Markandey Katju

Crime and terrorism cannot be eliminated by harsh and draconian laws, which will curb liberty, violate the Constitution, and impede India’s scientific and economic progress.

In view of the recent incidents of terrorism in some places in India, some people have started saying that to combat terrorism it is necessary to curtail civil liberties and introduce draconian laws. To my mind, this is a dangerous idea. Hence it is necessary to explain the importance of liberty and democracy for our country’s progress. Nobody denies the need to oppose terrorism. But in my opinion, by passing draconian laws, terrorism and crime will not be reduced. Instead our country’s progress will be obstructed.

What is our national aim? It must be to make India a highly prosperous country for all its citizens, not just for a handful of people of our country. For that, it is necessary to have a high degree of industrialisation.

Even setting up and running a single primary school requires a lot of money, for buying land, erecting the school building, and providing for the recurrent expenditure for salaries of teachers, staff, and so on. We need to set up not just one but hundreds of thousands of primary schools; tens of thousands of high schools and colleges; and engineering colleges, technical institutes, medical colleges, scientific research centres, hospitals and libraries.

Where is the money for all this to come from? It can only come from a highly developed industry. Rapid industrialisation alone can generate the wealth we need for the welfare of our people; abolish poverty and unemployment, which are the main causes of crime and terrorism; and give us respect in the world community.

For industrialisation, the development of science is absolutely necessary, and for that freedom is absolutely necessary — freedom to think, freedom to write, freedom to discuss with others, freedom to explain, freedom to criticise, and freedom to dissent.

Need for supportive values

The growth of science requires certain supportive values, particularly liberty. This is because the thought process cannot develop without freedom. The values of a scientific community, namely pluralism, tolerance, individual freedom, and free flow of information, are very similar to the values of democratic society (see Science and the Making of the Modern World, by John Marks, Heinemann, 1984).

A democratic society permits freedom of speech and expression, freedom to practise one’s own religion, which is based on tolerance, and freedom to dissent and criticise. These are precisely the values of the scientific community. In scientific matters authoritarianism and dogmatism are wholly out of place. Scientists must be left to govern themselves, and have large amounts of freedom, which is necessary for innovation and creativity. Democracy and liberty go hand in hand with the growth of science because both are based on tolerance, individual freedom, and the free flow of ideas. In democracy, as in a scientific community, there is freedom to speak, freedom to discuss, freedom to criticise, and freedom to dissent.

As early as 1927, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, of the U.S. Supreme Court observed in Whitney vs. California 274 U.S. 357: “Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary…They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognised the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law — the argument of force in its worst form.”

In 1949, Justice William O. Douglas in Terminiello vs. Chicago (337 US 1) made a crucial point when he noted that a “function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

Function of free speech

The method of Shastrarthas was developed in ancient India. These were debates in which the thinkers of those times had full freedom to speak and to criticise their opponents in the opponent’s presence, and also in the presence of a large assembly of people. There are thousands of references to such Shastrarthas in our epics and other literature. It was this freedom to freely discuss and criticise that resulted in a tremendous growth of knowledge — in philosophy and grammar but also in scientific knowledge in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and so on. The names of Aryabhatt, Brahmagupta, Bhaskar, Sushrut, and Charak are well known. With the aid of science, we built mighty civilisations, beginning with the Indus Valley Civilisation at a time people in Europe were living in forests.

Modern European history is also instructive. England was the first country in the world to industrialise and modernise. This economic process was accompanied by the political struggle for liberty and democracy in the 17th and 18th centuries, which was particularly a struggle between the King and Parliament. Parliament’s triumph laid the foundation of freedom and civil liberties in England, which was necessary to create the atmosphere science needs to prosper. In pre-revolutionary France, the thinkers of the Enlightenment — Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, Holbach, and several others — who attacked feudalism and religious dogmatism paved the way for the Revolution of 1789, which destroyed feudalism and led to scientific progress.

On the other hand, in Italy, Spain, and some other countries, the Inquisition stifled free thinking and thereby scientific growth. All scientific ideas not consistent with the Bible were regarded as crimes, for example, the theory of Copernicus, which stated that the earth moved around the sun and not the sun around the earth. As a result, these countries were left far behind England and France, and remained in the feudal dark ages for centuries.

The struggle to establish the scientific outlook was not easy. Scientific ideas were initially condemned because they were regarded as opposed to religious dogma. Voltaire and Rousseau had to fly for their lives to other countries. The Church persecuted the greatest scientists with blind cruelty, burning them at the stake (for example, Bruno), torturing them (for example, Galileo), and forbidding or destroying their works. As recently as 1925, the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution was forbidden in the state of Tennessee in the United States and a teacher, John Scopes, was tried in the famous ‘Monkey Trial’ for teaching that theory. For centuries, the Church in Europe played an extremely reactionary role and fought pitilessly against the scientific conception of the world, and against the democratic movements.

In India, if we are to progress and rise as a world power, we must spread the scientific outlook to every nook and corner of our country, and destroy the superstitions, for example, the belief in astrology and palmistry, and the feudal ideas of casteism and communalism.

Science is that knowledge by which we can understand nature (and human society) and use the knowledge for our benefit. For doing so, the scientists rely on reason, observation, and experiment. This obviously cannot be done on the dictates of anyone (though the government can certainly create the atmosphere where these can flourish). Science and democratic values go hand in hand.

In science, there is no final word, unlike in religion. Science questions everything and does not take anything for granted. Obviously, this approach is not permitted in an undemocratic society, for example, a feudal society (which is governed by religion) or a fascist society (in which there is a dictator). Thus, Hitler, with his Nazi racial philosophy, caused an enormous setback to science in Germany by persecuting Jewish scientists and banning their works (for example, Einstein). We have, no doubt, to oppose the terrorism of modern times, which is, in fact, medieval obscurantism. What else is the bombing of schools or the closing down of existing girls’ schools by the Taliban? But to fight such terrorism, we must not give up our modern values of liberty and freedom. Obscurantism can only be opposed by modern scientific thinking.

In India, after the Constitution was adopted in 1950, there was an atmosphere of liberal freedom in view of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution: the right to free speech (Article 19), to liberty (Article 21), to equality (Articles 14 to 17), to religious freedom (Article 25), and so on. This helped the growth of science and technology, because it created an atmosphere of freedom where people, including scientists, could freely discuss and dissent. If we compare our country with our neighbours, it becomes clear that they lagged far behind in economic growth precisely because such freedoms were lacking.

Further, the advanced sections of society who want to take the country forward, and have the knowledge to do so, must have a lot of freedom to discuss, debate, and criticise each other. They are the pioneers and are entering into a new field, much of which is unknown. Hence, they must have freedom to think, discuss, and criticise.

Freedom to dissent

As John Stuart Mill argued in his celebrated essay ‘On Liberty,’ all progress, the advancement of knowledge and progressive change, and the improvement of old ways of thinking, old behaviour patterns, habits, customs and traditions can come only from free individual dissent, dissensions, and innovations, which are at first usually resisted by inert or conservative people (usually the vast majority), and by free competition between the old and new ideas. Ordinarily in any society, he pointed out, the majority shares old thoughts and traditions. There is a strong tendency to insist on conformity and collective unity or solidarity, to repress dissent and innovation, and to tolerate only what the majority agrees with. This inevitably works to prevent any progress and to thwart the creative impulses of the more creative and original minds. Extensive freedom to dissent and innovate, in all spheres of life, activity, culture and thought in all directions, including expressing ideas initially thought strange and often disliked by the conservative, tradition-bound majority, is indispensable to progress. The intellectually advanced and creative individuals are often in the minority, and are regarded as non-conforming eccentrics and deviants, and there is often a tendency to suppress them. This is why liberal democracy, majority rule but qualified and limited by firm protection of minorities, and individual rights and liberties, even against the governing majority, is essential for progress.

The importance of the judiciary in India needs to be highlighted in this connection. In two key decisions, Govt of A.P. and others vs. P. Laxmi Devi [2008 (4) SCC 720, JT 2008 (2) 639] and Deepak Bajaj vs. State of Maharashtra and others [JT 2008 (11) SC 609], the Supreme Court of India has emphasised the importance of liberty for progress, and observed that the judiciary must act as guardians of the liberties of the people, protecting them against executive, or even legislative arbitrariness or despotism.

India needs democracy and scientific knowledge, and that means patiently spreading scientific ideas among the vast masses, raising their cultural level, and involving them actively in the task of nation building.

To my mind, harsh and draconian laws will curb liberty. That will not only violate the right to liberty granted by Article 21 of the Constitution. It will also lead to great evils such as an increase in corruption in the police and other law enforcing agencies, which will have much more opportunity to extort money from the citizens, apart from impeding scientific and economic growth.

To my mind, crime and terrorism cannot be eliminated by draconian laws. They can be eliminated only by the abolition of poverty and unemployment, which are the main sources of crime. Only rapid industrialisation can abolish poverty and unemployment, which will largely eliminate crime and terrorism.