Freedom without a centre
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Threats to the freedom of expression come largely from three sources. In some states like West Bengal, there is outright political thuggery: criticise the leader and pay the price. Many states have milder versions of this phenomenon. In some states, sedition laws have been used to quell dissent. The second threat comes from patriarchy. The crisis of patriarchy is finding its most potent expression on the ground of speech. From hoodlums targeting girls in pubs in Mangalore to muftis finding a teenage rock band a threat to civilisation, the concerted effort is to inhibit freedom for women. This trend is disconcerting, but again, it takes place against the backdrop of momentous social change, where women are participating more, and on their own terms. The third threat comes from the vicious cycle of competitive offence-mongering that still remains a tempting axis of mobilisation in our society. A secularism that emphasised parity between groups rather than individual freedoms was bound to generate this escalating dynamic, where you test the state on how much it protects your group. But even this attempt to consolidate group identities through a politics of competitive hurt takes place against a backdrop where identities are becoming more fluid and open. Indeed, groups are attempting to impose the yoke of community, precisely because the actual power to control is diminishing. It is more a sign of desperation than a harbinger of community power. This is why so many seeking community salvation in feigning hurt seem increasingly unrepresentative.
So it could be the case that the foundations of society are being increasingly liberalised, even as the political incentives to curb free expression continue to exist. Recognising this is important for a reason. Nothing serves suppressing tyrants more than the idea that they are in some ways representative of larger society, or even the groups they claim to speak for. The biggest failure of our times is not that society is becoming more regressive (compared to when?). The biggest danger is that small minorities or fringe groups who attack free expression are being presented as if they represented public opinion. Here, as elsewhere, the whole concept of public opinion has become a self-fulfilling construct. Public opinion is often not an objective fact. It is, in part, a creation of what people think public opinion is. The loony fringe's greatest success is to somehow get people to think that they represent public opinion. This is confusing politicians as much as everyone else. Which is why it is important to articulate that there is a large liberal India that is growing.
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