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From beef to James Bond's kiss, 2015 was the year of bans

By Aakar Patel
December 29, 2015 08:48 IST
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Spectre'The desire to force others to act according to the way we want the world to be is strong in our parts.'

'Our moralism will get us into trouble,' says Aakar Patel.

The great sociologist M N Srinivas (whose house is down the road from mine in Bangalore) once said prohibition was a Sanskritic act.

Successive Indian governments imposed it from a moral point of view, and were willing to ignore the fallout of its economic aspects.

Of course, prohibition has failed everywhere in the world and has failed in India also. But the impulse was there, to impose morality on the individual, and this was difficult for us to resist.

In 2015 we saw that the attraction of the Indian State towards the Sanskritic values remained strong. This impulse is common to all parties, including those that call themselves secular.

In Bihar (governed by the Janata Dal-United) and in Kerala (governed by the Congress), the State is again moving towards prohibition. The justification is that this will build a more perfect society.

In 2015, many states run by the Hindutvawadis like Haryana and Maharashtra banned the slaughter of bovines. They used the cover of the Constitution when doing this. The makers of our Constitution lied to us when they said that the State should ban cow slaughter for economic reasons. This is totally untrue and if it were true other countries would do the same thing. They do not.

It is the Sanskritic, upper caste, impulse that drives this ban and we should be honest enough to admit it. This moral instinct in man manifests itself most strongly not in the self, but in the acts of others, and what they should and should not do.

The religious State imposes piety by forcing people to pray or fast or dress in a certain way. This is no different from the State in India denying the freedom to individuals to love the adult of their choice.

The criminalisation of gay sex is to be seen in the same way as the ban on cow slaughter. It could be argued that none of our Hindu texts actually call for such a ban, but then morals are derived from what we think our religion and culture are, not what they actually may be.

The instinct of the censor board to calibrate how much romance can be allowed on screen is another example of this. We have a very crude, barely literate, man imposed on us as censor board chief (another crude man has been put in charge of the Film and Television Institute of India).

One reason for this is said to be that these two men are chamchas. That is fine and all governments hand out favours to those who kiss the ring. But in this instance the men also follow the moral Hindutva impulse, or claim they do.

India's censor board determines how many seconds James Bond may kiss someone before the act becomes immoral. And this is only one indicator of the stupidity of our times, and it is not just the BJP that thinks like this.

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor recently failed to introduce a bill on the decriminalising of gay relations. It is true that it was the BJP that shouted him down, but it also true that when the issue first came to the Supreme Court under the Manmohan Singh government, it was the Congress that opposed it.

The desire to force others to act according to the way we want the world to be is strong in our parts. This is particularly so because we have not fully internalised the idea of individual liberties.

In India, and in south Asia generally, identity is collective and communal and the individual and her rights are always demoted in favour of social harmony. This is one way in which our democracies are different from those in Europe, where also certain individual rights are denied but not to the extent that they are here.

The fact is that our moralism will get us into trouble.

Gurgaon has many Korean and Japanese restaurants that continue to openly serve beef. These are patronised mainly by foreigners and it is certain that very soon an enthusiastic Haryana policeman wanting to please the chief minister will raid such places and make arrests, making India a global story in a way we do not like.

On a television debate I was on after Bihar announced prohibition, I explained that prohibition has totally corrupted the Gujarat police and criminalised the casual drinker.

It has sent the alcohol economy underground and encouraged the underworld through illegal distribution networks. The police officer in Gujarat has two real choices: To ignore what goes on or to participate in it. There is no real honest fight against alcohol, because it cannot be won. The same is true for all aspects of our bogus and imposed morality.

IMAGE: Daniel Craig and Monica Bellucci in Spectre.

Aakar Patel is Executive Director, Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.

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