A peculiar exercise has begun in self-flagellation. We see much hand-wringing of late among liberals, pulling themselves up for not having done enough to stop the rise of fundamentalism and conservatism in India.
They get two things wrong. First, they assign themselves too great an agency in society (that they were ever in a position to do anything about exterminating a powerful reactionary force). Second, they underestimate the great contribution they, the liberals, have made to thought and society even as reactionary forces exploited every available opportunity to grow.
Liberals Should Realise They’re Not Guilty
We need to do many things to return to our aspiration to modernity, but rejecting the legitimacy of our liberal aspiration is not one of them. True, India was never truly modern, but as the earliest product of decolonisation, we gave ourselves a deep, hungry aspiration for modernity. That aspiration was almost as precious as the objective, modernity itself.
This aspiration showed up in the Constitution we gave to ourselves, in popular culture, in some of the greatest literature in many vernacular languages and in English, in revival of myriad folk and subaltern expressions, in being able to shrug off periodic conflagrations that kept reminding us how fragile our body politic still was despite our lofty aspirations, and when the time came, in adapting to economic liberalisation with gusto and success.
None of these – not one – of our seminal achievements as a twentieth century civilisation was remotely conservative in inspiration or origin. The spirit was consistently and entirely liberal.
That spirit must re-assert itself if we are to ever exist on the highest human plane: An existence based on questioning the amazing infinite universe and on learning new things about it every day, and on incorporating that knowledge into our chaotic, cacophonous and ultimately wonderful Indian lives. Whenever India showed up as great, this has been the ethos. It must be so again, and for that, the rising trends of reaction everywhere in society must be defeated.
This is only possible if liberals recognise that they are not the guilty party. It is true that while they went about defining India, there were forces that festered in claustrophobic cupboards of parochial putrid dead ideas.
Today, conservatism, in its pristine form a perfectly valid socio-political balance to liberalism, has been captured in India by morbid forces. These new forces, perverted mutations of genuine conservatism, are unprecedented in their resort to violence, hatred and divisive tools. The liberals have not created them; they are merely shocked witnesses to their ghoulish eruption.
Rise of Conservative Forces
Let us, for the moment, forget the politics of this scenario. Let us say that the rising trend of conservatism is a social and not a party-political phenomenon. There are, after all, surveys that suggest large sections of the Indian youth and even women support conservative social ideals.
A survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in collaboration with the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung conducted among 15- to 34-year-olds and published in 2016 showed 41 percent felt married women should not work, that 43 percent believe men are better leaders and that 27 percent felt some unease about having a non-vegetarian neighbour.
Liberals can take heart from the same numbers if they reverse the proportions. The numbers in the previous paragraph tell an interesting story: nearly 60 percent of 15- to 34-year-olds feel married women should work and 57 percent – well over half – feel men are not necessarily better leaders. The survey says, implicitly, that 73 percent see no problems with having non-vegetarian neighbours. Those numbers, in a country as challenged by poverty, illiteracy and poor education and general backwardness as India, is actually a liberal triumph.
Given development indicators, these numbers could well have been far sharper in their favour for conservative ideals, but clearly are not. In spite of the perception that the force is with conservatives, liberals have every reason to cheer.
There is no question that conservative forces have been helped by some opportunistic steps taken by the Congress party and its allies over the decades to woo minority votes. It is unfair when conservatives seek to lump liberal intellectuals or even average liberal citizens with the Congress or the Left parties, even if, for argument’s sake, they have supported or voted for these parties in the past. Supporters cannot be considered to be somehow responsible for actions of the parties they have voted for.
It is a right-wing ruse to paint liberals in the same hues as the Congress or the Left. The right-wing suggests that having established the dominant philosophical worldview during that period, liberals were also somehow responsible for the dirt of the ground-level politics of the Congress and the Left.
Those who most need to refute this, however, are the liberals themselves. After all, who are the liberals in Indian society? They are average citizens who have gone about meeting difficult challenges of life while retaining a generosity of spirit towards those different from them – whether within the country or outside.
These are academics, historians, engineers, doctors, dairy-farmers, priests, accountants, clerks, farmers, grocers, landless labourers, tinkerers, mechanics, truck drivers – virtually everyone who carried on with the business of life without resorting to hate, violence or misplaced paranoia in their social exchanges.
Each one among them adapted to the modern world with their own set of ethics – often differing from one generation to another in detail – and helped each other through thick and thin irrespective of cultural backgrounds, diet or preference for Bollywood heroes. These are people for whom Pakistan has been a cricket team that always gives us a rollicking match, not the call for an internet war as transformed by the conservative forces.
This does not mean one needs to ignore debates that conservatives want to broach. If it is history they want to talk about, liberals can draw upon a great tradition of much-admired historiography that could help them talk about this country’s past.
The conservatives will try to discredit the wonderful historians who propelled the liberal quest for knowledge over the last century; liberals need to ask them to match in excellence (and not dismiss through personal attacks) what has been written.
Good News for Liberals
If it is economics the conservatives want to corner the liberals on, the latter can respond with respect to some of the great economic achievements of the developing world. Literacy has grown from 12 percent at independence to 75 percent today. GDP has grown from Rs 2.7 lakh crore to Rs 57 lakh crore – nearly 20 times, and over the last two decades, has always been among the world’s fastest-growing.
Some great engineering and humanities institutes have churned out the world’s best academic, professional and management brains – Indians lead everywhere, not just in India. The Green Revolution remains India’s unique contribution which tells you what is possible even in the most challenged agricultural societies. These were achieved, all on the ground, by a great liberal populace living essentially by liberal ethos.
Conservatives may wish to indict liberals on not defending adequately the majority religion, Hinduism. Once again, liberals need to point out two things. First, there is no one Hinduism to save: If all India grows, then the thousand Hindu sub-cultures that constitute that great religion will advance. Second, documents such as the Sachar Committee report suggest that minorities are in at least as great a need of rescue as the majority in this country, if not more. Liberals do not discount Hinduism, they simply do not privilege Hindus over others because that is what we rightfully enshrined in the Constitution we adopted and gave to ourselves.
Any era when a 55-year-old dairy farmer is chased down a road and then filmed being bashed to death for transporting cows is a period of great challenge for liberals in that society. It is imperative that liberals do not compound their crisis by somehow ascribing to themselves the guilt of having unleashed that era on the nation. That responsibility remains, squarely, with the forces of reaction.
(The writer is a Kolkata-based entrepreneur who prefers to write under a pseudonym. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)