Born free

Since I came to Vancouver, I got to interact with a lot of students from parts of the world where freedom has a different meaning. I realised we Indians don’t appreciate enough how we have been raised. Neither do we realise how things are in other parts of the world. Let me elaborate some more.

The right to free speech has been so ingrained in our daily lives through the intensely active Indian media (although their activity is not always in the right direction) that we don’t even notice it. When it comes to expressing our opinions, we are always at the front. Politicians actually need to worry about how to keep their dirt behind closed doors. I believe all of this freedom to think and express has helped us evolve the idea of right and wrong in two distinct ways,

  • permitted under the law.
  • acceptable as a society.

We also realise that they need not overlap. Although that is not ideal, we try to reach a resolution through debates in either the media, a court of law or the parliament. This has a big implication for us as a society, it is never acceptable for an entity to circumvent the law even when justified by an argument such as, for the greater good. When individuals grow up in an atmosphere with restricted freedom, one doesn’t appreciate this subtlety and often justify breaking the law arguing its for the greater good and whatever collateral damage that comes with it is acceptable. In their mind their personal limits of acceptability is the only constraint on choice.

Now one may ask what is wrong with that as long as it is well intentioned? In reply to that I would ask, how is a justification like that different from any of the justifications provided by any of the political or religious zealots? Who decides whose judgement is to be respected? An impartial construct is needed here, and the law provides that. So as a matter of principle a society should try to evolve such that the respect for the law is supreme, and when the law comes in the way a mechanism to debate and make amends should be in place. Since people are different it is impractical to expect the law from different parts of the world would consider an event in the same light, but we can always agree on the basic set of rights. It is easier said than done, but definitely not impossible.

This is often a strong dilemma as the situations where this is relevant always involves a police state with curtailed political or social freedom, and the law and its methods become highly questionable. And often there are no ways for people to debate this and they are even kept in the dark by the state controlled social machinery. Even in situations like this, calling for a revolution, the establishment of a rule of law provides credibility to the revolutionaries after the fact.

What I am trying to drive at is, if there is no respect for the law by the common citizens to start with, then there is no hope of establishing a free and equal society. If we have the right to choose when to abide by the law, then the law becomes ineffective and irrelevant. Even a change of regime need not be illegal. The legality of the change provides the required basis of principle for the subsequent rebuilding of the society. If we disregard this we end up replacing one autocracy for another. If the founding principles are tainted so will be whatever is built on them.

When highlighted against the last few years’ international events, this difference in the notion of right and wrong and its implications on the society leads to different conclusions about the legality of some of these international developments. Some of these have been justified with arguments in the same lines as this fuelling the disregard for the rule of law. To achieve any real success in correcting this mess we need to start by addressing the need for respect for the law by the commoner rather than blind enforcing of the law in these afflicted regions. People need to be re-educated and value of human life needs to be ingrained back into the societal fabric of these conflict zones to achieve any form of success. (we could do with some of that too) Blind use of force might result in another generation of children growing up with a personal sense of right or wrong instead of a collective.

I just wish people realised the loss of even a single life is not acceptable before its too late.

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  1. I guess it all depends on what sort of laws you have. For example our freedom fighters must have broken many of the existing British laws in their struggle. The fact that we have much greater respect for law today is because the laws now are not discriminatory and are more just.

    So I will phrase what you are saying as follows: once we have a system of law which is generally accepted (barring modifications here and there) by the whole population (not just the majority) breaking the law in isolated instances where it might seem that doing so might lead to a positive outcome in the view of some people, does not have a positive effect in the long run (for reasons you have elaborated upon).

    To make the discussion less abstract a specific example of such a situation is the torture debate in the US. The question is – Should terrorists be tortured if doing so can yield information that can save hundreds of lives?

      • suvayu
      • May 10th, 2009

      Sandeepan,

      Since you brought up independence struggle, specifically in India I want make make a contrast to better convey my idea.

      Even though our revolutionaries were breaking laws and were being prosecuted for it, the British rule was still answerable to a parliament half a world away. India was the crown jewel in the British colonial empire and that made it immune from some of the more barbaric practices of the colonial powers of the era. Eventually this led to 1947 and we became one of the earliest colonies to gain independence.

      Now lets look at the African colonies, governed by some European colonial power or the other. The governors were a lot less accountable there in comparison. And look at where that got us, the countries were liberated a lot later, about two decades at its best; and when they left the whole continent was in chaos, and it still is.

      And we are still not learning.

  2. One of my professors had a young daughter and he used to say that he wanted to marry her to a man who would neither have too much money nor too little!

    I would not comment on the various aspects of legislations, discriminatory or not, freedom, barred or not. It is poverty and abundance both which is at the root of all social evil. Ya it sounds much like the socialist ideology which has failed miserably but then it wasnt a workable solution. Mr. Ali why dont you find us one that works?

      • suvayu
      • May 10th, 2009

      Shatadru,
      The only solution that works is people stop being selfish and start living for others, but that is too much to ask in today’s world.

  3. I understand what you are saying over here. Its one thing that we could be taking our freedom for granted. The other reason to why our law doesnt gain respect is because of the people who represent them… lawyers, police…etc.

    Comin back to education system… it can teach people to be responsible accountable citizens… its not about having the will to selflessly serve(who ever does that today) but to do what to have to by all fare means…. to educate that there is a lot that matters above just marks. Some of the outputs of the system will go on to make the general public/public servents/nations forces.

    “breaking the law in isolated instances” – indicates that (democratic/dictatorship/…) 1)law is fairly good, 2)there is a good amount of respect for the law, 3)law enforcement is fairly good. BUT if it is the other way around then its and indicator of 1) inappropriate/unfair laws OR 2) public has no fear/respect for the law OR 3)Law enforcement is not happening as expected.

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