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November 4, 2009

Let us keep our Republic

Before she was selected by John McCain as his running mate in the 2008 US presidential elections, Sarah Palin was a little known governor of a distant American state. Venerated and despised in equal measure—depending upon your culturo-political affiliation — Mrs Palin was an old style cultural warrior. Proof that even in a stable, modern democracy like the United States, cultural differences persist. For example, almost forty years after Roe vs Wade was decided, abortion still remains a hot button issue.

In a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like India, the edges are more sharply drawn. Is there an Indian culture? Does it define our nationhood or is it a concept solely meant to preserve traditional hierarchies and power structure?

Amorphous as the concept may be, and despite the virtually insurmountable definitional challenges, cultural identities matter and are increasingly more meaningful to people. Human societies, even if organised around nation states, don’t exist in a vacuum. There has to be a reference point and that are usually markers of cultural identities: ethnic groups, language and religion.

Therein lie the seeds of conflict. Or, as Samuel Huntington has argued, “We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.” Essentially, most people are against something rather than in favour of anything.

The controversy in Mangalore— where a band of self-appointed culture warriors attacked female pub-goers— that currently rages on in opinion columns, television stations and cyberspace is merely an extension of what has happened elsewhere: from the streets of Srinagar to the backlanes of Mumbai, a city whose changed name itself reflects cultural revisionism. And that debate can be placed at multiple
levels.

At the simplest, it is easy enough to see the Mangalore incident as a conflict between two visions: an atavistic philosophy with regressive attitude towards women’s place in society, countered by a more libertine vision, which, at least superficially, draws on notions of freedom and individual liberty.

On the other hand, in places like Mumbai, it has played out on a more ethnic-cultural platform. Whatever may be its idiom, the roots can be traced back to a rapidly changing Indian society searching for its inflexion point.

The hackneyed response from left-liberal sections to such cultural conflicts is to either dismiss the role of culture entirely or engage in doctrinal wars over its contours—for instance, by citing the odes to Soma in classical Indian texts to counter the Sri Ram Sene’s angst against alcohol. But this is an endless debate where no amount of evidence will ever convince the other side.

Other commentators, most noticeably Pratap Bhanu Mehta, have advocated open conversations on “what new social values signify and how they can be properly embedded in society without repression and conflict.” From the perspective of social advancement, these conversations may be important but they are less useful in resolving cultural conflicts. For the notion of individual freedom militates against conversations originating from within existing societal norms. Understanding the angst against freedom or against “culturally inappropriate behaviour” does not automatically translate into an ability to address them. Reconciliation between such diametrically opposed views is virtually impossible or, even if achieved, would be momentary at best.

If not in social discourse, where does the solution lie? For that the debate needs to be framed properly. What is addressable is not the Sri Ram Sene’s views—in a democracy, everyone is entitled to their opinions, howsoever archaic they may be—but its recourse to violence. And indulging in hooliganism is the rule rather than exception for such groups.

Therein lies the role of the state. The Indian constitution says that amongst other things India is a “democratic republic.” A republic believes in the rule of law, and not the rule of men— the republican philosophy is against the rule of dictators or kings, but also against the rule of ephemeral majorities. A democracy too is against tyrants, but it, by definition, supports the rule of the majority.

Now, majority decision-making is unambiguously correct when we elect our leader; use force to protect life and property; or quell communal secession. Essentially, it represents the idea of a liberal democracy—popular democracy restrained by its faith in constitutional processes and rule of law.

In other words, democracy seems to be the best way of operating the republic. But the idea of democracy becomes counter-productive when it is used against republicanism itself. If a republic is against the rule of men, and it represents the actualisation of an implicit social contract—an understanding that men have certain inalienable rights—that not all majority decisions carry legitimacy.

So debates on whether visiting pubs enjoy social sanction or is consistent with Indian culture become redundant The role of the state is not to act as moral arbiter on appropriateness of adult behaviour or adjudicate cultural disputes but to use its power to preserve the rights it explicitly guarantees to its citizens. And in a democratic republic, the rights are protected through rule of law. The Indian state is morally bound to secure those rights for its citizens when they are threatened by non-state actors—whether terrorists or vigilante groups. That is what civil society should demand. The anti-Sri Ram Sene groups would have served a much higher purpose if they had directed their ire at the government rather than individuals or specific political parties.

Unfortunately, despite our constitutional proclamations, the Indian republic is moving away from one that does not believe in prosecuting someone unless the there has been harm to someone else’s life, liberty or property, to a partially constrained semi-majoritarian democracy. It is hard for Indian governments to criticise Sri Ram Sene’s moral policing when they have happily indulged in the same — from banning books to banishing artists.  In principle, how is vigilantism of fringe groups different from the state’s  reluctance to de-criminalise certain acts of private, consensual sex between two adult individuals?

Constitutional weaknesses show over time. Today’s Britain can be understood as a benevolent totalitarian state, whereas the United States, despite all its weaknesses, can justifiably claim to have lived up to Benjamin Franklin’s challenge in response to an American’s question regarding what kind of government did their Constitution beget: “A Republic , if you can keep it.’’

Let us keep our Republic.


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