Edited to add: A little over a year after we first had this discussion, Indyeah has written another post on the Freedom of Expression. Not much has changed in this one year – at least not for the better. Both the editor and publisher of The Statesman were arrested in Kolkata for reprinting a certain article, a certain word was beeped out of a song in the film Kaminey, Hussain accepted Qatari citizenzhip in the face of continued exile from his country and an article allegedly written by Taslima caused riots in Karnataka. We still have people rising in defence – rightly so – of Hussain’s Freedom of Expression. These very people seem a little reluctant to give Taslima – or the duo from The Statesman – the benefit of that same right.

The arguments of those condemning Taslima range from the ridiculous to the stupid. For instance, a few people claimed that as a guest in this country, she shouldn’t have written what she did. Let us, for a moment, concede this point, preposterous as the argument may be. But what about the right of an Indian newspaper – both the paper in Karnataka and The Statesman in Kolkata – to publish an article written by a foreign national?

Amidst renewed clamour for even more restrictions on our already constitutionally-curtailed right to the Freedom of Expression, something that has taken considerable beating from all kinds of goons and hooligans, it is absolutely critical that we safeguard and cherish that right. As I concluded in my post a year ago, this right is the only thing slowing our eventual transformation into a banana republic.

Unfortunately, we seem to have made rapid strides in that direction in this one year.

*

Indyeah wrote two passionate posts on why the freedom of expression should be restricted so as to not offend certain people. I left a comment on her blog, but had some further thoughts, so I may as well write on it here. I wrote:

“I agree, freedom should be accompanied by responsibility. However, the responsibility can never be ‘forced’. If I were to give my position in one line it is this: Your freedom of expression has more value than my right not to get offended.

I might disagree with your statements, your books, your drawings, your views. But I cannot deny you the right to have that freedom. I might not allow it on my blog (because that’s my property), but I will never question the freedom you have to put it on yours, or the freedom of other people who show the stuff on their blogs/newspapers/channels.

Freedom of speech and expression can never be compromised. Because once you compromise and give in to one pressure group – however loud or violent their methods, or however hurt they may be – you have opened the doors for everyone else to come in. And that is the end of freedom. Yesterday it was Rushdie, MF Hussain, Taslima Nasrin. Today you have objections to Water, Fire, Deshdrohi, the term “Slumdog”, and the term “Barber”. Tomorrow it might be something equally stupid. Once you give in to one group, and compromise, what reason can you give other groups? That their offended feelings are not good enough? Where do you draw the line?

Every freedom, every liberal principle derives from the freedom of expression. Take it away once, and you are already rolling downhill towards intolerance. India is a prime example.

And for all those who are offended: please don’t watch the films, read/buy/gift the books, view the cartoons, see/buy/gift the paintings, or put up links to those on your blogs. But you can’t stop the person from his right to have that opinion, and the rights of others to publish or display it.

For example, you may choose to not publish this comment. You have every right to do so, as it is your blog. But I have every right to retain my views, and express them freely on my blog, or on any other platform that might allow me to do so. Ditto for Rushdie, MF Hussain, Taslima, Danny Boyle and the girls who went to the pub in Mangalore.

Because the moment the state upholds the right not to be offended over the right to free expression, it is just a matter of time before Mangalore happens. Please remember that.”

Further, my view is that anyone who believes that Rushdie, MF Hussain or Taslima should have exercised “creative restraint” (an oxymoron) is no different from Muthalik. Shocking? Let me explain why.

Implicit in Indyeah’s argument is the judgment that the hounding of Rushdie, the killings of Theo van Gogh and Hitoshi Igarashi, the vandalism, violence and persecution that MF Hussain, Taslima Nasrin, Deepa Mehta and the supporters of Laines’ work have been subjected to were ‘invited’, because their works and expressions hurt people, ‘immature’ people who then resorted to violence as a form of protest. It is also implied that ‘creative restraint’ would have negated the need for ‘provoked’ violence.

So how is this different from Muthalik? He is offended that Indian women were drinking alcohol and wearing clothes that hurt his sentiments – both of which were legitimate ‘expressions’ of the women concerned. Legitimate expressions of emancipation, modernity, an independent income, a culture they believed in, legitimate expressions of their right to choose. Muthalik and his goons were offended, and they resorted to violence, exactly like the Islamic fanatics in the case of Rushdie and Taslima, and the Hindu fanatics in the case of Hussain, Mehta and Laines. By the same logic, if the women had exercised ‘restraint’, the violence (implicitly ‘invited’ and ‘provoked’) would never have happened.

What gives any of us the right to condemn the latter, without condemning the former? Who am I to decide that Muthalik was wrong in feeling offended – and resorting to violence – but that the people who attacked Hussain et al. were legitimately offended and worthy of support?

I feel her argument condemns Muthalik (and rightly so), but seeks to exonerate (against every civilised principle) the other goons for similar crimes.

Freedom of expression cannot give in to pressure groups. And to counter her argument’s biggest fallacy, it is not just about artists glorifying genitalia (and so what if they do?) – it is about all of us and our choices. Once you compromise, where do you draw the line? There will be more Muthaliks tomorrow who will be offended by the most trivial things, none related to art.

Indyeah mentions, in support of her thesis, that we already have restrictions on our fundamental rights, so why the fuss? Correct. The exceptions to the Right to Freedom are so vaguely worded that the government can see just about anything as violating all of those provisions. But the fact that it’s a fait accompli doesn’t make it right.

She asks, what is the solution in India? No one knows. But I know the solution does not lie in curtailing freedom. It does not lie in capitulating, as the state has, to certain pressure groups – because that only signals to others that the state is willing to compromise, depending on the levels of noise and violence. The battle’s lost right there. Such surrender, and restrictions on freedom, will only embolden newer fanatics. Is that what we want?

Finally, contrary to her assumption, I have no illusions about India ever turning into a civilised, tolerant nation. I would, however, value freedom of expression because it is one of the few things that will slow – not stop, just slow – our inevitable transformation into a banana republic. We’re almost there, anyway. While it is my fond hope that it doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I’m not holding my breath.

I am truly in awe of the possessors of great foresight. Of visionaries. And when the person concerned is part of the government, that awe is tinged with wonder. Because the government is the last place one expects to see any foresight or vision.

All this while, we thought that indefatigable loyalist, Ghulam Nabi Azad, was a gray, unremarkable man, remaining in the corridors of power simply by virtue of loyalty. (Lesser mortals might sneer and prefer to use the word sycophancy, but not me. As an exalted denizen of the trees, I choose to use the word loyalty.)

Mr. Azad, as part of his job as Minister for Health and Family Welfare, has gone above and beyond the call of duty – brought upon, no doubt, by the urge to top the impressive achievements of his equally brilliant predecessor – and hit upon a great idea for population control.

Late Night TV.

To ensure that we don’t breed like rabbits, ‘Watch TV Instead Of Having Sex’ seems to be his prescription.

A brilliant insight. Kill ardour, snuff out passion – and voilà, you have population control. Some may argue that marriage performs exactly the same function. But most kids I know are legitimate, so obviously marriage as a means of population-control-through-the-death-of-passion hasn’t worked very well.

The idea that the childish, convoluted crap that passes for TV programming takes away our sexual urges is not new. In fact, it might actually be borrowed from – horror of horrors – the BJP. But to actually see it as a policy instrument – that’s brilliant. And the best part is, you don’t even need new programming. Just re-run the DD archives. The Krishi Darshans, the Saptahikis, the Pragati Ke Ores….believe you me, these are lethal. Any residual sexual urges will be annihilated.

So where’s the vision, you might ask? What about that foresight you were extolling?

You see, the brilliance of the idea lies in the fact that it solves many problems.

Abstinence is always a hit with the moral brigade, regardless of religious affiliations. The fact that there are other people not having sex must make them happy. It’s like sharing their pain. Then, they’ll be pleased that the ‘new’ TV programming will be in sync with ‘our cultural values’ – meaning no racy stuff, no skin, no corrupting influences. So they’ll start behaving. Hopefully.

The biggest pay-off, however, is this: even if one assumes for a moment that most households will be able to ‘jugaado’ a TV set, they will still need electricity to watch it. If this scheme is implemented, 60 years of gross mismanagement and sheer incompetence in the power sector get knocked off. Let the H&FW ministry have a go at power generation. They really can’t do any worse than what we have already seen. And they just might surprise us all.

The cynics and sceptics might feel it would be easier and more cost-effective to educate people about the various methods and benefits of contraception, to incentivise birth control and to efficiently ensure free access to condoms, pills and diaphragms. To them, all one can say is, Shoo! Go away. We don’t need your negativity to dampen this kind of enthusiasm and out-of-the-idiot-box thinking. You’re the same lot that believes in Sex Education, you dirty sods.

We, the people, will have a new trade-off: Electricity in lieu of Sex. I think most Indian couples will jump (no pun intended) at this choice. Sex is not that electrifying, anyway. More power to the people. Besides, as true Indians, if we don’t keep our part of the bargain, and indulge in a safe-tumble-in-the-hay after we have been granted access to electricity, who’s to know, eh?

* Electricity Or Sex?

The Indian bureaucracy, it seems, is not without a sense of humour. Really perverse humour, but humour nevertheless.

Lalgarh, like Nandigram and Naxalbari, has become another addition, courtesy West Bengal, to our socio-political lexicon. Here’s an article where one of the Maoists has said that their movement’s raison d’être is the Government – or more accurately, the lack of it. So whether it is healthcare, roads or irrigation, the People have taken matters into their own hands and seem to have a done a surprising amount of work. And it’s not just Lalgarh – it is estimated that in around a third of India’s total districts, the state really doesn’t exist – which is why, from time to time, it tries to prove its existence by swatting a couple of hapless citizens to keep the rest of us in line.

So it was with some surprise that I read this piece about the performance appraisal of civil servants. Given this country’s experience with the performance appraisal system for politicians – also known as elections – you will forgive my scepticism about this whole business. Performance and Government really don’t belong together in the same sentence. Not in India, at least.

Even if one discounts surveys like the one quoted here, which ranks Indian bureaucrats – and by implication, the Indian state – as the least efficient among the 12 Asian nations surveyed, very many Indians would agree that the state, where it exists, rarely rises above its torpor and lethargy, and where it doesn’t exist, well, it just doesn’t exist. So how on earth, with the state absent from about a third of the country, and in self-aggrandising mode in the rest, can people in the various branches that make up the civil services actually give themselves and their colleagues 10/10? But that’s exactly what our fine Babus have done.

Like I said, these people have a devilish sense of humour.

Unfortunately, as always, the joke’s on us.

I never thought this would be possible, but over the past few weeks, my cynicism has hit new highs! I have been observing the circus around us, and all I have to show for it is an increasing sense of dismay and dread.

For starters, here’s another brilliant example of Indian lawmaking: under-trials in India can’t vote. But what utterly confounds me is the fact that while an under-trial can’t vote, he sure as hell can contest elections and even become a minister. Go figure.

What about the fact that all candidates, across all parties, seem to be millionaires and billionaires? Some inherited their wealth. Some are self-made businesspersons and professionals. And then there is the vast majority whose net worth runs into many hundreds of millions, and no one has a clue about where this money came from. It’s such a cliché, this “impoverished-nation-rich-politicians” bit, but it seems to be the hallmark of Indian politics today. There can only be two explanations. Either only the rich become politicians, or all politicians become rich. Neither answer bodes well for the sham we’ve got going.

Then there’re these amazing news-blackouts that happen. Varun Gandhi is hauled over the coals, but Srinivas and Laloo’s peccadilloes are looked upon way more indulgently. The amount of coverage given to Modi in connection with the Gujarat riots is phenomenal. We are united in condemning, over and over, his acts of villainy and the many acts of commission and omission that followed. But when it comes to news reports that Teesta Setalvad coached, tutored and made witnesses lie in the Gujarat riots case, cooking up macabre incidents and concocting crimes that apparently never happened, the sense of national outrage is missing. The talking heads on TV maintain a studied silence, as do the pundits of print. And I fail to see any outpourings of rage in the many blogs that are so quick to judge, condemn and crucify otherwise. (Update: The CJP has questioned the veracity of the report, the TOI journalist stands by his story, and the SIT chief refuses to comment on whether the ‘leaked’ reports were true or not. We’re still no closer to the truth.)

Comparisons may be odious. But one can’t help recall how the US navy’s snipers kicked Somalian butt and rescued the Merchant Navy Captain held hostage. Would we ever have had the courage to do something like that? Will we ever be respected as a nation, forget feared?

When Harbhajan and Dhoni skipped the Padma Shri awards, our Impartial-Election-Commissioner-turned-Sports-Minister started foaming at the mouth. But some idiot has actually filed a lawsuit against the duo, alleging hurt and defamation. Hundreds of other issues to choose from, but this moron was offended because two cricketers found the opportunity cost of attending an award ceremony too high. Clearly, unemployment is a serious problem.

The first phase of polling saw a voter turnout of 54%. That’s it. Just 54%. Good going, India. And most of them would, predictably, have voted based on caste, language and religion. Everyone forgot the famines, the hunger, the suicides, the malnutrition, the desperate and unhealthy squalor that so many of our fellow citizens live in. Development, the criminalisation of politics, security and safety weren’t concerns. All that mattered was the surname and caste-certificate of the candidate. Was he one of us, or an outsider? Well done, people! That should see us change. That should ensure we prosper. Go India Go!

Did I forget to mention that I find it funny that most political parties in India are run like fiefdoms? They are autocratic – either autocratic-dynastic (most of the parties – Congress, DMK, NCP, NC, SP, SS etc), or first-generation autocratic (BSP, AIADMK). There is no such thing as intra-party democracy. Tell me, how can we trust any of these people to safeguard the country’s democratic institutions and systems when they clearly don’t believe in democracy in the first place?

To sum up, is there anything to smile about? There are criminals and law-breakers who will represent us and make laws. The increasing evidence of the unaccountable and immense wealth of candidates points to a rotten and hollow political system. Laws are modified and conventions broken to ensure politicians, as a class, proper and survive at our expense. With each passing session, individual freedoms and liberties are curtailed. The law and the police seem to have become instruments of oppression, used to subjugate the citizen. We naively join the happy chorus of the “we-are-a-democracy-and-an-emerging-superpower” song, forgetting that while the political parties themselves don’t practise democracy, when we deign to vote, we do so based on issues of caste, language and religion. We deserve each other.

A few years ago, I had taken a guided tour of the Louvre. The guide stopped in front of Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People”. As she explained the significance of the painting to us, one sentence really hit home. Pointing to the dead bodies Liberty was marching on, she said “Delacroix painted those to remind us that liberty does not come free. You have to fight to obtain freedom, and fight to preserve it. And perhaps die for it”.

Are we taking too much for granted? Is that why we, the people, are systematically squandering the most valuable thing we have as a nation – constitutional democracy? Is that what will finally hasten our transition into a failed state?

All we Indians have achieved as a nation is to prove to the world, that yes, you can fool all of the people, all of the time.

Since writing my last post, The Government as Moral Guardian, which talked about how the government tends to focus on ridiculous stuff, while critical matters are given short shrift, I came across this related bit of information: India has the highest number of children under five years of age who don’t receive proper health care. The annual “state of the world’s mothers” report pegs the figure at 67 million, which adds up to 53 per cent of the total population of under-five children in the country. Read the full article here.

I came across this interesting article in Liju Philip’s blog , which in turn linked to a post on Amit Varma’s. The post was an appeal to abolish victimless crimes (such as consensual sex between two adults of the same sex, prostitution and sports betting, for instance). I completely agree with Amit’s point of view, and believe that such ridiculous laws ought to be scrapped.

Something else Liju wrote in his post got me thinking. He wondered why it is that “the governments are so hell bent on ruling us rather than serving us, which is what they are supposed to do in the first place?”

Good point. Why is it that governments (at all levels) don’t do what they are supposed to do, and seem very good at doing everything that they’re not?

These laws just mentioned are a good example. We are being told what to do and what not to do. Perhaps – and that’s a big perhaps – we wouldn’t mind this almost Big Brother attitude if the government performed in other aspects. Unfortunately, as a perusal of any indicator will show, it has failed miserably. Let’s look at where India stacks up when it comes to some very critical aspects:

Food & Nutrition? (Still alarming, especially in children)

Primary education? (Ha ha)

Universal Healthcare? (You’ve got to be kidding!)

Sanitation? (What’s that?)

Crime? (The cops seem to be committing most of it)

Infrastructure? (Some improvement, but still in a very, very dismal place)

I don’t think India’s performance on each of these indicators is anything to write home about.

There can be only two reasons why governments perform so dismally. (1)They are incompetent and incapable. (2)They are competent and capable but suffer from constraints –for instance, not enough bandwidth, not enough specialised talent, not enough money, not enough time.

The first option is a little scary to contemplate. So I shall pretend to be an ostrich and bury my head in the sand as far as (1) is concerned. (Should any of you feel otherwise, please do leave your comments).

If one takes (2) as the reason, doesn’t it make sense for the government to jettison the unnecessary, focus and apply its limited resources towards these more important aspects of governance? Shouldn’t the government be concentrating on providing at least basic healthcare, facilitating minimum nutrition levels (especially in children), facilitating the provision of basic sanitation, concentrating on making safe drinking water available, and trying to make the ordinary citizen feel safe and secure? I think these are some of the government’s most important jobs – the rest, while important, come after these basic levels of a citizen’s needs are met.

Seems sensible enough, right? Apparently not for our governments, for whom the more critical matters of governance are deciding for us what we should or shouldn’t watch on TV or film, banning dance-bars, banning cheerleaders, banning smoking on screen and banning alcohol on screen.

Call me a quirky Indian, but before being taught how to eat bread, shouldn’t one have the bread to eat?