The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Martin Luther King said that, and he is right.
On every single issue that concerns the rights of individuals, it is the liberal position that has ultimately won even though the struggle may have taken centuries. Conservatism in society resists change because it is uncomfortable with the old making way for the new. The old was built and made stable by the suppression of groups, such as women and the poor. In the more modern world, as nations began to interact more frequently, this began to include the suppression of races. In our part of the world, we also had the oppression of caste, which was held in place by conservatism, also known as tradition.
But on all the issues, as King predicted, the side that is wronged wins. In our time we are seeing these changes happen much more frequently than we have seen in the past. On Thursday, India finally struck down a law criminalising gay sex. This has happened in most of the civilised world over the last few decades. In the United Kingdom, which legislated most of our laws, it was decriminalised 50 years ago. It should have happened sooner in India, but as I said, the times we are living in are not those where individual freedoms can be suppressed easily.
In May, Ireland voted in a referendum to make abortion legal. This came in a nation which is heavily Catholic (the Roman Catholic Church opposed abortion) and quite religious. Till about 40 years ago, 90 per cent of the Catholic population attended church regularly, a figure that is now about half.
On September 6, 2018, India finally struck down a law criminalising gay sex. This has happened in most of the civilised world over the last few decades
Today we understand abortion as an issue concerning the rights of a woman over her body, but this was not always seen as the case. Society felt it should have a say in what women did to themselves because they had a stake in it, and of course that is outrageous. An Indian dentist, Dr Savita Halappanavar, died because Irish law did not allow her an abortion and this in part led to the referendum.
Last year, Taiwan’s top court ruled that same-sex marriage was legal. In Germany this happened last year, and in the United Kingdom in 2014. The United States Supreme Court made it legal in America in 2015. It will happen in India also not before long. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, after the court judgment on Thursday, immediately said that while it was not opposed to the decriminalisation of gay sex, it stood opposed to gay marriage. The old patriarchies will try and hold on to what they can, afraid to let go because they cannot make sense of the new ways. But of course, this is resistance that is based on fear and it will be rolled over by the wave of hope, as happened in the case of the striking down of Section 377.
In the United States, older readers will remember that more than 20 years ago, President Bill Clinton introduced a policy on gays in the military called “don’t ask, don’t tell”.
It barred openly gay people from the military but if you were covert, then you would not be asked and it was fine. In 2010, only 15 years after Clinton, this was struck down under Barack Obama, who said gays could be open and still serve.
Donald Trump has banned certain transgenders from serving in the military, but even this will face defeat in time.
What is today seen as normal will be seen a few years from now as totally savage. The United States had legal slavery only a century and a half ago, about the same time as we got our laws from Macaulay. And even after the end of slavery, there was great oppression, all legalised, of the African American population. Till 1954, African Americans were separated in public education. Till two years after that, they were also separated on public transport. All of this, at that time, would have been defended by the conservatives and seen as normal.
It was the liberal bent of mind — and by this I do not refer to any particular kind of person — who would have identified it as being violative of rights and not the action of a civilised nation.
Till 100 years ago, 1918, British women did not have the right to vote. Those of them who campaigned for the right (they were called the Suffragettes) during the First World War were called traitors and many jailed. This was the same sentiment that we see in India in our time. Those people who are against the violation of the rights of Kashmiris are seen as anti-nationals and told to shut up because the higher cause of the nation, as defined by some in the media and in politics, must be upheld over the rights of individual Indians, whether children, women or men.
This will also change, of course, because the world has increasingly become intolerant of the violation of rights. And though we may despair at any one moment in time, if we look at the moral arc that has been long, who can deny it has bent towards justice?
We began with a famous American quote. There is another that I am reminded of, as I write this, and it is by the author of modern American conservatism. The man was called William F Buckley and he founded a magazine called the National Review. It was Buckley whose thinking produced Republican leaders like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, who resisted the civil rights movement.
Buckley said his motto was to “Stand athwart history yelling ‘stop’”.
Well, good luck with that, because it’s not going to happen.