Populism, freedom and democracy

Defending free speech is best done by voting

The Indian governments’ second cave-in over Salman Rushdie at Jaipur last week should worry us. The Rajiv Gandhi government’s surrender to Muslim ‘sentiment’ over Satanic Verses triggered the process of competitive intolerance that has created an environment where anyone—citing religious feelings—can have books, movies and art banned, and their creators persecuted. A quarter of a century is usually sufficient to reflect on the follies of the past, realise the consequences of the mistakes made and resolve not to repeat them. The UPA government could have managed Salman Rushdie’s appearance at the Jaipur Literary Festival better. Here was an opportunity to not only reverse the tide of competitive intolerance but also secure an unassailable position in the political landscape.

Yet, the Congress regime failed. And failed abjectly. All it could do was to use low cunning to create fear and uncertainty among the participants. Those who believe that the first duty of the government is to protect citizens from violence will conclude that the UPA government in New Delhi and the Congress government in Jaipur have failed. After all, if we are to allow violent people to determine what a citizen can or cannot do, why do we need government in the first place?

“But it’s about UP elections!” comes the reply, as if fundamental rights are subject to the political exigencies of state assembly elections. While it is understandable that political partisans—who see everything through the lens of costs and benefits to the party they support—will offer this as an explanation, excuse and justification rolled into one, there is no reason for the rest of the citizenry to accept this as the ‘logic’.

“But under the Indian Constitution, fundamental rights are not absolute and the government has the right to place reasonable restrictions on them” comes another reply. This is an accurate statement. From the debates in the Constituent Assembly, to the verdicts of the Supreme Court and to the opinion of experts in constitutional law, there is no doubt that the Indian Republic seeks a balance between individual liberty and public order. Ergo, some actions by the government to abridge liberty in the interests of maintaining order are constitutionally legitimate. This is intended to give the government flexibility. It would be ridiculous to argue that the Constitution is so constructed to cause the government to yield to threats of violence. It would be wrong to blame the Constitution for a particular government’s cravenness or failure.

What then should we make of this affair? As Andre Beteille explains in his masterful essay on constitutional morality, the Indian system is prone to swings between constitutionalism and populism, with the former asserting liberty and the latter assailing it. Why, though, should populism be opposed to individual liberty?

Phrased differently, why should the government cave in to the demands of the intolerant and not to demands of the liberal? Actually, this is the same as asking “why is it unsafe for women to walk on our streets, why is it that our courts take too long to decide cases, why is it that we need a scores of licenses to start a business, why is it that it is so difficult for our children to get a seat in a good school, why is it that we don’t have decent drinking water, electricity supply, hospitals and, and, and …?” Given the public awareness and indeed consensus that these issues need to be tackled, why is the government so uninterested in pursuing these goals with any seriousness?

The answer might surprise you. It’s because India’s democracy is functioning as it should and the politicians are sensitive to the demands of their voters. The electorate is getting what it wants. The population isn’t. Public discourse in India is unduly influenced by the middle class, not least because it constitutes the market for our media. Middle India believes that that issues that it is preoccupied with should also concern political parties and the government. And when it observes that this isn’t quite what is happening, it is disappointed and—like a hopeless romantic who hits the bottle—drowns its sorrows in cynicism.

Democracy is a numbers game. Those with larger numbers can use the flexibility in the Indian Constitution to have their way to a larger extent. Now we can wish that we had a less flexible constitution where this wouldn’t be possible. But not all wishes have their Santa Clauses. Or, we could start practising democracy. Explaining the failure of the old Indian Liberal Party (in 1943!) B R Ambedkar drew attention to what he called “the elementary fact”, that “organization is essential for the accomplishment of any purpose and particularly in politics, where the harnessing of so many divergent elements in a working unity is so great.”

Technology has made organisation of large numbers of like-purposed people fairly easy. As Atanu Dey has argued, forming voluntary voter’s associations can make an individual voter more effective. It’s being put into action too—see the United Voters of India online platform.

Ultimately, though, it depends on how much of the population becomes the effective electorate. In other words, it depends on whether you vote or not. If you don’t, why blame political parties or the government for giving voters what they want?

By Invitation: Why human rights activists must be unreasonable

Because it is not for them to provide solutions

By Salil Tripathi

[Background: This is Salil’s response to the criticism that “human rights folks, at least in India, are terribly context insensitive. In practice, you can’t even talk about enjoying human rights (as opposed to possessing them) unless the state is capable of maintaining rule of law. By relentlessly criticising the government, and not having much else by means of a positive solution (beyond platitudes), human righters are hampering what capability that already exists. That’s contradictory. That they have for company, intellectuals who condone and incite political violence in the name of whatever cause, makes them all the more suspicious.”]

Human rights folks will be unreasonable, everywhere, to restrain the state. This is not to defend them, but to explain where they come from. The moment they become “solution providers” they have to begin modifying the message and make it more context-specific. Once they do that, the moral sharpness of their message—that the victim is most important (and they sometimes exalt victims to a holy status)—is lost. This is not to judge victims or human rights groups.

Whether it is ACLU or the Center for Constitutional Rights defending the indefendable folks in Guantanamo Bay cases, or Liberty supporting some committed Jihadists in Belmarsh jail in London, they see their role as defending the indefensible, so that the rest of us won’t get caught out. If they were to begin appearing reasonable, they’d lose resonance. More important, nobody will be speaking out for the innocent who will otherwise go to jail. (Pastor Nimoller’s poem about not speaking out when they came for
gays, leftists, Jews, etc).

Guantanamo prison, like Abu Ghraib, has many bad people. But it also has some innocent people. The state should not be allowed to get away with that.

I remember reading about Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese dissident, who had to leave China – after several years in jails. In “Bad Elements” Ian Buruma paints a very gripping and vivid picture of him—of Wei driving through red lights in America, ignoring traffic discipline; smoking in places where smoking is banned. He is stubborn, because the only way he can deal with authority that he has known—China—is by being uncompromising. It does make him look “uncouth” in civilized company.

And yet, unpleasant though he might be, Wei matters. Just as Solzhenitsyn matters even though when he came out of the Gulag, and once he started talking about Mother Russia, he sounded like an embarrassment.

The point about human rights activists in India is that like Teesta Setalvad, Sandeep Pandey, Aruna Roy, Binayak Sen and others, should remain unreasonable. Let the think tankers and policy-makers become practical. Because otherwise, everyone will support the idea of safety-over-liberty, and we would all be losers.

Think Franklin.

This is, again, not to defend or condemn the human rights brigade, but to explain why they are the way they are. In some ways, they are like evangelists, which makes them suspect for some, saviors, for others.

However, there is some awareness growing among human rights folks, that they should not forget victims of terror. If you see Amnesty International, they issued a statement after Jaipur blasts in which they condemned those who committed the acts. They called 9/11 “a crime against humanity”. At a recent human rights seminar in London, two important things came out: one, that if human rights lawyers don’t need to explain why torture is bad (because it is, period), why can’t they also argue that terrorism is
bad, period? Why do rights advocates contextualize terrorism? Why do they call it “the weapon of the powerless” when those who perpetrate terror are extremely powerful, often woman-hating neanderthals (my words)? Why do victims of torture get elevated when they are themselves human rights abusers, to the status of human rights defenders and get honored? Yes, they are victims when they are tortured or detained without due process of law, and they should get legal access and not get tortured. But they need not be on a pedestal. Merely because you were in Gitmo does not make you qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I suppose it is that correlation/causality argument again, right? Joyce, his hand, kiss, writing, doing a lot of other things?

Pelosi should have stayed in Washington

The useless (to the Tibetans) charade of visiting the Dalai Lama

“If freedom-loving people throughout the world do not speak out about Chinese repression in China and Tibet” Nancy Pelosi said, “we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world”.

She may not be exaggerating. But the issue is not about the freedom-loving people of the world, who are already speaking up against Chinese repression in Tibet. The issue is of ostensibly freedom-loving governments and political leaders of the world, who are not. It is all very well for the Speaker of the US House of Representatives to travel half-way around the world and stand beside the Dalai Lama at this time. It plays well to the world’s television cameras and to Ms Pelosi’s constituents back in America. But by way of meaningful support for the Tibetan struggle, it means little. On the contrary, it will allow China’s Communist party to project the Tibetan protests as part of an American conspiracy to shame China.

If she really wanted to support the Dalai Lama’s struggle, she needn’t even have made the trip to Dharamsala. Perhaps the US Congress could have adopted a stern resolution. Perhaps American congressmen could try and compel the Bush administration to be blunt in its criticism of China. And perhaps (yes, we’re stretching it), freedom-loving American legislators could compel the Bush administration to do something about it.

No, Ms Pelosi and US legislators are not doing that. Regardless of their sincerity, they are content to only put up another show of the dismal political theatre. At the Tibetans’ expense. Ms Pelosi could have spared us this act.

India can do better on Tibet

India muddled on the protests, but it must rethink its Tibet policy

When China’s prime minister said he “appreciated” the Indian government’s response to public protests by Tibetan refugees, many interpreted that he was sending over a note of thanks. But Wen Jiabao’s statement could actually have been a warning.

“The Tibetan issue is a very sensitive one in our relations with India,” Mr Wen was quoted as saying by AFP news agency. “We appreciate the position and the steps taken by the Indian government in handling Tibetan independence activities masterminded by the Dalai clique.” [‘BBC’]

It is the first sentence sets the context.

As The Acorn argued while criticising the decision to stop protesters from attempting to cross over into Tibet, there is room for India to take a position that is less deferential to China. Sumit Ganguly similarly condemns the Indian government for cracking down on peaceful protesters and notes that being seen as unwilling to offend China will make “India’s claims to great power status in Asia, let alone beyond, appear utterly hollow”.

In Brahma Chellaney’s opinion, “it is past time India reclaimed leverage by subtly changing its stance on Tibet.” He proposes three changes: first, that India must bring Tibet back into focus in bilateral negotiations, placing the onus on Beijing to make Tibet a political bridge between the two countries; second, that India should treat the Dalai Lama as an ally and plan for the time when he is no longer on the scene; and third, India should stop “gratuitously referring to Tibet as a part of China”.

Chennai rejects

Some opinions just can’t make it to the People’s Daily of Chennai

The Beijing correspondent of The Hindu can hardly be classified as a critic of the People’s Republic. But when Pallavi Aiyar wrote a piece that compared India and China that showed the latter in rather unfavourable light, she had to publish it in Asia Times Online, a Hong Kong (Special Administrative Region of China) based publication. It is understood that The Hindu, ‘India’s national newspaper’ declined to publish it. Oh! the irony.

In direct contradistinction to China, India’s polity has flourished precisely because of its ability to acknowledge difference. The very survival of India as a country, given the scope of its bewildering diversity, has been dependent on the possibility of dissent…

In China, regular lip service is also paid to the country’s own, considerable diversity. During the National People’s Congress’ annual session, for example, delegates representing China’s multiplicity of minorities swish around the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in their “ethnic” dresses. Beijing regularly talks of the religious freedoms enjoyed by the country’s Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.

But in fact, the fundamental tenet of China’s political philosophy is not diversity but uniformity. This homogeneity does not only extend itself to the tangible, such as architecture or the system of writing alone, but also to thought.

Even in the modern China of the 21st century where there are more Internet users than even in the United States, those who disagree with mainstream, officially sanctioned views outside of the parameters set by mainstream officially sanctioned debate, more often than not find themselves branded as dissidents – suspect, hunted, under threat.

The insistence on “harmony” as the only reality and inability to admit genuine differences in interest and opinions between the peoples of a country of the size and complexity of China is ultimately the country’s greatest weakness.

Talk of political reform in China continues to be bound by the “harmonious” parameters set by Hu Jintao, the president. The idea is that everyone’s interests and opinions are to be balanced and resolved without conflict…

For China’s authorities to simply deny the reality of the problem, blame all tension on an exiled leader and insist that the majority of Tibetans couldn’t be happier with the Communist Party’s harmonious policies, is self-defeating. [Asia Times]

My op-ed in Mail Today: Free speech checks intolerance

Mr Thackeray’s actions are an opportunity to understand how competitive intolerance might be defeated

Excerpts from my op-ed piece in today’s Mail Today:

The state itself —and increasingly under the UPA government — has, in addition to caving in to intolerance, frequently indulged in unnecessary conscience-keeping that is at once laughable and abominable.

Raj Thackeray obviously knows this. His recent invective against “North Indians” living in Maharashtra is only the latest escalation in a grand arms race being played out across the length and breadth of the country. If the political system rewards those who mobilise people along parochial lines, the popular media obfuscates divide-and-rule politics by wrapping it in the language of vote-banks, secularism and social justice. So the juggernaut of competitive intolerance rolls on, unchecked.

So doesn’t this mean that we need curbs on freedom of speech? Couldn’t much of the violence been prevented if Raj Thackeray’s party magazine had simply been banned and television news channels censored?

Not quite. Newspaper reports and incessant coverage by television channels only brought the drama into our drawing rooms. But the banning of its house publication would not have deterred Mr Thackeray’s sena in its mission, for the action channel for political mobilisation and street violence works independently.

On the contrary, laws abridging freedom of speech have created incentives for the political use of intolerance.

Faced with a choice between taking “action” against an offending writer or facing down a mob of rioters, it is likely that a rational government official — from district magistrate to home minister — will choose the former. It works this way because the government official has the choice.

This choice offers those charged with maintaining law and order a convenient escape route. The Maharashtra state government, for instance, could pretend to be taking “action” by arresting Mr Thackeray and Abu Azmi for their incendiary speeches, after the damage had been done.

The only way to maintain law and order is to bring the violent to justice. But after the drama of Mr Thackeray’s arrest, the Maharashtra state government is unlikely to pursue the task of going after the thugs and their local leaders with any seriousness.

The upshot is that doing away with restraints to freedom of expression is not merely a matter of principle. Because those restraints often come at the cost of leaving criminals unpunished, getting rid of them is a practical necessity. [Mail Today JPG]

Update: Download the original essay in PDF form