vile sects seem to be keen to bump off rationalists, claiming they have been offended by their critiques. Others want to ban books allegedly critical of one religion or one caste or one community.
Today’s Indian Express has a front-page writeup about a Christian group wanting to ban a play called Agnes of God, which is the story of a nun who gives birth to a child but claims to be a virgin, leading to a detailed probe by a shrink. It is important to emphasise that the play is a story and not a comment on nuns in general.
But the Catholic Secular Forum is up in arms because the play was made by a group that earlier produced The Vagina Monologues. Even worse, it objects to the play because the key actors “are not Christians and they didn’t involve or consult the church”. This is outrageous. Since when did the church get the right to influence plays and why does a play about a nun need only Christian actors to play the main roles? How is this kind of criticism any different from the legitimate liberal outrage over a Muslim’s interpretations of the Ramayana which some Hindu groups objected to? Is the Ramayana only the property of Hindus?
Clearly, the Catholic Secular Forum does not deserve its middle name at all. It is certainly not any more secular than the lunatic Hindu or Muslim fringes that want to censor this film or that book.
Representational Image. PTI
The purpose here is not to focus on the Catholic Secular Forum’s current illiberality, but to highlight an important reality that we have to collectively combat. The reason why we have become an illiberal society is that our intellectual class does not have the cojones to call a spade a spade and fight all kinds of illiberalism. If your liberality is selective, it will not survive..
We have had a so-called Left-Liberal class that was neither Left nor Liberal. In the name of serving the poor, it hijacked the state and its resources for private political ends. Instead of emphasising the rule of law, it converted the state into a form of private property whose resources could be commandeered for favouring underprivileged groups through freebies.
Today’s illiberal climate is the result of this failure of our “liberal” elite to defend liberalism. If sundry caste and Hindu fringe groups are now running riot in some places it is because they have realised that they too can play the game of “injured sentiments”. They are trying to do what the “liberals” encouraged minority and caste groups to do for over six decades – claim hurt feelings and assert the right to shut someone else up and ensure that the law and order machinery does not act against these groups. Now, everyone can do the same damage.
The “liberals” have ensured a society of competitive illiberalism.
Can we overturn this onslaught on illiberalism? Yes, but we need our “liberals” to introspect first. They could start by calling for a lifting of the ban on The Satanic Verses and, in fact, all books, plays and films banned by various governments anywhere in India.
Second, all genuine liberals and civil society groups must refuse to back action against creative work or free speech merely because it offends somebody. Mere offense or hurting the sentiments of anyone cannot be grounds for banning anything. The ban on beef is illiberal. Every Hindu has a right to revere his cow, but not to decide someone else’s dietary habits. It is time to remove the idea of cow protection or prohibition from the constitution, just as it is time to remove the abridgement of free speech that Nehru introduced almost immediately after the new constitution was legislated. People who believe the cow should be protected are free to espouse their cause and even pay good money to do so, just as people who want to encourage abstinence from alcohol are free to educate the public on its dangers. A liberal state must protect the individual from the power of the state and powerful groups, and bans of any kind are, by definition, illiberal.
Liberals should also seek to abolish the constitutional protection of minority rights (articles 29 and 30) and instead focus on protecting the rights of the “minority of one” – the individual. All minorities are contextual, not real. A Muslim may be a minority in India, but they may be a majority in a district or a village. And a Shia may be a minority within the group called Muslims. So which minority should we protect? The only minority worth protecting is the “minority of one”. If the individual is protected, all collectives of individuals will automatically get protection to do what they collectively will to do – the only limit being that they cannot, in the process, curtail any other individual’s or group’s rights.
The idea of minorityism is by definition illiberal, for it privileges group rights over that of the individual. If individuals can be secure in their freedoms, society will automatically be free and liberal.
DISCLAIMER:This article is not to offend the sentiments of any individual or group.