Democracy , Individual freedom , Liberty and the rest.

06 Sep

The other day I was reading a well meant but a  rather protracted blog posted by memorymanmec . It talked about freedom , liberty , democracy etc. 

It , among other things ,mentioned freedom of speech being a joke. That brought back to my mind the  conversation I had with a Pakistan national hibernating in London.  When the talk veered to freedom of  speech “Who said there is no freedom of speech  in Pakistan..!? We do have freedom of  speech” he exploded  “ That is not he question. The question really  is about freedom  AFTER speech.”

Memorymanmec talked about Government control and Liberty in a democracy .I think there was some confusion there.

Towards he end of the first half of twentieth  century when colonialism was running  out of its time , there was , rightly , a clamor for self-government. Everyone generally  presumed that rule by people of ones own nationality meant freedom. But as time  passed and the euphoria  subsided , it dawned on the people that the majority rule – a  pseudo-name for a majority of the minority who bothered to vote -was not as much  exercised with individual freedom  or with the self-government by each citizen of his own life or his liberty ; as with the  administration  of the government departments and perpetuation of its party rule.

There are few more dangerous errors in political thinking than to equate self-rule with liberty. Unfortunately, this is one of the most widespread errors in India —and the principal  reason why there are hardly any controls left  over the  government  powers and functions. The “License and permit Raj” replaced the British Raj and that tight fisted tradition continued for a few more decades. The expectations that self-rule would automatically produces liberty were belied . It  led  to delusion. The well meaning  and farsighted leaders of the yester-years like JP Narayan , Kriplani , Rajaji and others were ejected out of  government  circles. The sycophants and the mediocre floated to the top, as the shit always does.

In many cases the laws were  passed by the government  for “the whole people” to override  individuals’ rights, property, and lives. The explanation was that the Individual right and freedom is important, but more important still is the freedom of a  whole people to dispose of its own destiny. This concept became  so powerful that all  the inherent checks and balances aiming to limit the government power and controls  crumbled before that.

But who is this whole people! Is it not composed of individuals? Or is it independent of the individual?

Invoking “the government is the people” is one of the easiest ways for a politician to shirk responsibility for his actions. The world witnessed it when Nixon blurted that “When the president does it that means that it is not illegal.” .We also experienced it when Indira declared “Indira is India” .The proclamation of emergency and suspension of individual rights was to save India equated to Indira.

By assuring people that they are the government, it became easier to carry out all the  coercion, all the expropriation, all the intrusive searches, all the prison sentences. People were  taught that, thanks to democracy, coercion is no longer dangerous because people get to vote on who coerces them. The fiction of ‘majority rule “  became a license to impose nearly unlimited controls on the majority and  everybody else. In effect  individuals had no right to live in any way that displeases the majority.

But pray , who this majority is ? It is the majority of – the minority – that care to vote .In other words – the Vote Banks , a unique contribution by India to the world of democracy. The more confused people’s thinking became, the easier it was to harness individual freedom.

Generally, it is better that government be representative than non-representative. But it is more important that governments respect people’s rights than fulfill some people’s wishes to oppress other people.

Ideally, the existence of democracy should not change the meaning of individual liberty and freedom. A person is free or not free, regardless of how many people approve his writings, works of art or expressions. The authors of Indian constitution fought for that right. But sadly , the only way to claim that the present Indian government  protects  individual liberty is to say that the only freedom that matters is “freedom for the government to rule in the name of the people.”

Ideally, the scope of majority rule should be limited to those issues and areas in which common standards must prevail to preserve public peace. Democracy should be a system of government based on common agreement on issues that must be agreed upon, and tolerance—however grudging—on all other differences.

This precisely  is the vortex in which the conflict surrounding Ms. Taslima Nasreen swirls. But , more of that later , in the next post. Let us now return to the larger picture.

Having said these , let me also add that the fact that democratic governments violate individual liberty does not prove that democracy is uniquely or inherently bad.  This is simply what governments do.  It is in fact the best form one can think of in the absence of a better model. 

The present state of intellectual morbidity in India  is mainly because of confusing the government with the people and allowing the government to intervene and control areas into which it should not have even entered.

The events following 9/11 exacerbated the decaying values of freedom , liberty etc.  It tossed aside all debates of individual  liberty and freedom nestling in and asserting itself in the face of majority (government) wish. That debate was rendered redundant by the concerns of security and survival. The US and Indian governments adopted some hard-fisted  tactics intended to fight and  prevent  terrorist attacks, including warrant -less  arrests , interrogations, eavesdropping on  phone calls, secret demands for records  and sting operations against people thought to be potential terrorists. 

Our governments claim the measures adopted by them , however ruthless, have helped to save the lives of their citizens . Many thinking individuals in either countries say the government handling of the situation have severely damaged our individual liberties.

If the war against terror is truly the long struggle our leaders say it will be, then so too will be the struggle to set the right balance between security and liberty.  We and our succeeding generation have to grapple with  the difficult choices we face and to redefine our value systems. How much independent power can we allow our governments and their agencies? Can we look into the eyes of our fellow beings without fear and suspicion and yet strive to rescue the values of individual freedom and liberty? The next decade may decide that, or who knows when..!

That truly is the nightmare we have to live with. It is a hard day’s night.

Please read next:

Individual freedom and religion-
Ms.Nasreen debate

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Posted by on September 6, 2012 in General Interest


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