Opinion | Liberalism as the biggest casualty of triumphalism

A regime isn’t needed to ban books and films once liberalism is discredited. Illiberal culture is enough

First up, disclosures. I am one of those liberals who Sandipan Deb called out in his column: Why Indian ‘liberals’ fully deserved to lose this battle, in Mint, on 24 May. At a time when our own beliefs and certainties are shaken, his schadenfreude is well aimed and finds many shares and takers among liberal-bashers. And, he is partially right. One does occasionally feel there’s a dissonance between what people have come to identify with and what is real and existent. Our aspiration for a better world should not blind us to what this world is, what it wants, and what it seeks. In this moment of introspection, Deb has chosen the right moment to make a point about how liberals deserved to lose. He appears to have pronounced the death of not just the liberals, but, sadly, also of liberalism.

But at least Deb calls our rage “righteous". However illusory, however disconnected it may be, the idea of “righteousness" attaches itself to an imagination and virtues of a better world. What do we call his rage, though? Standing by the side of a majority ensures victory. But apart from majoritarianism, what else does he stand for? What adjective do we give a rage that accuses liberals of cherry-picking facts, but cherry picks right back? Jawaharlal Nehru, he writes, brought in the first amendment (that curbed freedom of speech), banned “umpteen books", jailed “several authors and journalists" and barred a speech by Rajendra Prasad, and because of all this, in addition to the unmentionables of the Indira Gandhi regime and Mamata Banerjee “presiding over a reign of terror", because of all these reasons and more, he suggests liberals have no locus standi to support an inclusive idea of India.

Only a perception-led critique would ignore the fact that the non-Right produced some of the strongest critiques of the Congress regime. You have only to read Nivedita Menon’s critique of the first Constitutional amendment. Or Prabhat Patnaik’s, C.P. Chandrasekhar’s, Jayati Ghosh’s and Francine Frankel’s critiques of its development strategies, or critiques of the Indian state by Randhir Singh, Manoranjan Mohanty, Neera Chandhoke, Lloyd Rudolph and Paul Brass. If there was a critique of the Congress regime, it was produced not by the Right, which never had the intellectual bandwidth for it, but by liberals and Left scholars and journalists. There was no social media back then. Perhaps that is why it didn’t reach you.

What would you say is the worst crime of liberals? Elitism, ivory-tower pontification and selective, self-righteous rage, right? What is this ivory tower, this bubble, this echo chamber where all we hear are our own voices? Which “echo chamber" does Harsh Mander reside in when he tours the country, reaching out to victims of hate crimes? What elitist bubble does Yogendra Yadav reside in when he goes to Bundelkhand to take up the cause of farmers there? What is the selective rage of Nandini Sundar who picked up cudgels against the powerful Salwa Judum in Bastar? Do tell us about the elitism of the Gautam Navlakhas, Surendra Gadlings and Sudha Bharadwajs, who have fought for causes of the marginalized for decades? What bubble do we reside in as we do our jobs in our classrooms, factories, offices, homes and on the streets? The idea of a liberal, inclusive India may not have won seats in Parliament, but if that makes it an echo chamber, then this chamber is occupied by six of the ten who didn’t vote Modi.

In all the triumphalism, the biggest casualty is not the liberal. It is the idea of liberalism itself. Once you discredit the idea of liberalism, there doesn’t need to be a regime whose heavy hand bans books and films. A culture of illiberalism does that for you. Like a many-headed hydra, sometimes it’ll be a mob that’ll vandalize, threaten, maim, kill or burn, sometimes it’ll be books, films, film directors, authors, and sometimes cow-traders. Sometimes it’ll be the law that’ll allow a terror-accused Pragya Singh Thakur to contest elections, a Maya Kodnani to get bail, but a paraplegic professor, Sai Baba, to not. Sometimes it’ll be social media trolls who become the “collective moral conscience" of the country, sometimes Romeo squads, sometimes your vice-chancellor, sometimes “autonomous institutions", sometimes our elected leaders.

This culture of illiberalism says that everything, all evidence, all incidents, all facts—the National Register of Citizens, the incendiary statements of elected leaders, the bogey of love-jihad, the campaign for ghar wapsi, the cow lynchings, the Akhlaqs, Pehlu Khans, Perumal Murugans, Kalburgis, Dabholkars, Gauri Lankeshs, and little Asifas—ought to carry no meaning for the conduct of democracy. They are meaningless in the context of the mandate. By suggesting that democracy’s substantive content is a preserve and a concern of elitism, you grant yourself the prerogative to decide who believes in democracy and, more importantly, what comprises this democracy. This is both majoritarian and undemocratic.

But what is more astounding is that the liberal voice seems to upset you even more than the cow vigilantes who are garlanded; even more than threats of rape, genital mutilation and gory violence against women who speak out; even more than lovers being killed in the name of religion; even more than tribals being evicted; even more than activists being targeted. Are these lesser crimes than what liberals are accused of? What is this rage against the liberal voice? What name do we assign this tirade against liberals? You decide. The winner gets to.

Rajshree Chandra is Senior Visiting Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

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