Fireworks over fireworks? Some will say it happens only in India. Every year. That is why my argument against the banning of fireworks is based on civic and libertarian arguments, not merely religious or cultural ones.
We are a nation that is beset and beleaguered by a banning complex. But how can that be? We’re a democracy, right? The people are supposed to be in power. They are supposed to decide what is right for them, aren’t they?
But not in India. Here, our idea of power is negative and coercive. It is to force people to do things that they may detest. Whether it is our lawmakers, law enforcement officers, bureaucrats or judges, all seem to agree that the populace must be policed and controlled. We are not capable of regulating ourselves. We, the people of India, apparently, do not know what is good for us. Others must tell us, often justifying the use of force by invoking public good.
But we are the public. We should be the ones who know what is really good for us. The government or its agencies cannot be paternalistic, infantilising 1.4 billion people, treating us, literally, like “minors”. By this token, whether it is our rulers or the “experts” who advise them, we, the people, can never decide for ourselves what is or is not in our interests.
Except once in five years when we vote. After that, we must submit ourselves to endless and annoying governmentality.
It is in this light that we should take on the anti-fireworks campaign as an infringement of the rights of citizens. Indeed, this is exactly the argument against all protests, those by farmers included, when they curtail the rights of other citizens, restricting their enjoyment of life, liberty and safety.
Sadly, coercion in India is usually directed at soft targets, the law-abiding middle classes. We know that stubble burning is a serious cause of the pollution in North India, especially the National Capital Region, where crackers have been banned by the Supreme Court. We might, therefore, ask why they did not see it fit to ban stubble burning too.
What is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. Or should be. But we are masters of double standards and doublespeak. Stubble burning, we are told, is a much more complicated matter. Of course, it is. But so is pollution. It cannot be reduced just to Diwali fireworks. If pollution is the reason for the banning of firecrackers, then why is the more dangerous and sustained pollution by farmers exempt? Diwali pollution lasts only for a few days, while stubble burning persists for months.
Again, fireworks during Diwali are frowned upon. But why is it that just a couple of weeks after, on Guru Parv, observed as the birthday of Guru Nanak, there is little complaint over the night-long fireworks and crackers? In Delhi, one sees fireworks on Christmas and New Year too, but, again, there isn’t so much noise then. When it comes to secularists and do-gooders in India, we do not see a similar attack against Id-ul-Adha (Bakr-Id) either for the slaughter of so many animals.
Even as far as pollution is concerned, vehicles are a huge contributory factor. What does the National Green Tribunal do? Impose a blanket ban on older vehicles, regardless of how road-worthy they may be. You will not find this in any other democracy. Even Prince Charles in the United Kingdom drives an Aston Martin that is half-a-century old. That it runs on ethanol produced by white wine and whey waste is another matter.
The point is the coercive and interfering nature of the Indian state and its long arms. Is there any aspect of our lives that they do not wish to poke their nose into? All for our own good, of course! Electric cars are being promoted, CNG buses are already in place, the scrapping of older cars and incentives for buying new ones in lieu of them is also being considered. True. But does that justify blanket bans, which are anti-democratic, if not anti-constitutional?
Coming back to the festival of lights, let us remember and acknowledge that this is or should be primarily about light. Not noise or toxins or pollution. The entire fireworks industry needs to be reformed so that child labour is not exploited, nor fireworks full of poisonous materials that can harm children and adults alike. Personally, I dislike loud crackers. I think noise pollution is also hazardous to health and safety. Non-human species such as dogs are confused and traumatised by crackers.
But does this mean that crackers should be banned? No. It is a blatant attempt to restrict our cultural and religious freedoms. Selective banning or slamming only of Hindu festivals is worse. The concerted attempt to defame Hindu festivals as pagan and backward is also misplaced. All festivals are “pagan”. Then they get sanitised and commercialised. Christmas too. The death and rebirth of nature is celebrated as the birth of Christ in the manger.
What about pollution, to return to the pet peeve of the capital? Do we realise how polluting and climate damaging non-vegetarianism, especially beef-eating, can be? How heavily it contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming? So what do we do? We let cattle roam freely in the countryside. These are unlooked for. Unproductive, ailing or ageing bovines eat up crops, garbage or plastic, sit on highways obstructing the traffic and become a burden on a system incapable of taking care of them. The funds and fodder allotted to them are likely to be misappropriated too.
Whether it is pollution or festival-shaming of Hindus, the issues involved are not merely political, polemical even less so. These issues need to be dealt with comprehensively. If we are serious about the air quality in Delhi, we have to tackle it on all fronts, including stubble burning, smog and dust in the air. Some of these we cannot even directly control because they concern deforestation and desertification of large parts of the NCR. Selective targeting of Diwali will only create resentment among Hindus, which will further fuel disaffection and hatred.
Finally, let us not rob our children of all the fun. A few sparklers or flowerpots on Diwali would be something to look forward to, not frown upon because of our excessive and self-righteous zeal against pollution at this time of the year.
(Views are personal)
Makarand R Paranjape
Professor of English at JNU