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Mainstream, VOL LII No 27, June 28, 2014

A Liberal State is a Secular State

Saturday 28 June 2014, by Ambrose Pinto

The way certain forces have expressed their opposition to rational, critical and reflective statements during the elections and thereafter indicate that the spaces for discussion, debate and dissent are on the decline in the State of Karnataka and the country. There are unfort-unately groups affiliated to political parties that use the tactics of terror, intimidation and fear to prevent freedom of thought and expression and thus threaten the evolution of a rational society. Take the example of the response to the statements of veteran Kannada writer, U.R. Ananthamurthy. His criticism of Narendra Modi was more ideological than personal. Those who disagreed with him could have used another set of arguments to present their claims instead of verbal and psychological abuse and attacks. Then a debate would have been possible and in the process society would have been educated. Instead he was threatened with phone calls asking him ‘when he was going to leave India’ for saying: ‘I would not like to live in a country ruled by Modi.’

In another incident, a youth, Syed Vaqas, along with four of his friends from Bhatkal, Karnataka, were arrested for sending a message caricaturing the BJP Government’s election slogan “aab ki bar antimsanskar” (Modi Sarkar). Why should they have been arrested for freely expressing what they felt? They could have been asked to substantiate their statement in a public debate.

On the other hand excited with Narendra Modi led-BJP’s historic victory and Nalin Kumar Kateel’s second consecutive win in the Dakshina Kannada Lok Sabha constituency, inebriated saffron activists had resorted to hate crime and attacked two Masjids in separate places of the district. Why this aggressive, physically harm-ful, irrational and impulsive behaviour that should have no place in a democracy?

The Goa Police had refused to register an FIR against the Karnataka-based Sri Rama Sene (SRS) chief, Pramod Muthalik, in Goa in spite of the Leader of the Opposition filing it on June 13, 2014 for an alleged hate speech uploaded on YouTube where he had exhorted the Hindus to keep a sword handy and use it if challenged. Given the world view of Pramod Muthalik, citizens of course are aware of the challenges he thinks the Hindu society is faced with. His message was to deliberately cause hurt, intentional in nature with large vested interests.

On the other hand the Goa Police Cyber Cell had no difficulty in threatening Facebook user Devu Chodankar with arrest. They were probing him for a suspected game-plan to create unrest in the State for posting anti-Modi and anti-Parrikar posts on Facebook. The State seems to have different standards for different individuals and groups depending on the State’s proximity to or distance from the ideology of the offenders. That would mean that there are forces of the State sympathetic or in nexus with some elements in society who would like to further their agenda instead of working for a rational and scientific society.

Situation in the country

The situation in the country has not been different. Banning books, censuring films and artistic expressions have been frequent with support from a section of the state. In 2004, James Laine’s book, Shivaji: a Hindu Warrior, was forced to be taken off the shelves after protests from the local Right-wing forces in Maharashtra. What was most comical was that most of the protestors did not read the book or know about the contents of the book.

Famous painter M. F. Husain was forced to go into exile and terminate his Indian citizenship by violent groups for painting nude pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. A situation was created where there was no space for any debate. There was nobody to hear his arguments or the arguments of other enlightened people. The fascist forces had their way in spite of a liberal and secular government. He not only died outside the country but had to be buried away from his home soil. The secularism of the secular government in Delhi was so weak that they could not provide security to an exceptional artist.

Rohinton Mistry’s book, Such a Long Journey, was withdrawn from a Bombay University syllabus under severe political pressure from the same set of people. Once again, the University of Bombay gave into fanatical forces without any discussion or debate. The various bodies that had drafted the syllabus were not even consulted while withdrawing the book from the syllabus.

Penguin India’s decision to ban a book demonstrated the growing influence of illiberal elements.

Deepa Mehta’s film on “Water” was not allowed to be filmed in the pretext that it is against “Indian culture”, without even defining what that culture is all about. If there was a larger debate on “Indian culture”, those who were protesting in the name of culture would have been ashamed. That may be the prime reason why they do not want to have a debate. A secular state with freedom of thought and expression should have acted on those vested interests.

Persistent effort to attack free expression raises questions on the future of Indian democracy. Can India survive as a rational and secular state or will these forces take the state to feudalism? In several of these cases the banning was done due to alleged “hurt sentiments” of some vested interest groups without discussion, debate or any exploration on the issues concerned. Why were these sentiments hurt and whose sentiments were hurt were not the questions that were raised. What is of concern is that civil society has remained a mere spectator. By their silence, the liberals have handed over the liberal space to the intolerant forces.

Liberalism and Religion


The other sector that has been used by the vested interest forces is religion. Karl Marx had said that religion is the opium of the people. It is unfortunate that the political Right-wing has consistently used religion to attack reason for vote-bank politics. Right to criticise religion is part of the freedom of expression. People across the world had made progress by looking at religion critically. In Europe this happened after the Renaissance.

With the awakening of the subaltern classes in India there was a revolt against caste and discrimination, the institution premised on religion. In recent years, however, the limited gains made are being beaten back by belligerent demands that people “respect” religion. What does this respect for religion mean to these conservative forces? Will it be bad to denounce untouchability, devadasi system, caste discrimi-nation and other dogmas, myths and beliefs? Because religions are averse to widow remarriages, women priesthood, equal rights on property for women, age of marriage for girls and the right for priesthood for all castes, should citizens promote them? Will it be viewed as offence if citizens take a stand against these?

The corollary of the right to free expression is the right to offend if a person desires to get offended. No sane person wants to hurt someone. However, there is little one can do if someone is hurt because of the rationality of the many. If the sentiments of someone are hurt, why should individual liberty be curtailed as long as one makes a rational case? To hurt another person is not the intention. The personal views of an individual belong to the individual and anyone who feels offended can express a competing viewpoint that may or may not be to the liking of the other. Because one does not enjoy the counter-argument as long as one remains at the rational level one does not have to be offended. If one does get offended one may have to train oneself to handle one’s emotions.

All said and done, democracy can be functional in a society of adults and not in a society of emotional adolescents. There is no democratic politics without disagreement that can, and often may, offend persons holding different views. A Marxist may describe an individual committed to liberal politics cont-emptuously as a ‘bourgeois liberal’ and a cultural nationalist may describe another as ‘pseudo-secular’. I must have my right to call them as I perceive them. Disagreement or different perception is not offensive speech.

The moment offensive speech becomes a clear call for violence, or forcibly steals the rational and legal rights of others to live and think as they like, one forfeits one’s right to free expression. For example, an Islamic cleric claiming to speak on behalf of a whole community can say that the community is hurt by Salman Rashdie’s book, Satanic Verses, and criticise the book. But in a democracy no one has a right to call for his assassination, beat him up, threaten violence and force a ban on his book. Similarly, one can be critical on Deepa Mehta’s film, “Water”, and criticise it, but nobody should call for its ban. Ban undermines the individual capacity to make decisions and does not trust individuals. Democracy cannot function without trust in individuals.

Democracies and Dissent

Democracies can only function with debate, discussion and dissent and not through intimidation, terror and threats. Individuals become objects in a terror-ridden state. Once the space for discussions and debates disappears the space for rationality is lost. We enter into a world of irrationality, manipulations, aggression, hate, violence and vested interests.

There are consequences when politics enters the realm of intimidation, passions and emotions. There cannot be free speech anymore. Minority communities will feel threatened. Individuals will be demonised. Progressive and liberal movements will be made silent. Citizens will be less participative. Women will be repressed.

Individual leaders with “committed follo-wers” can hold the country to ransom. Society will not be able to move away from dogmas, superstitions, beliefs and contribute to new ideas, thoughts and innovations. We cannot move towards a scientific community. The project of modernity will be hindered.

 Nehruvian Liberalism

The framers of India’s Constitution were deter-mined to protect and preserve the liberal character of the Indian state. In fact, the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, had spent hours in Parliament listening to speakers from all shades to decide on issues of national importance. He was not averse to any criticism on him or on his party. Dr Ambedkar, as the architect of the Constitution, encouraged and promoted lengthy debates during the making of the Constitution. There were other eminent persons, both during the framing of the Constitution and thereafter, who had vehemently fought for freedom of thought and expression. Unfortunately, most of those debates remained restricted to the elite clubs and groups. The spirit did not really trickle down to mass politics or into the inner minds of the masses. In fact, they were not made parties to the debates and discussions. Even after the Constitution was enacted there were no vigorous efforts to bring those debates and discussions to the local level through the institutions of the state.

The founding pillar of liberalism is freedom of thought and expression. The right of all citizens of a liberal democracy to be entitled to free thought and expression is a central requirement of any society that cares to call itself liberal. One wonders whether we are in the path of losing that liberalism that was gifted to us as a part of the freedom struggle.

Liberal State is Secular

An important reason why we need to protect the liberal state is that only a liberal state can be a secular state. A secular state offers freedom to each and every individual to think and to decide one’s path of life and contribute to diversity. People committed to liberalism do not adhere to clear-cut, rigid and inflexible doctrines, beliefs and programmes. They prefer to examine every belief and doctrine through rational propositions. Liberals respect individuals and oppose the tyranny of the majority over the minority or the individual. One cannot rightfully be compelled to do anything or made to think in fixed categories because it will make one happier or in the opinion of others to do so would be wise. Free men and women have the right to be persuaded and convinced and not intimidated and forced. Without freedom of the mind, a secular state cannot be fostered. For democracy to flourish, the state should not be all-encompassing and hostile to civil society. It is in the discussions and debates that take place in civil society that the state should find its strength.

Secondly, it is not enough that governments carry on administration with consensus. Con-sensus is an agreement with people of similar minds. What is required is inclusiveness. Inclusiveness is not consensus. Consensual models often tend to seek uniformity. Powerful leaders like Modi who enjoy majority in the House may like to have consensus. Once a majority of the elected representatives belong to the same school of thought, consensus can lead to furthering the narrow agenda of the party and not of the country or its people. It may opt for uniformity and push dissent or pluralism to the margins. It may disallow democratic discourse. In Modi’s majority, words like security become problematic and a majority can turn devastat-ingly inquisitorial, challenging cultural diver-sity in the name of majoritarianism expressed as patriotism. Dissent almost immediately becomes seditious.

Fostering Secularism

For secularism to thrive, individual liberties have to be preserved. And a secular state does not simply happen. It has to be promoted by being alert against violation of individual and collective rights by the communal, feudal, irrational and vested interest forces. If people have to move beyond their caste, community and religion and forge relationships and get involved in dialogue, the country needs an environment. People need to respect people who are different and honour them for their difference. Without the freedom of the mind living with differences is not easy. Respect for the other does not happen.

The media has to play an important role. Its role to inflame, to impassion and to polarise the battle of ideas and turn people into political beings is vital. People will then become informed. The state has to go for secularising influence, replacing religion with politics as the main intellectual preoccupation of ordinary people.

There is a need to move beyond individual liberty as well. With industrialisation the gap between the rich and the poor has increased. People have started to argue for more and more government intervention as the way to improve general welfare and to work towards an inclusive society. Liberty in the context should be seen more as the welfare of society without sacrificing the individual, a quality of responsible social living in which all people have a chance to share in the general well-being.

Syncretic Model


The debate between individual rights and general well-being is a relevant concern in a plural society like ours. To preserve our pluralistic heritage we cannot merely fall back on the liberal tradition of the country; we may have to look for a syncretic model which is a way of life lived by people in most parts of the country. It is cultural in its diversity and pluralistic in the economic livelihood it seeks. It allows for multi-cultural ways of life with diversity, internalising alternatives as one more way of constructing reality. India is plural and diverse. This diversity and pluralism is harmoniously lived in different parts of the country by people of different communities. There is an urgent need to enter into that pluralism of culture and economics in the building of the nation.

Development cannot be malls, factories and large industries that pollute and cause hardship. The real leader is not the one who builds flyovers, bridges, IT parks and amusement parlours and special economic zones. In a people’s democracy, those who govern have to get into the space of the human hearts and bring them together. That was Gandhi’s dream, the desire to wipe out every tear from every eye with “Swaraj” and decentra-lisation. That needs an attitude both of the mind and heart. The mind should be large enough to include all and the heart should have compassion for the subalterns.

There cannot be a nation which is vibrant and strong without winning over human hearts. That needs a definite policy of inclusiveness with respect even to small traditions and a breadth of vision that comes as a result of fostering the freedom of the mind.

What the country needs at this juncture is that cultivation of the free mind so that fanatics and fundamentalists do not attack the secular and socialist agenda of the state.

Dr Ambrose Pinto SJ is the Principal of St Aloysius Degree College, Bengaluru.