When the government eats your rights

Jul 24, 2013, 07:24 IST | Ranjona Banerji

Britain is a nation that thrives on rules. You cannot step out of your house without notices telling you where to walk, when to walk and how to walk, how to stand on an escalator, how to get off a train, when to sit, when to talk and even, at a railway station in London, how and when to argue with the staff in case of a problem.

Telling: The fracas over a restaurant in Parel speaks volumes about our lack of basic freedom

It is funny and on the tube you see little children from all over the world mimicking the words “mind the gap” to their own great amusement. But even as the over-emphasis on instructions about obvious things seems stifling you are confronted with an overwhelming sense of personal freedom. Irreverence is everywhere as is freedom of speech, thought and expression.

The contrast between this version of freedom of expression with the little fracas over a restaurant in Mumbai’s Parel area could not be more stark. Aditi Restaurant has been carrying this legend below its bills: “As per UPA government, eating money (2G, Coal, CWG scam) is a necessity and eating food in an AC restaurant is a luxury.”

This apparently upset some Congress workers who barged into the eatery and forced the owner to shut it down. They also filed a defamation case against him. This is the sort of bullying which has devalued India’s Constitutional privileges of freedom. We have seen it again and again, workers of some party or the other reacting inappropriately to a joke or criticism. The correct response would be for the Congress party and the Congress-run government in Maharashtra to take the party workers involved to task and withdraw the defamation case.

The owner of Aditi, Srinivas Shetty has told MiD DAY: “I have my opinion and India being an independent country, I have the right to express my views. Because of the government including all AC (air-conditioned) eateries in its purview for paying service tax, I suffered losses and I had to shut down the AC section of my restaurant altogether.”

Even if Shetty had not suffered, he still had the right to protest government policy. The “defamation” charge is even stranger although hardly unusual, as we saw with the Shiv Sena and the girl who commented on Bal Thackeray’s funeral on Facebook. The question is not just about political workers having thick skins. It is about respect for the idea of democracy. But in India, democracy has become limited to voting. To be enfranchised is a massive privilege but democracy has to be about a lot more than that.

It seems incredible that after more than 60 years we still have to put up with this kind of bullying. The truth though is that we do not have to put up with it. It is our lethargy which allows politicians – large and small – to threaten our most basic rights. Aditi is not a large powerful restaurant and nor has anyone been physically hurt in this struggle. But it is these little incidents which erode the spirit of freedom.

There is one more way of looking at this, which also connects with the British model: developing a healthy sense of humour. Having a bit of a laugh might be a good way to get rid of the unwarranted outrage which seems to afflict us for big things and small. The Aditi tax protest is a joke really and customers are most likely to giggle when they see it. Why take it more seriously than that?

And yet, jokes are also getting dangerous in India as cartoonists have found in the last couple of years. Our “holy cows” are above irreverence as everyone from Shashi Tharoor to cartoonist Aseem Trivedi found out to their horror. Even the late great cartoonist Shankar was not spared by our undemocratic humourless political types who often seem like caricatures of the real thing.

The balance between following rules and laughing at them is something that our society is still to come to terms with and right now, we and Srinivas Shetty are suffering for it. 

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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