A BJP supporter wears the party flag during the election result day of the West Bengal Assembly election, in Kolkata Sunday | ANI
Representational image of a BJP supporter, in Kolkata, West Bengal | ANI
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The scholarly and thoughtful responses to my recent article, published in these columns, which argues that ‘liberals crying for National Archives don’t get the Hindutva history’, invite us for meaningful debate on what I call the politics of the past. The purpose of this rejoinder, therefore, is not to defend my article. Instead, I wish to expand a few crucial points for clarifying my position.

Four critical issues are highlighted.

First, I am condemned for using the term liberals in a vague and imprecise manner. My criticism of liberals is refuted on the ground of this misleading vagueness. Second, I am asked to explain what I mean by intellectual laziness. The third issue is methodological. The contrast between emotions and evidence/fact is appreciated as a valid point. However, another powerful and straightforward question is posed: what should we do with false narratives created for political purposes with the help of emotional speeches and fake news? The final issue is concerned with the archive itself: what to do with the archives—a legitimate site where evidence is kept as sources? Shall we not oppose/criticize State interventions of this kind?

I wish to respond to these issues in reverse order for the sake of clarity.


Also read: India’s most pressing challenge now is to shift the middle ground: Yogendra Yadav


Political past(s) and academic histories

The institutional autonomy of academic bodies, including the National Archives—an institution technically attached to the Ministry of Culture—is very significant. The historical records must be protected in a transparent manner for maintaining the credibility of professional academic research.

However, we need to differentiate between professional history and politically charged popular imaginations of the past. The domain of professional history—archives, universities, academic bodies, and research institutes—is governed differently. It follows rigorous procedures to produce historical arguments.

The past that is constructed in the realm of politics is not always contingent upon the protocol of professional history writing. This past is constructed through legends, myths, stories and a few symbols to justify certain political acts. This emotion-based past is never presented as history. Instead, it is evoked as a collective belief. The Ayodhya episode is the best example of this trajectory.

How shall we respond to it? Shall we get out of the realm of academic history to refute this emotion-based past? The Babari Masjid or Rama’s Birth Place: The Historians Report to the Indian Nation (1991) was such an attempt. It aimed at refuting the historical and archaeological claims made by the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) on the basis of objective sources.

This historical objectivity was celebrated in the 1990s when secularism was the dominant idiom of politics. However, the political discourse has changed completely. The political class, including the non-BJP parties, is not interested in principle-based secular politics. They do not wish to hurt Hindu emotions.

Even the nature of legal reasoning has changed. The Supreme Court does not find the historians’ report an objective/factual/evidences-based source. It was seen merely as an opinion in the Ayodhya title suit.


Also read: The two anxieties surrounding India’s archives


Whose failure?

The Ayodhya issue suggests that the emotion-based past must be responded to at three different levels. First, it needs to be studied purely on historical grounds by following the established protocol of professional historical research. The myths and beliefs should be contrasted with historical sources and the veracity of symbols ought to be evaluated.

At the second level, this historical evaluation is further interrogated by asking what political theorist Sudipta Kaviraj calls the ‘second order political questions’. At this stage, one must study the operative mechanism of the emotion-based past: how is it transformed into a political program? What kind of resources (propaganda materials, including fake news) are used to legitimise it? What kind of political vocabulary it produces? How does it reconfigure the competitive politics, especially its electoral version?

However, the third level is very crucial and demanding. The public intellectuals and political elites, particularly those who are critical of emotion-based past, are expected to elaborate the scope of serious historical explanation and political analysis. They have to configure political arguments in a simple, straightforward and persuasive language to address the anxities of common people.

The academics, in my view, have worked very hard to question the limitation of Hindutva imagination of Indian past and its operative mechanism. There is a remarkable academic literature on it. However, this professional academic critique of Hindutva has not yet found an argumentative political language. This shows the failure of liberal public intellectuals and non-BJP political elites. They envisage an instrumental relationship between academic arguments and popular politics. This is exactly what I mean by liberal intellectual laziness.


Also read: Real fight for National Archives should be about what it doesn’t contain, not the relocation


Who are the liberals?

This brings me to the most crucial criticism: my careless use of the term liberal. Defining any brand of liberalism, technically speaking, is next to impossible. Even the conceptual mapping of the history of liberalism cannot solve this issue. Nevertheless, this impreciseness (or vagueness) is always cherished by those who prefer to call themselves liberal. This is also true about Indian liberals.

Two examples, coming from opposite directions, are relevant here. In a remarkably interesting book, Why I am a Liberal, Sagarika Ghose celebrates the openness of Indian liberal tradition. She notes: “There is little agreement on what liberalism exactly means, although all liberals are united in their primary belief in limited government, autonomous institutions, individual freedom and the rule of law.”

She further argues that the threat of Hindutva is an important reference point: “For many, the liberal is the arch-enemy; the liberal is considered ‘anti-national’, ‘anti-Hindu’, ‘anti-religious’, even ‘anti-India”.

Interestingly, Rakesh Sinha, RSS thinker, also makes a similar observation about liberals. He says: “Ideologically, left-liberals are undefined, like modern art. Those who are extremely pro-public sector and statist European economic models cohabit with people welcoming privatisation. To hide their inbuilt contradictions, they use secularism and nationalism as an ideological feint to oppose the Modi government.”

This strange intellectual agreement between these two ideologically opposing positions clearly underlines the fact that liberal is an intentionally undefined category in the Indian context.

Yet, there is something that makes liberal position very unique. Unlike others, liberals adhere to the idea of self-criticism and dialogue. These very ideals motivate me to take a critical position. I am sorry if it hurts, emotionally.

The author is Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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