Why India should stop being a nanny state and ban the ban

Is the State a strict, bad-tempered parent who always wants to have things his or her way, simply to prove that it knows what is best for its children? Or should the State be an understanding and indulgent parent who allows its wards to grow up with freedom, and yes, make the occasional mistake, face the consequences, and learn from it? This is a choice every State has to make. And we citizens have no option but to fall in line with that choice, since we have given the State, as indeed we give our parents, that power over our lives.

The ban on cryptocurrency has once again raised concerns about curbs on free choice. According to a recent news report, over one crore Indians hold digital assets worth Rs 10,000 crore, and they will make losses as a black market for cryptocurrency emerges. This has happened in the past as well, whenever we have banned anything.

Take alcohol, for instance. All that bans have encouraged is bootlegging. And more deaths from illicit hooch. Take the ban on lotteries. Or casinos. Or, for that matter, betting on cricket. All illegal. All banned in many states. Yet today we are flooded by internet lotteries. Casinos have moved offshore. And betting on cricket is currently estimated at Rs 4 lakh crore – marginally less than our Defence budget.

Also, funnily, what’s banned today may well be deemed perfectly legitimate tomorrow. Governments change. Ideas change. Notions of right and wrong also change. The mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto’s wondrous 2009 invention, the Bitcoin, may – bolstered by Elon Musk’s $1.5 billion buy a fortnight ago, and his announcement that Tesla car dealers will soon accept payment in this form – well emerge as a global currency. It’s trading at Rs 35 lakh per bitcoin today. Does anyone want a RBI-backed cryptocurrency? Not really. It defeats the purpose for which it was invented: To celebrate the anonymity of blockchains mining it.

Alcohol, on the other hand, is an old enemy of the State. Taxes and excise income from alcohol are huge (Rs 1.75 trillion in 2020), but it is still politically incorrect to acknowledge that. Bihar’s putative chief minister Nitish Kumar announced last week that prohibition remains a government policy and any employee caught drinking will be instantly sacked. Similarly, the gutkha and pan masala bans are farcical. Both remain freely available. The shops that sell them also sell loose cigarettes, another banned item.

Censorship is not much different. But, luckily, nothing ever stays censored for long. Everything finds its way into the net. There was a time when censorship was worse than a ban. Take the Emergency years. Newspapers were published with missing headlines and empty spaces. Cartoons were dropped. (Governments have no sense of humour. Cartoonists are often arrested and we have just seen a stand-up comic, Munawar Faruqui, arrested before he even cracked a joke.) During the Emergency, the Censor Board wanted 51 cuts in a B-grade film called Kissa Kursi Ka. But that was not enough for Indira Gandhi, who got the master print picked up and burnt in the Maruti factory in Gurgaon. It was a silly decision because the film instantly acquired cult status and Amrit Nahata, its maker, became a hero.

Frequent internet shutdowns, be it in Kashmir or on the outskirts of New Delhi where the farmers are agitating, have brought no glory to India, only unwanted global attention. The State, of course, may not see it in that light. No State does. It is not about democracy or fascism; it’s about power. The wielding of power. If you allow the State to wield that much power over you, it will. You can do nothing about it till you decide to make that complete break, as children often do with their parents. Not because their parents are bad people but because their need for freedom becomes, at some point, more important.

In India, we tend to mostly believe that children are always wrong. And that parents are the epitome of all virtue. Bollywood has stereotyped the mother as a long-suffering parent beavering away on the sewing machine, and the father as this struggling bread-earner, always misunderstood. Our myths and fables perpetuate this notion as well. And reluctant parents have no option but to live up to this absurdly noble image of what they should be– instead of living their lives as they want to. Children, too, are expected to abandon all their freedoms to be the ideal offspring.

The result? More broken families. More psychoses.

The truth is, freedom is not dangerous. It liberates us. It does not draw us away from each other. Freedom is when parents and children live together with mutual love and respect. Where they support each other to take risks, make mistakes and discover life together.

It’s the same with the State and its citizens. They must learn to live with each other’s follies. Repression is not the answer. Bans and censorship are not the only way to exercise authority or teach people the difference between right and wrong.

Many banned books are classics today. Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses is a must read. Guccione’s Caligula is cult. Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange is included among the 10 great films of all time. James Joyce’s Ulysses is syllabus for students of literature. No one considers Anais Nin’s The Winter of Artifice as pornography any more. The use of marijuana is being increasingly legitimised across the world. New generations are discovering new virtues in stuff we were once forced to shun.

The world is opening up. It’s time we did as well.

Pritish Nandy writes an incisive fortnightly diagnosis of the state of our imperfect democracy
(Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s own)

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