Jan 4, 2012

Free country?

While the issue is not new, this particular post was motivated by this article and the following discussion in TOI, and an earlier argument I had on a web forum about restrictions on nightlife in Bangalore.

The TOI article reported the views of the woman who was the HoD for women studies (whatever that encompasses), and who currently is the head of the committee against sexual harassment in the Bangalore University. Now, sexual harassment is touchy subject and anybody who is responsible for supporting the victims must be extraordinarily empathetic and trustworthy to be at all effective in their roles. This woman is pretty much the opposite. She feels that even a saree worn with a sleeveless blouse is an invitation to rape! She favors early curfews in women's hostels and a dress code for women students and even lecturers. Similar views were aired recently by the state minister for women and child welfare.  

I will not comment about how women should dress because it is a free country and it is none of my business. Here I am more interested in exploring why the majority of people in this country oppose women dressing in western clothes. Why do they oppose Valentine's day celebration, and any romantic or sexual relationships outside of marriage. Why, in Bangalore, they oppose the very existence of a nightlife.

Initially, I thought it was a class divide issue. The educated, urban elite have a different value system and make different lifestyle choices compared to the less well-off, and that causes social tensions. But when you hear senior university professors and ministers support this moral policing and blame victims, the class divide hypothesis fails. My own experience in discussions on praja.in - a forum of well-meaning, educated, affluent citizens who want to help solve problems such as traffic congestion - affirmed that the majority of people, even in the upper class, support moral policing.

This points to a much deeper root cause, independent of class or education. I suspect that in our country, we do not care much for individual liberty and freedom, nor do we believe that every individual deserves some respect.

Think about it. We've historically had a rigid caste system, which people have failed to get out of even after converting to other religions. Even in our modern, urban society, individuals are not free. Parents take all major decisions till children reach college, and continue to dominate the decision-making process through their children's education, early career and even marriage - till the children become parents themselves. They discourage any unconventional ideas, and 'protect' the child. Then we wonder why we - as a nation - don't produce our fair share of innovations and original thinking.

At work, even in private companies, senior positions are not seen as the ones with more 'responsibility', but the ones with more 'power'. Asking questions or arguing with anything is considered 'disrespectful'. In politics, we worship dynasties and film stars. We don't vote for the local candidate, we vote for a party and a 'leader' (a CM or PM candidate). This is also why most of us support a draconian Lokpal. We treat sacrifice and selflessness as greater virtues than personal ambition or material success. As a result, we are a hierarchical society with a herd mentality and little tolerance for individuals who question societal norms or dare to act unconventionally. In all of this, we seriously undermine the individual.

This is something very fundamental, and it will have to change if we want socio-economic development, equality, prosperity and a global superpower status in the future. Let each individual have genuine freedom to make life choices - within the constraints of the law, but no other. Let them live with the consequences - good or bad. Let us treat each individual with due respect for what he/she thinks and what he/she is. If one billion minds actually start working individually and freely, only then can we achieve our potential as a nation and maybe regain our pre-eminent position in the world.

Anna Hazare was right when he said that we need a second freedom struggle. But it has nothing to do with the Lokpal. It has to be fought in our minds.

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