Sunday, May 27, 2007

Dera Sacha Sauda versus The Sikhs

The recent violence in Punjab and Haryana over the Dera Sacha Sauda chief's choice of dress highlights one of the most fundamental problems in India. This is a problem which runs deeper than something like corruption or overpopulation (not to play down the importance of those issues).

The Sikhs (or anyone else) have no right to tell anyone how to dress. Blasphemy, in any form, is not an offense in any civilized society. Everyone should have the freedom to say and do whatever they please -- as long as it is not designed to cause disturbances. Unfortunately, the Sikhs in Punjab have failed to recognize this.

The recent incidents are neither isolated nor unusual. Second year students in colleges think they have the right to rag incoming freshmen. RSS and VHP activists think it is their right to smash the offices of newspapers that publish anything they disagree with. Naga christians think they have the right to chase Hindus out of Nagaland. National governments think it is perfectly fine to imprison and torture anyone who says anything against a minister (an outstanding example: the Emergency of Indira Gandhi). Soldiers think it is normal to torture Kashmiri kids, and kill them if they refuse to cooperate. Muslim organizations think it is their right to serve death sentences on authors who disagree with anything in the Quran. The Naxalites think they can dispense social justice to (maim and kill) anyone they don't like. Marathas think they have the right to prevent non-Marathas from working in Maharashtra. The CPI(M) thought it was within its rights to order its cadres to cut thumbs off villagers who don't vote for the party. Indians everywhere thought they could attack any Sikh in the aftermath of assassination in 1984. The police everywhere think it is their right to thrash and torture everybody in jail cells.

This lack of respect for individual civil liberties is characteristic of India. Individuals and organizations suffer from a God complex: "if it is within my power, I have the right to do it". The Dera Sacha Sauda incidents just serve to illustrate a greater malaise.

Getting back to the Dera Sacha Sauda affair, police have registered an FIR against the head of the Dera Sacha Sauda. This may be proper procedure when complaints are made against him, but it is surprising that the police is doing nothing about the rioting hordes who mortally threatened Dera members.

So, what are civil liberties worth? One of the questions we Indians must ask ourselves is this: "Do we serve our collective national soul better by granting civil liberties to others who disagree with us, or by aggressively enforcing our own opinions?"

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