August 22, 2009BJPcompetitive intoleranceconstitutionalismfreedom of expressionhistoryIndialiberal nationalismPakistanpoliticsPublic Policy

Territory is not a big deal

People are.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

From a liberal nationalist perspective, it is impossible to agree with Jaswant Singh’s judgement that territorial integrity of pre-Partition India was worth preserving at the cost of having Pakistans within India”. His praise for Mohammed Ali Jinnah and his criticism of Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel is based on this notion. Yet a constitutional arrangement where citizens come in different types based on their religion and where different types of citizens have different rights and entitlements might not even preserve the territorial unity it set out to preserve. It would be impossible for such a state to achieve stability in its domestic politics and consequently, it would be impossible for such a state to operate with the unity of purpose necessary to protect its geopolitical interests. Indeed, it would be difficult to pin down a definition of its interests in the first place.

Territorial unity is meaningless unless it defines a state that realises individual rights and freedoms—the foremost among them being equality. Nehru might have had his faults—but his uncompromising stand on a liberal democratic constitutional structure was not one of them. If anything, his fault was that his liberalism didn’t go far enough to respect fundamental rights when they got in the way of his social reform project. [For a more detailed response to Mr Singh’s contentions, see GreatBong’s post]

Should this warrant Mr Singh’s summary expulsion from the BJP? Well, that’s the BJPs call. It is entirely within its rights to take action against a member who it sees has having strayed from its values. Of course, you would expect the biggest opposition party in the world’s biggest democracy to do this with due process, decorum and dignity. That it didn’t speaks of the type of office-bearers it has. It also begs the question of the kind of values the BJP has when you consider that it stood behind a thug who spewed communal venom but thought it fit to expel an urbane statesman who expressed a heterodox intellectual opinion. If the BJPs leaders wish to face the electorate with such a prospectus, then it is entirely their call. [See Rohit Pradhan & B Raman on this]

But nothing justifies the Gujarat state government’s decision to ban the book. That it is silly and impractical should not subtract from the fact that it is an assault on the freedom of expression. Under Narendra Modi, Gujarat has been among India’s better governed states. Even so, it is presumptuous for Mr Modi to impose his likes, dislikes and political compulsions on the the aesthetic and intellectual life of Gujarat’s residents.

Unlike Mr Singh’s expulsion, the Gujarat government’s ban is not an internal matter of the BJP. It must be challenged in court. If the ban is symbolic, its revocation will be more than that. It will set a precedent.

Finally, let’s be clear—as The Acorn wrote in 2005, Jinnah doesn’t matter (and there’s some empirical evidence too). The debate over Jinnah’s legacy is taking place on the wrong side of the border he created. For India, the question of whether or not he was a secularist is pointless—Pakistan is an Islamic republic. Besides, Jinnah’s fear of majoritarian rule was hardly based on principle—if it were, his Pakistan wouldn’t deny its own minorities the protection against majoritarianism that he sought in pre-Partition India.

Unsurprisingly, it is in India that fundamental rights—equality of all citizens the first among them—provide a bulwark against majoritarianism. This hardly means that the situation is perfect. Rather, it tells you how important it is to be intolerant to any attempt to erode, abridge or subvert those rights for reasons of low politics or high policy.

That’s why those who disagree with the argument in Mr Singh’s book must oppose any attempt to ban it.



If you would like to share or comment on this, please post it on Twitter Previous
Little ado about Qari Saifullah Akhtar’s arrest
Next
And he’s doing it before even winning the Booker prize

© Copyright 2003-2021. Nitin Pai. All Rights Reserved.