Liberal thoughts in illiberal India

“Jack Sprat could eat no fat
his wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
they licked the platter clean.”

That formula worked wondrously in the 18th century when these lines entered the canon of English nursery rhymes. But such harmony would be rare today. If Jack Sprat and his wife had such different tastes in food, it is doubtful that if they would eat together frequently. More likely, each would join a like-minded network in the social media and hold forth on his/her respective food fetish.
But in India today, a desi version of the Sprats would not find life smooth even with all that virtual bonding. Airing one’s views on Facebook and Twitter has got costlier. And such a couple may just decide to keep their thoughts to themselves for fear of angering either the fat pressure group or the lean pressure group. You never can tell what will annoy whom and it is not pleasant to be frogmarched to the police station whenever someone whose sentiments have been bruised by a tweet or a comment on Facebook files a complaint.
In a society where the willingness to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own is increasingly scarce, it is risky to have an opinion. It is even more dangerous to have new ideas.
The spotlight is on this sorry situation due to the justifiable angst over the arrest of two young women in Mumbai following their innocuous Facebook posts. There is a lot of talk about assaults on freedom of expression and a lot of hand-wringing because the liberal middle ground appears to be shrinking, with liberalism under attack from the left, right and centre.
New India often shows shades of illiberalism. The surprise is that this comes as a surprise to anyone. The fact is that precious few Indian families or Indian schools teach children how to have a debate and how to disagree without shrieking or baying for the blood of the person who has a different point of view. If some people thought that Shaheen Dhada and Renu Srinivasan had no right to post their views about the shutdown of India’s financial capital following the death of Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray, and therefore their arrest and harassment were perfectly justified, it is because in most Indian homes, even today, expressing one’s honest opinions about anything is a rare luxury. This is more so for women.
As one of the Shiv Sainiks told the media, “Bal Thackeray is our God. We will not tolerate anything against him. Arrest of those who made the Facebook comment is justified.”
What about the godless or those who may have a different God? What about their opinions? Should they have any space to air their opinions? In a democratic country where freedom of speech and expression is enshrined in the Constitution, do they have a right to do so? Such questions would perhaps not strike the Shiv Sainiks because that would indicate willingness to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own or openness to new ideas.
I am reminded of an anecdote. A friend’s six-year-old son was hauled up by his teacher in an upscale private school in Delhi because he had an opinion different from that of the teacher on how he should write an essay. The assignment was to write five lines about oneself. The teacher wrote the template on the blackboard which went something like this: I am ——. I enjoy coming to school. My teachers are nice. I have many friends. I love my country.
The children were supposed to only fill in the blank in the first sentence. But my friend’s son preferred to write “I love ice-cream” instead of “I love my country.” The teacher was furious and asked him to change it to the given format. The little boy refused to budge; he steadfastly maintained that he really loved ice-cream more than his country. The teacher went ballistic and started threatening the child with dire consequences. The parents were summoned. The boy was so scared of the teacher that he refused to go to school. Eventually, he had to be shifted to another school.
Corporal punishment is banned in Indian schools. Most Indian states claim to apply the ban, but enforcement has been lax. A recent study by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) reveals that more than 99 per cent of children in the country continue to face corporal punishment. Distressingly, a very large number of parents in the country continue to believe that a bit of spanking is the only way to discipline a child and that fear of being beaten ensures good performance and behaviour, i.e. unquestioning obedience.
Constantly living in fear of not measuring up to adult expectations and of being beaten, most children do not speak their mind. They are not encouraged to think for themselves and most don’t. Against such a backdrop, it is hardly surprising that people turn illiberal and intolerant of those who chose to express their honest feelings.
Many schools have the motto of the day or the year chalked in large letters. A very large number extol the virtues of obedience, while precious few promote open discussion on any subject. When that is what children are taught, it is unrealistic to expect they will behave differently in later life. There is a clear and urgent need to change the basics of our education — to move away from rote learning and obedience and move towards discussion and debate. It is not going to be easy in a society where many feel it is impolite to argue with your elders. But if we are to maintain a pluralistic India, everyone must learn the difference between discussion, debate and argument, and how to disagree without getting angry.

The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com

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