Three thoughts for the Republic

On standing to reason, avoiding more moral panic and guarding against coercive majoritarianism

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

Our Republic is founded on Reason

Of course, government and citizens must uphold the Constitution and live by its lights. That said, every law, every statute and every clause is and ought to be subject to public reasoning. For instance, the criminalisation of homosexuality, the existence of multiple personal laws, the low bar to what is considered sedition and indeed the advice against cow slaughter — to name a few contemporary issues from our penal code and Constitution — must be re-examined in the court of the latest knowledge and understanding of the world. They should stand only when they stand to reason. [The Hindu]

On not letting moral panics consume us

Moral panics in radically networked societies are likely to be intense, personal and, of course, transient. It is unclear how they will affect public policy: politicians and bureaucrats can overreact to what they see as popular demand, or contrarily, tend to ignore what they see as a temporary fad among the digitally connected population. Either way, there are risks. Politicians and parties need to keep their ear to the ground as well as have a finger on the pulse to function effectively. If they lose it, or are confused, the results are unpredictable.

Unfortunately, we know little about how to manage and defuse ordinary moral panics, less these social media-driven recursive ones. We have to grope our way out of the darkness. The stakes, especially for us in India, are high: it is not only about sustaining the conditions for economic growth and transformation. It is also about preserving our constitutional values: As Mr. Desai warns, albeit in another context, there is a risk of how “using the instrument of democracy, fear and divisiveness are likely to triumph over ideals and inclusiveness”. [The Hindu]

The risk from coercive majoritarianism

…we find ourselves in the midst of coercive majoritarianism and the backlash against it.

Yet, it would be dangerously wrong to believe that Hindu majoritarianism is the only game in the country. Like competitive intolerance, majorities everywhere are trying to assert themselves by pushing their agenda onto everyone in their space. We see this in many states: Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Maharashtra, undivided Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. It is also happening in villages, towns and urban neighbourhoods, although we do not see it because the national media do not cover it. Everywhere there are trends of a social consciousness that seeks to respond to diversity and pluralism by imposing a majoritarian order. Democracy is offered as justification for this. But India is a republic in addition to being a democracy. This means that there are certain basic values — like individual liberty and fundamental rights — that cannot be pushed over because the majority of the population so desire.

Coercive majoritarianism is a dangerous trend because, like intolerance, it is competitive. It comes at the cost of individual liberty. Conversely, only the relentless defence of individual liberty and constitutional values can counter coercive majoritarianism of the current time. Unfortunately, few political parties and leaders can relied upon to fight majoritarianism, for the simple reason that siding with it is a easier route to power. Perhaps that explains why parliament is discussing “intolerance” rather than the real problem—coercive majoritarianism. [On coercive majoritarianism]


The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on

On Republic Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

and on Independence Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

Don’t worry about anti-nationals

India is not threatened by people with anti-national ideas

This blog is a votary of Indian nationalism—which it contends is essentially of a liberal, plural and non-supremacist nature. As a supporter of republicanism, it upholds the value of “dharmo rakshati rakshitah” (the law protects those who protect it). It is a strong advocate of constitutional methods.

That is why it is important to note that it is no crime to be “anti-national”.

An anti-national is a person who is opposed to nationalism—the idea that a group of people sharing some common bonds constitute a unique community—and therefore is also opposed to the idea of “national interest”. There are good intellectual foundations for denying the legitimacy and basis of nationhood, and good arguments critiquing the idea of national interest. However, this blog holds that the arguments against nationalism and national interest are inferior in the context of the real world.

That does not mean someone holding anti-national opinions is criminal, unpatriotic, seditious, treasonous. It is important not to conflate these terms.

According to Oxford Dictionaries:

anti-national: Opposed to national interests or nationalism
unpatriotic: Not having or expressing devotion to and vigorous support for one’s country
treasonous: The crime of betraying one’s country, especially by attempting to kill or overthrow the sovereign or government
seditious: Inciting or causing people to rebel against the authority of a state or monarch
[Oxford Dictionaries]

In the Indian republic today, sedition is a crime—although it ought not be be one in our constitutional order. Acts of treason are punishable under sections of the penal code and acts pertaining to national security. Being anti-national and unpatriotic, on the other hand, are not crimes per se.

Indeed, the Constitution protects the right to have anti-national and unpatriotic beliefs and opinions, and propagate them peacefully. These rights are subject to laws that impose “reasonable restrictions…in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.”

India’s liberal democratic order should permit and tolerate anti-national and unpatriotic ideas. The ideas that hold the Indian republic together are much stronger than them. Political and social orders held together by coercion, dogma and force need to fear sedition and free thought. A constitutional order built on reason and liberty need not worry about people’s beliefs.

Three thoughts on Independence Day

On freedom, constitutional balance & the dangers of majoritarianism

For quiet contemplation on Independence Day

— A good time to read and reflect on Tagore’s verse

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

— On freedom of religion

the emergence of contentious issues relating to the place of religion is also an opportunity for another generation to re-examine the balance the Indian Republic has struck on those very issues, and hopefully, allow us to get past them and onto the more important items on the public agenda. [More]

— On protecting liberty from democracy

we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty? That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. [More]


The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Independence Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

and on Republic Day 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

When should the government subsidise training filmmakers?

There is no case for government to subsidise FTII (and, for that matter, IITs and IIMs too)

One of the numerous controversies surrounding the Modi government’s appointments in the education sector revolves around a minor television actor being appointed the chairman of a government-run institute on the basis of his party, and perhaps ideological, affiliation. Students, alumni and many public commentators have opposed the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan on account of his weak acting credentials and lack of stature in the industry.

Mr Chauhan’s critics might be right. His defence — that he is being judged ahead of his performance — can also be taken at face value, not least in a country where “officially certified” graduates are unemployable, and great actors and film-makers need not necessarily be good administrators.It is not as if having great personalities running the film institute has prevented the Indian film industry from distinguishing itself through sheer mediocrity. Mr Chauhan does deserve a chance.

The Film and Television Institute of India is a government run institution. The elected government has the prerogative to appoint whoever it likes. If students and faculty do not like it, they can voice their protests, which the government ought to listen to. But if the government does not, or does not accept the criticism, then that should be the end of the matter. Students and faculty who cannot accept Mr Chauhan’s leadership can decide to quit. Whatever your politics, this is the right conduct in a republic. With apologies to John Roberts, the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, it is not the purpose of democracy to protect the people from the consequences of their electoral decisions.

However, the bigger issue is why is the Union government running a film institute and training actors and filmmakers with public funds? The economic argument is that the government can subsidise education that has large externalities, if there is an undersupply of such education. In other words, the reason to subsidise medical education (whether or not through government medical colleges) is that a doctor benefits society even when making money for herself. If there are too few doctors, there is a case for subsidising medical education. If there are too many of them, it doesn’t.

So do actors and filmmakers have large positive externalities? To the extent that entertainment is necessary for the well being of individuals and society, then it is possible to make a case that filmmaking ought to be supported with public funds. But are there too few actors? Are there insufficient incentives for the private sector to invest in filmmaking institutes? You could argue that a few decades ago, there was a need for government to subsidise Indian actors and filmmaking. It is difficult to argue that is the case today: the film industry was worth over $2 billion last year and almost produces more films than the United States, China and Japan (the next three biggest producers) combined. There are too many films. There are too many television channels. There is an oversupply of films, television programmes, actors and filmmakers. It makes no sense to subsidise film-making in this situation. Privatising the Film and Television Institute of India is a good idea, especially if it can use the autonomy to improve industry standards.

In a twitter conversation, a fimmaker retorted saying if government can run IITs and IIMs, then why not FTII? The answer really is that just like FTII, the government should get out of running IITs and IIMs too. Where there is need for government is in the running of 665 universities where around 30 million students are enrolled. All the IITs and IIMs together account for a mere 15000 students. The poorest student who secures admission to IITs or IIMs is likely to secure grants, scholarships or loans to pay her fees. On the other hand, the pure sciences, social sciences and arts need greater public funding because of the dismal state these disciplines are in. Universities represent education in its broadest sense, and has the broadest externalities — an educated population is in the public interest.

The debate on a few elite institutions is misplaced. The government ought to get out of running film, engineering, management and law institutes. There is no case for pouring scarce public funds in areas where there is a glut and where there are enough incentives for private provision.

A democratic death knell for individual liberty

A referendum is a bad idea

Caught in a political tussle with the Union government that has administrative and “superuser rights”, Delhi’s Aam Aadmi Party government has thrown up the idea of a referendum to decide whether the union territory should become fully a state. Since there is no scope for a referendum within India’s constitutional structure, everything about the proposal—from who are the voters, to who will conduct it to what does any result mean—is an open question.

Regardless, the proposal for a referendum is dangerous, poorly conceived and might destabilise India’s politics more than anyone has imagined. Not for the textual reason that the Constitution does not permit it, but for the deeper, conceptual reason as to why the Constitution does not permit it.

There are two broad arguments for representative democracy: first, the practical transaction costs of taking every issue to all the voters are massive for anything larger than a community of a few thousand people. It would be prohibitively expensive even for a small Indian state to decide every issue by asking voters directly. Technology reduces costs: it is possible that in the coming decades, the availability and adoption of technology will make referenda rather inexpensive to conduct.

So should human civilisation move ahead to direct democracy when transaction costs of referenda are lower than the transaction costs of representative democracy (all that money spent on parliament, legislators and so on)? Not quite. That is because the second argument for representative democracy–even with the quality of legislators that we often detest–is that direct democracy can lead to highly illiberal outcomes. It would be dangerous enough in a homogenous, egalitarian society. It would be extremely risky in a highly diverse society like India’s. Politics is often a contest for relative power among different communities, quite often expressed through imposition or prohibition of their mores. In India we are used to thinking in terms of the majority and minorities in ethnic-religious terms. This is bad enough. But a majority is merely a number, and it is possible for majorities and minorities to form over political issues. Even in polities divided along religious lines, have we not seen conservative elements of religious communities come together to proscribe individual liberty?

That is the danger. The biggest casualty of direct democracy will be the liberty of the individual. The Indian Constitution is a balance between a democracy that expresses the will of the majority, and the fundamental rights of the individual. Weaken this edifice and individual liberty will be the first against the wall.

Referenda are dangerous not merely because people in some states might choose to secede from the Indian Union, but really because rule-by-referenda will be the death knell for the rights of the individual. There is no safeguard for liberty in a referendum.

The AAP government in Delhi would do well not to stoke fires it cannot control. If it does want to assess public preferences–for administrative or political purposes–it can conduct large scale public consultations that ask thousands or hundreds of thousands of people for their opinion. Results of such a consultation will have no constitutional basis, but can go some way in bringing in popular sentiment into public policy.

Related Posts: Dogma, Reason & Democracy; and how to escape the tyranny of the ignorant.

On freedom of religion

The only restrictions to propagation of faith are force and fraud.

The last few months have seen the return of religion-related issues into the public discourse. While many of these issues have existed on the agenda of religious-political organisations for decades, their contemporary emergence might has been triggered by electoral calculations and a new public mood for them. It is understandable that many—including, at times, this blogger—have been exasperated by their acquiring centre-stage at a time when India’s growth priorities lie elsewhere.

However, the emergence of contentious issues relating to the place of religion is also an opportunity for another generation to re-examine the balance the Indian Republic has struck on those very issues, and hopefully, allow us to get past them and onto the more important items on the public agenda.

The rather clear constitutional position—laid out in Article 25 of the Constitution and elsewhere—was muddied by a confused 1977 Supreme Court judgement (Stanislaus v State of Madhya Pradesh) where a bench headed by Chief Justice A N Ray drew a specious distinction between a fundamental right to propagate (that he ruled is constitutional) against a ‘right to convert’ (that he ruled does not exist). He arrived at this conclusion because he reasoned that one’s right to convert violates another’s freedom of conscience, and therefore is untenable.

In his monumental three-volume Constitutional Law of India, H M Seervai argues that the “Supreme Court’s judgement is clearly wrong, is productive of the greatest public mischief and ought to be overruled.” Seervai’s contends that conversion due to force or fraud is clearly unconstitutional because “if A converts B by force or fraud, B is deprived of his freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.” So the only question relates to the constitutionality of conversion by persuasion. Chief Justice Ray, Seervai argues, “mistakenly believed that if A deliberately set out to convert B by propagating A’s religion, that would impinge on B’s “freedom of conscience”. But…the precise opposite is true: A’s propagation of his religion with a view to its being accepted by B, gives an opportunity for B to exercise his free choice of a religion.”

Seervai’s arguments were consistent with the intentions of the Constituent Assembly. He quotes K M Munshi’s speech on the background of Article 25(1) in the Assembly. Munshi states: “So long as religion is religion, conversion by free exercise of the conscience has to be recognised. The word ‘propagate’ in this clause is nothing very much out of the way as some people think, nor is it fraught with dangerous consequences.”

Unfortunately, until a bigger bench of the Supreme Court revisits the 1977 judgement, we have to live with the ‘public mischief’ it has encouraged. There is no doubt that the framers of the Constitution intended to permit conversions as long as there was no force or fraud involved.

That indeed is the liberal position. In The Acorn‘s opinion, inducements and allurements cannot be distinguished from other forms of persuasion. A person ought to be—and is in India—free to convert to any faith for any reason, including financial ones. There is no reason why a citizen cannot sell her soul to the highest bidder, and no reason why she cannot repeat this auction every day. May the highest bidders win, day after day! (As an aside, it is likely that the reservation price for a soul will rise in tandem with per capita GDP.)

In a discussion some weeks ago, a thoughtful colleague noted that while this may be all right in case of individual conversions, large scale conversions change demographics and can be detrimental to national security and the very values in the Constitution that enable such conversions. This is a fair and valid point. Even so, like all other liberties, freedom of religion must be safeguarded without taking it away.

Amid all the heat and noise of partisanship and prejudice, the public discourse does not frame the question properly. The question is what is the proper the role of the state and the government in matters of conversion? The correct answer is that it has—or ought to have—no role, other than to prevent force and fraud, and punish those who engage in them.

Individuals and religious organisations have—and ought to have—the right to persuade people into converting to their faith. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu organisations should be free to organise “ghar wapsis“, “shuddhis“, re-conversions and indeed fresh conversions, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. The Church should be free to convert people, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. Muslims should be free to convert people, individually or in their thousands, by persuasion, inducement or allurement. Not by force or fraud. So too everyone else.

The government must remain agnostic (pun unintended) while people should be free to choose from the options available. As Seervai says, it is the existence and ability to exercise choice, that makes their freedom of conscience a reality.

None of this is the government’s business. To the extent that ghar wapsis and other conversions do not have implicit or explicit support of the state, use or connivance of the government machinery or wilful negligence to prevent force and fraud, there cannot be any objection to them.

Far from getting worked up over the VHP’s ghar wapsi campaign, the focus of the public discourse ought to be to examine the concerned government’s role. There have been cases, as in Y S Rajasekhar Reddy’s administration in Andhra Pradesh, where state government machinery was used to support and abet conversions. This is clearly wrong. If Christian missionaries conduct similar conversions without the government’s support (or opposition) then they are within their rights to do so. Those who think this is a problem can organise themselves and use persuasion to prevent and indeed, re-convert people that the missionaries have converted. They too are within their rights to do so.

Some have proposed a new law to ban all conversions. Such a law is not only deeply illiberal but positively untenable under the Constitution. If today all sorts of laws—from those proscribing conversions to those requiring changes of faith to be approved by government office—are in force, it is in no small measure due to the judiciary’s failure to interpret Article 25 as in its letter and spirit. We will have to await a more enlightened Supreme Court bench to reset the constitutional position to one where the 1977 judgement is overruled.

In the meantime, there is no doubt that persuasion is the only instrument any religious organisation can use to propagate its faith and win converts.

Three thoughts for the Republic

On reason, liberty and the right action

For quiet contemplation on Republic Day:

How to protect Reason from democratically-enforced dogma and escape the tyranny of the ignorant;

– On the liberal nationalist position on free speech (and what liberal nationalism is);

An eight-fold path to transforming India and the self;

The Three Thoughts Archive:
It is a tradition on this blog to use Independence and Republic Days as opportunities for contemplation, reflection and introspection.

Three thoughts on Republic Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;

and on Independence Day 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

The liberal nationalist position on free speech

The weapon of the weak

Sowmya Rajaram of Bangalore Mirror interviewed me for her feature article on Sunday. Here is the complete exchange:

1. What, according to you, is freedom of expression (FoE)?

The idea of free speech & expression is to say (write, draw, sing, compose musically etc) what one feels without being deterred by government, politicians, social consensus or popular sentiments. The only exception is the “harm principle” where there is incitement to violence.

Of course some free speech can be defamatory, and those defamed can seek legal recourse for the damage caused to them. But there cannot be any prior restraints on free speech.

2. There are a few matters to consider when talking about FoE– one of them being that it isn’t equal for everyone. Often FoE is different when you’re a disadvantaged minority, and an ideal for the privileged majority. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, for instance, the publications’s cartoons were often violent and deliberately provocative (even distasteful) in a country which did have a troubled relationship with its Muslim minority. So how does one negotiate that?

This is a specious argument — on the contrary, free speech is more meaningful for those who are in a minority, for their voices to be heard. It is more meaningful for those who are weaker, powerless, poor or disadvantaged. Only free speech allows the disadvantaged asymmetric power.

3. You have in the past said that censorship is tied up with issues of intolerance and competitive politics. That may be true, but isn’t censorship necessary in a large, diverse and often fractious state like ours? How does one balance the need for individual FoE with a collective responsibility to peace and freedom?

In ordinary circumstances, there is no case for censorship of any kind. Films could perhaps be classified so that children are protected from adult themes and audiences can know before-hand which films they might want to avoid. You only have to see our films to see how distorted censorship outcomes are: you have films with the most misogynistic themes, celebrating barbaric behaviour, all allowed without cuts. But kissing and nudity are censored!

The only point where censorship is justified is in emergencies — where there is a risk that information flows can impact national security, set off large-scale violence, rioting, stampedes etc.

Censorship to protect the sensitivities of adults is ridiculous, patronising and makes a mockery of our democracy where adults are considered sensible enough to vote, marry and produce children, but not sensible enough to watch a movie or read a book!

These questions turn up repeatedly because we have arrived at some kind of a consensus that something that is offensive ought to be banned. The contemporary roots of this arose with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which the Rajiv Gandhi government banned. India was the first country to ban the book! That opened the floodgates for everyone to claim to be offended and get the offending movie or book banned. Since India has hundreds of communities, it is normal for each of them to want to claim the same ‘privilege’ as others.

Showing thin-skinnedness is also a useful political tactic, as it allows a group to demonstrate their political strength.

Individuals identify with one or more communities, and are understandably more vocal in claiming their own ‘privileges’ than in defending others’ rights. So people will engage in whataboutery and yesbuttery. We can’t blame the people, because they are responding to the incentives our public environment has created.

The way out is simply to adhere to the view that nobody’s sensitivities are worthy of protection. I think many of the films, lyrics and songs are in very poor taste, and hence I avoid them. People have the right to change the channel! If people don’t turn up to watch Honey Singh’s shows, I’m sure he’ll change his tunes (or lyrics). People who are offended by Doniger, Rushdie or Socrates don’t have to read them.

4. Many of the ‘hate speech’ laws are a legacy of colonial times when it was deemed necessary to have them to control an essentially “esxcitable”, diverese race. How are these relevant today?

Yes, hate speech laws in the West derive from their colonial excesses, racism, slavery, and of course, the great crimes during the Second World War. We did not have these in India. Our problem is communal, caste and ethnic conflict which is not quite the same thing.

We need not control hate speech. But there is a case to punish incitement to violence based on hatred (or for that matter, any other reason).

5. How much merit is there to the movement for a complete libertarian state where speech is truly free? Is it even possible?

There cannot be a complete libertarian state, as that is an oxymoron. A state involves a social contract where some liberties are traded away for the privilege of enjoying the rest of them. So we give up the right to violence to the state, so that we may enjoy the right to life, property, free speech and so on.

A figure of merit, therefore, is how few of our liberties do we need to give up in order to enjoy the rest. North Koreans give up 90% of their liberties to enjoy the remaining 10%. North Americans give up 10% of their liberties to enjoy the 90%. I think India should aim to move towards the North American standard, rather than the North Korean standard.

6. FoE also becomes problematic when one weighs the consequences of utterances differently. For instance, liberals were up in arms about the ban on Wendy Doniger’s book, in the case of Charlie Hebdo and earlier, when Arundhati Roy was charged with sedition and jailed. But the very same people were also outraged when Honey Singh was to perform in India in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape in 2012, given his offensive, provocative lyrics that were derogatory to women. Could you talk a little bit about the conflict there?

Again this is a specious generalisation. I’m sure there were liberals who defended the rights of both. The problem is not so much the liberals, but a mass of the population which gives in to populist sentiments. So we’ll have people claiming “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” because it is popular, we’ll have people supporting the ban on pornography, because that is the right thing to be seen saying, and we’ll have people asking Honey Singh to be banned.

The masses have no obligation to be logically consistent, or principled. We, the people, are selective in our morality and our principles. That’s our problem.

7. It is a problematic subject with no easy answers — but is FoE a myth? Does it exist? What kind of approach can one take to the concept?

Of course it is real and it exists. The very fact that we are debating the limits of our free speech is a statement to its existence, its importance and its acceptance in our society. Our only problem is that we want it to be self-serving!

Tagore on the welfare state

Why a welfare state will fail in India

I often argue that the fact that the Indian Republic arrogated to itself the task of social welfare has made the Indian citizen, at the margin, less inclined towards that cause. The argument goes something like this: “Why bother about doing something about the poor because it’s the government’s job. After all, most of our taxes and government revenues are allocated for social welfare, rather than providing us with public services.” Charity and philanthropy exists, but it is difficult to sustain an argument that the average citizen feels responsible for helping the poor and the less privileged.

Rabindranath Tagore had thought about this, long before India became independent and set itself up as a welfare state. Here’s an extract from Partha Chatterjee’s essay on Tagore’s views on nationalism. (Tagore, by the way, was opposed to nationalism, as he felt that it was contrived from the European historical experience and unsuited to the Indian context).

Rabindranath’s argument was this: before the English arrived in India, the samaj would carry out through its own initiative all the beneficial works necessary to meet people’s needs. It did not look to the state to perform those functions. Kings would go to war, or hunt, and some would even forsake all princely duties for pleasure and entertainment. But the samaj did not necessarily suffer on this account. The duties of the samaj were allocated among different persons by the samaj itself. The arrangement by which this was done was called dharma.

That which is callcd “the state” in English is now called, in our modern languages, the sarkar. The sarkar, has always existed in India in the form of the royal or sovereign power. But there was a difference between the power of the state in Britain with the power of the king in our country. Britain has entrusted the entire responsibility of looking after the welfare of the country to the state. In India, the state only had a partial responsibility… From giving alms to the destitute to teaching the principles of religion and morality to the common people, everything in Britain depends on the state. In our country, such activities are founded on the system of dharma among the people. Thus, the English are happy when the state is alive and well; we are relieved when when preserve our system of dharma.

But even if it is true that we never had a universally benevolent sovereign power in the past, could we not through our own efforts build such a state now? Rabindranath’s answer is clear: “No, we cannot.” He says: “We must understand this: the state in Britain is indissolubly founded on the general consent of the entire society; it emerged out of a process that is natural to that country. We cannot have it here simply by the force of argument. Even if it is inherently of outstanding quality, it will still remain beyond our reach.”

Extracted from: Tagore’s Non-Nation, “Lineages of Political Society: Studies in Postcolonial Democracy”, by Partha Chatterjee, pp99-100

This appears to be an argument for investing in social capital, rather than charging the state with the task of social welfare. Tagore was onto something. But it was Gandhi who carried the day.

On free speech and national security

Blocks, bans and censorship no longer work

This is the unedited draft of my guest column in this week’s India Today.

Let us not underestimate the importance and the challenge of maintaining public safety and national security in a diverse, heterogenous society undergoing rapid change. Over the last three decades, riding furiously on the politics of identity and the economics of entitlement, an arms race of competitive intolerance has rent Indian society. It is frequently accompanied by coercion, intimidation or violence.

Unfortunately, where one citizen’s intolerance collides with another’s right to free speech, the agents of the Indian republic cravenly side with the former. This is the context in which our police, intelligence agencies and security forces are tasked with the job of maintaining domestic peace. As important as their job is—for internal stability is the basis for growth and development—they are under-staffed, under-equipped, under-trained and inappropriately organised for the task. To an extent, therefore, it is understandable that the security establishment prefers to err on the side of caution, and seeks as much statutory leeway as possible in laws concerning free speech and civil liberties.

It is understandable, yes, but no longer acceptable. Even before large numbers of Indians acquired mobile phones and got onto the internet, our unreformed, colonial approach to policing had created a yawning gap of disaffection between police and citizen, establishment and society, the state and the individual. The information age has exacerbated this gap, creating extreme pressures on both sides. If left unchecked, such pressures could explode in many ways, most of which spell trouble for our democratic republic.

The traditional method of maintaining what is popularly known as “law and order” involves rationing information. It presumes that information is a scarce commodity like it used to be half-a-century ago. Censorship could prevent the masses from obtaining information that the authorities didn’t want them to. Books could be banned and their import restricted. Sensitive installations could be protected by preventing accurate maps from being published. Even when government documents weren’t classified, there was little chance that citizens would ever have access to them.

This is no longer tenable because information is no longer scarce. Traditional methods might still fetch tactical, short-term successes, but at the cost of creating strategic, long-term damage. Cutting off SMS services in Srinagar might put the brakes on the spread of a riot but adds another layer of grievance to an already disaffected population. In most cases it simply doesn’t work. Censorship can be circumvented inexpensively, banned books downloaded easily and many official documents accessed through the Right to Information.

That’s not all. By keeping blunt laws that were designed for ease of use by unreformed police forces, we do not create any incentives for smarter policing. Draconian laws are bad for the police. They are obviously bad for society. The disconnect they create between the two is bad for the Indian republic.

The recent arrest of the two young women in Palghar, Maharashtra under draconian provisions of the IT Act and the Indian Penal Code, and the subsequent government action against the policemen involved, demonstrates this. The only winners in that episode were the intolerant.

Instead of persisting with the increasingly counterproductive approach of rationing information, a better way would be for the government to manage its abundance. There is nothing stopping the government from putting timely, accurate information online. From traffic updates to weather, from law and order situations to authoritative updates on details of the operations of our security forces. When the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) published tweets and videos of their recent combat operation in near real-time, they ensured that their narrative prevailed over the usual confusion and misinformation that the fog-of-war creates. There are lessons here for our Home Affairs and Defence ministries.

Similarly, law enforcement authorities can keep their fingers on the zeitgeist and intervene with factual information in real time. Some are already doing this. The state police in Jammu & Kashmir have made good use of Facebook. Last month, the Ministry of Defence and Army Headquarters put out their version of the story even while Arvind Kejriwal was making allegations—concerning non-payment of emoluments to a NSG commando—at a press conference. This method can be used to good effect during times when there are malefactors spreading rumours online. Good information is the best way to counter bad information, obviating the need to block social media, ban websites and suspend telecom services.

Law enforcement authorities must have the powers to ensure public safety and order. However, the Policeman cannot be the arbiter of free speech. It is a mistake to ask police officers to develop the sophisticated sense to appreciate the finer nuances of what is acceptable speech. What we must do as part of a larger project of police reform is equip our law enforcement authorities with information management skills necessary to do their basic job—protecting our liberty—better.