Atanu Dey On India's Development

Individual Freedom and Bondage

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0781_8477 First post of 2014 and therefore sets the tone for the rest of the year — freedom. Individual freedom. Actually, freedom is about individuals. Collectives are really an abstraction and in reality only individuals exist. So to say that a particular collective is free — Indians or Americans or Africans — what is really meant is that each individual in that collective is free. The question is: what is the individual free from? From coercion by other individuals. The following is an opinion piece published last month in Niti Central.

Best wishes for a wonderful 2014.

Of Individual Freedom and Bondage

The centrality of freedom in human affairs is well understood at this stage of human civilizational advance. The story of human civilization is essentially the story of expanding human freedom. Arguably, all prosperity depends on free humans doing what they are naturally inclined to do within the broad constraint of not harming others. Societies that have an internalized understanding of the importance of freedom and strive to grant themselves the greatest degree of freedom in all spheres of human activity prosper.

Examples of societies that don’t enjoy freedom and consequently lag behind those that do are easy to enumerate. Culture, that complex of norms that have evolved over time, broadly determines the degree and extent of freedom that individuals enjoy. The speed and direction of cultural evolution, in turn, drive the expansion of individual freedom. Individual freedom is the foundation upon which freedom of the collective rests. Individual freedom provides the structural elements within which the collective operates and advances the goals of the collective.

The denial of freedom to the individual is unfortunately far too common. It may not be easy to discern this in our own society because we are too immersed in it and therefore lack objectivity. But as external observers of other societies, we see quite easily their faults. It is emotional and physical distance that lends perspective and perspicacity, not superior wisdom. Societies that, for example, deny females equal opportunity in education and other areas of self-expression are easily judged as regressive and backward. We look at them and intuitively feel pity and revulsion.

I make these general observations in the context of India’s regressive position on homosexuals. The Indian Penal Code (IPC) criminalizes homosexual acts. To any impartial observer this attitude is, simply put, regressive, irrational, bigoted and ignorant. The Indian penal code, it should be recalled, was created by the British rulers of colonial India. It was crafted in 1860 and went into effect in 1862. It is 151 years old. There may have been some changes to it but I presume that the basic structure remains the same. That basic nature of the penal code therefore reflects the social mores of the British — including their prejudices, their bigotry, their sense of what is moral, ethical, criminal, etc.

Specifically, article 377 of the IPC encodes Victorian attitudes to homosexuality. I marvel at the fact that Indians apparently struggled for freedom from the British and yet don’t feel the need to claw themselves out from under the rocks that the British piled on them to keep them under control. There’s some serious disconnect with reality: Indians believe that they are no longer under British control but are quite content to be ruled by laws created by the British who were certainly not in the business of giving Indians freedom.

In today’s world, many rules made by the British are seriously outdated, immoral and unethical. The British, like most of the world which is now considered “civilized,” used to persecute and punish homosexuals in the past. It was shameful the way they treated quite harmless people. Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900), brilliant playwright and incomparable wit, was hounded and imprisoned. It broke his spirit, a spirit that was gentle, and caring and wise. He had not killed anyone, not even lifted a finger against anyone. His crime? He liked to sleep with other men.

The British society of those times must have tortured untold thousands of unfortunate, harmless people. We only know of the few famous ones. Alan Turing (1912 – 1954), the father of modern computing, was driven to suicide by this kind of insane prejudice. Humanity was denied the full benefit of his enormous genius. It wasn’t he who was immoral but it was the society which was immoral that eventually killed him out of its ignorance and stupidity.

That inhuman and inhumane treatment was not justified then, and it is certainly not justified now. Thankfully, the British, and the rest of what is called the First World, have moved on. They don’t punish homosexuals and criminalize homosexual behavior. But Indians, who are supposedly free of British colonialism, are still under the oppressive rule of a code made by the British. It is hardly comprehensible that Indians subject themselves to such an immoral code. But it is understandable that the code is used by some Indians to hound and persecute other harmless Indians. It is criminally immoral.

The public debate of homosexuality and the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people (LGBT) is rife with irrationality and ignorance. The naturalistic fallacy is encountered frequently. The fallacy involves deriving an “ought” from an “is.” One side says, “It is unnatural” and therefore it should be banned. Well then there are many kinds of human behavior that are also “unnatural” and therefore should be banned. To be consistent, the proponents of that argument should also ban those other things. One of the basic problems with it is the question as to who gets to decide what is natural — and therefore acceptable — and what is not.

The other side responds by pointing out that homosexuality is found in (just take any number) 693 non-human species. The attempt to advance that fact to make moral or justify human homosexual behavior is also the same naturalistic fallacy. Just because something occurs in nature — infanticide for instance occurs quite frequently — does not justify its acceptance in human society.

Another part of the debate relates to whether homosexuality is genetic. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is not. To me that is supremely beside the point. Basic decency requires that behavior that neither causes harm to others nor is intended to cause harm should not be punished.

So where do I stand on this issue? Like on all other issues, my position is principles based. In this case, the principle is that of inalienable individual freedom. A person is free to do as he or she pleases as long as he or she does not harm another person. Society has an interest in prohibiting any and only such behavior that harm other people. In all other cases, society has no justification in proscribing behavior. This principle is not complicated to understand and not hard to implement. It does not require huge tomes and learned debate to operationalize.

Whom a person loves, sleeps with, or is intimate with is not my concern and should not be anyone else’s concern other than the people involved. The only requirement is informed consent and absence of any coercion. The individual is sovereign in his abode and in his private life. No one regardless of how high the horse he or she rides on, moral busybodies particularly, has any right to poke their noses into any individual’s affair. If the law says that some learned judges have the right to dictate to some others what they should and should not do in the privacy of their homes, then that law is bad in principle, immoral in intent and fundamentally impossible to administer fairly.

I reject all restrictions over individual freedom with every fiber of my being, regardless of whether those restrictions are based on religious, social or dubious ethical grounds. I especially reject laws that derive from the ignorant illogic of the desert monotheistic religions — the prohibition on homosexuality is one of the more egregious examples of the hardcoded bigotry of those intolerant creeds.

In conclusion, I am saddened to see yet another glaring pointer to the fact that Indian society is not yet a decent society. It is not decent to criminalize people and behavior that is not only intrinsically harmless but actually increases human well-being. Part of the human experience is the joy, companionship and comfort that an individual finds with another person, regardless of gender. The fixation with gender may be natural but it is certainly not decent. And becoming a decent society is only a step to becoming a civilized society in which all persons enjoy their inalienable individual freedoms. Who knows, perhaps the Indians of a few centuries ago were not as bigoted as they have been recently. If that is true, it is a really sad fact.

  • NS

    Even though framed by our colonial masters, the IPC is not particularly designed to preserve the power of the master over the servant. Sure, certain provisions such as article 377 are barbaric relics and need to be jettisoned. Provisions which curtail freedom of expression (harming religious sentiment, obscenity, defamation) need to be severely narrowed in scope; Section 141 (Unlawful Assembly) need to be clarified. The Singapore Penal Code is essentially identical to the Indian. No doubt both require modernisation but the sole reason cannot be that it was given us by colonial masters (admittedly not the statement you make but you imply that a particularly different set of laws are required where you point out the seeming disconnect between Independence and the Penal Code). It is because, as you rightly point out, the scope of the Penal Code falls short of what is required in the 21st century. One could argue the same of the Bill of Rights. The 4th Amendment in the US Bill of Rights could not have foreseen that an individual’s property could reside in the “cloud”. The ambiguity has allowed the NSA to do all sorts of nefarious things. The case is surely going to reach the US Supreme Court given the conflicting circuit court judgments. What will a strict constructionist on the bench do? Probably not the right thing… Having said this, the Indian Supreme Court has, in my opinion, judged this matter incorrectly. It is within its power to decide whether article 377 of the IPC is consistent with the Constitution. It should have upheld the Delhi High Court ruling. Your central points are right – Indians do not appreciate the nature of freedom. In this matter and many others we have yet to become a decent people.

    • Atanu_Dey

      NS,

      Thanks for taking the time to add to the topic. I appreciate it. Regards, Atanu

  • Vishnu V Pillai

    I would like to draw both Mr.Dey with whom I generally agree on a awful lot of things and others on following, while disclosing that I am not trying to glorify or vilify one side but trying to do the often ignored ethos of constructive reasoning rather than emotional blabbering:

    Offending the new normal (LGBT) is a PR disaster. It also comes with associated costs of guilt and sympathy especially when one is a Libertarian. How can one be a torch bearer of liberty when he offends somebody’s liberty? The answers comes from one of the most brilliant Libertarian and incidentally openly gay, Peter Thiel himself. He wonders about the limits of liberty. Can we have a free market for nuclear and chemical weapons where Mr.Ladens fans can buy one and shoot at any random country?

    Liberty is a tricky paradox. It’s all about freedom but it’s not freedom to do whatever one wants to, especially when it works against the freedom of another. Freedom to expression may not be a right to be granted by society but neither is it to be left to the whims of the minority.

    Emotions are the freedom of one human being. Society is not at any duty to control its members on such a freedom. However shouldn’t the society which is collection of individuals have a right to protect its own rights? When you see a bunch of your neighbours planning to attack innocent people- would you keep quite? When your neighbours are spreading hatred and socially unhealthy mentality to the future generations including your kin, would you keep quite?