A panel discussion on Jammu and Kashmir: Erasing a Blot on History , at Pondy Lit Fest in Puducherry | Picture courtesy: Gautam Chikermane
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The Pondy Lit Fest, whose second edition is being held in Puducherry, has already seen huge on-stage fights between several camps of India’s Right-wing. It has brought together a number of public figures of the Right like Swapan Dasgupta, Kanchan Gupta, Tavleen Singh, Anand Ranganathan, and Aarti Tikoo Singh. They discuss cow, Kashmir and the Right’s canon. But the one thing they can’t agree on is what constitutes the unique category called the Indian Right.

The panel discussion has revealed deep divisions among different categories – those who are socially progressive but economically Right, those who are social status quoists but economically Right, and those who are social status quoists but economically Left.

But the way narratives and ideologies get outlined in India, all of them end up being subsumed into a monolithic, unimaginative label called the “Right”.

The problem is that there seems to be no uniform definition within the Indian Right, or what it actually means. The only thing participants at the Pondy Lit Fest can agree on is that their self-description is based on what they are not. As such the Indian Right seems to be the living embodiment of Advaita Vedanta and its Neti Neti (not this, not that) process of self-discovery.


Also read: Democracy devouring itself, people too stupid to sustain it — academic paper creates furore


The labelling syndrome

The Pondy Lit Fest 2019 started off with a verbal spat on the centrality of the cow in the Hindutva narrative. Journalist Tavleen Singh asserted that V.D. Savarkar, the propounder of Hindutva, had said that India’s mascot should have been narasimha (one of the 10 avatars of Hindu god Vishnu in part lion form) and not the cow. But her nuanced point about a rural-agrarian issue of the economics of owning a cow and dairy farming tried to make the urban Hindutva cow debate look outdated, and didn’t go down well with some of the other panellists. She did clarify that there was a lot more about Hindutva than cows. But the damage had been done by then. Her “labelling” was deemed exclusionary and un-Hindu. Apparently, Hinduism doesn’t feel the need to label things, and everything is considered a part of a larger unit and only that which is to be excluded will be labelled.

Lost in this pushback was the immortal line from J.K. Rowling, uttered by her creation Harry Potter: “When you name it, you own it.” This explains why the Right is in a perpetual reactionary mode to the narratives set by the Left.

In many ways this is turning out to be the story of the intellectual Right in India: opposition to narratives and phraseology of the Left, the Right’s inability to counter it and come up with a counter-narrative, getting bogged down in tactics with no cohesive strategy – and all of this is compounded by the extraordinary diversity of views that is the Right in India.


Also read: New study reveals people on the Left and Right are more similar than they think


Borrowed from the Left

The best illustration of this were the panellists on Kashmir.

Opinions ranged from the Kashmir issue being about a battle of civilisations, land, and culture to being fundamentally about a political struggle. Another opinion took the middle ground, describing the issue as a complex intersection of both these viewpoints. What was clear though is that across the board, the initial euphoria of the abrogation of Article 370 has faded. There are now serious doubts and fears that things in Kashmir will go back to how they were – same mistakes will be repeated, same old leaders will be recycled, and the same failed policies will be pursued. It could be mentioned, with some caution, that CRPF/Army recruitment camps drew bigger crowds than the PDP-NC-Hurriyat rallies. While this may be a superficial feel-good aspect to hold onto, it also points to the disturbing fact that Kashmir has devolved into a conflict economy now where everybody benefits from conflict.

In many ways, the problem was nailed by journalist Swapan Dasgupta, who restated the fact that the Right simply wasn’t grounded in theory, be it sociology or anthropology, simply because much of the critical literature has been written by the Left. This lack of a firm base – a canon – has ensured there are gaping holes in the logic and reasoning offered by the Right. Clearly, this was an advice that was always going to fall on deaf ears.

Despite not being able to agree on a definition of Hinduism or Hindutva, one of the speakers, Prafulla Ketkar, said that “calling ourselves Hindus is a trap, but accepting the Supreme Court’s judgement on Hinduism being a way of life is also a trap.”


Also read: Three reasons why Modi took the path of social reform instead of economic reform


Lit fest for the young

Senior journalist Kanchan Gupta, one of the fathers of the Indian Right, says this dilemma is by design. The Right first needs to understand what it is and sort out internal existential issues. He said, “The biggest positive of this (Pondy Lit Fest event) is that we found there is enormous goodwill, people drop what they’re doing and come when you call them. But funding is always a problem because the Right seldom puts its money where its mouth is.”

In spite of that, the festival’s organisation is impressive, with three sessions running simultaneously in the convention centre. Gupta also pointed out that the main obstacle to funding will be the fact that “we prefer young voices”. “This year 90 per cent of our speakers are young and we want it to stay that way.”

Another organiser who wished to remain unnamed said, “The problem is that funders prefer “known names” and the last thing we want is the same incestuous crowd that goes from one lit fest to another, pretending they are saying something new when they are flogging a dead horse. We will never go down that path.”

The panels, however, lacked a representative from the Left who could offer the counter-narrative. This was not for a lack of trying, though. The organisers showed me emails sent to several Left luminaries, many of whom first agreed but backed out at the last minute, citing “alternate commitments”. The organisers say they are under no illusion that the Left will allow the institutionalisation of a platform that it does not control.

The big question is where does the Pondy Lit Fest go from here. Compared to the last year’s inaugural edition, the cross has doubled, the events have become grander, and the conversations grown richer this year. The biggest challenge, however, will remain one of definition. After all, as political scientist Samuel P. Huntington described it, identity comprises substance (what binds us) and salience (what separates us from the other). The Right seems very clear on salience but not on substance. Until it finds that binding glue, the Indian Right will not be able to counter the narratives set by the Left.

The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal. 

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14 COMMENTS

  1. You seem to think that diversity within the Right is a bad thing. I guess that is the way the Left works — jihadi mentality, follow the party line or we will chop your head off. I think it is wonderful that the Right has freedom of expression and diversity of opinion.

  2. I spoke on 3 panels at the Pondy LitFest, and listened in on 4-5 others on both days. Each one was an enriching experience for me, and for most members of the audience. Of course there were debates, but I don’t recognise the caricature presented in this article.

  3. What right need is the scientific interpretation of its culture and civilization. Confusion of right is it want to preserve all popular narrative of the culture even if it is faulty on scientific wisdom & rationality. Any civilization is the collective history of the particular human population through time and it is bound to be a collection of good and bad. You will be dumb if you start to defend bad, accepting fault are not a weakness but a progressive face of any ideology if they really want to prosper.

  4. I don’t care how the Right defines itself. This issue is just a strawman that this writer is setting up. As long as these lit fests can expose the monumentsl damage done by the Left to our economy, culture and civilization, I am happy to support the Right. I want the Indian Left to be eradicated like plague.

  5. Why don’t the Right speak with clarity about what they want to convey,than pointing to the other: the left or Muslims or the secular.

  6. Healthy wings needed to soar beyond unhealthy narratives of Left wing or Right wing.

    It is unhealthy to carry on with existing narratives in politics and media.
    It is unhealthy if humanity does not realize that it needs sanity more than any particular identity.
    It is unhealthy if political and media narratives- while inevitably using some identity based steps tend to stop or to slip or to slide down rather than climb up with sanity.
    It is unhealthy when debates and discussions resort to visceral vitriol vindicated by the votaries of identity politics of various hues, colors and ideologies.
    It is unhealthy because the self proclaimed representatives of the masses, through either the Left wing praxis of pseudo liberal appropriations and assigning of labels or virulent feverish provocations by Right wing advocates, dominate the narratives.
    It is unhealthy to stuff such approaches and extrapolations to everything that the free birds of discourse and the splendorous feathers of aesthetic creations can never take flight and soar into realms of any sane unbiased zones as it will be Left overburdened with weight of one wing and Right away pulled by the overbearing of another wing.
    It is unhealthy when both groups slide into snide dismissals rather than direct arguments.
    It is unhealthy if we do not realize that the present practical difficulties faced by individuals and societies need solutions and not seeking endorsement by or to be sanctified by any specific ideology- however great or good that may be.
    It is unhealthy that militancy without being curtailed is made to move from a mere posture into a well organized program.
    It is unhealthy that radicalism without being admonished outright gets rewarded.
    It is unhealthy if we are not aware that in human history till date no single ideology or institution or inscription of individual can be defined as some panacea which can claim to offer a tailor made template but with a universal cure –all, correct –all, comfort –all solutions embedded in it.
    It is unhealthy if we do not realize  that human race is far more than the opportunities it is consciously aware of as Jean Paul Sartre provides the example of the young man who puts his hand on his first date’s hand. She, who does not really know him yet, must either leave her hand there or remove it. Either choice reveals something not part of her consciousness. We are far more than the limited opportunities present in the world.

    It is unhealthy when we either deny or defy the importance of anyone or anything or any ideology as each may have evolved to fulfill a specific need and may fit in some gap in the jigsaw puzzle called life
    It is unhealthy if we are not sensible to not to hurt the sensitivities of others.
    It is unhealthy not to be open to a wide variety of ideas, observations from multitude of sources and nothing stops us from planning to properly relate with everyone and everything to facilitate the understanding of meaning of life.

    It is unhealthy if we do not know that the meaning of life which is after all the result of churning of the outer world by the inner self or the way inner self relates with the outer world in all its multiple manifestations.
    It is unhealthy if we do not realize that our inner self is a combination of heart (body) mind (conscious awareness) and soul. Heart itself is wonderfully referred to as HRUDAYA in Sanskrit which is one of the most perfect terms to indicate both the physical and psychological functionality of the heart. Meaning of “Hrudaya” from the Bruhadaranya Upanishad: ‘Hru’ means to bring. This involves bringing impure blood from the body to the heart. ‘Da’ means to give, involves giving pure blood to the body. ‘Ya’ means to set right all the activities and maintain the stability of the body. 

    It is unhealthy if we do not realize the inevitable fact of life and stark reality is that whatever we may have planned or planning to plan may not be the plan that unfolds in life in all spheres of life irrespective of whatever label we may give to such state of affairs: – as fate or destiny or we may wish and try to ignore it or work hard to justify it. This does not mean or need not necessarily lead to the conclusion that we must not plan and that there is no use in planning.

    Healthy conditions can be planned and programmed if those scripting any political narrative realize to do away with the outdated dichotomy of Left and Right because life, especially socio-cultural and economic life, has many dimensions each having its own dynamics and in addition there are also those emanating from intersectionality and interactions and all of these manifest themselves with varying degrees of intensity. Fortunately life and all its concomitant evolutions happen despite and beyond the blinkered narratives peddled by status quo addicts of trite dichotomies and have made visible various options between, besides, beneath and above those dichotomies, and these may strengthen the wings and enable the discourse to soar into unbiased zones and offer some solutions to many present day problems faced by humanity.

  7. First a better understanding of Advaita is to find synergy “The spirit of Advaita is not to keep away from anything, but to keep in tune with everything.” –  Swami Chinmayananda. 
    It is nice to know that at least Indian right exercise its right to disagree and show dissenting views , thus being really liberal , unlike the self labeling LEFT which cannot move out of its ideological cages of identity or extrapolating everything in tune with its ideological frames of references.
    It would be better to for some media houses and journalists to know that
    DISSENT need not necessarily mean
    Disseminating differences disproportionately
    Internationalize or internalize for
    Sensationalizing and scandalizing to
    Social engineer selectively by
    Exaggerations and extrapolations through
    Nuanced and new found
    Terminological terrorism as a trend.

    It is unfortunate that MEDIA as an acronym now may be defined as:-

    Mask as master of
    Everything;
    Desultory deception of
    Involvement to inform
    All about everything.

  8. Wrong English here: “The organisers say they are under no illusion that the Left will NEVER allow the institutionalisation of a platform that it does not control” should be “The organisers say they are under no illusion that the Left will allow the institutionalisation of a platform that it does not control.”

    No illusion and NEVER will cause a double negative, causing the opposite meaning.

  9. Why literature festive talks about right left – because bjp is in the Centre – every one have their own principle and they focus only on that – just talk about your view don’t worry about others – blindman should tak about other than blindness or problems of being blind

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