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Zones, not zone, of individual freedom

Kiran Batni kiranbatni

Updated: May 24, 2014, 2:31 PM IST
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In his recent opinion piece titled "The Real Contest for India" in The Indian Express, Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues that, according to the Constitution of India, rightly, the nation ought to be a "zone of individual freedom" where community identity doesn't really matter when it comes to public matters. The idea of India which has come to gradually replace this "correct" idea and pose a "great threat to liberty and distort our intellectual culture", according to him, is the idea of India as a federation of communities - ones that impose a "burden of compulsory identity" on the individual.

The first thing that struck me in the author's narrative is the glaring absence of India's linguistic diversity. Of course, Mehta does not set out to give any diversity any importance in the article, but my point is, he could have written it for any one state of India, say, Karnataka, or even for any one country like Germany or France or Japan, all of which are known to speak one major language. India is a collection or federation of states like Karnataka or Germany, not Karnataka or Germany itself as Mehta undoubtedly knows. Not acknowledging this, in itself, is a serious drawback in any view of India. It makes no sense, in any circumstance, to talk about India in the same way as one would talk about Germany or France.

Such a narrative does not "transcend" this or that but only ignore what defines India. Besides, when India is already a union of states which can easily be turned into a true federation of states, where is the need to even talk about India as a federation of something else, such as communities? It is only when one ignores the details of India that everything in India appears to have an "all-India" character, and every problem appears to be solvable from some central location. It is only then, too, that the states vanish from the discourse, as they have in Mehta's.

When you ignore something, you do not transcend it. You do not transcend caste or religion or language by re-conceptualizing Indian citizenship in such a way as to avoid talking about them; you only ignore. In any such re-conceptualization, what one ignores continues to work behind the scenes, just as before. For example, the problem of religious majoritarianism (which Mehta only recognizes but suggests no solution for) does not vanish by proclaiming that India is a zone of individual freedom and not a federation of communities. The situation of the religious minorities, who are at the receiving end of the majoritarianism, does not improve because of the change of view. Similarly, the oppression of the lower castes does not vanish just because the observer chooses to discard a view that includes caste. Nor does the conflict between the speakers of different languages in India - and I have things like Hindi imposition in mind here - vanish when one comes up with a clever way of talking about India that avoids mentioning India's linguistic diversity.

Mehta's idea of India as a zone of individual freedom, however nice it may sound, ignores the most important problem confronting India, which is the mishandling of diversity. In this zone, individuals who exercise their freedom do not automatically reject strengths or weaknesses that have accumulated to their communities from time immemorial due to the clash of identities, and due to the intermingling of diverse peoples. In other words, individuals will continue to enjoy or be burdened by what their identities have ever given them. Ignoring these identities is not a way of transcending them.

Also, Mehta's assessment that community identity is a "compulsory burden" is too strong and unwarranted. Take, for instance, the fact that communities require individuals to speak in the common language. This is compulsory alright, but not a burden unless the community itself is a burden. That it is for Mehta's argument by definition, because his focus is the individual, not the community. Is this a nice way of stating what the Macaulay Class in general feels, viz., that all Indian languages are a burden because they appear to be remnants of a past devoid of achievement? Or is this a way of reiterating the flawed belief that celebrating Indian languages is a national security threat? Whatever the case, anything other than the individual is a burden in Mehta's definition, likely because the problems it comes with seem to have no solution in the existing scheme of things. So, why not just stop talking about them? This seems to be the unfortunate direction in which Mehta is going. If we are in the business of describing this or that identity as a compulsory burden, why should we not think of Indian citizenship itself as a compulsory burden? After all, understanding it seems to require experts sitting in elite institutions repeatedly asserting their minds yet never reaching a consensus.

There is a way to get out of this mess in conceptualizing India. That way is to admit, unequivocally, that India ought to be a true federation of linguistic states, one per scheduled language; and let go of the idea of homogeneity that creeps into narratives about India. In no idea of India must we ignore pluralism, diversity. Even Indian citizenship can be thought of as citizenship of a state; only the bookkeeping has to change. The burden of proof that such a conceptualization is a "great threat to liberty" is huge, because there is nothing India-ish in the word liberty. As a principle, liberty applies to individuals alright, but they don't have to be thought of as housed in a conceptual mess that ignores diversity or worse, mishandles it. They could as well be thought of as housed in one or the other linguistic state of India which is, as a casual glance of the world map tells us, as large, populous, and linguistically homogenous as the average nation of the world.

Why give this primacy to language? Because it is language that allows people to cooperate, not just communicate, as it has become fashionable to think in India. The difficult questions of religion and caste can be handled at the state-level much more effectively: at least there exists something solid and tangible that truly unites one and all in a state - the language everyone speaks. What is there at the all-India level that unites the people of all castes and religions? Only clever ways of imagining the nation that just ignore the problem of the forced juxtaposition of diverse peoples in one system of politics and commerce. This cleverness, I'm afraid, will not sustain for long because it ignores, not "transcends", the problem.

In summary, it is dangerous to imagine India as one zone of individual freedom where the citizen is characterized by nothing but his or her existence as a unit separate from other individuals. India can at best be a federation of zones of individual freedom, each zone coinciding with a linguistic state which, further, has the freedom to celebrate its own different defining characters as well as handle its internal diversity in ways that only it understands. India is too large. Take six Indias and you have the whole world to reckon with. Would it be proper to think of the world as one zone of individual freedom where identity doesn't matter? If yes, why don't we think of every individual as a citizen of the world under one government and come up with a clever way to avoid mentioning diversity and talk, instead, of every individual being free and equal? If that would be improper, why don't we admit India's diversity and account for it in our idea of India? And lastly, can we stop talking as if the Constitution of India is a sort of holy book beyond human editing, and which only needs to be interpreted in the "right" way?
First Published: May 24, 2014, 2:31 PM IST

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