I was one of those who joined the protests against the ban on the sale of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, having read Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Christianity has survived many such posers, Islam would too. No one knows this better than a Hindu. My religion survived the most insistent questioning of it by none other than Gautama, the Buddha. Nothing explains the longevity of a religion better than its ability to deal with the non-believers, the sceptics and the ‘infidels’. Yet, this ancient land of dvaita-advaita, of many gods and goddesses, of multiple interpretations of holy texts and many-sided portrayal of revered gods has become a land of bans, seeking to impose a monolithic view of everything—from smoking to homosexuality, from food habits to clothes.
If an idea cannot survive its questioning, it has no reason to retain currency. That goes as much for religious faith and practice as it does for ideas such as smoking is bad for your health and should be banned. That idea too must survive rational questioning. That is how knowledge has evolved and grown through centuries. The problem with modern governance is that nations have sought to codify all ideas into laws, and then declare as illegal the violation of such laws. There is a difference between questioning and violation.
In India we have taken a further step for the worse. Not only have we legislated all manner of laws and continue to do so, even when legislatures do not always transact their business in the manner they should, but we have criminalised almost every act that is outside the law. The criminalisation of actions outside the law and the corruption of the police and legal system have meant that justice, or an escape from its consequences, is available at a price. Is this madness or what?
As if the legislature and the executive have not been doing their bit to contribute to this madness, the judiciary has stepped in too. The highest court of the land has declared that the sale of liquor be banned up to 500 metres from a highway. It is okay, of course, if your liquor vending premises is 600 metres away! One clever hotel owner changed the entrance to his premises to show that his hotel was outside this limit.
For every law banning something or the other Indians find ten different ways to beat it. Of course that makes us all criminals. In New Delhi the minimum age for consuming an alcoholic beverage at a restaurant is 25. This in a nation where you can vote at 18! Parents who do not object to the consumption of alcohol by their children, especially beer and wine, normally impose the 21-year rule at home on the assumption that a child is an adult at 21. Many progressive states have also adopted the 21-year rule. Not the national capital. So most 20-somethings who drink beer or more are growing up committing an illegality and smirking at the law in the comforting thought that ‘my parents do not mind’!
When posed with the question if the ban on cow slaughter was fair to beef-eating Muslims when there was no such ban on the slaughter of pigs, an animal considered impure by them, a Delhi academic who is viewed as speaking for the RSS said “we could ban pork too!” My orthodox Jain friends who have grown up being told that eating garlic and onion was a no-no for Jains may seek a ban on the sale of these alliums.
A civilised society requires laws and the codification of public behaviour so that one’s behaviour does not harm another nor causes social disruption. However, a system of laws and rules cannot end up becoming one of whimsical bans, howsoever large the group that seeks a ban. An unreasonable ban is by no means a ‘reasonable restriction’ on one’s fundamental freedoms.