Society and Culture

Where freedom has gone

As India completes 70 years of its existence as a free nation-state, two contradictory tendencies mark its collective existence.

Aug 21, 2017
By Suhas Palshikar
As India completes 70 years of its existence as a free nation-state, two contradictory tendencies mark its collective existence. One is the ambition to make India a global power. This search for power is based on a perception of national greatness as a society, as a culture, and increasingly, also, as a market. But at the same time, clouds of unfreedom hover over our existence as individuals, as consumers and as groups within the would-be great nation-state.
Take the case of the cow. Those from the Muslim community who earn their livelihood from the meat trade are targets of suspicion and mob attacks with impunity. We seem to ignore that a sacred animal for one community need not be made forcibly sacred for others too. Forced devotion is not freedom. But instead of attending to this issue head on, we tend to believe that, after all, this is a problem only about “some” Muslims, that there are “good Muslims” and “bad Muslims”, and that the problem would sort itself out by making all Muslims “good Muslims”.
So, the problem is not perceived as a problem about freedom, it is the “Muslim problem”. The implicit argument is that being a Hindu majority society, what some Hindus think to be part of Hinduism has to be acceptable as a norm for everyone. We also ignore the fact that trade and livelihood interests of sections of Dalits are also at stake or the fact that the cow might not be a sacred animal for many Dalits and Adivasis — despite their formal adherence to, and inclusion in, the Hindu fold.
But let us leave the cow alone, and look elsewhere to see if there are signs of unfreedom. Take nationalism. Our newly enforced ideas of patriotism and nationalism imply that it is not enough for a citizen to be a law-abiding person, co-operative and compassionate towards other citizens, ready for occasional service to the collective cause and proud of the national community in an inarticulate and diffuse manner.
These are times to wear your nationalism on your sleeve. So, playing the anthem in cinema halls becomes a new test of nationalism; shouting Bharat Mata ki Jai becomes a new insurance for personal security from nationalist hoodlums, playing Vande Mataram becomes judicially ordained, and all this becomes enforceable by private armies of vigilantes. They have all the freedom. Citizens have only duties.
One might, however, say that they are neither Muslims nor do they mind exhibiting their national pride. Are they, therefore, free? Like the famous warning in “First they came for the Jews and I was not a Jew.”, not being a Muslim, being a “good Muslim”, and/or being willing to adopt nationalist rituals might not ensure our freedom. While cow and nationalism have evoked more violent and more aggressive responses from monopolists of Indianness, lesser but equally worrying signals are emanating from everywhere spreading the shadows of unfreedom.
The censor board is an important flagbearer of this unfreedom. The argument is that what is not “Indian” culture, should not be allowed on the screen. And this argument believes that sexuality and sensuality are un-Indian. So, no artistic freedom or creative space. Culture trumps freedom. But of course, everyone is not a film producer or actor, so nothing much to worry — the rest of us can still feel free and watch patriotic violence in movies screened on Independence Day.
There is a catch, though. Beyond politically more sensitive and publicised matters, our private persons and public lives and spaces are being gradually subjected to an unwritten censorship, as if Pahlaj Nihalani were writing the screenplays of our daily lives. Slowly, the ethic of vegetarianism is being extended to formal and semi-formal occasions. While official patronage to vegetarianism expands, the informal pressure against non-vegetarians is becoming palpable in many residential locations. Instances of powerful communities demanding a ban on the trade of meat for long durations are gaining acceptance.
The formal discourse on what constitutes a good Hindu is now dominated by the virtue of vegetarianism. So, just like Muslims, Hindus too have to carry a burden — of being “good Hindus”.
And how can being a “good” citizen escape control on female bodies and on male-female relations? Violent protests have already taken place against women going to pubs. Implicit in such instances are small, disparate cultural norms that are emerging afresh to define what it means to be a good woman. Dress codes are becoming prevalent and glorified. The first target, of course, are women, but men are also not spared. While sexual violence against women is indeed a problem, we are ready with an effective solution — segregation of the two sexes (indeed, in this scheme of things there can only be two sexes), and a strict monitoring of their possible interactions.
The Hindu religious motif is so strong in regulating male-female interaction that recently a circular was issued (subsequently withdrawn) by an officer of the government of Daman & Diu ordering all women employees to tie a rakhi to their male colleagues. This diktat ordained a particular relationship between men and women — anything else is not “Indian”.
There are two critical aspects to this rejuvenated attack on our freedom. One is that we do not recognise the expanding realm of fear and unfreedom. Instead of thinking of issues of freedom as a matter of principle, we treat them as matters of prudence. So, we ignore what happens to Muslims, we ignore what happens to Dalits, the worries of film producers and distributors are far from our lives. The freedom of women does not matter to us. We are ready to ignore others’ loss of freedom without realising that the messengers of unfreedom are knocking at our own doors.
The other aspect is about agencies of unfreedom. The usual suspects in the business of unfreedom are state and religion. They are, of course, doing their best to live up to that reputation. But new social energies are involving themselves with the task of restricting the freedoms of individuals and groups. There are a legion of self-appointed vigilantes who would define the limits of our freedom. The state seems happily complicit in allowing them a free run.
But more fearsome is the invisible expansion of the realm of unfreedom. Not the state, not religion, nor even the vigilantes. It is simply a cultural norm and the fear of being singled out that reins in freedoms. As a society and as individuals, we are quick to succumb to this fear and to the temptation of being unfree.
Indian Express, August 21, 2017

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