Independence Day and content of freedom

Busy celebrating the 69th Independence Day, India tends to ignore a disturbing reality: the sphere of liberty is incessantly shrinking—and, concomitantly, the scope of state intervention in the affairs of people is increasing. The assaults on freedom are sometimes open and blatant, as in the case of Section 66A of the Information Technology Act (struck down by the Supreme Court last year), but mostly they come in the garb of social activism, public health, and public safety. Assaults they are nonetheless, whatever the pretext there may be.

Often, the Law of Unintended Consequences is at work—good intentions paving the path to hell. So, when Rajya Sabha MP and Dalit ideologue Narendra Jadhav seeks a ban on “surnames or family names,” his objectives are indeed noble. “Unlike in case of blacks and whites, you cannot physically distinguish castes. So, the name becomes important. It should be made obligatory to drop family name,” he told The Times Of India (August 8).

It is true that physical distinction between castes in our country is very difficult, and this is the reason that some people insist on knowing the ‘full name’—and if that doesn’t make the caste evident (e.g., if somebody has ‘Kumar’ as surname), they even bluntly ask for the caste of the person. This often happens in the Hindi belt, especially Bihar.

But making it obligatory to drop family name or surname will scarcely improve the situation. For instance, in an educational institute or government office, it would be impossible to conceal the caste of those who have entered because of reservation.

Yet, Jadhav is toying with the idea of a private member’s Bill to proscribe surnames. This is the problem: an eminent economist, who has worked with International Monetary Fund and headed economic research at the Reserve Bank of India, is unmindful of the insalubrious consequences that such a Bill, if cleared, will occasion.

There are four main objections to the proposed legislation. First, it would curtail the individual’s right to use his own name in the manner he wishes it to be. Second, every person using their family name or surname does not do so to announce their caste. Third, it would further empower government. And, finally, implementation would be impossible, for millions of people use their surnames. Would they be ordered to drop them?

While the Bill proposed by Jadhav at least has good intentions, the same cannot be said about the measures that the Indian state and its bodies have introduced in the recent past. Consider the case of static warnings that appear onscreen every time a character lights up a cigarette in a movie or on television.

Introduced a few years ago, this was an act of pure vandalism and excessive moral policing. Vandalism because the insertion of a scroll onscreen defiles a work of art—whether a movie or a television serial. It is moral policing because it assumes that the people are so stupid that any depiction of smoking would induce them to adopt the vice. Besides, it encroaches on the consumer’s right: I pay to watch the movie in a pure form, as the filmmaker presents it; I don’t want it to be adulterated with a message. At any rate, I already know, as does everybody else, that smoking is injurious for health.

But such is tyranny of self-appointed custodians of public morals that all objections to such vandalism and illiberality were brushed aside as the shenanigans of ‘vested interests.’ This abomination was followed—thankfully, for only a brief period—by another one: similar diktat was imposed for drinking scenes.

In a rare instance of the Law of Unintended Consequences working beneficially, the depredations of Pahlaj Nihalani goaded the government to set up a committee under Shyam Benegal to examine the film certification process. The panel said in its report, “The static warnings that appear during every smoking scene apart from the disclaimers and anti-tobacco health spots being shown mandatorily in the beginning and interval of every film, disturbs the smooth viewing of the film.”

It recommended replacement of the static warning with a short visual conveying an anti-smoking message by the same actor who smokes in the movie. A sensible suggestion indeed, but it is yet to be accepted.

In fact, cinema has borne the brunt of the attacks on liberty. There is a government body with the mandate to promote the welfare of animals. Nobody knows what has it done for animals, but it has surely fretted filmmakers by placing restrictions on them. As a consequence, they have minimized the depiction of animals in movies, or started resorting to computer generated graphics. Then there was serious discussion in the government to check car chases on the grounds that such thrilling scenes may encourage people to drive fast.

The institutional mindset remains wedded to controls, permits, and licences—in cinema, the economy, elsewhere. As per the new guidelines,, now even air guns and blank-fire guns will require licence. As it is, gun laws are extremely strict in our country, often taking years to acquire a licence. The attendant responsibilities—depositing arms during elections, etc.—are also burdensome. This is despite the fact that before Independence nationalists opposed the Arms Act. Even Mahatma Gandhi was against it. He said in a 1918 recruitment leaflet for World War I, “Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest. If we want the Arms Act to be repealed, if we want to learn the use of arms, here is a golden opportunity. If the middle classes render voluntary help to Government in the hour of its trial, distrust will disappear, and the ban on possessing arms will be withdrawn.”

Gandhi’s and other pre-Independence nationalist’ opposition to the Arms Act was pertinent; it is more pertinent today as, with the police busy protecting politicians and collecting hafta, the man on the street is practically helpless. A slogan of the American gun lobby is most relevant in India: if guns are outlawed, only outlaws with have guns. They have guns, and they use them with impunity: in 2014, only 14 percent of the victims were killed by licenced guns.

One would have expected relaxation in the Arms Act after Independence, but what we have seen since then are greater restrictions.

Unfortunately, greater controls and regulations are not restricted to carrying arms (and now even air guns), individual names, and cinema; every other walk of life is affected. For instance, the evil of prohibition is spreading. Girls are regularly lectured to dress ‘decently’; recently, female students of the Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology protested against the administration’s diktats regarding attire and hostel timings. Efforts are also on to forcibly change culinary habits. Even to make voting compulsory. And there are indications that the process to curtail our freedoms is becoming even more wide-ranging and intensive.

The essence of liberal democracy is the limitless liberty it affords to the citizen, subject only to the condition that it should not harm or infringe upon the liberty of other citizens. Over the years, we have moved far away from that ideal; today, more and more efforts are on to make things mandatory, compulsory, to ban, etc., in a variety of fields as I have mentioned. In a nutshell, the threats to freedom are growing in scope and strength.

Meanwhile celebrations of Independence have become louder, shriller, and gaudier—perhaps to lull us into shutting out eyes to the unlovely reality of constant erosion of the freedoms of citizens. In this milieu, it is worth pondering over a few lines of a Dhumil poem: ‘Kya azaadi sirf teen thake huye rangon ka naam hai/jinhen ek pahiya dhhota hai/ya iska koi khaas matlab hota hai’ (Is freedom the name of three worn-out colors/whose burden a wheel bears/Or does it have some meaning?).