How can we be proud of our independence but berate freedom-seekers?

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Freedom is what each of us seeks. And the Right to Privacy is the ballast of human society, undergirding our independence and freedom.

Why should you bother about the government collecting your data when you willingly offer it to avail app services? The key word is 'willingly'. Choice matters, as it insures your Right to Privacy. | AP

Many people describe India’s Independence movement as ‘India’s Freedom Struggle’. After 1947, we may have been ‘independent’ in the sense that we were free to elect our legislators, but not really free — not in the truest sense of the word.

For the longest time, we needed ‘licences’ (read bribes) to set up business enterprises. And then of course, the Indian consumer isn't really free — choice to the consumer was never high up on the priorities list of the government’s economic agenda. The government didn't allow us the freedom to run an airline, an insurance company or a bank for several decades — they still don’t trust us to operate a railway service.

Indira Gandhi briefly took away all forms of choice or freedom when she imposed the Emergency on this country — we didn't have a free press, nor could we protest in any form or manner. Our telephones were tapped, we were forced into sterilisation camps (after all, it made perfect logical sense that our soundwaves and sperm couldn't be free if the human beings that they emanated from weren't free themselves), and we had no way of knowing the horrors of the reality that unfolded around us. Dissenters were jailed, or worse, quietly disposed of. And all of this happened 30 years after Independence.

 

Even today, we fight for our freedom — the freedom to consume the food of our choice, the freedom to express our sexuality, the freedom to be left alone, the freedom to stay ‘off the grid’. Large sections of society still struggle for freedom from class oppression. Women everywhere fight for the freedom over their own bodies. And female foetuses, in wombs all over the country, struggle for the freedom to live. The sad truth is that we (or governments elected by us) have crippled our individual freedom in the name of knowing and doing what's best for us ‘as a nation’. ‘Protecting/Safeguarding our Culture/Sensibilities/Ethos/National Interest’ has become synonymous with oppression. I have come to dread any combination of those words used in the same sentence.

Interestingly, even as we individually struggle for one freedom or another, society as a whole looks down upon freedom-seekers. They are seen or portrayed as reprobates, upstarts, troublemakers, freaks, traitors, anti-nationalists or worse. Large sections of our society find these struggles to be amusing at best, and repulsive at worst. "They have the audacity to fight for freedom? Isn't this a free country? Would this sort of nonsense be tolerated in Saudi Arabia? China is so far ahead of us because they don't believe in this sort of nonsense in the name of Freedom… Did students in America protest the killing the of Osama Bin Laden? Either you love the country you live in, or live in the country that you love!" Pompous Outrage has never had a good track record of exercising logical introspection, nor can it spot the inherent flaws in its own harangues. Pompous Outrage does have a good track record of gathering support in numbers, and is extremely efficient at bullying or even bulldozing any voices of reason or dissent, particularly so in the Age of the Online Troll.

Salman Rushdie wrote a book that annoyed some sections of society, and wasn't allowed to sell it, publish it or even read it aloud on Indian soil. M.F. Hussain wasn't allowed to display some of his paintings, because they offended certain other sections. Perumal Murugan dared to suggest that there might be a dark underbelly to a few festivals and rituals, and was hounded to the point of total surrender. "We are India — we are an extremely tolerant society — as long as you don't offend us, of course."

The struggle for greater freedom must never cease, nor must we ever forget that true freedom is indivisible and that the most sacred, noble thing in a democracy is the free will of a free man.

We live in a complex and seemingly paradoxical society, where we yearn for freedom and yet are embarrassed, disgusted or even outraged by those who seek it. For citizens of a country that fought for its own independence successfully 70 years ago, we have been surprisingly slow to embrace the concept of freedom.

And so when the Supreme Court of India ruled that the Right to Privacy was a Fundamental Right, even though the ruling came seven decades after India’s Independence, it gives those of us who value Individual Freedom and Liberty considerable cause to cheer. The judgment was full of measured wisdom, and used words like ‘independence’, ‘dignity’, ‘choice’, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’. We don’t hear those words often enough in public discourse. The Supreme Court verdict was like manna from heaven.

It brings the focus sharply on many of our laws that are archaic, sexist, discriminatory and downright prudish (some of them still reflect the ignorant prejudices of Victorian English society, rather than the modern reality of 2017). It is, in my opinion, inaccurate, foolish, oppressive and insensitive to describe homosexuality as ‘deviant’ or ‘perverted’. The Right to Privacy could potentially blow this archaic legislation to bits. 70 years after Independence, the LGBTQ community can finally live with the dignity that is theirs by right, and it is to our collective discredit as a democratic society that it took as long as it did.

 

Similarly, we live in a society where a man can be convicted as a rapist if he forces himself or sexually violates a woman against her will, unless, of course, said woman is unfortunate enough to be married to him. In other words, once a man marries a woman, he somehow possesses the ‘right of way’ over her body — a horribly chauvinist, sexist notion that should not exist in any free society. Marital rape has not been a punishable offence in India for the last 70 years. Hopefully this judgment, with its emphasis on ‘dignity’ and ‘freedom over one’s own body’ could change that. It could empower Indian wives to stand up to their husbands when they need to, as equal partners in a conjugal relationship. And it could help Indian men finally understand that 'no' means 'no', whether you are married or not.

The most important thrust of this Right to Privacy is to do with the Aadhaar card. The judgment brings into focus the safeguards — or lack thereof — that govern the gathering, using and sharing of information in the Aadhaar exercise. Unlike marital rape or LGBTQ rights, this is a more nuanced question. The BJP government (and the Congress government before them) argue that unless the Aadhaar card captures specific demographic data and is linked to a bank account, subsidies and benefits will be dissipated and may not eventually reach those for whom it was intended. It is an ironclad argument and makes perfect sense. Similarly, the move to link the Aadhaar with a mobile phone makes eminent sense, from the point of view of leveraging technology to drive efficiency. In a country wearied by corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, the concept of a babu-less/tout-less subsidy, where unofficial commissions need not be paid, seems almost too good to be true. The idea of a subsidy that is automatically and promptly wired to a bank account without one having to spend days following up with a clerk/peon/officer is extremely seductive. And its efficiency and efficacy is in direct proportion to the amount and extent of personal data that it demands for each citizen. If ones goal is only to maximise efficiency, therefore, it is logical that all government benefits are linked to this database.

The flipside is that there is unquestionable loss of privacy — an unavoidable cost in the pursuit of efficiency. It is almost as though society can have as much privacy as it is willing to pay for in inefficiency, corruption and dissipated benefits. Indeed, societies with little freedom often seem to operate with high levels of efficiency. But Big Data can deliver results as well as give rein to ignoble intentions.

Higher efficiency cannot be at the cost of individual liberty — a concept that is at the heart of the Supreme Court judgment. The demand for democratic safeguards and data accountability will temper the acceleration of the Aadhaar drive, and put some brakes on big-data driven speed and efficiency. It will also ensure that those who remain ‘off the grid’, whether by choice or by compulsion of circumstances, are not left behind.

 

Advocates of the Aadhaar exercise question how ‘private’ our lives really are anyway. Once you are on the internet, your life is no longer truly private, they say. And they do have a point. The most powerful companies in the world aren't necessarily the ones with the most products, or the most sales — they are the ones with the most information. Amazon isn't a behemoth because you can buy almost anything on its website — they are powerful because they know exactly what, when and how you buy. Facebook knows more about you than your spouse does, and Google knows more about you than you do, if that’s even possible. You willingly gave up your privacy when you signed up — you decided to use their products — products engineered by the world's best minds to make your life more convenient and more efficient, even if it meant that your life was consequently less private. Somewhere, floating around among masses of data, is your life, expressed in terms of the data that your online behaviour generates. And that data is making these companies richer and more powerful every day. So, why do you protest when the government’s Big Brother Algorithm watches you when you willingly allow Google’s Big Brother Algorithm to watch you? You are a willing cog in the wheel — a tiny morsel among billions that feeds this capricious monster.

And therein lies the key difference — willingness. We willingly give up our data to these private companies in exchange for their products and conveniences. We understand or are deemed to have understood the price that we pay in terms of a loss of privacy. It is at the end of the day a choice that each user must be able to make. A government demanding data and linking basic benefits and subsidies (which are integral to the day-to-day life of all citizens) to a master database borders on compulsion and coercion, which could be construed as a violation of individual liberty. After all, the number of Indians using Google in a day would be significantly fewer than the number of Indians who depend on subsidised LPG cylinders for cooking fuel.

Also, a government is more likely to efficiently target and harass you using all the information, apparatus and arsenal that it has at its command, if they suddenly decided that your existence was inconvenient or undesirable. Governments in India (across party lines) have a very poor track record of respecting individual liberty, particularly when it comes to dealing with dissidents and opponents. The idea of a vindictive government armed to the teeth with information, without any safeguards of individual liberty, will make anyone who wishes to raise his voice in dissent think twice — and that’s never the sign of a healthy democracy.

Of course, I recognise, appreciate and am grateful for the freedom that allows me to share such thoughts. I do realise that many countries in the world are ruled by governments that block information, and crush the will of their people in the name of development and progress. I am deeply appreciative of the rights that I enjoy. We need only look beyond our borders (any border, really) to feel fortunate and grateful for the liberties that we enjoy in this country. But the struggle for greater freedom must never cease, nor must we ever forget that true freedom is indivisible and that the most sacred, noble thing in a democracy is the free will of a free man.

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