Scene from JNU (Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images) 
Snapshot
  • Liberantes is a new name for a special breed of beings who practice Liberantism.

I recently thought up a word to fulfil a long-felt need. The word is Liberante. It is pronounced ‘liber-aanti’ to sound close to ‘vigilante’, its kin.

Liberantism is what liberantes practice. The word will inevitably suffer degradation to nouns like ‘Liber-Aunty’ and ‘Liber-Uncle’. So be it.

The need for such a word arose because there is a bunch of people working in India, who have variously been called ‘pseudo-secular’, ‘liberals’, ‘libSecs’, ‘left-liberals’ etc., and frankly, I find these labels far too flattering given the trade they ply.

Hence, hereinafter they shall be, for me, liberantes. I hope you will adopt this coinage too.

My Search for a Word to Call Them

My search for a word to tag this slippery lot began in 2004, when I first became aware of them and their craft.

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M F Husain had produced Meenaxi, a film based on an obsession of his. In it was a song, Nur un Ala. Within a day of its release, Muslim clerics began to murmur that the song was blasphemous. Even before any discussion arose or before anyone even understood how it was blasphemy, Husain withdrew the film from all theatres and refused to comment on why he did so.

I had been an admirer of Husain’s art. But this surrender of his liberty to express himself puzzled me although I let that pass. It didn’t matter much until what followed it.

Within a year, Husain had exhibited many paintings of his showing Hindu goddesses in the nude. Predictably, there was an uproar. And out marched familiar faces wearing liberal hats to condemn ‘Hindu intolerance’ of artistic freedom.

Almost on a weekly basis, a famous English media anchor would gather the posh class in her TV show and let them outrage against Husain’s ‘persecution’. I messaged her using the number they flashed on the screen and urged her to ask the Anjolie-Ela-Menon types about the Meenaxi episode. My request was, of course, ignored. The narrative building against intolerant Hindus had begun.

I have since pitched the incongruity in the Husain episode to several self-declared liberals I know. I met with deafening silence or artless evasion.

The most revealing answer came from Girish Shahane. Writing in Scroll, in September 2015, he said:

“For those who ask why Husain painted Hindu figures naked and not Muslim ones, the answer is simple: he aimed to work with traditions and reconfigure them, and there are no traditions of nude Islamic paintings the way there are of Hindu icons.”

Ah there…the brilliance!

It is the Hindus who must be tolerant to being ‘reconfigured’ even by those whose ‘traditions’ prohibit any reconfiguration of their own.

Girish Shahane set me thinking. But it was to be a decade before I could summarise the behaviour of the species that I have now come to call liberantes.

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Evaluating a Liberante

Here’s my three-box checklist to evaluate liberantes:

[1] Asymmetry - Unlike a true liberal, a liberante’s faux-liberalism changes with the context. When an inconvenient issue crops up, such as with M F Husain, they will evade it as Grirish Shahane does in the quote above. A true liberal however, will call out bigotry wherever and whenever they find it. As my friend and columnist, V Anantha Nageswaran put it a few years ago, “Selective outrage on bigotry is bigotry”.

[2] Mission - While a true liberal evaluates every issue that comes his way, a liberante is forever searching for issues that lets him vent his bias. If nothing is on offer, liberantes will invent some: ergo, fake-news. Or they will take a slender fact and fatten it as a beast. They’re always in mission-mode.

[3] Usurpation - A liberante is closest to what defines a vigilante, when he disregards due processes of law. All laws imply rights and restraints. Not so for the liberante. They assume a mandate that is not theirs. In this they verge close on, what in essence is, anarchism.

When I scored Girish Shahane using the 3-box checklist, he checked boxes 1 and 2.

"Hmm, have I a reliable tool to evaluate the species!” I told myself with some glee, and set out on a survey.

The Survey

A thriving crop of liberantes is readily found in Indian and foreign print media. Contractually obligated editors of web magazines that mushroomed when it became certain that Narendra Modi will move to Delhi in 2014, were found nourishing a disciplined flock of hacks. However, most of these checked only box-1 .

The box-1 liberantes seldom go beyond scouring for a day’s worth of outrage that’d supply quotable quotes for headlines, trigger a news cycle, or supply fodder for TV yell-fests. And the asymmetry charge is evaded by slipping on one or more of these convenient cloaks: atheism, environmentalism, human/gender/religious rights.

For example, a Muslim earns the right to comment on Hindu ways, while evading the reverse, saying she’s an atheist. You will never find them outraging on the wired-in violence in Islamism or the evangelism of Christianity. It is Hindus that need to be reconfigured.

The more focused liberantes, checking for boxes one and two, are to be found either heading or serving big marquee global organisations – such as Oxfam, Amnesty, Greenpeace, PETA, various wealthy foundations and FCRA-driven NGOs – all devotees of a common mission. They each have a specialist vertical that together billboards India as a land of oppression where uncivilised devils roam.

The box-2 liberantes deploy greater finesse and unpredictability, and lesser noise than the box-1 minions. They are well-monetised and powerfully-backed missionaries, after all.

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The place I least expected to find box-3 liberantism at work is our judicial system, comprising judges and our big-ticket lawyers and ‘public intellectuals’. Because of the immunity it has helped itself to, it was in the Bench that I found the variety that checked box-3 most often.

How they came to enjoy unbridled, unaccountable power needs a deeper study by a researcher. My lay guess is that the seed was sown in 1986 by the then Chief Justice of India, P N Bhagwati, though probably with the best of intentions. The good man may have meant to create a space for genuine public interest litigations (PILs).

Through that crack of an opening, in the last 30 years, motley forces swiftly drove in. Their interests in India may vary from geo-politics, market share, arms trade to proselytism.

Several big-ticket lawyers, primarily in Delhi and often having sympathies for the Congress appear to be privileged members of this club. Together with some Supreme Court Justices, who seem groomed in and tethered to West’s institutions – or due to their own downright ‘boy-scouty’ zeal – a well-oiled mechanism has been perfected: using the PIL path to usurp the prerogative of the legislature and executive.

It is this behaviour that merits a tick on box-3: usurpation – the net result of which is creeping acquisition of the executive’s territory. A vigilante usurps by short-circuiting law-making and law-keeping. A liberante does the same when he usurps the executive’s prerogative powers.

I became aware of liberantism lurking in the highest court of the country after the judgment on the Sabarimala Issue was delivered in September 2018.

I was drawn to Justice Dr D Y Chandrachud’s 165-page – the longest of the five – order. Quite early, even before weighing the merits of the case, Justice Chandrachud reveals what drives him.

“In adopting a democratic Constitution, the framers would have been conscious of the fact that governance by a majority is all about accumulation of political power.”
Justice D Y Chandrachud, Sabrimala judgement, September 2018, page 13

Let’s take his word on what ‘the framers would have been conscious of’, but... aren’t democracies run by majority’s approval?

I read his whole order. It is strewn with hints that he sees himself as a reformer of the society, and not merely as an appointee required to adjudicate disputes according to the legal framework enshrined within the pages of the Constitution.

This is from his Conclusion (159):

“The Constitution embodies a vision of social transformation. It represents a break from a history marked by the indignation and discrimination attached to certain identities...”
Justice D Y Chandrachud, Sabrimala judgement, September 2018

And so on.

Stirring words indeed, if it were a politician’s, writing an election manifesto informing people what he intends to do if he got their mandate. But here, the future CJI arrogates that power for the judiciary, which is not dissimilar in principle to what a vigilante does.

But India is clearly tiring now.

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The liberantes’ swagger should end in the near future simply because they may have overdone their bigotry directed at a majority that is not easily aroused – which is not to say that it never will be.

Liberantes may be gasping through their last days because Hindus seem distinctly disinclined to accept any more, that they and their ways are the root cause of India’s ills. They may even have begun the push back.

What Hindol Sengupta calls the Khan Market Consensus that dictated what everyone’s idea of India should be, may be losing its voice. He says real power and influence are being distributed among several prosperous, new, and smaller cities.

“Think about it – the real growth is happening in Surat and Agra, Tiruppur and Rajkot, Tiruchirappalli and Vijayawada. Sure, old guard names like Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru are on the list but they are the minority – and they are not at number one or even number two on the list. ... This change shall bring, indeed is already bringing, unprecedented change in the socioeconomic outlook of India. The centre of gravity is shifting from what one could call the Khan Market consensus – after a famed market in the heart of New Delhi’s most elite enclave – to places most people who brunch at Khan Market and pretend to change the destiny of the country with every gossip, cannot point out on a map, or even spell.”

Khan Market wags can’t survive scattering and relocating to these towns. Besides, small townsmen are not easily impressed by liberantes.

And a country boy who became a Prime Minister may typically represent their contempt for the liberantes’ bullying ways.

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