Democracy means choice

Democracy means choice

By THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN | 12 September, 2015

It is a commentary on the way that pundits and the media have indulged the UPA that there was silence all this while on the fact that for 11 years, local bodies within Maharashtra banned the sale of meat during a Jain community festival. This year, the BJP-led government went ahead with that policy, just as the BJP has done with a surprisingly large number of policies and enactments. However, now that it is not the "secular" Manmohan Singh who is the Prime Minister, but Narendra Modi, who has long been regarded with disfavour by those made members of the Sonia-era National Advisory Council (NAC), a hue and cry has erupted over a ban which has been in place since 2004 on the days affected, in a manner which seldom mentions the fact that this was not a decision taken all of a sudden, but merely the Devendra Fadnavis government following a precedent set by Vilasrao Deshmukh and Ashok Chavan before him. It is unfortunate that there seems to have been insufficient application of mind before such a policy of a meat ban during a particular Jain festival got renewed, for the action cuts at the roots of democracy, which after all is about freedom of choice. If all residents of municipal areas in Maharashtra have to turn vegetarian during the festival referred to as justification for the ban, would it not be equally logical to ask each citizen to not fail to consume mutton biriyani during the Eid festival? Why should everybody be expected to follow the customs of a particular faith on specified days and not the customs of those other faiths on other days, practices which may imply diets very different from the Spartan fare favoured by the Jain community, which has distinguished itself in a spectacular manner in business and in the professions?

PM Modi won the votes of tens of millions in 2014 by representing the values of the 21st century, primary among which is the right of citizens to go by their own choices in matters of lifestyles. It will not be possible to host an Indian Google or an Indian Microsoft as desired by the PM if the country is to follow the example of Saudi Arabia in placing severe legal and administrative restrictions on freedom of choice. A week ago, the Principal of St Xavier's College in Kolkata barred students from making posts on social media, which referred to the institution, unless these were first cleared by him and his colleagues. Clearly, the principal has not heard of the western world, where there exists both significant personal liberty as well as technological prowess, and would instead like his students to follow the model of Somalia, North Korea and other countries which do not believe in freedom of speech. Such efforts at blocking choice go against the spirit of a Digital India, for such an India will by definition be much less trammelled by restrictions than is the case in a country still governed by colonial-era laws. Matters of dress, diet and other aspects of lifestyle belong within the realm of individual discretion, rather than governmental control, and the renewal of the meat ban by the Maharashtra government is misconstrued and needs to be rescinded. It is high time that 21st century constructs were put in place to substitute for the 19th century laws that have thus far been so lovingly continued by leaders beginning with that often-described "champion of democracy", Jawaharlal Nehru.

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