The many obstacles to freedom of speech and choice in India need to be dismantled.
Once the BJP secured a majority in the Lok Sabha on 16 May 2014, several thinkers from what gets described as the “saffron camp”, and who earlier had been dismissed as lightweights, found a new prominence. For decades, they had pointed out errors in the history books of the post-1947 period, which literature in essence is similar to those used during the period when it was the Union Jack and not the Tricolour flying above the top of Raisina Hill. However, they then exhibited the same error of seeing certain other historical events through rose-coloured lenses. For the “saffron” scholars, the period before the Muslim invasions and European conquests of the Indian subcontinent were a golden age. They were not. Several of the rulers of that period were venal, repressive and incompetent, while many had social views as regressive as those earlier held by Manu, whose edicts about women in particular were later adopted wholesale by Abdul Wahhab in his wanderings within the Nejd desert of what is now Saudi Arabia. More than 85% of the population of the land of our ancestors was disallowed by considerations of “caste by birth” from taking up arms to defend their territories against invasions. Once an individual’s caste got determined by birth rather than by occupation, the ossification of society commenced, rendering it easy prey for invaders from Persia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Arab world, not to mention later conquests by the European powers. If pre-Mughal India had been the paradise of justice and plenty described by those who simultaneously (and correctly) point to the atrocities committed on the people during the past millennium by outside invaders, it would never have collapsed to armies that were, culturally and materially, substantially below the levels reached by their domestic conquests.
After freedom was secured in 1947 (after the British lost confidence during 1944-46 that the “native military” would for much longer go against their own people to protect the colonial ruler), the Union of India was a shadow of what British India had been in terms of territory and influence. From the Arabian Sea to the Himalayas to the Arakan, the primacy of Delhi shrank and rapidly disappeared once those who had spent years leading the fight for Independence from British-era jails took charge. A factual history of the past millennium needs to replace the nursery tales created by Nehruvian historians, but a similar candour is needed in examining the faults in the society and politics of what came before, during what the nursery tales (this time of the “Right”) term as India’s Golden Age.
Wahhabis regard as blasphemy any deviation from the line taken by them on events and personalities, and so do those who have driven away the writings of A.K. Ramanujan from college shelves because he gave a version of the Ramayana different from that favoured by self-appointed “protectors” of the name of Lord Ram. By such actions, they are belittling the glory of one of the greatest figures in history, a life that ought to be taught in every school in India for the insights it offers. The historical reputation of Lord Ram does not need such epigones as its champions. Lord Ram’s glory can easily withstand critical assessments. Behaving the way Wahhabis do in seeking to stop differing interpretations of Lord Ram will only recreate the social faultiness which a millennium ago caused our land to succumb to invasions. Rather than strengthen it so as to enable India to take its place as the Third Superpower, after China and the US, censorship and intolerance to opposing views and lifestyles will weaken India. The only way policymakers in our country can ensure employment and income levels sufficient to move the economy into the Middle Income range within a generation is to generate a manifold expansion in the Knowledge Economy. This requires the abolition of the constrictive framework that has been created for education in India. But this would not be enough. It was its relatively liberal traditions that led to the success of Bangalore as an Information Technology hub, just as it is the relaxed societal atmosphere at NRI-filled Silicon Valley which helps ensure its dominance in the global Knowledge Economy table. Such should be the ruling ethos and ecosystem in India.
Rather than flex their muscles against helpless individuals, such imitators of Wahhabi mores need to concentrate on the forces that seek to break (or at the least severely weaken) India. Among them are groups which work through agitations and propaganda to prevent the mining of coal, iron ore, copper, uranium and rare earths within the country. It is very likely that the copper plant in Tuticorin that got shut down after protests was operating in a manner that added substantially to pollution. If so, the state government ought to have temporarily taken over the company and ensured cleaner processing of raw material rather than allowing it to be closed. Its shutdown means more copper has to be imported from outside the country, the way coal is in a country nature has endowed immense resources of the substance with. Madushree Mukherjee has written a book (Churchill’s Secret War) that ought to be taught in classes across the country rather than the fiction spewed out by Nehruvian historians. She shows how British rule changed India from a manufacturing hub into merely a producer of raw materials. Several shadowy groups operating in India seek with anti-industry rhetoric and activity to prevent even raw materials from being extracted in this country, much less manufacture.
Whether it be the effect on press freedom of the ease with which criminal defamation cases can get filed or the manner in which Saudi-model crackdowns occur on those adopting a diet or lifestyle different from those choices favoured by zealots, there are still too many obstacles to freedom of speech and choice in India. These need to be dismantled, not simply because that is the moral thing to do, but because such is the only way individual initiative can flourish in India the way it does in the countries to which Indians are forced to flee to ensure more productive lives than India’s colonial governance system makes possible.