India must break itself free of bigotry’s grip

OVER the past few weeks, India has witnessed an explosion of intolerance, censorship, and physical harassment of people who differ from the "mainstream".

By Praful Bidwai

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Published: Sat 21 Jan 2006, 8:59 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:34 PM

This should shake all public-spirited citizens out of the smug assumption that Indian society is basically tolerant, and that India has internalised the spirit of liberalism and minimum civility. In fact, India shows distressingly high levels of intolerance. It is in serious need of reform.

Consider three recent examples. In Maharashtra, where burning books has become a cult thanks to the quasi-fascist Shiv Sena, the government has banned yet another book on Shivaji by an American scholar on the flimsy ground that he discusses the potentially competitive, complex relationship between Shivaji and his father. (When his last book was banned, goons attacked a prestigious research institute, destroying invaluable manuscripts.) In Tamil Nadu, another state with a century-long history of social reform, chauvinists have been busy attacking actress Khushboo for violating "Tamil ethos" by making the perfectly sensible statement that young women should take precautions when engaging in pre-marital sex which, surveys show, is widely prevalent.

Equally distressingly, Film Censor Board chairperson Sharmila Tagore invited the Defence services chiefs to vet Aamir Khan’s Rang De Basanti, woven around the lives of MiG-21 pilots. The apparent purpose was to reassure them that the film doesn’t throw uncomplimentary light on the MiG’s poor safety record.

This is shocking. The MiG-21, often called the Flying Coffin, does have a horrible record of crashes. The IAF has lost 320 MiG-21s so far. The services chiefs have no business to vet a film because it deals with defence matters. By that criterion, films that feature cricket players would have to be approved by the BCCI. Those with fictional characters from the corporate or media world would be subjected to censorship by the concerned professional bodies.

Now, the armed forces, like all other institutions of the state, have their place in democracy. They perform an important job in defending the borders. But they cannot demand they must not be criticised. That can only create an unhealthy cult of military hero-worship. Even not-so-liberal countries like the United States don’t subject films critical of war (like Catch-22, Apocalypse Now, or The Deer Hunter) to military’s censorship. However, all these lapses pale beside the egregious police attacks under way on gays in Uttar Pradesh, which are driving women to the brink of suicide.

A month ago, the police beat up ‘amorous’ couples in parks in Meerut although they had not indulged in any obscene acts. Now, they have surpassed themselves by arresting four gays in Lucknow. The reason for this harassment is crass prejudice against gays. Lucknow’s police chief Ashutosh Pandey has invoked, perhaps the first time in decades in Northern India, Section 377 of the IPC to arrest gays. He is homophobic. He says: "In India, practising homosexuality, with or without consent, is a crime. Gays are not respected in Indian society."

Section 377 is a throwback to Victorian morality, itself hypocritical. It should have been removed from the IPC decades ago. It criminalises "carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal." This "order" is a bogus and unscientific concept. Worse, it’s an invitation to tyranny. Heterosexuals constitute a majority in society. But they have no right to impose their preferences upon others. Every adult has an inviolable right to his/her sexual preference. Societies that don’t accept this and persecute non-conformists are incipiently tyrannical. They tolerate the vigilantism against lesbian women that’s taking place in Indian cities.

In Meerut, a young woman who married her companion, was so badly harassed that she drank poison. A mob chased her into the hospital where she was lodged. The police refused to rescue her. Similar incidents have been reported from Kolkata, Allahabad, Lucknow and Bhopal. Such medieval and authoritarian mindsets should shock us. A powerful case can be made for rating societies as free on the yardstick of how much freedom they allow citizens in matters of faith, diet, dress and sex. The worst are those that elevate bigotry to the level of legality and impose an artificial homogeneity upon citizens.

The most emancipated societies are those which respect individual freedom-not merely legally, but in life. Between the two fall societies which don’t outlaw certain practices but which impose taboos on individuals not just in public life, but in their private life too. Ultra-conservative societies like Saudi Arabia fall within the first category. Christian Europe in the first half of the 20th century belongs to this group too. Much of Western Europe today falls in the ‘high freedom’ category. Many such countries have legalised gay marriages and don’t stigmatise people with same-sex preferences-witness Elton John and Paris mayor Delanoe.

India belongs to the not-so-free group, along with countries with unflattering human rights records like Israel, Singapore, Sudan, and Nigeria. A modern, enlightened society is based on fundamental rights. These are intrinsic, inherent to human beings. The most basic of them is the right to life. A person’s body is inviolate. No institution or individual can inflict harm upon it without breaching fundamental freedoms.

The right to privacy, including the pursuit of one’s sexual preferences, is linked to the right to one’s body, as well another fundamental right, namely, the freedom of thought and expression.

Fundamental rights cannot be suppressed in the name of some higher mainstream morality and majority ‘sensitivity’. Those who do so practise the worst form of majoritarianism, the anti-thesis of democracy. The hate campaigns are indistinguishable from medieval witch hunts. If India is to aspire to a liberal-democratic culture, it must not tolerate such crass intolerance. Enlightened citizens must speak up for freedom.

Praful Bidwai is a veteran Indian journalist and commentator. He can be reached at

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