Well-meaning laws are exploited by self-important politicians for narrow, partisan considerations.
Many an evening out of school was spent, much to my chagrin, on learning the intricacies of the Hindi language. While I wouldn't say I hated it, the truth is, I wasn't exactly doing cartwheels at the prospect.
Having said that, I must also confess that the experience was not devoid of its brighter side. The atmosphere in the class was definitely lit up by the presence of a girl who had to only look at someone to uncork one of her trademark smiles that had innocence written all over it.
There we were, seated cross-legged on the floor, the teacher included. He would drone on, reading aloud a passage from the textbook placed in front. The mind would wander from the subject and one would furtively look up in her direction. As if on cue, she would flash one of those ‘Kolynos’ smiles that not only had the radiance of a 1000 watt bulb but also the effect of suffusing the atmosphere with an electric charge that sent the pulse racing.
Of course, one quickly dragged one’s eyes back to the textbook before the teacher noticed. Perhaps, it was calf love. After all, school boys’ standards in these matters are notoriously lax, as indeed, it would seem, for adults of a riper age as General Paetreus would readily testify. But that aside, this much I can say.
Two decades later, I ran into a school senior and captain of my cricket team. He was giving me the low-down on the news about the old town where we grew up together. He slipped in the fact that the girl died soon after her marriage in a kitchen fire accident at her in-laws’ home. The heart shed a secret tear and grief welled up inside to constrict the throat.
Laws of the land
Back then, kitchen stoves going up in flames had always been a euphemism for death (homicide or suicide), that is more fittingly described as triggered by an acute outbreak of bigotry in the new home that she had stepped into. A woman's lot in her husband's home may have changed for the better now. You have laws against dowry harassment. There is also one against domestic violence.
I was one of its most vociferous supporters when it was being debated. I still am, but I am realistic enough to recognise that there is only so much that laws of a land can do. They are not going to do anything to kill the innate instinct for bigotry, fostered no doubt by an exaggerated sense of self-importance that the human race has a tendency to slide into.
Above all, they are not proof against someone exploiting well-meaning laws against social evils for narrow partisan considerations.
There are innumerable examples. The law against dowry harassment has been used by wives to falsely accuse husbands, more due to petty clash of egos between them than any extravagant demand for the latest model of Audi A7.
The law meant to protect Dalits against oppression by caste Hindus too has been exploited to settle personal scores.
Is it any wonder then, that the Indian Penal Code and the Information Technology Act, which have well-meaning provisions against harming the reputation of individuals and spreading hatred towards sections of society, have been misused not just by the Shiv Sainiks but many others as well?
Freedom of speech
Two forces are combining to wreak havoc on basic minimum standards of free speech. The political leaders, far from evolving as statesmen, are turning more vicious. This perhaps has to do with the fact that the process of rising to the very top of a political party requires an individual to display the highest degree of ruthlessness, and having achieved it, continue demonstrating such a streak in every word and deed.
That means, even the slightest act of dissent from a stray individual must be suppressed with a very heavy hand. The backlash to Facebook postings by Shaheen Dadha and Renu Srinivasan on Bal Thackeray or that by a Puducherry businessman on the son of the Union Finance Minister, must be seen in this context.
The second and an equally powerful force that is at work is that politics itself has become a game involving all kinds of sub-national identities such as religion, region, caste, and so on. You have voters segmented as Hindus, Christians, Muslims. Dalits are pitted against Gujjars, Telanganites in opposition to those in coastal Andhra Pradesh, and so on. So politicians are constantly looking for opportunities to cement their existing affiliations and, wherever possible, carve out new identities as a means of enlarging their support base.
So, when the popular actress, Khushboo, gave an interview to India Today, challenging traditional notions of chastity among women, a number of people affiliated to a regional party in Tamil Nadu were quick to file complaints in local courts as to how they were defamed by those comments.
The party saw this as an effective ruse to position itself as a champion of Tamil women, besides its known image as the champion of a section of the backward class. Khushboo had to pay a heavy price.
The poor woman suffered months of mental agony, not to mention the physical inconvenience of having to appear in sessions courts all over Tamil Nadu before the Supreme Court eventually came to her rescue and quashed all proceedings against her.
You cannot register the mildest protest at something that you feel strongly about without someone rushing to file a public interest litigation alleging outraged sensibilities.
The State too wears a very thin skin, so much so, the merest hint of criticism of its action sees it coming down on the person with a heavy arm. Just look at the number of requests that the various law enforcement agencies have made to Google seeking user details. We have one of the fastest rates of growth in such requests to the search engine company.
Taste for tolerance
The challenge can be met legally. For instance, it shouldn’t be too difficult to fix the Section of the Indian Penal Code dealing with spreading of hatred or disaffection among communities of the public. The clause was introduced in 1969. Time enough then for the State to codify in a half decent fashion what constitutes spreading of hatred. But that only leads to more laws and even greater potential for manipulation to settle personal scores.
There seems no escaping the conclusion that citizens — private individuals or politicians — simply need to shed bigotry and cultivate a taste for tolerance. It would help if we heeded the advice of Buddha to simply refuse to receive a slight or an insult that others hurl at us. The story goes, as I learnt from those Hindi classes attended with a laden heart, something like this.
Buddha, after attaining enlightenment, lived a life of a nomadic preacher, eking out a living with what people would offer. One day, he stood before a rich man's house and sought food.
The latter abused him in the choicest of language for what he thought was Buddha’s resort to indolence when he could have pursued some vocation and earned a livelihood. Buddha kept smiling through the entire diatribe and the man could continue no longer.
He was astonished that anyone could remain so calm and completely unaffected at the most terrible of insults.
The conversation went something like this:
“You aren’t upset at all at what I said about you?”
Buddha said, “Suppose I ask you for some gift and you donate one of your cows, to whom does the cow belong then?”
The man replied, “Why, to you, of course.”
“And if I refuse?” Buddha countered.
“It reverts back to me”, said the rich man.
“Well, you showered me with all those abuses and I simply refused to take it. It therefore rightfully belongs to you”, countered Buddha.
The story goes that after that incident, the rich man became an ardent devotee of Buddha and donated all his riches. Let us resolve that, we will henceforth refuse to receive insults from one another. Simply mark the abuse as, ‘Return to the Sender’. Would the Sainiks listen? I hope they do.
After all, another great son of Maharashtra from earlier era was persuaded by the teachings of that former prince of Kapilavasthu. He became a Buddhist. He went by the name of B. R. Ambedkar.