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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 42, October 11, 2014

When People Aren’t Equal, How Can They Be Free?

Saturday 11 October 2014, by Sangeeta Mall


In a very small corner of the world, in my neighbourhood, which is an island of privilege in the ocean of squalor called Mumbai, a debate rages. It is about whether service providers like nannies, domestic help, charwomen, cooks and chauffeurs, colloquially known as maids and drivers, should be made to use separate elevators in our condominium. There is no sense of ‘infringement of human rights’ in this debate. The elite do not find anything bizarre in this discussion. They find nothing reprehensible in treating their service providers, the section of humanity that enables the rich and privileged classes in India to live in extraordinary comfort, as the dregs of society. In earlier days, when political correctness was less evolved, this class was referred to as ‘the untouchables’. The members of this class must not be seen or heard, they must only do. There are a few people who have expressed outrage at this discrimination, but they are very few. The majority believes it’s perfectly all right to treat their service providers as inferior human beings.

The narrative around the rights of these people is very clear, though unstated: of course they must have rights, but ‘their’ rights are different from ‘our’ rights and must remain so. Humanity, in this narrative, must function on the concept of inequality and power structures. And one of the things that becomes a victim of this discourse is democracy and freedom of expression.

Democracy, in many societies, is a limited right. It is limited to the privileged strata of society. Everyone else is expected to be an admiring bystander, cheering on the process without participating in it.

When people aren’t equal, how can they be free? How can a ‘maid’ have the same right to profess her views as her ‘mistress’? If a ‘maid’ cannot ride in the same elevator car as the ‘mistress’, she has a long distance to travel before she can aspire to higher ideals like equality before the law. And yet, in a country like India, the maid has the right to equality before law, a cornerstone of the right to freedom of expression. It is enshrined in the Constitution and yes, it might be observed more in the breach, but it exists. The wheels of justice turn slowly but they don’t stay still. It is a glacial pace at times, but the glacier is definitely melting.

In the world of totalitarian states, on the other hand, where one man’s word governs the lives and fortunes of entire populations, life is only about duties, never about rights. One has a duty to be heterosexual, religious, servile. One has no right to be anything else. And one has absolutely no rights if one is poor, or female. In such a world all discourse on rights revolves around the god-fearing, heterosexual, rich male. Everyone else can take their chances in the game of Russian Roulette called life.

Freedom of expression or rather its lack, therefore, envisions a society of abject uniformity where to be different by any parameter is often a crime. Everyone must conform to an ideal that is dictated by the belief in absolute power, in itself a corrupt ideal. Any deviation becomes punishable.

To be free to express one’s conviction means living in a society free from fear, one where the right to question and challenge is integral to the way we live.

In the matrix of the interdependence of rights, freedom of expression is one of the most crucial rights. Once freedom of expression is denied to an individual, all his other rights are automatically abrogated.


In a widespread belief, the right to express oneself in a manner that does not impinge upon the rights of fellow human beings is frequently dismissed as a luxury, one that stands way down in the hierarchy of privileges that an individual should enjoy. In most minds, the right to material wealth supersedes the right to free expression. Stomachs are more important than minds, and a well-fed slave is considered more privileged than a hungry free man. How easy it is to puncture this myth! And yet it lives on so consistently. Atheists in most parts of the world, rich or poor, as we can see in the IHEU’s Freedom of Thought Report, gays everywhere except in the West, women except for a very small minority, keep their mouths shut for fear of retribution. Their economic status has nothing to do with their human rights. Their right to be who they are is withdrawn, and no amount of money can restore to them that right.

The people who stand up for these rights, the individuals and organisations that continue to fight for the right to express oneself freely, are often pilloried and held in contempt for seeking an impossible ideal.

Many countries and societies, even though they have ratified the UDHR and other human rights treaties, consider the right to be free to be a ‘Western’ construct, as though everywhere else in the world an individual is happy to be enslaved, happy to live in fear, happy to cower in a corner while the tyranny of majoritarianism is unleashed over her.

Ironically, even in the West, the right to express that there’s no higher being than the human is withdrawn from many individuals.

It is a frightening testimony to the power of tyranny that even after more than sixty years of the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a very large part of the world’s population, perhaps even a majority, continues to be deprived of their most basic rights. Who or what is to blame for this situation? Why, in spite of the proliferation of social media and the empowerment offered by the Internet, do so many people live in fear and subjugation? Why, in spite of so many avenues of justice at both the domestic and international level, do human rights continue to be violated, mostly with impunity, time and time again? Why does religious fundamentalism continue to dominate the world political stage? And why has something called ‘group rights’ reared its ugly head in recent years? Is it geopolitics? Is it, paradoxically, economic growth? Do laws need to change? Is it time to revisit the UDHR itself, and examine how it can be made more relevant to the present day?

For the first time, a document that categorises individual examples of repression and victi-misation of non-believers across the world has been compiled. One hopes that this signal achievement of the IHEU will find a place in the history of human rights. Till now, the persecution of religious minorities, especially non-believers, has found no place in a comprehensive document. All the instances were scattered in various forums, and the size of the problem could barely be imagined. The right of a non-believer to express her beliefs has always been marginalised. Now the Freedom of Thought Report 2013 documents how it is not merely marginalisation but active victimisation that is the fate of non-believers in many parts of the world. One hopes that the world will sit up and take notice of this document, and in protecting the right of non-believers to profess their conviction, will protect the rights of all minorities to live a life of dignity and freedom.

[This piece first appeared in the March 2014 of the International Humanist News from where it is being reproduced with the author’s consent.]

The author is a novelist and editor of the International Humanist News, and former Managing Editor of The Radical Humanist.

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