Monday, July 3, 2017

Amartya Sen: Towards unfreedom

“Faith,” it has been said, “will move mountains.” It is an encouraging belief — when we need to move mountains. But in our day-to-day life, relying on unquestioned faith rather than on reasoning can be a big obstacle to leading an enlightened life, as Buddha discussed 2,500 years ago. Also, arguing and communication can restrain battles and bloodshed. To be sure, faith in good things can have many achievements (such as generating charity and philanthropy), but it can, in general, discourage the willingness to listen to others. And, faith in nasty things can cause cruelty and carnage.

The Inquisitions that blackened medieval Europe for more than five centuries drew on faith - in the perceived duty to punish heterodoxy and kill the perpetrators. India has been, I have tried to argue, fortunate in having a particularly argumentative culture. The argumentativeness of Indians may have encouraged the tolerance of heterodoxy, with debates and discussions restraining violent con-frontation. Historically, India has certainly been a refuge for persecuted minorities from many different lands - providing shelter and new homes to hounded Jews from the first century, harassed Christians from the fourth century, fleeing Parsis from the late seventh century and oppressed Bahais from the 19th century.

Does India’s tolerance of heterodoxy still hold? As we look around today’s India, the signs of tolerance seem to have faded fast. The country that welcomed people fleeing persecution abroad, and allowed the immigrating minorities to have their own beliefs and practices (and food habits), now harbours gangs of wild men hunting down beef-eaters, and killing people - very poor people - whose employment in the leather industry arouses the suspicion of faithful believers in the holiness of the cow. A leading news agency that dares to include news that the ruling government does not like can have its founders raided on extraordinarily flimsy charges (NDTV can tell you about this, if you have not kept up with news about news).

Which side you back in a cricket test match could possibly place you in custodial arrest on the unbelievable ground of “sedition” as determined by the local bosses of the ruling party in control of the police force, completely in violation of the Supreme Court’s clearly stated rules on what kind of incitement to violence can constitute sedition (“Give him another googly” does not quite qualify). With the control of the police, sedition charges are coming plentifully - causing terror with spurious legality. Further, you can be beaten up while in custody (ask Kanhaiya Kumar, the student leader, also charged, rather implausibly, with sedition). 

In the suppression of India’s tolerant tradition, the ruling party, the BJP, has clearly played a gigantic role. What is astonishing is how much tolerance of intolerance the political climate in India has been made to bear. It is as if stunned people are waiting in a daze for something to happen. Further, many people with evidently liberal instincts have been able to continue supporting the government for one reason or another, such as expected benefits from Narendra Modi’s economic reforms (what The Economist, the global magazine, calls “the illusion of reform”), while the country is made to descend down the ladder of intolerance and unfreedom… read more: