The recent, needless controversy surrounding an innocuous tweet of Vistara airlines about their passenger Major General (Retired) G.D. Bakshi shows that nuances have long died and everyone is guilty of the Bush-ism – ‘Either you are with us, or you are against us!’.
The episode has once and for all settled two things in the polarised, binary Indian debate today.
First, it fully establishes the belief that there is really no species of whichever political orientation or ideology that can call itself truly “Liberal”. And second, those self-certified liberals who wear tolerance on their sleeves are as bigoted, if not worse, than those whom they regularly deride as dogmatists.
Robert Frost had famously defined a liberal as someone who could not take his own side in an argument. While that might be an extreme yardstick on the basis of which almost everyone would fail, this latest incident just proves that ‘hamam mein sab nange hain’ (everyone is guilty of committing the same mistake) and no one really has the moral right to raise a finger at anyone else for being a hardliner. Sadly, with the rise of these self-satisfied ideologues, who have no stomach for any diversity of thoughts, opinions or beliefs other than their own, the hallowed concept of ‘liberalism’ is getting delegitimised.
This phenomenon is seen worldwide. While the G.D. Bakshi episode might be too small an incident, it is symptomatic of how free-thinking ‘liberals’ across the world throttle open discussions and debates. While their opponents might use unsophisticated language against those they disagree with, the elite liberals do exactly the same by unleashing their sophistry and intellectual horsepower. The means might be different, but the ends are exactly the same.
In a New York Times opinion in May 2016 titled ‘A Confession of Liberal Intolerance’, American journalist Nicholas Kristof outlines this malaise in every aspect of American life – especially those associated with intellect and creative power – the academia, media and the arts. The sanitisation of the intellectual environment that ‘liberals’ manage, thanks to their deep entrenchment within the system, shuts the door permanently on any dissent.
Kristof argues that while universities are supposed to be the “bedrock of progressive values” and diversity (don’t we hear this all the time in India too when people question the Army’s role in Kashmir), they are heavily biased against Conservatives. He sums up the ‘liberal’ view point in a tongue-in-cheek manner: “WE progressives believe in diversity and we want women, blacks, Latinos, gays, and Muslims at the table – er, so long as they aren’t conservatives… we’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.”
He quotes studies which show that Republicans account for just 6-11 per cent of the professors in humanities; their numbers are even lower for social sciences, at 7-9 per cent.
The situation is no better in India in these academic fields. Since Independence, the doors of scholarship have been shut on people who have a differing viewpoint, especially in sensitive disciplines such as history, literary studies or social sciences. Careers have been destroyed; scholarships, privileges and recognition denied to those who do not toe the mainstream ideology. Any attempt to script alternative narratives is termed as ‘revivalist’ or, worse, ‘saffronisation’. And then, the same ‘liberal’ academics bemoan and ridicule the absence of intellectual heft in their counterparts. When contrarian perspectives remain unrepresented at the high table, can we call our institutions, academia and media vibrant, democratic set-ups or are they merely echo chambers?
The most visible and celebrated symptom of this intellectual ostracisation is the much-feted literature festivals – often touted as ‘idea’ conclaves. But a closer look at the annual guest lists or discussion topics makes it amply clear that it is more a caravan of travelling salesmen spouting the same venom, venue after venue, with no one to counter their views. When there is a counter, which is usually the weakest link from the other side, it is just for a semblance of an ‘honest debate’.
It is this monopoly over intellectual, literary or media circles that the raucous social media has broken. It has put a megaphone in front of every individual and these ‘voices of a nation long-suppressed’ need not always be as sophisticated and genteel as that of the champagne-socialites. India then automatically becomes a violent, intolerant country because a section’s monopoly over intellectual debate has been called to question by a two-pence nobody.
The grand idea of boycott, in my view, runs contrary to a liberal democracy. The same cozy club in 2015 had talked about India becoming intolerant when ‘Right-wing’ social media handles threatened brands like SnapDeal for having Aamir Khan as their mascot in the wake of his political remarks. BJP ‘trolls’ were blamed for rating down the app and the brand dropping Khan as its ambassador.
The so-called liberals’ reaction to the ‘Right-wing, illiberal trolling’ of Hindustan Unilever for a Brooke Bond Red Label ad on Kumbh Mela was the same.
History repeated itself as a farce when Surf Excel’s advertisement faced the ‘Right-wing’ ire for showing a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy celebrating Holi. In all these cases, many of the celebrated votaries of free speech condemned the attempt to boycott and intimidate brands.
But that is exactly what they did by threatening not to fly Vistara, because it felt “honoured” to fly G.D. Bakshi. Liberalism or hypocrisy?
When there is outrage over a publisher’s capitulation to legal threats from offended parties, as in the case of Wendy Doniger’s book, why should ‘liberal’ critics’ boycott of Vivek Agnihotri’s film The Tashkent Files go unnoticed?
Carnatic musicians Ranjani and Gayatri were recently pilloried and abused on social media by those who proudly call themselves ‘liberals’ and ‘democrats’ on Twitter because the duo dared to openly declare their political affiliation.
Celebrated artist Sonal Mansingh can be hounded and unceremoniously removed from her position at the Sangeet Natak Akademi when a new political dispensation comes in. But if T.M. Krishna’s concert (along with several others including Sonal Mansingh’s) is cancelled for whatever reason, then it becomes national news, with many arguing how the sacred ganga-jamunee tehzeeb has been sacrilegiously muddied!
I too have faced the bitter ire of these self-proclaimed liberals when I penned an article in 2015 against the politically motivated Award Wapsi campaign. As a result, several attendees boycotted the Bangalore Literature Festival, which I had conceptualised and nourished. The intimidation was so personal that I felt disgusted and decided to resign from the very festival that I had founded.
‘We thought you were one of us!’ was what I would often hear then. But I had dared to present a dissenting opinion and hence the admission rights to the select, backslapping club of the fellow members of the faith were withdrawn. Since then I am a pariah at most prominent literature festivals in India, although it honestly does not matter much.
The seemingly Right-leaning Pondy Lit Fest was subjected to hounding and ridicule in 2018 by the very people who espouse liberalism. Their venue partner shamefully pulled out at the last minute. ‘Liberal’ writers once again decided to boycott the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2017 when two RSS ideologues were invited. It was all right to hear Sitaram Yechury (who eventually boycotted the event for this reason!) but to hear Dattatreya Hosabale or Manmohan Vaidya at JLF was considered almost blasphemous.
This year too, there were rumblings about how the Jaipur Literature Festival was ‘tainted’ because its main sponsor, the Zee Group, is seen to have a political leaning towards the Right. Interestingly, it began after the festival, once the worthies had flown in and out of India on business class, wined, dined, danced – on ZEE’s ‘communal’ money! But it is fine to attend literature festivals or conclaves organised by The Hindu or The Telegraph, which have a very explicit political anti-Right orientation.
The Vistara incident reinforces yet again the chicanery, shameless hypocrisy and selective outrage, which repeatedly expose the liberal mafia. And when they are called out, the boring cycle of victimhood is set in motion on an infinite loop.
The author is a historian, political analyst and a Senior Fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, with an upcoming biography of Savarkar. Views are personal.