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Needed ‘individual acts of bravery’

By Ajit Prakash Shah

Events over the past few years have prompted many to revisit the idea of individual freedom. Indeed, not just in India, but elsewhere too, the idea of individual freedom is under intense scrutiny. Are governments across the world increasingly posing a threat to liberty? By corollary, are fascist policies and rhetoric on the rise?

Persons with a liberal bent of mind, who prize individual freedoms like free speech, gender and racial equality, are especially troubled, for our country appears to be at a juncture where fundamental notions of modern India are under existential threat.

One particular freedom that has come under fire is the freedom of practising one’s own religion. Personal freedom is very often associated with secularism, which, as received from the Western canon, is the separation of church from state. Sometimes secularism is also seen as a negation of religion completely. Indeed, many religious leaders taught that secular people do not believe in gods. But in my view, even if you are a temple-going Hindu or a devout Muslim, you can still be secular.

Unfortunately, those of us who value religious freedom have been disillusioned by multiple governments once too often. The current BJP-led government has no pretensions about its dislike for the secular idea. Even those governments that proudly flaunt the label of “secularism” have subjected us to their non-secular realpolitik. Take the politics of Rajiv Gandhi, for instance, often touted as a “secular” Prime Minister: his government not only overturned the Shah Bano judgment, but also banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and had the locks of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya opened to Hindus. Every political party, including the Congress and the BJP, has played communal politics with everyone in India — Hindu, Muslim, minorities — in the search for pliable vote banks.

In contrast, an exhibition of true “secularism” would be open-ended, either agnostic or, at the other extreme, in a country like India where faith is so central, multi-religious. Most importantly, at its heart, true secularism would be driven by universal values of truth, compassion and equality, which are fundamental values that straddle all religions.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari captures the essence of these values beautifully. Truth, not to be confused with belief, has no sole custodian. Truth is based on observation, evidence, and inference, and is accessible to all. Compassion comes from an understanding of suffering: a compassionate person does not kill not because their faith tells them not to, but because they know that killing causes immense suffering. And the universal value of equality comes from a recognition of both truth and compassion, empowering people to never substitute “uniqueness” with “superiority”. Everyone may be unique in their own way, but they are all still equally unique — no one being more specially so than the other. Ultimately, we cannot find truth, or learn compassion, or appreciate equality if we have no freedom to think, to question, to seek, to find these for ourselves. These freedoms are, ultimately, the most valuable. Recognising these freedoms was central to the politics of Mahatma Gandhi. Sadly, our leaders since have either forgotten or chosen to turn a blind eye to these ideas completely.

What can we do to change this? We need not look to foreign shores or to long-forgotten pasts. We only need to open India’s nearly 70-year-old liberal manifesto. The Constitution contains all the declarations essential to a nation that preserves individual liberties. It is for us to protect it from neglect and disrepair.

It was B.R. Ambedkar, the key driver of the Constituent Assembly, who said: “The assertion by the individual of his own opinions and beliefs, his own independence and interest as over and against group standards… is the beginning of all reform.” These ideas also find their way into the Constitution.

Even as the Constitution was being written, even as the leaders of the independence movement were negotiating for our freedom, Hindutva forces present at the time — the days of the advent of the Hindu Mahasabha, of Veer Savarkar and B.S. Moonje — were suspicious of secular ideas. They were, instead, great admirers of Hitler and Mussolini, with Moonje even going to Italy to meet the latter, and Savarkar justifying Hitler’s treatment of Jews.

This suspicion continues amongst the legatees of the Hindu Mahasabha, in their mistrust of the Indian Constitution, for it is this document borrowed from Western ideals, they believe, that obstructs the idea of the Hindu Rashtra. In today’s India, as a result, the most liberal document that we have, the Constitution, is at risk.

In his new book, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them, Yale University philosophy professor Jason Stanley identifies 10 characteristics that define fascist political movements. For example: “Fascism always promises to return us to a mythic past.” Similarly, fascist politicians use propaganda, for example, about anti-corruption campaigns, even when they are transparently corrupt. Another aspect is anti-intellectualism, for the “enemy of fascism is equality,” and the target of such anti-intellectual campaigns are places of learning, like universities. How can the educated elite know anything about anything, the fascist believes. Only the mythical “common man” can know what is right; note the emphasis on “man”, which includes no women, or racial and sexual minorities. The similarities do not end there. Unlike liberal democracies, based on freedom and equality, fascist regimes posit the dominant group’s interests as the ultimate, unquestionable truth. The dominant group is also always the victim of the situation. They rely on conspiracy theories to justify calls to power. And most tellingly, fascist politicians promise a law and order regime designed not to seek out offenders, but to criminalise outliers, who are usually ethnic, religious or sexual minorities. Professor Stanley has the U.S. in mind, but surely there is some resonance closer home.

Today, we live in an India where we are told what we can and cannot eat, what we can and cannot watch, what we can and cannot speak about, and who we can or cannot marry. Dissent, particularly in universities and public spaces, is being curbed. Sloganeering and flag raising have become tests for nationalism. Journalists are shot dead at point blank range for the views they hold and propagate. Not long ago, the police arrested five political activists essentially for thought crimes and taking up the cause of the tribals. More recently, when actor Naseeruddin Shah expressed legitimate concerns about growing vigilantism, his views were blown out of proportion, and misunderstood as an expression of disloyalty to the country. Even public institutions like the central bank have not been spared. A school of thought appears to have gained prominence in India which believes that everything can be solved by violence, and that it is always better to have power concentrated in a few men.

As a judge, naturally, I wonder if the courts will save the Constitution. I am honestly sceptical about this. Although the Supreme Court has delivered some wonderful judgments recently, can the court fully play out its role as the ultimate defender of the Constitution? The past record of the judiciary in testing times is not very encouraging, if we think of the Emergency. New allegations that the former Chief Justice of India (CJI) was perhaps being “remote controlled” do not invite much confidence either.

A few other things trouble me too: our present CJI, before taking office, publicly lectured about independent judges and noisy journalists. Just recently, the judicial system allowed a journalist in Odisha to remain in jail for over a month for making certain remarks about the Sun Temple in Konark. Our Supreme Court even refused to grant him bail, reportedly remarking that if one’s life were in danger, what better place was there than to stay in jail. When the court is angered about the publication of information pertaining to the working of critical public institutions like the Central Bureau of Investigation on grounds of confidentiality, one cannot help but worry.

All this has made me less optimistic about the judiciary doing its bit. Ultimately, it is the people who will protect the Constitution, and all of the wisdom it contains about personal liberties and individual freedoms. Prof Stanley phrases this appropriately when he says, “The ordinary citizen [must] stand up and loudly confront people who engage in… fascist rhetoric and not be afraid. Those millions of acts of individual bravery, if we can stitch together, will save us.” This is a time for individual acts of bravery. These are what will save us from a dangerous future.