Monday, February 6, 2023
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You can’t cancel Modi, RSS: Why US-style identity politics won’t help Indian liberals’ fight

A corrosive strain of American Left-wing identity politics has taken root among the progressive sections of the young, urban elite in India. But it won’t defeat RSS.

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The Narendra Modi government’s Citizenship Amendment Act primarily targets Muslims. But the spectre of a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ also threatens a range of other groups like ethnic/linguistic minorities, liberal Hindus, ‘lower’ castes, atheists, and women. As protests raged pan-India, dissenters debated who was going to be the icon of the movement and who would define its terms?

Activists, both Muslims and Leftists, tried to resolve these thorny questions by transplanting the idiom of the American Left: Muslims alone would decide the terms, and Hindu allies would have no role or voice in the movement except in supporting them.

“Only Muslim voices matter. Hindus can use their privilege to be an ally without condescension if they are able to, but please make more Muslims visible on all platforms, online offline,” a prominent Muslim handle tweeted on the eve of the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Bill in the Rajya Sabha.

These demands are straight out of the American identity politics playbook where only the specific marginalised group can exclusively represent the issues that concern its community. Anything else is “appropriation”. At a Black Lives Matter protest rally in the US in 2016, a leader had asked White allies to “appropriately take their place in the back of this… black and brown resistance march”.

In identity politics, “lived experiences” matter much more than ideology. Thus, ‘upper’ caste Hindus such as human rights activists Harsh Mander and Vrinda Grover and journalist Ravish Kumar would always be suspected of ‘exploiting’ and ‘appropriating’ the issues of the marginalised. Former JNU Students’ Union president and a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), Kanhaiya Kumar recently drew flak for being a manipulative Bhumihar who ‘appropriates’ the movements of the marginalised. Similar arguments are forwarded to claim that only someone like Hyderabad MP Asaduddin Owaisi and his All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) can truly represent Muslims, not other secular parties.

Also read: Modi govt dumps ‘liberal’ in favour of ‘holistic’ in its new draft of education policy

Cancel culture

A corrosive strain of American Left-wing identity politics has taken root among the progressive sections of the young, urban elite in India. This politics is defined by purity, where no more than minor differences of ideology are tolerated. Anything more instantly makes you an enemy, fit to be despised or, in the vocabulary of the modern woke Left, ‘cancelled’.

Even the most famous Indian, Mahatma Gandhi, has not escaped being ‘cancelled’ among the Left millennials, where he is considered little more than a misogynist, casteist agent of the bourgeoisie. On Gandhi Jayanti, many Leftists expressed annoyance that ‘mainstream liberals’ were using even Gandhi as a resource to counter the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. While the RSS was busy co-opting Gandhi, the ‘woke’ crowd insisted that the single-most powerful symbol of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood in the popular imagination needed to be shunned because some of his views were ‘problematic’.

In an essay for the Foreign Affairs, political scientist Francis Fukuyama dissected the “exclusive character” of identity politics where “‘lived experiences’ determined who you were”. This created “obstacles to empathy and communication,” Fukuyama wrote. This leads to societies “fracturing into ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action as a whole”.

This strain of identity politics, centred on purity, does not work even in the West, which is roughly equally divided between progressives and conservatives. In India, where the conservative faction is huge, and progressive faction is tiny (one would be hard-pressed to find ‘woke’ people outside Twitter), identity politics has zero viability.

Most Indians, including the ones who vote for opposition parties, are people who are not very politically engaged and/or are poorly informed or misinformed. They will hold all sorts of problematic views on Muslims, women, homosexuals, Kashmir, nationalism and so forth. These are your average voters of the Congress, the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), etc. If our progressives paint them as irredeemable bigots who are not even welcome to protest with them unless they give up all their problematic views, then they’ll just be left with their friends on social media.

The only way out for Indian progressives is to build alliances. That would necessarily entail some compromises on ideology. But, more than that, it would require a concerted effort of engaging ordinary people holding ‘problematic’ views, listening to them and trying to convince them of your viewpoints, rather than dismissing them as waste-of-time bigots. RSS karyakartas have spent many decades on the ground, working selflessly in small towns and villages, gradually coaxing people towards their ideology. The ideological hegemony that the RSS enjoys today is built on their sweat. Meanwhile, many on the progressive side display little patience to even engage with their family and friends with opposing viewpoints. Indeed, in wokespeak, ‘engaging’ is often considered as ‘indulging’, and is thus deemed as a moral failing.

Also read: Does Modi govt know what the endgame of the crisis it has unleashed is?

Fall of the Western Left

The bane of the modern Western Left has been the muddying of lines between activism and politics.  Politics is fundamentally based on compromise and alliance building, appealing to the broad middle. Activism can be, and often is, strident and uncompromising, and focused on achieving a narrow set of demands. In the age of social media, the more uncompromising (or pure) an activist is, the greater their reach. After all, only the most dramatic ‘hot takes’ break through the virtual world. Activists provide politics with a necessary energy and sense of justice, but when they take over parties, the results can be politically catastrophic, as the Momentum-dominated Labour Party recently found out in the UK elections.

The metropolitan activist Labour politicians simply could not connect culturally with their old working-class voter base. As a result, the Labour Party’s long-standing coalition of small-town, working-class voters in the Midlands and north of England was torn apart and taken over by the conservative Tories. Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, described the rift between the two Labour factions – the culturally liberal metropolitan and the heartland socially conservative – as one side saying “We don’t want to ally with racists” and the other side responding “We don’t want to ally with people who think we’re racists”. Thus, the alliance between these two voter blocs, which could have been preserved by more pragmatic politics, broke down, leading the Labour Party to its worst defeat since 1935. A similar story can be told about how the Democratic Party lost its support among White working-class voters in the US.

There are lessons for the Anglophone liberal-Left ecosystem to be drawn from the defeats of their Western cousins. You don’t persuade by either patronising or condemning, only by engaging. And you deplete your own strength by ‘cancelling’ people broadly on your side, whether historical figures such as Gandhi or even the much-despised elite liberals.

This does not in the least preclude calling them out for their many failings; it only means not to treat them as enemies, and not to look for perfect allies. The RSS is more powerful, by orders of magnitude, than the people resisting them. A persuasive ‘all hands on deck’ approach is needed to put up a meaningful resistance. But liberal Indians are busy critiquing each other for not being perfect and pushing possible allies into the BJP’s waiting arms.

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  1. Why do you promote those who pen down such bombast? They are concealing the mendacity of their ideas with obscure low grade prose, only to impress the semi lettered readers with high sounding phrases that convey so little of the reality.

  2. I identify as liberal and rationalist. I think some people (liberals) question religion but only majority Hinduism in India and Christianity in West. But they won’t question practices of Islam. This is true even Richard Dawkins said the same thing. I am Hindu and don’t have any problem questioning some aspects of faith or culture . Everyone has to move in right direction in modern way and be rational and develop critical thinking.

    I think writer is objective and maybe correct . Here in comments some people dismisses, although he said some view are problematic and just said how to deal with them.

    In Twitter some people cancel the print “can’t expect better from them” . Even though The print is liberal and progressive.
    The right and BJP people also has cancel culture. They say ThePrint is congressi and propaganda … And so on

  3. 4th largest religious violent place on earth,is Hinduism a violent and terror by Paul followers of this cults are spewing venom.

  4. I am a recovering liberal, an academic, in the US, of Indian origin. I read with amusement some of your statements. In regards to identity politics in the US, many white liberal Americans (and right leaning suburbanites) suffer from guilt because of what has been done to non-white populations, specifically African-Americans. We HIndus will never feel this guilt, which is a necessary component of modern “liberalism”. It is the Muslims who have invaded the country, looted it , raped Hindu women and dare to attempt to wipe out our culture and religion from our homeland. It is the Muslims, who have adopted foreign cultural norms attached to their foreign religions, who now have a farcical hope of changing the majority. In other words, the majority Hindus feel they have been wronged by the very people claiming victim hood. The essential ingredient of guilt is missing. There is a saying, you must have clean hands when you claim to fight for the “truth.” Muslims do not. The case is lost until the reform their own religion. Start by apologizing for their crimes. For many, CAA is the absolute right thing to do and it makes perfect sense to not increase the numbers of those who have invaded the land with no respect or love for it. You can hear the truth or you can argue against it. This is, in fact, how most Hindus and Hindu Indians in the US feel.

      • trite ? this country has been under islamic persecution for 1000 years under which immense damage was done to our culture, temples desecrated and hindus suffered under genocidal maniacs like aurangzebs and khiljis. the worst impact of islamic ideology was partition of india , for which hindus are still suffering from terrorism . hindus were driven out of kashmir, and you call this persecution complex ? what makes you so sure india would not be partitioned or suffer seperatist movements by muslims again once they achieve majority in some other part of india ?

  5. CAA or NPR are no issues at all. The two are being used by unscrupulous elements with an illusory view of furthering their prospects. Indian muslims are in no way discriminated by the two. They are being mislead through disinformation. By anti Modi forces. In this process, 27 people have died. The mischief mongers are responsible for this, not the government. Freedom of expression does not mean a licence to make irresponsible statements.

  6. Against a systematic reduction of the minorities’ leadership in the anti-NRC-CAA movement

    In the fight against the NRC-CAA, it is of course well intentioned to assert that a strong alliance among various groups such as upper-caste educated Hindus, elite liberals, women, ethnic communities, etc., needs to be forged. However, to assert, as this recent article does, that who all take up the mantle of change in leading the movement is irrelevant, is to blatantly forget that this fight is about defending the rights of the minorities.

    The logic in sidestepping the Muslim, Dalit and minorities’ leadership in what is the greatest challenge to the ruling party thus far, and in its place a desire for a generic representation to the movement, is simply a manifestation of the majoritarian intellect. It negates a reflection of discrimination that exists in India precisely along caste and religious lines. The force of the movement is eroded in pushing these arguments that reductively secularize and produce impotent abstractions and ultimately reduce this hard-fought battle to just another movement. In fact, if there has ever been a greater need to recognize why the minority leaders must helm the movement, it is now. Needless to mention, everyone who is against the corruption of the constitution must jointly act.

    The anti NRC-CAA movement has not come to the point of deciding on any individual(s) to carry its force forward. The storm has been gathering for a while now. With it, the need for a leadership to take the movement forward has been growing. If the great majority cannot recognize why the people of minority must be allowed to take the lead, we are once again back to the question – can the Subaltern Speak? The word ‘allowed’ in this context is hardly misplaced. There is an active machinery that decides who gets to speak out loud, that fiddles with the reach of minority leaders. In other words, the co-option of minority movements is constantly at work. For instance, one of the most popular minority movements fighting against racist violence and police brutality towards black people, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) activism was not immune from it. No sooner did the movement gather momentum that an All Lives Matter sprung out of thin air, which really was a euphemism to a majority White privilege. Soon enough, corporations saw the perfect opportunity to capitalize on the sociality of the movement (Pepsi even released an advertisement on the BLM theme). The particularity, immediacy and relevance of BLM for black people was staked in fashionably neutralizing the suffering by suppressing their voices and their leadership.

    There is strong opposition from the majority in placing belief in the agency, leadership and consciousness of minorities to lead the nation-wide protest. It is of course an intellectual challenge, but one that cannot be simply written off as a liberal-left agenda or casually bucketed under identity politics. The appeal to recognize the need for minority leadership is a humanistic approach above all. Further, it is not difficult to see that a Muslim leader may better speak on behalf of the Dalit people, and vice-versa, than a Hindu upper caste person speaking for the two minority groups. It is in such a context that the ‘lived experience’ of who speaks and addresses the people of the country, especially its minorities, matters. In a country where minorities have been perennially oppressed, it in fact behooves the privileged to allow for the voices of the minority to express, clarify and lead.

    Is it not a good thing then that the young, urban progressives seek the leadership of their counterparts from minority communities? It signals that a positive change may be on its way when intellect in the public sphere does not foremost become a reason to compete as if they were limited seats in the IITs. The medium of the protest is proof that people willingly engage with those who are opposed ideologically to the movement, or those who are misinformed, or even those who ardently believe in the BJP leadership. This engagement has been in the form of songs, poetry, slogans, posters, among others, of Ambedkar as well as Gandhi. However, seeking minority leadership ought not be confused with failing to appease the pro-BJP supporters. Arguing so is tantamount to saying that somehow an upper caste Hindu elite may be able to appease them better than a minority leader. Such an argument falls to the trappings of identity politics it seeks to intervene against in the first place.

    Much of the police violence has been directed against the Muslim protestors. We cannot brush it away as some coincidence. Many of the 23 people (per the latest figures as of 23 December 2019) who were killed in the police backlash are Muslims. Comments insinuating hatred against the Muslims were made by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the basis of their appearance. Homes and businesses in Muslim majority areas such as in UP’s Muzaffarnagar were vandalized by cops. A Muslim student at Jamia University expressed much apprehension about her future owing to her religion which the state has discriminated against in enacting the CAA. She said that Muslims are becoming “second-class citizens who must learn to live in fear”. A Muslim social activist and a single mother Sadar Jafar was arrested in Lucknow as she filmed police violence and was later beaten up in prison. This is the kind of anxiety the marginalized and the discriminated have been experiencing in the aftermath of CAA. The Dalits too have been meted out with violence. The Dalit leader Chandrashekar Azad, for instance, was arrested a few days after evading detention outside Jama Masjid in Delhi. Just before the arrest when a journalist asked him if Dalits and Muslims are a united front on this issue, he showed immense understanding as he said “Not just Dalits and Muslims – the entire country is together”.

    Such a unifying language of leadership is needed to sustain the movement. Returning to the question on subalterns considered earlier, one must instead think of the question – can the minority voices ‘be heard’? This is not a question of “purity” of who leads the movement, as some have deemed, but of the majority’s own recognition of the need to fight, driven by the conviction of leaders from the minority, i.e., to put faith, much needed in these times, in their intellect and dynamism to carry forward the movement.

  7. RSS is not bothered about winning, not are they any single organization, it is just a front to put forth opinions arising from discussions between a wide range of people and organizations. They are relevant because they change according to times and are not dogmatic.
    So called left liberals on the other hand are having a difficult time with their dead wood ideology which no longer sells and the people who use it are unable to change or understand the times and people. For eg they are in cahoots with Islamists who preach : “But when these months, prohibited (for fighting), are over, slay the idolaters wheresoever you find them, and take them captive or besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every likely place. But if they repent and fulfil their devotional obligations and pay the zakat, then let them go their way, for God is forgiving and kind.”

  8. What is all this crap being written. You want to establish Muslim dictator ship in India and marginalize all Hindu. Plus you are bent on exploiting upper caste / lower caste divide for furthering your cause .

  9. Dear Asim Ali,

    While I agree with some of your points I fail to see a summary of what you intend to convey here. But prior to that I would like to point out that you are connecting far too many dots a little too early; I think there is much wait required,. especially if you are writing this to align with the ongoing protests against CAB/NRC.

    On the other hand, about forging alliances, I think you presume too early. It is not like people aren’t trying everything thing they can in our country. I know this for a fact. We are not as echo-chambered as in the West. Look at the recent protests as a hand-shake moment.

    There is also the Indian culture. When has an Indian parent come back and said “Hey I am sorry, I understand your point of view now” to their children. Usually they all just “move on”. 🙂 I see the momentum as that breakaway moment. But yes it needs more work. Lost of it. That I get.


  10. Lol.. why blame hindutva. They are just a reaction to Muslim brother hood. Hindutva is nowhere seen raping , force converting , promoting sex slave , jihad .. why does orange strick terror in mind of green. Think again and decided why it’s only muslim.who wants to have separate nation Nd sharia without any logic and sense

  11. Zafar Mohammed Mirza

    Your analysis is straight out of Jordan Peterson video, and you pass it on as some woke idea. You are just proving the point of the writer that left just go after others and not do compromise and listen to any dissent almost as bad as BJP.
    IQ is not a standard for development, only Americans use it and that based on way it is administered and so on. In last fifty years India was ruled by a party solely surviving on identity politics and not interested in proper education and development. They left a gap which BJP filled and we see the results. If you want people to support you go after the basic issues. Jobs law and order which affect everyone only that can defeat BJP, not religious or caste based issues, as writer said RSS is way more powerful and influential.

    • Unfortunately you are yet another one who has problems of comprehension.

      Here is the last para from Mirza’s post:

      “The government must concentrate on healthcare and education first, this Hindu Muslim problem is nothing compared to the scale of the the first two.”

      Isn’t he saying the same thing as you? Why do you BJP supporters go straightaway on the attack before even reading fully what someone has written?

    • If the BJP had not been so communal, ignorant and dishonest, then perhaps it would have attracted more people with a scientific temper, who would have helped it to gain credibility. But communal hatred for the other is the oxygen that keeps it going and attracts votes.
      IQ testing is frowned on as not politically correct, with connotations of eugenics and race Nevertheless it’s science and is a useful and proved tool in HR.
      India really needs a dictator of calibre Like the former Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, even the modern Chinese communist party post Deng does a good job in governance, it promotes generally on merit Thats how Xi Jinping rose through the ranks.
      The IAS cadre and IPS needs to be dismantled and local democracy needs to be empowered, the IAS has suffocated development, its an archaic colonial setup. People need to be held accountable and promoting must be on merit and by results.
      As for the plight of Muslims, I am not bothered because the poor Hindu have the same problems. Remember the caste system is alive and kicking and nothing can be more oppressive than caste.
      Take care of caste make India a more egalitarian society than communalism will disappear.
      The Hindu rabid hatred for the Muslim is there in the upper castes only,.
      Communalism comes from the Brahmin who imposes the tyranny of caste, he wishes islam would come under the umbrella of the myriad of Hindu beliefs and that all Muslims fetter themselves into the caste system.

      • Stop your harted against brahmin, they are many viewspoint against muslim and maulvi who started terror against minorities, hindus,women or homosexual. We are not against all muslim. Listen if you read kancha illaah, somebody will listen tasleema nasreen. So stop your hinduphobia. I am obc, brahmin is not my enemy, I don’t want be your enemy.

    You have it totally wrong take it from me, a ‘proletariat’, a Muslim from a poor background, educated in a madrasa in a small village.
    ASIM Ali it’s like this…
    Firstly a third of all children have stunted growth, more than half our women are anaemic, this malnutrition has resulted in an average IQ amongst the lowest in the world of 82 in India,
    Now you cannot do much with IQ of 82 and lower, the US army does not recruit below 82 IQ, they are experts, as they have over a hundred years trained millions of men.
    Below IQ 82 the ability of self learning is not possible. These people are counter productive in the workplace, they have to be constantly supervised and productivity is negative.
    These people are fodder for the politicians, they are easily manipulated, democracy does not work with people of IQ 82 and below.
    You academics and lefties sitting in your Ivory towers are part of the chattering classes.
    There has to be an alliance between the Muslim of the Brahmin, the well fed Brahmins have ruled the roost in India, it’s not going to change. It was so even under the Mughals in our village economies.
    Because of our IQ problem governance is done under the pretence of democracy…it’s Brahmins all the way down from the PMs office to the district level.
    China had an educated healthy population and it was able to take advantage of Dengs reforms, the average IQ there because of a healthy population is around 100.
    The government must concentrate on healthcare and education first, this Hindu Muslim problem is nothing compared to the scale of the the first two

    • Your analysis is spot-on. But substitute Brahmuns with Upper-caste Hindus.

      Moreover, think of what the pollution is doing to the already low average IQ of 82. For a country that knows the value of breathing (Pranayama), it should be obvious that if oxygen can help the brain, lack of oxygen can damage it.

      • IQ and Global Inequality
        By Richard Lynn, Tatu Vanhane, Washington Summit Publishers, 200.
        About IQ and poverty in India
        Also Google Jordon Peterson IQ and US army

    • I am probably one of those having that IQ Of 82 because i could not make any head and tail of it. Are you suggesting high IQ muslims should make an alliance with high IQ hindus( brahmins) and install a dictator to take care of education , healthcare etc etc?

      • He means it’s no use, with an IQ of 82 most people are destined forever to be the underdog.
        Brahmins with higher nutrition and IQ regardless from the left or the right will always come up on top like they have for thousands of years
        Mughuls were Muslims but the Brahmins did not fight them, joined with them and still ruled.
        If tomorrow a Dalit Is on the throne the Brahmin will be there whispering in his ear.
        Unless there is good healthcare for all and education, this inequality will continue

    • Zafar,
      You scored a Self goal hahahaha… Anyone dares speak up against ‘puritanical activist’ mindset of liberals, and how hard that voice is curbed. You proved that with your comment. This is the live evidence of what Asim Ali wrote. Thanks for proving !

  13. The author wants the prosecutors of the persecuted to be offered asylum too. Madness. The protests are fast losing momentum. When you peel all the fancy pansy logic here you realize that majority of the Indians cannot be guilt-tripped into supporting bigotry against the minorities in the region. This too shall pass.

    • He did not say that, he said those views are problematic but you should not cancel or patronise them . Rather you should engage in conversation.

Comments are closed.