Not Modi, it's Batra: Why we must go beyond Macaulayputra vs Dhartiputra
To meet Batra on his own turf, the liberals also could do with an erudite, devoutly Hindu scholar who can argue with Batra from faith and not just based on freedom of expression. The latter is critically important but a different playing field and a different argument.
This is not the best of times to be a liberal in India.
It has less to do with Narendra Modi and more to do with Dinanath Batra.
While liberals might be aghast at the rise of Modi, they also saw him coming. They may have excoriated Modi but they could never dismiss him.
Dinanath Batra, on the other hand, was the quintessential cranky old man who was hard to take seriously. And yet he is arguably one of the most powerful octogenarians in the country today.
Many Indians first heard of him when Penguin decided to pulp Wendy Doniger’s book “The Hindus: An Alternative History” this year in response to his legal notice. But Doniger wasn’t the only target. She just got the most attention probably because she was an American academic. In an op-ed for The Times of India Pavan K. Varma lists Batra’s other "achievements". He fought against sex ed in schools and the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh has obliged him. He petitioned the Delhi High Court to remove A K Ramanujan’s famous essay 300 Ramayanas from the Delhi University’s syllabus. He’s issued legal notices against Orient Blackswan and Frontline. And now his dream of revamping education is coming true as six text books written by him enter the school syllabus courtesy the Gujarat government.
This 85-year-old is having quite a year. LK Advani should be jealous of him.
The liberal reaction to Batra has been mostly disbelief. His kookier views have been tweeted and shared widely. Pushpakvahana. Birthday parties. The benefits of gau seva for childless couples. But while it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at Batra, it’s harder to counter him says Varma because the overly anglicized elite “claims to be liberal, and possibly is, but many of its members cannot write the alphabet in Hindi or their mother tongue, cannot count to 100 in anything but English, know more about Shakespeare than Kalidasa, and cannot give a line by line translation even of our national anthem!”
Basically to meet Batra on his own turf the liberals also could do with an erudite, devoutly Hindu scholar who can argue with Batra from faith and not just based on freedom of expression. The latter is critically important but a different playing field and a different argument.
This is what makes Indian politics very interesting in the Age of Modi. It is getting more complicated than the old traditional battle formations of the Macaulayputras on one side and the dhartiputras on the other. There is a need, and room, for warriors of other ideological stripes as well. Historian Ramachandra Guha writes in The Telegraph “A sophisticated intellectual culture should have room for able right-wing scholars too. In the US, conservative historians such as Niall Ferguson are both credible and prominent. Their work celebrates the stabilizing role of family and community, and argues that technological dynamism and respect for individual rights are not evenly distributed across cultures. And where Marxist historians chastise capitalists for exploiting workers, right-wing historians celebrate them for creating jobs and generating wealth.
Why are there no Indian equivalents of Niall Ferguson?"
Guha’s answer is that the “right wing here is identified with Hindutva, a belief system which privileges myth and dogma over research and analysis.” Just as there is room for the right-wing scholar who is not in a religious straitjacket there should be room, as per Varma’s op-ed, for the liberal scholar who is also proudly a person of faith. An argument against the banning of Wendy Doniger’s book (or any other book the likes of Batra deems offensive) from someone who is a practicing Hindu and also offended by the book yet opposes a ban on it would be a very valuable addition to the debate. Aseem Shukla of the Hindu American Foundation came the closest to that but from the USA when he said while HAF found her books to be “profoundly problematic” his organization’s “preferred course of action is to challenge and debate Doniger, provide rebuttals, and publish account of Hinduism and its history that provide deep insight and perspective.”
In a way liberals in India find themselves in a quandary not dissimilar to liberals in the USA after the victory, not once but twice, of George W. Bush. Bush’s victory was regarded as proof that America’s liberals were too elitist, too out of touch, stranded on either coast and regarded the rest of the country as “Flyover land”. Bush came from a background that was every bit as privileged and Ivy League as his more blue-blooded Democratic opponents but he could pass as middle aw shucks American Aam Aadmi, very overtly anti-wonkish. Even his inability to pronounce nuclear became one more testimonial to his ordinary guyhood. The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg wondered if it was “a faux-bubba pronunciation, the sort of thing he might have started doing at Yale by way of playing the Texas yahoo to all those earnest Eastern dweebs?” In the Woody Allen film Crimes and Misdemeanors, the Mia Farrow character says she could never fall for any man who says "nucular." And who could be more East Coast rarefied intellectual than Woody Allen? It was a perfect foil for Bush.
But the Bush victory threw liberals into a tizzy as they wondered whether they were doomed to ever smaller enclaves on America’s two coasts. The election of Barack Obama, as wonky as they come, but with humbler community organizer roots from Chicago in middle America, reassured liberals that their idea America was not lost.
Some amount of that same self-reflection and churn is happening in India as liberals wonder what the Modi years will mean for them. Some of that self-reflection can slide into gratuitous self-flagellation. You do not have to buy into the assumption that to be “culturally rooted” you must know more Kalidasa quotes than Shakespeare quotes. But while the temptation might be to hunker down and close ranks, the need of the hour is to open up. There are arguments to be made that go beyond the usual. And that will need more than the usual suspects.
Some Hindu groups may have succeeded in getting Wendy Doniger's book withdrawn, but the road to illiberal values was paved by the Left and now the Right gets to drive a coach-and-four over constitutional values.
We have a new Dinanath Batra in town: The Sanskrit Shikshak Sangh —a group of teachers who got the government to ban German as third language in KVs.
With the BJP now at the Centre, Batra says he is hopeful of a review of the education system. He says he has already met the HRD minister and put forward his suggestions to the ministry.