Limits of Freedom


What is happening in Manipur today once again has underscored why rule of law is important, and even if any section of the public is unhappy with any law, it does not help to resort to lawlessness. It is precisely this understanding which makes democracy work. There are democratic and legitimate ways of addressing these issues, and even if things do not shape up as fast as desired, there are no better ways of getting justice done. It can be any of our several so called civil society bodies, claiming to represent the entire people, or else entire communities, who resort to lawlessness plunging the state into total chaos. There is also always an air of a larger mission and sacrifice among those resorting to these means and obviously they think there is nothing undemocratic about their actions. The trouble is, everybody thinks democracy is what he or she intuitively thinks what democratic should be, even without ever having delved into its edified principles, both the obvious and the nuanced. They generally hinge their understanding of democracy to the famous but nebulous articulation of it as a government for, of and by the people. Their idea of democracy and democratic rights is somewhat akin to the plebeian understanding of freedom. Here too everybody thinks he or she knows what freedom is, but in all likelihood, if asked to define it, most would be at a loss. Very often however, what many call freedom, as Erick Fromm told us, is actually ‘Escape from Freedom” in a book by the same title, for freedom in its real sense is burdened with responsibilities and can often be frightening.

The fact is, democracy and freedom are extremely important values, but they cannot have existence outside of the law. In the Hollywood movie of the 1970s, “The Ten Commandments” this point is driven home quite dramatically. In this particular scene, Moses after his penance on Mt. Sinai where he encounters God in the form of the Burning Bush, returns with the Ten Commandments from God, etched in stone tablets, descends from the mountain to the Israeli slaves he freed from the Pharaoh’s custody in Egypt. There he finds his people revelling in hedonist pleasure and worships. An enraged Moses calls for an immediate halt to the madness and one amongst the crowd screams at him “We want freedom”, and Moses retorts back “There is no freedom without the law”. For the Christian faith, the Ten Commandments of God then were the first set of laws, and these laws were what defined freedom. The implication is, abandon the law and what we have will not be freedom but total anarchy. Democracy too works this way. Abandon the law and democracy will wither away. Manipur knows this all too well. It has been there many times before and it is currently caught in such a situation again.

It is true the state is not such a benign institution that it can be trusted completely in everything. It can also get unimaginably violent and coercive, causing violation of individual rights. It is this realisation which led to the Human Rights movement immediately after the WWII. This cataclysmic event, more than any other, disillusioned all optimism of the Enlightenment Age and the trust it calls upon to place in the modern state. There were no doubts whatsoever then that the state needed to be checked. But it must be noted that all the 30 articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are also about upholding the law and making the state abide by the law too. This being so, while it is perfectly legitimate to hold protest against the state or any power structure, coercive means to hold such protests are strictly unacceptable. In any case, such coercive resorts would also only justify the state to use its own legitimate coercive powers to counter them. Not only this, the situation often becomes such that the state’s use of its ‘legitimate coercive strength’ have often come to appear like a responsibility to the larger public. It may also be added that for many the AFSPA debate too reduces to this logic – that coercive undermining of the law must have to be dealt with the coercive strength of the state. Here it is difficult not to be reminded of a TV show organised by an American channel in the 1990s in which Nobel Peace Prize winners of the past were made to discuss the NATO bombing of Kosovo in intervention against the Serbian state’s meditated violence on its Muslim subjects. The house was divided on the issue but one voice was an eye opener. He said the NATO bombs were a terror but he imagined a persecuted Albanian Muslim subject hiding in his attic from marauding soldiers looking out of a window and upon witnessing the NATO bombs falling exclaimed silently in ecstasy: “Beautiful Bombs”.

Source: Imphal Free Press


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