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Pulping Doniger: Don't just blame the Right; the Left paved this illiberal road

The out-of-court settlement that will result in the withdrawal and pulping of Wendy Doniger's "alternative history" of The Hindus does Indian liberals no credit. While one can use a figleaf and say that there was no ban, just a withdrawal limited to the geography of India that was agreed to by publisher and petitioning litigants, the point is one outside-in view has been strong-armed out of India.

As has been said before, the best way to combat a wrong idea or distorted book is to write another view and another book to contest it with facts. This is how Arun Shourie debunked the distorted Left view of Indian history, and this is how Rajiv Malhotra is combatting - against the odds of western media biases, which is nowhere as liberal as we assume it to be - western-centric views of Hinduism and Dharmic religions. Withdrawing Doniger's book is thus a defeat for liberal values and open debate in a democratic society.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in an eloquent critique of the failure of liberal India in The Indian Express today (12 February) blames the courts, liberals themselves, professional "offence mongers", spineless publishers and illiberal educators who are "confused about constitutional values". He excoriates liberal India for silencing itself "because its joy at exposing hypocrisy is far greater than its commitment to defending freedom." (Read Mehta’s article here).

Without contradicting any of Mehta's observations, I would like to question some of his assumptions and/or expand on the failures of liberals in India even while building a case for optimism on expanding the liberal space as the country grows richer.

The core points I would like to make are these: being Left is not equal to being liberal, and liberalism is not unrelated to our stage of development. The west did not become liberal just be deciding to be so, but because of the wealth it grew and the opportunities it provided its people to self-actualise once acute poverty ended. We are nowhere near that stage - and hence our relative illiberality. Moreover, the west just manages to cloak its illiberality better. A French Muslim hijaab ban is illiberal - but it will be called secularism.

The assumption I would like to question first is that we actually have had - or currently have - a large group of real liberals. We don't. In fact, we were more liberal before independence, when Gandhi, Ambedkar, Patel, Nehru, Savarkar and many, many others could speak without needing to be politically correct all the time. What they wrote then would probably be banned today by the courts, for “hurting” the sentiments of some group or the other.

The truth is, we have been steadily reducing the liberal space ever since we gave ourselves a liberal constitution. Our politicians and media focused on votebanks and the need to deliver some degree of prosperity – and free speech was almost thought to be an impediment to progress. One may recall that within months of the adoption of the constitution, the Nehru government was busy placing limits on free speech. Over the following decades, other rights too were whittled down – including the fundamental right to property. All in the name of helping the poor and progress.

 Pulping Doniger: Dont just blame the Right; the Left paved this illiberal road

Wendy Doniger. Image courtesy: University of California video uploaded on YouTube

The reason why we presumed we had many liberals in India is unstated, but stares us in the face: in large sections of the media and among so-called intellectuals, liberal equals Left. And vice-versa. Which is why we use “Left-liberal” as though the two ideas go together. For many decades up to 1991, and even now, the establishment has been ruled by Left-wing or Left-leaning voices – and the Left’s power in politics and academics is still very strong. Consider the rise of Arvind Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav – both Left-wing/populist politicians.

The Left appropriated the term “liberal” to the exclusion of non-Left ideas. It is this Left that decided to rewrite Indian history where the Right – economic and social Right – was always villain. Truly liberal and libertarian parties and voices like the Swatantra Party and Minoo Masani’s Forum of Free Enterprise were branded as CIA-funded, and they duly shrank.

A more recent proof of the illiberalism of the Left came from that bastion of American capitalism – the Wharton School. When Narendra Modi was invited to address an audience over a video link last year, his invite was cancelled following Left lobbying. When Subramanian Swamy wrote a negative article on Islam in an Indian newspaper, Harvard closed down his course. This, when the number of Islamophobes is US academia is a dime a dozen. It’s clear that the Indian Left is not liberal even in the US, leave alone inside India.

The BJP and the RSS are often accused of trying to rewrite history, but it was the Left that began this project and reduced the liberal space in Indian academics. The intolerance of the Left for other ideas in history and economics was the primary cause for the diminution of liberals in India. That the Right-wing was later happy to join this brigade to demand its own bans and exclusions is recent history. Now both Right and Left are complicit in reducing freedom.

The power of the Left was visible during the NDA regime, where Murli Manohar Joshi (HRD Minister) was accused of trying to change the objectives of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) from attempting a “rational” rendering of historical research to “national” – meaning a Sangh Parivar view. This change was later revealed to be nonsense, as even the original memorandum of the ICHR carried “national” and not “rational” – probably a typo. But the Left screamed murder and “saffronisation” and even when Arun Shourie revealed their fraud, there was no correction or apology from the Left.

So Left certainly has not been liberal in terms of allowing other views to come on board. It specifically sought to exclude certain Right-wing views from history books to school textbooks to even views expressed in public spaces. It is only after the 1991 liberalisation, the increase in average prosperity, the creation of many individually wealthy people, and the emergence of the academic right – mostly in western universities, one might add – that the tables are being turned, and illiberalism is coming from the Right.

Thus everything that hurts Hindu or Muslim or Christian sentiment - from MF Husain paintings of semi-nude Hindu goddesses to AK Ramanujam’s 300 Ramayanas to Taslima Nasrin’s Dwikhondito to Doniger’s tome now -  book and movie bans are the order of the day. (For a list of things banned so far, read here.) As you can see, more things were banned before and after the NDA came to power, and so bans are not purely a Right-wing thing).

Mehta’s article also says that we take greater pleasure in exposing hypocrisy rather than espousing liberal values. But I believe that this is a phase – a vital phase - before we realise the follies of illiberalism.

The truth is we have had only one version of everything so far – the Left-liberal version. We are now beginning to get glimpses of the Right-liberal and conservative versions of history, economics and culture. So exposing the hypocrisies of both parties is vital to understanding that there can be no one view of the world. Freedom ultimately means allowing a plurality of views.

The Right and the Left may be happy to expose each other, and in the process liberal values get emphasised as vital to a better discovery of truth.

A last point I would like to make is that liberal values are not something plucked out of thin air when a bunch of liberal intellectuals decide to bat for free speech. Liberalism is a product of progress, prosperity and development. It cannot be developed in isolation from the broader progress society makes – both economically and socially.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs can be used to explain why societies move from illiberalism to liberalism as they start meeting the basic needs of people better. In Maslow’s five-layer approach, an individual’s first needs are physiological (food, water, sex, etc); once these needs are met, one seeks safety and security for life and limb; at level three, one seeks social company, love, sexual intimacy; at level four, there is the need for self-esteem and confidence; at level five it’s nirvana – where the goal is self-actualisation.

Cover of Doniger's The Hindus.

Cover of Doniger's The Hindus.

Indian society as a whole – riven by poverty, caste and religious conflicts, and still struggling for basics in many places – has most of its people in the first two levels, where self-esteem is missing. Self-esteem is the key to a liberal society – and India is nothing if not a society with low levels of self-esteem. This is why we see insults in everything. We ban anything that makes us uncomfortable.

Liberal ideas need a critical mass of secure people and a population that can look beyond the basics. We are not yet there. We are still touchy about ourselves, and the extreme diversity of India has only fed our insecurities. It will take time to get over this hump.

If Europe is the bastion of liberalism, it is also because it is far ahead on this curve of social security and self-esteem. But even in Europe the liberal space in shrinking a bit as economic problems have given rise to far-Right (France and Benelux) and far-Left politics (in Greece, for example).

Liberalism is a product of both well-being and a sense of secure self-esteem. Liberal intellectuals don’t grow easily in places that don’t have these things. We will get there as we deal with the larger issues of poverty and grow social and individual wealth.

In the meanwhile, the best thing we can do is not presume that Left is liberal and Right is illiberal. We are all more or less illiberal for now.

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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2014 19:22:43 IST