It is the duty of the liberals to warn people against the dangers of the politics of majoritarianism.
Shekhar Gupta’s fury against liberals has a context. ThePrint published on 20 June an article critical of the present regime by a former Narendra Modi admirer.
It generated angry response from a section of “liberals” who were upset with ThePrint for having given space to someone who had earlier mocked Aamir Khan for having spoken about the atmosphere of fear in the country, or had the insensitivity to make fun of Soni Sori, the tribal leader in Chhattisgarh, after a chemical attack deformed her face.
To be fair to ThePrint and the said author, all of us have a right to hold different opinions on the same issue at varied points in times, and even have a legitimate right to revise our positions.
So, those who do not want to allow people to revise their stand are unreasonable and illiberal, at least in this context. But, to say that their anger is totally unjustified misses a vital point. When you do not account for your previous stance and do not feel a need to explain it and simply claim that you have a right to just move on, it shows arrogance on your part.
The critics, in this case, also felt disappointed with the fact that the educated elite could even see hope in someone (Modi) who actively and consistently led an alleged hate campaign against Muslims and advocated alleged extra-judicial killings in the name of encounters.
Shekhar Gupta is right in defending one’s right to revise oneself. What is disappointing in his otherwise legitimate indignation is that he decided to blast the liberal position itself. To do so in a country and at a time when liberals are under constant attack from the state is unfortunate.
But one is struck by the sarcasm in his tone, when he pauses to tell us that he is referring to humankind and not mankind. The journey from mankind to humankind has not been easy. It tells us that liberalism is not the “latest religion to emerge in the history of humankind”. It was a feminist intervention, which forced liberals to start addressing humanity by its name and not use the restrictive mankind.
There was a lot happening in the history of humankind while liberalism was taking shape. How can one forget Karl Marx in his bicentenary year, or the feminist movement? And in India, how can one not mention the Dalit movement, which shook not only the liberals but even the Marxists? To think that liberalism is yet to develop strands is to miss its history.
A simple Google search would show that there is a huge and interesting diversity in the broad conceptual category known as liberalism. Classical liberalism, social liberalism, conservative liberalism, economic liberalism, national liberalism, cultural liberalism, ordoliberalism and paleoliberalism are some of the varieties which agree with each other on some issues and disagree on several others. Even Marxism and feminism have now a hundred strands and the argumentation within these is no less fierce.
So, not all liberals are against large dams or atomic plants. And, one is yet to find a liberal in India who has tried to banish gods or has talked about a godless world.
There was a young man called Bhagat Singh who wrote a small treatise explaining his atheist position several decades ago. But did he even once mock his comrades who were devotees of Kali and Durga? Did he break ranks with them for being God-fearing people? He was an exception among the revolutionaries.
Now, we see liberals claiming their Hinduness or Muslimness or their Christian identity. We are waiting for a Hindu liberation theology after its Christian and Islamic versions. So, even religion, the oldest of the human thoughts, had something to learn from Marxism or the much-maligned socialism. Why, you even have religious Marxists here in India itself!
Liberals have faced the wrath of the left and the right, but are compelled to defend the right of the left and the right to exist. I recall a press conference by a left-liberal friend to condemn the killing of a Maoist. He was a Maoist critic but that did not prevent him to take the right position: the state cannot justify extra-judicial killing on any pretext.
After Hitler, the world realised that there should be some non-negotiables. Anti-Semitism, for instance, is not seen as respectable. In India, however, we see our elites vying for selfies with Muslims-haters. We are ready to give power to those who call for extermination or domination of minorities. We are truly tolerant and liberal people.
This is no space for a longer discussion on the richness and diversity of liberal intellectualism or activism in India. I have seen Professor Yash Pal, a liberal who backed the idea of atomic plants, work with Professor Krishna Kumar, who was against atomic plants. The two even marched together with Medha Patkar.
I would even go the extent of claiming that co-workers and co-authors such as Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze do not necessarily agree with each other on issues mentioned by Shekhar Gupta. But I request Shekhar Gupta to not mock the critics because they do have a point. Large dams have caused havoc not only to human populations but also to the ecosystem. And there are serious and valid questions about the efficacy of atomic plants.
What was most hurtful about the angry outburst of Shekhar Gupta was how he chose to start with his lashing: “It would probably have been more apt if I had headlined this the Ayatollahs or Archbishops of the Liberal Pulpit. Because, for all the sermons they deliver, the Shankaracharyas do not issue fatwas or encyclical bulls. But you have to be careful these days. If I had done so, I’d risk being targeted by both, the conservatives of these faiths and the “liberals”, equally for profiling minorities. Better, therefore, to mess with my own fellow Hindus”.
I read and re-read those words. Should I cite hundreds of headlines, which call the majoritarianism in our country as a variety of Talibanism? There is an implicit, even if careless, suggestion that Indian liberals cannot tolerate the criticism of Ayatollah or the Pope. That, to put it mildly, is unfair and unjust.
What is the foremost duty of liberals of all varieties in India today? It is to warn people about the dangers of the politics of majoritarianism and to alert them against turning cheerleaders for mass murderers. Human history is replete with similar instances. We, therefore, need to draw a line and say don’t go beyond that! Because moving there would be akin to committing suicide.
Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University.
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