Are Indians more liberal than they seem to be?
The answer, after witnessing the recent controversies over Ashis Nandy, Viswaroopam, Salman Rushdie’s aborted Kolkata event, the disruption of an art show on nudes, and the winding up of Kashmir’s all-girl band, must be a clear ‘no’.
But Pratap Bhanu Mehta suggests that India’s liberalism may be lurking just below the surface, where it is real, but is still a bit invisible to the naked eye.
Writing in The Indian Express, Mehta, who is President of the Centre for Policy Research, makes a counter-intuitive point: that the obvious cases of intolerance may be hiding real changes underneath. The noise is confusing the signal – the signal of a changing society.
He writes: “Rather than assume that it (all the recent brouhaha) portends a more intolerant society, it could be the case that society is actually getting more tolerant. It is the state and the political structure that do not understand these profound changes.”
And the media, too, we must add, since TV channels have been full of pro-free speech bluster in recent days.
Mehta does not deny the obvious, but says that threats to freedom of expression come from three sources: political thuggery (as in Mamata’s Bengal), patriarchy (where a male-dominated society is trying its best to stop the process of power-shift), and the “cycle of competitive offence-mongering that still remains a tempting axis of mobilisation in our society.”
But does this not indicate that group identities are still strong and stifling free speech? Mehta has this counter to offer: “Groups are attempting to impose the yoke of community precisely because the actual power to control is diminishing.”
Put another way, small fringe groups may be appropriating TV time with their claims to represent entire communities, but this may be because they actually don’t represent too many of their own community, which is now evolving away from narrow identities.
The Akbaruddin Owaisis and Praveen Togadias are loud and uncouth precisely because they are increasingly becoming irrelevant.
The bottomline in this argument is optimistic: all the shouting and screaming over community rights and wounded sentiments among Hindu and Muslim groups (and, now, increasingly Christian ones, who don’t like Mani Ratman’s Kadal) is really the last gasp of the old order that is still seeking control when the people have moved on, and control is gone.
As Mehta points out, there may be more liberals in India that we are willing to acknowledge. The reason why we don’t see them is simple: they have not found a way to connect meaningfully enough to make a difference.