Freedom without a centre

The liberal centre has no political voice as parties mistakenly do not see its potential

India daily abridges its right to be called a liberal democracy. There is a virtual contagion of attacks on art and free speech. How are we to understand this? How do we square this intolerance with the astonishing energy, creativity and contention that we are also seeing unleashed at different levels of society? Are we on the path to greater intolerance or do the underlying trends tell a different story?

At a moment when art is being targeted, film stars are not safe, 15-year-old girls are being asked to pay a horrendous social price for creating a rock band and political dissent is being suppressed, the future of free expression looks very bleak indeed. But it is important to diagnose this malaise correctly. Rather than assume that it portends a more intolerant society, it could be the case that society is actually getting more tolerant. It is the state and the political structures that do not understand these profound changes.

Mark Twain once said that Americans have the most perfect right to freedom of speech, but also the good sense never to use it. The deep truth in his remark was that often free speech seems easy to defend when the underlying mechanisms of social control are strong: speech seems safe when its limits are not tested too much. We often underestimate the degree to which even in the most liberal of democracies, freedom of speech seems safe because its limits are not tested. In the US, for example, a panoply of self-restraints does not push the limits of free expression as much as you might expect: it is, for example, a very taciturn culture when it comes to religion. So the fact that India is experiencing more contention around free speech could be a sign that inhibiting social restraints are finally beginning to wear off. This is largely a good thing, but it will generate the appearance of more conflict.

Threats to the freedom of expression come largely from three sources. In some states like West Bengal, there is outright political thuggery: criticise the leader and pay the price. Many states have milder versions of this phenomenon. In some states, sedition laws have been used to quell dissent. The second threat comes from patriarchy. The crisis of patriarchy is finding its most potent expression on the ground of speech. From hoodlums targeting girls in pubs in Mangalore to muftis finding a teenage rock band a threat to civilisation, the concerted effort is to inhibit freedom for women. This trend is disconcerting, but again, it takes place against the backdrop of momentous social change, where women are participating more, and on their own terms. The third threat comes from the vicious cycle of competitive offence-mongering that still remains a tempting axis of mobilisation in our society. A secularism that emphasised parity between groups rather than individual freedoms was bound to generate this escalating dynamic, where you test the state on how much it protects your group. But even this attempt to consolidate group identities through a politics of competitive hurt takes place against a backdrop where identities are becoming more fluid and open. Indeed, groups are attempting to impose the yoke of community, precisely because the actual power to control is diminishing. It is more a sign of desperation than a harbinger of community power. This is why so many seeking community salvation in feigning hurt seem increasingly unrepresentative.

So it could be the case that the foundations of society are being increasingly liberalised, even as the political incentives to curb free expression continue to exist. Recognising this is important for a reason. Nothing serves suppressing tyrants more than the idea that they are in some ways representative of larger society, or even the groups they claim to speak for. The biggest failure of our times is not that society is becoming more regressive (compared to when?). The biggest danger is that small minorities or fringe groups who attack free expression are being presented as if they represented public opinion. Here, as elsewhere, the whole concept of public opinion has become a self-fulfilling construct. Public opinion is often not an objective fact. It is, in part, a creation of what people think public opinion is. The loony fringe's greatest success is to somehow get people to think that they represent public opinion. This is confusing politicians as much as everyone else. Which is why it is important to articulate that there is a large liberal India that is growing.

We used to think that the Indian state was a progressive entity out of sync with social reality. It could be argued that now the opposite is the case: the Indian state is still entrenched in the old mould, while society is actually experiencing far-reaching changes. That many of these are taking a more liberal direction is disguised by three things. First, unlike the loony fringes, the liberal centre has no organised political voice; political parties mistakenly do not see its potential. Second, those who engage in violence always get more visibility. The state is unable to protect ordinary citizens, and covers up its abdication by taking recourse to a vastly exaggerated community sentiment. Third, the state is slow to recognise social change. It has to be said that the Supreme Court of India's track record on sending a clear signal on freedom of expression is equivocal at best. It defers too much to "reason of state". We have had great social rights jurisprudence; ironically, the free speech jurisprudence is not nearly at the same level.

The court has not challenged a self-fulfilling construction enshrined in the law, that Indian citizens are somehow infantile, so uniquely in the grip of their communal passions that they cannot handle freedom. It has, therefore, changed the presumptions: almost as if freedom, rather than its abridgement, needs to be justified. Changing this legal culture will take time. But, cumulatively, the problem for liberals is not that they do not exist in sufficient numbers. It is that they have no organised instrumentality, whether in state, parties or electronic media, to register their presence with full force.

But politicians will wake up. Omar Abdullah is taking action against those targeting the girls rather than hiding behind community sentiment; Manish Tewari has been quoted as saying something you never thought an Indian politician would say, namely that freedom of expression must include the right to offend. The battle for free expression must be fought hard. But concluding that free expression has no traction in India would be a mistake. It is exactly the sort of demoralisation on which enemies of freedom wear us down. History is on our side.

The writer, president of the Centre for Policy Research, is contributing editor, 'The Indian Express'

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