Opinion | A truly fair form of liberalism must survive and thrive in India

By their selective outrage, our binary-visioned ‘liberals’ have caused the broader cause great harm

A day after the election results were announced, I wrote that many Indian liberals were in fact illiberal, elitist, and unwilling to listen to the other side of the debate. I specifically used quotation marks in referring to them as “liberals", and did not do so while speaking of liberals in a general sense.

The reactions. When a liberal journalist who gets trolled daily by hard-core Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters posted the article on Facebook, saying that what I had written could be worth mulling over, he received mostly enraged responses. Many asked how he dare share something written by a founder of Swarajya, a “right-wing Hindutva" media product. A lone voice wrote: “Just because a Swarajya founder wrote a piece doesn’t mean that you won’t apply your intelligence to assess the intellectual quality of the article?" I left Swarajya magazine (I was hardly involved with its website) a year ago, but anyone who cares to know our vision for the magazine can read my pre-launch interview to The Hindu in 2015. However, even if I were still the magazine’s voice, a true liberal should engage with my arguments, not my designation.

Which is what liberal academician Rajshree Chandra does in her response published in Mint. The point I wish to make to her is that I did not intend to attack liberalism. I criticized those “liberals" who, by labelling anyone who said anything nice about Modi as a “bhakt" and turning a blind eye to every outrage committed by anyone opposed to him, did the liberal cause immense harm. Many peaceful apolitical Hindus saw them as Hinduphobes. A real example: A year ago, at a party, someone was saying how he was very uncomfortable with extreme “Hindutva" and mentioned WhatsApp messages from an activist that if things went on as they were, within 20 years, Muslims would slaughter, rape or enslave all Hindus. An eminent “liberal" quipped: “Would that be such a bad thing?" She was joking, but it is just such tasteless and insensitive jokes that make perfectly open-minded Hindus feel that their faith is being insulted.

But these people captured the liberal narrative, and basing it on selective rage, lost traction for the broader ideal. Sadhvi Pragya being nominated was a national calamity, but there was pin-drop silence when Mayawati selected Yaqub Qureishi, who announced a 51-crore reward for the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, for the Meerut seat (he lost). Why does the liberal community never mention that dozens of people, including senior BJP officials, were convicted and sentenced for the 2002 Gujarat riots by Gujarat courts, while we all know what happened to justice in the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi?

A liberal should condemn all hate crimes. As Anand Ranganathan, scientist and author, has documented in a 250-tweet thread, in the 2014-19 period, there were hundreds of lynchings and attempted lynchings by Muslims of Hindus, especially Dalits, that were hardly covered by the English media, and even when covered, ignored by liberals. Ranganathan is no venal Hindu supremacist; he has written that he detested making this catalogue, but had no option but to pay back the selective outrage brigade in its own coin. And, here is his 50-tweet thread on attacks on freedom of expression by the BJP.

Any attack on a Muslim or Christian was instantly given a communal colour, but when in many cases it was found that it was nothing like that, “liberals" paid no heed and moved on to the next incident that appeared to suit their agenda. “Liberals" remained silent when dozens of BJP workers were killed in West Bengal, or the state government replaced “ramdhonu", the Bengali word for “rainbow", with “rongdhonu" in school textbooks, because “ramdhonu" contains “Ram"! The people have given their answer. That is what I meant in my column about being out of touch with reality.

What I only ask for is fairness. I dislike vicious BJP-supporting trolls, and they far outnumber the other side. It is disgusting that when historian Ramachandra Guha tweets about the passing away of a friend, someone tweets back hoping to see the day when he can read Guha’s obituary. I have little respect for Rahul Gandhi, but it is repugnant that when he tweets a tribute to his father on his death anniversary, a BJP MP replies, abusing him and Rajiv Gandhi.

A well-functioning democracy needs a strong opposition, and right now, there’s none in sight. So, it is very important for BJP supporters to keep a close eye on the government for the next five years and criticize it whenever necessary. These five years will be the real test for liberals on the right (yes, such an animal very much exists). Basking in triumphalism is not an option if you do not want regressives and bigots to take over. And there are some real liberals out there who fought and will keep fighting Modi and the BJP but are not blinded by binaries, borrowed ideologies and groupthink. Those on the right would do well to engage with them.

Sandipan Deb is former editor or ‘Financial Express’ and founder -editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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