Saturday, November 04, 2006

Falling in love with chains

We fail Sharansky’s test
Ravi Shanker Kapoor
India is supposed to be a free country¾ in fact, a democracy with the Constitution ensuring the freedom of expression. But the reality behind this appearance is not very agreeable: our freedom, though not a sham, is incomplete. Further, we are not only partially free but the sphere of our freedom is also gradually shrinking.
We are partially free; for the Indian Constitution, while ensuring the "freedom of speech and expression" in Article 19 (a), imposes "reasonable restrictions" for the maintenance of "the security of the State, friendly relations with foreign States, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence." Since the concepts of the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign States and public order are comprehensive enough to restrict the freedom of expression in every conceivable manner, the sphere of freedom has shrunk considerably. For instance, the government cannot be accused of betraying the Constitution if it comes down heavily against an author who exposes the role of Pakistan in fomenting jihad in India. A ban on his writings would not be mala fide, if the government says that it wants to improve ties with Pakistan and his writings may jeopardize the improving Indo-Pak relations. Besides, decency and morality are vague and, therefore, can be applied arbitrarily.
Apart from the legal, Constitutional restrictions, there is the problem of national mood. Not a single day passes when some political party, social organization, religious group, or downright publicity-hungry outfit does not demand a ban on some movie, book, exhibition, video remix, etc. The Hindus want ban on the nude painting of Saraswati by M.F. Husain; the Muslims want anything even vaguely against Islam to be proscribed; a few Sikh groups campaigned against the film, Jo Bole So Nihal, even though it was cleared by their supreme body, SGPC; many Christians were against the showing of The Da Vinci Code. Then there are governments and politicians that love moral-policing. Union Health Minister A. Ramadoss wants to ban the depiction of any smoking scenes in films and on television screen. The Maharashtra government last year ordered the closure of dance-bars in Bombay and other parts of the state, thus rendering thousands of dancing girls without vocation¾ all this in the name of securing the moral health of youths. There are myriad examples of assault on the freedom of expression.
What is worse is that such assaults continue unabated; they do not cause revulsion among people at large; on the contrary, some actually enjoy considerable public support. I remember listening to a radio phone-in programme over the issue of ban of smoking scenes in films; most of the callers favored the ban. At any rate, the ban mania can become endemic, as it has in India, in two cases: people, openly or tacitly, support bans; or they are not bothered. While the former implies that the people have started seeking a variety of chains for their own bondage, the latter suggests that they are casual about being free or in thralldom. In neither case, we can be called a free society.
We do not pass the town-square test as devised by Sharansky (I wonder if we can ever do that). This calls for a little introduction of the man who has emerged as an evangelist of freedom. Natan (Anatoly) Sharansky was born in the Ukraine, and graduated with a degree in mathematics from the Physical Technical Institute in Moscow. His early association with the human rights movement was as an English interpreter for Andrei Sakharov, before emerging in his own right as a foremost dissident and spokesman for the Soviet Jewry movement.
In 1973, Sharansky applied for an exit visa to Israel, but was refused because of "security" reasons. He remained prominently involved in Jewish refusenik activities until his arrest in 1977. Convicted in 1978 of treason and spying on behalf of the United States, Sharansky was sentenced to thirteen years imprisonment. He spent sixteen months in Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, frequently in solitary confinement and in a special "torture cell," before being transferred to a notorious prison camp in the Siberian Gulag.
During the years of his imprisonment, Sharansky became a symbol for human rights in general and Soviet Jewry in particular. A campaign for his release was waged tirelessly by his wife, Avital, who emigrated to Israel immediately after their wedding with the hope that her husband would follow shortly. Intense diplomatic efforts and public outcry for his release were unsuccessful until 1986, when Sharansky was released as part of an East-West prisoner exchange. Freed on the border of a still-divided Germany, he was met by the Israeli ambassador who presented him immediately with his new Israeli passport under the Hebrew name of Natan Sharansky. He arrived in Israel on February 11, 1986, and was greeted by leading government officials, including then Prime Minister Shimon Peres, was given a hero’s welcome. He later became a cabinet minister in Israel.
In an interview, Sharansky said, "We can gain some optimism from history." He cites the example of Japan. "Truman’s advisors were very skeptical about the prospects for democracy in Japan, as were most of the ‘experts’ of the time. And there were good reasons to be skeptical. This was a country with virtually no exposure to the West for centuries. Japan’s rigidly hierarchical society and unique culture was seen as antithetical to democratic life. In fact, when the concept of rights was translated into Japan it took a compound word consisting of four characters to express it. But democracy in Japan has been a great success story. Japan is not a Western democracy. The Japanese have kept their traditions, culture and heritage, but they have joined the community of free nations."
In Sharansky’s scheme of things, there are two kinds of societies, free societies and fear societies. "Free societies are societies in which the right of dissent is protected. In contrast, fear societies are societies in which dissent is banned. One can determine whether a society is free by applying what we call the ‘town-square test.’ Can someone within that society walk into the town-square and say what they want without fear of being punished for his or her views? If so, then that society is a free society. If not, it is a fear society."
We are clearly a fear society and not a free society. Whatever freedom of expression we can boast of today is also getting eroded. The most depressing aspect of this erosion is that it is mostly we, the people of India, who are guilty.


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