Freedom of speech requires inventiveness and eccentricity, says Shiv Visvanathan
INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS in India appear to have a sanctity that invites the sanctimonious. They either summon the piety of the State invoking the higher sacredness of security, or the greater good of the Republic. Confronting it in a grotesque ballet are slapstick intellectuals who go hysterical about a ban on Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, but will look indifferently as Dalits battle against atrocities.
These two positions as custodians of the politically correct and moral create two separate forms of danger. If you accept a statist position, individual rights no longer exist sui-generis. They are a condition permitted by the State and are subject to a whole corridor of ‘States of Exception’. These are conditions under which individual rights become suspended for reasons of security or emergency. The ironic fact is that eventually it is security which is normalised and rights become an episodic form as states of exception. The struggles in Kashmir or Manipur are examples where security becomes a permanent norm and rights, an occasional interlude.
The intellectualist position in India sees rights as a privilege of the intellectual class rather than that of citizenship in general. The sadness is that intellectuals, for all the suffix of public, behave like a club. As a technocracy, as a bevy of committees, as commodified salons, they are interest groups for their own particular ideas. For example, scientists, here and abroad, will talk of the freedom of science as a claim or privilege separate from the general freedom of speech. They claim that the scientist is free because he speaks science while the rest should face restriction as they are laymen. Freedom becomes freedom for the expert or the club. The debates on nuclear energy are a good example of nuclear-speak as a threat to freedom. The danger thickens when the club becomes a set of warring camps. For example, the Left can appeal to the State for freedom and ask it to suppress the Right as bourgeois, reactionary or conservative. The epidemic of debates on history textbooks, a few years ago, was an example of how intellectuals needed the umbilical cord of the State to express their sense of being.
The above two positions create a dull choreography of political correctness. In India, where each group only talks of freedom when its own interests are affected, freedom of speech is a pricklier problem. To exist as a State of being, one has to recognise that freedom of speech is freedom for the views you disagree with, for the visions that might threaten you. Freedom of speech might appear axiomatic but has to be established again and again. They have to be enacted out every day in myriad contexts to sustain it. Freedom of speech is a ritual that needs a million experiments to sustain it. This is precisely what is missing in India. The State sees it as a dispensable commodity and our intellectuals as a privileged one. Neither position adds much to the democratic imagination.
The political oddball or even the moral inventor with his wild ethics is a disappearing species
Beyond stereotype, what vitiates democracy and free speech is a peculiar notion of morality. Morality in India is a strange creature. The Constitution in India summons fewer troops than the demand for morals. Yet, morality in India is a strange coalition of stereotypes, fears, anxieties and impositions. Morality is not about good and bad as worked out by individual choice but a decision imposed through populism and vigilantism. Such a morality standardises, homogenises while genuine democracy is based on dissent. Democracy, in this original sense, needs the humus of difference. Dissent is the first index of democracy, while morality in this collective sense seeks conformity.
Two other factors add to this problem. First is the laziness of electoral democracy, which in its pursuit of votes, turns minorities and majorities into moral fixtures. It creates a galvanic sensitivity to the slightest issue, whether it is a code of dress, an attitude to the body or even religious dogma. As a result, the State turns every moral or aesthetic issue into a law and order problem. Secondly, it allows critical vote banks to become moral policemen, allowing for vigilantism in the name of morals or that greater fiction, “Indian Morality”. This creates a rabid populism that threatens invention or dissent in any form. The State, like Pavlov’s dog, stands at attention the minute this populist card is played. The issue can be Valentine’s Day, a Husain painting, a history book. The State is indifferent to the creative act as long as vote banks are intact. Morality reduces behaviour to a form of ritual correctness. Populism disallows dissent, eliminating the very basis of the right to speech.
The State becomes an annex to such populist morality. The State also exploits this situation to guarantee the sacredness of sovereignty, territory, security, stability and nation-State. Any group or individual who questions this black box of sacred concepts is a political traitor. Between State and populism, there is an easy conspiracy that creates a flatland of values we accept as morality. It is vintage hypocrisy disguised in a collective uniform. Morality becomes a mimic form banalising conscience and emptying democracy of its dissenting humus.
BEYOND THIS empty electoralism, which counts imaginary votes, there is a climate of conformity which hates individual difference. We are a nation that accepts differences in individual mobility but not differences in individual opinion. We create a morality play where the dissenter, the eccentric, the heretic and the marginal are seen as disruptive and unnecessary.
The State sees them as disruptive of its great search for morality as homogeneity. The moral majority cannot stand them as they emphasise values that those in power find disconcerting. But what binds these two savage positions together is the glue of false conformity we call tolerance or political correctness. We define sensitivity as a vote bank problem, and so we need to be hypocritically silent about philistine art, conformist science, majoritarian ideologies and official dogmas. Tolerance, instead of accepting difference, has created a flatland of indifference or false sensitivity to any idea that disrupts the current political or cultural regime. Our legislators, our social scientists and our politicians add to the fascism of the lumpen by creating the fascism of correctness, which allows for violence against any form of dissent. In an odd sense, they think that conformist morality creates the greatest good of the greatest number, whereas it is dissent which is the compost of ideas for democracy. A morality that operates like a cement mixer cannot understand the wisdom of the compost heap as a catalyst of difference.
A mass society with a majoritarian or populist mystique does not realise that morality is not an impregnable Maginot Line but a constant source of invention. Our managerial societies, which allow innovation in technology, should realise that it is morality that needs more invention, and technology that needs more regulation. Democracy allows for dissent, which, in turn, lets moral, ethical, political and cultural shibboleths be questioned. It creates the availability of eccentrics that our society desperately needs. The political oddball or the moral inventor with his wild ethics is a disappearing species. Our democracy has conspired with nation-state to create a new flatland. It is not the ban on Rushdie that we have to mourn, but the decline of the oddball. We are a society that boasts of its diversity in rice or dance but is dead to the disappearance of the dissenter and eccentric. It is a collective act of exterminism where moral correctness and majoritarian pomposity conspire to eliminate the very playful life-forms that sustained any democracy. It is this slow extinction that I want to challenge. The Rushdie debate is merely a superficial articulation of this deeper tragedy.
Visvanathan is a social science nomad