Brainstorm Think

Confused, Not Conservative

This is the 10th piece in our ongoing Brainstorm discussion on The Future of the Indian Republic. The first nine: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

This Brainstorming exchange has been valuable and instructive. Perhaps not surprisingly for Pragati, all of us appear to have converged on the widening gap between the liberal values enshrined in the Constitution and the growing illiberalism of our polity. Almost on cue comes news of a survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies along with Konrad Adenauer Stiftung of Germany on the “attitudes, anxieties and aspirations” of India’s youth (15-34-year-olds). Their findings make disturbing reading.

According to the survey, only about 25% of the youth approve of homosexual relationships, 36% disapprove of intercaste marriages, 45% disapprove of inter-religious marriage and 67% disapprove of live-in relationships. Sixty percent want films that hurt religious sentiments to be banned, 23% doesn’t want a ban on films, and 18 had no opinion.

It gets worse: 46% doesn’t think eating beef should be allowed. (36% said beef should be allowed; 18% had no opinion.) In Kerala, the state whose capital I represent in parliament, while 84% said eating beef is a personal choice and should not be objected to, 58% said films that hurt religious sentiments should be banned.

The Big C

I would argue that India’s young are not conservative, they’re confused — and their attitudes reflect to a great extent what they are told they ought to believe. I believe that we need to move India into a more liberal direction, in keeping with the values enshrined in the Constitution. But we have a government that embodies the most conservative aspects of society, and unlike our very first government, refuses to guide the polity to a more liberal space. Whereas the Indian Republic’s earliest years were marked by the leadership of a liberal generation that urged a bitterly divided India to rise above its religious and communal passions despite Partition, we now have a government at the helm that caters to and reinforces the biases inherent in the worst aspects of our society.

In a rather illiberal country, one in which increasingly illiberal tendencies are receiving active encouragement from the powers-that-be, a liberal leadership should set aspirational standards for the nation, and teach society to share those aspirations. Nehru and his generation of nationalist leaders used the political platform to educate and exhort; today most leaders prefer to pander to the prejudices of their voters rather than to raise the bar for them.

One example of this lies in the way the massed ranks of the BJP benches rose in the Lok Sabha to thwart my attempts to introduce a Private Member’s Bill that would have decriminalized all sexual relations between consenting adults. I have argued for the elimination of Section 377 not because it restricts sex but because it restricts freedom. I believe strongly that the government has no place in our bedrooms. Unfortunately, we have a government that is not only happy to peek into the bedroom but to intrude on the kitchen, inspect the contents of your refrigerator, tell you when you must stand to be truly nationalist and what words you must mouth to prove your Indianness. The least a government can do if it does not wish to “direct” Indians towards liberalism is to stay out of the way and let them determine for themselves how they wish to live.

In most other societies this would be seen as a purely generational divide – older conservatives refusing to yield to the demands of younger liberals. As the CSDS-Adenauer survey reveals, the picture in India is more complicated largely because society has evolved patchily, with an urban educated segment developing progressive attitudes comparable to their peers in the Western world, while rural youth remain confined by the prejudices of their seniors. Our failure to instil the liberal values of the Founding Fathers beyond a small section of our society has left the rest more receptive to the blandishments of traditionalism. The dismaying percentage of those young people who are happy to see things banned – from beef to books – is a depressing confirmation of this failure.

Am I, then, pessimistic about the future of our Republic? I have long been seen as an incorrigible optimist and I am not about to change. But my optimism is undoubtedly tempered by a sober awareness of the scale of the challenge that confronts the Indian liberal in politics. What one must do is continue to speak for liberal values, in the knowledge that the core institutions of our country were designed by people who sought to move a traditional society into modernity. Those of us who can must hold high the light so that it remains visible to those who wish to follow.

About the author

Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor is a two-time Congress MP and Chairman of the External Affairs Committee in Parliament. An award winning author of sixteen works of fiction and non-fiction, he is the author of India: From Midnight to the Millennium, a history of post-Independence India, and, most recently, An Era of Darkness, that tells the story of the British Raj in the subcontinent. He has been Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations and Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development in the Government of India.