Kanhaiya Kumar and Modi's India need to rediscover Ayn Rand

Both the Left and the Right wish to use the tools of state power to control the lives of other people.

 |  5-minute read |   07-03-2016
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Ayn Rand died 34 years ago today and yet her appeal has only endured and grown over these decades. She continues to be among the top-most widely read philosophers of the 20th century. Outside of North America, Rand’s novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, are most widely read in India.

Whatever the reasons for her popularity in India, though, when we see the current political and cultural landscape of the country, one can scarcely claim that Ayn Rand has had an influence in shaping it.

Since the rise of the BJP into power, the socio-political differences between the Left and the Right camps in India appear to be more pronounced than ever. Both are engaged in an intense battle over the role of the state the identity of an Indian. What would Ayn Rand have to say about the recent events that have happened in the country?

A close study of her philosophy will reveal that Rand had no use for a world of dualities. It was impossible, she believed, for the world to be disjointed, fractured. For her, every part existed in a reciprocal relationship with the totality. “Two sides of the same coin,” she said about the Right-wing and Left-wing camps in the United States.

The right-wing upholds the holy trinity of tradition, religion, and nation, which must be protected by the state. The Left looks to the state as the omniprovident panacea for all economic evils. For both, the state was sacred.

As an example, let us cast a Randian gaze on the recent events at that have transpired at Jawaharlal Nehru University. What it reveals is a disturbing trend that both the right-wing and the left-wing camps are complicit in having created. It is that some kinds of speech can be considered a crime – such as anti-national speech. The seeds of this idea trace back to the founding father and first prime minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, who felt that free speech cannot be without restraints, especially when it threatened the government. Therefore, he led the Parliament in introducing a series of caveats to the exercise of free speech in Article 19 of the Constitution.

It seems like poetic justice therefore that more than 60 years later, in the university that bears his name, his ideological opponents in the government are using perfectly legitimate law to suppress speech. The chickens have come home to roost.

What Nehru, a socialist, introduced into the Constitution is the notion that some ideas itself are acts of crime. Once you accept this premise, then it is only the next logical step to establish thought-policing, moral policing, and political witch-hunts as part of the routine legal framework of the country.

As Ayn Rand warned, once you allow ideology to be policed by the state, you have allowed the government to enter the courtroom of ideas and become the judge. When the government assumes the power to criminalise a man on the basis of his political ideas, it will be only a matter of time before the government then criminalises people on the basis of their religious or secular ideas.

Gradually, the difference between the private and the public, between thought and action, will be blurred. Every thought will become open to scrutiny. Every speech will be a potential act of crime.

India is already on its way down this perilous path – with its myriad of laws against religious offence, social unrest, defamation, and sedition. We have seen the government take this path when it arrested Aseem Trivedi under the charges of sedition for drawing cartoons or when the home minister of India ordered the arrest of JNU student activist Kanhaiya Kumar for his alleged anti-nationalist speech.  

Historically, this path of criminalising speech has led to the execution squads of political dissenters in Che Guevara’s Cuba, the gas chambers of Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and the gulags of Stalin’s Soviet Russia.

One often hears the secular leftists proclaim that they are the true champions of free speech and agitate against government interference in matters of art, culture, social mores, and religion. Yet, in no apparent awareness of their contradictions, the Left endorses strong government interference in the economic affairs of private entities.

Their notion of “azadi” or freedom involves using the strong arms of the government to wrest control of business, regulate profits, usurp private property, and equalise the distribution of wealth. Azaadi is only for the ones in their camp.

For its part, the Hindutva right-wing wishes to control and influence the cultural landscape of this country. They want us to be “more Indian,”perhaps even “more Hindu.” So, they enforce the flying of the Indian flag above all public universities; or the recitation of the national anthem before movie screenings in cinema halls; or through censorship of the arts and films; or key appointments at the HRD ministry and FTII; or through acts of controlling the sexual and culinary practices of people.

Both the Left and the Right are unable to draw the logical line from freedom of speech to private property. The regressive Left does not see that without protecting the latter, the former cannot be practised. Speech that is not private is simply propaganda.

The Right cannot see that all property is fundamentally an expression of ideas; that a free market and a free mind are corollaries; that the ease of doing business is derived from ease of being free.

As a result, both the Left and the Right wish to eradicate the wall of separation between the private and the public. Both the Left and the Right wish to use the tools of state power to control the lives of other people.

Rand pointed this out decades ago: “Each camp wants to control the realm it regards as metaphysically important. Control, to both camps, means the power to rule by physical force. Neither camp holds freedom as a value.”

In one of her earliest and most lyrical work, “Anthem,” Rand’s hero Prometheus escapes a dystopian city and arrives upon a library in the middle of a vast unchartered forest. And inside the library, as he rediscovers the long-lost wisdom of the centuries, he asks himself: “What is my freedom, if even the botched and the impotent are my masters? What is my wisdom, if even fools can dictate to me?”

Perhaps it’s time now for us, like Prometheus, to ask those questions. It is time we discovered the trove of wisdom in Rand’s works and employ them into understanding ourselves and the events transpiring in our country.


Jerry Johnson Jerry Johnson @jerrystweet

TFAS Fellow; completed Philosophy of Political Economy (PPE) program through George Mason University and the University of Hong Kong; Curator @TEDxChurchgate.

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