Last year on Diwali day I wrote this article, Everyone Who Criticises The Way Festivals Are Being Observed Is Not A Hindu Hater, that earned me the wrath of, and consequently countless abuses from, the cultural right, a loose group that claims it is out to save Hinduism not just from other religious groups but also what they call `Hindu-hating Hindus’. I was making a simple, nuanced point: I don’t agree with the campaign against crackers, but not everybody wanting them banned or restraint on their use is a festival shamer or Hindu hater. Of course, I was promptly labelled as both (apart from a lot of other things).
This year, my criticism of the Supreme Court order banning sale of fire-crackers in Delhi before and till well after Diwali could earn me another label, this time from those who are rejoicing over the court order – Hindu fanatic. Apparently only this lot, which wants to add to Delhi’s air and noise pollution and has no consideration for people and pets affected by the smoke, will object to the order.
Now, one has reconciled to the death of nuance in any debate, but even then this is a bit much. When will people get this: someone asking for a ban on crackers or for some restraint in over-the-top celebrations of any festival is not necessarily a Hindu-hater. And someone criticising the Supreme Court order is not necessarily an inconsiderate Hindu fanatic/sanghi/BJP-sympathiser.
That apart, the Supreme Court order is wrong because it is a clear case of judicial over-reach.
There is no clinching evidence that firecrackers are the main cause of air and noise pollution in Delhi. Monday’s Supreme Court judgement quotes an earlier order of September 12 which says:
. . . from the material before us, it cannot be said with any great degree of certainty that the extremely poor quality of air in Delhi in November and December 2016 was the result only of bursting fireworks around Diwali. Certainly, there were other causes as well, but even so the contribution of the bursting of fireworks cannot be glossed over. Unfortunately, neither is it possible to give an accurate or relative assessment of the contribution of the other identified factors nor the contribution of bursting fireworks to the poor air quality in Delhi and in the NCR. (emphasis added)
So, then, why the ban? Apparently the 2016 order restricting sale of firecrackers came after Diwali and the Court wants to see the effect of the ban around Diwali this year. This is not convincing enough.
Those welcoming the order say this judicial intervention was necessary because this is a serious and very real social problem that affects the health of people in Delhi and the government was not doing anything about it. Okay, point conceded. But then wasn’t the issue of accidents on highways due to drunken driving also a serious social issue, which led the Supreme Court to prohibit state governments from granting licences to liquor vends and bars along state and national highways?
But that sparked enormous outrage from the very sections that are hailing the current Delhi-centric ban. Many of the arguments at that time cited lack of evidence that all drunk driving deaths on highways were caused by people who drank at liquor vends along these roads. So why doesn’t this lack of evidence apply now?
Gautam Bhatia and other legal experts have pointed out on social media that the order on firecrackers is faulty because there’s no specific law being violated. Bhatia also cited the example of the Court’s interim order on standing for the national anthem, which was justified on the basis of the lack of a law on the subject, as another example of overreach.
But that order attracted widespread condemnation by the very sections that are welcoming Monday’s order. Go figure.
Am I indulging in whataboutery? Yes, unapologetically so. Sometimes whataboutery is needed to call out hypocrisy. One cannot say judicial intervention is justified when it serves your pet cause but not justified when it does not. (Incidentally, this applies to the `cultural right’, that is lambasting the order, as well. You cannot hail the Supreme Court when it orders people to stand up for the national anthem and criticise it for banning firecrackers on Diwali.)
The Indian Constitution, which many of those welcoming the order swear by, has certain tasks set out for the three arms of government. There is a principle called separation of powers. The issue of liquor vends along highways, firecrackers during Diwali and standing up for the national anthem are all areas where the executive and legislature need to act. Just because you cannot persuade them to do so, you can’t seek and justify judicial intervention.
Am I belittling the issue of the problem of over-the-top firecrackers during Diwali? No. It is a serious problem and not just in Delhi. Even someone like me who loved bursting firecrackers (and initiated my nephew into bursting them) and think Diwali is incomplete without them cringe at what goes on these days. I know the problem asthma patients face – my sister used to be asthmatic and my parents had a hard time keeping her away from crackers and keeping her indoors when the smoke got too much (incidentally, she did not stop her son from bursting crackers). I know a lot of devout Hindus who are distressed by the noise and smoke. In Delhi, at least, crackers have always been more about display of wealth than anything else.
But getting the government, or failing that, the Supreme Court to ban it is not the solution. This only gives the government more power over our lives. We cannot bring the state into every your-freedom-ends-where-my-nose-begins issue. There are some issues we have to address ourselves.
So, go ahead appeal to your colonies/housing societies to regulate use of crackers, raise awareness about the ill-effects of crackers, call the cops when you find people bursting crackers beyond 10 pm (instead of saying `how can we complain about our neighbours, it doesn’t look nice’), don’t give or accept sweets and presents from neighbours who burst crackers. But don’t bring the government or the courts into it.