Being a conservative in a predominantly left-liberal ecosystem has its pitfalls. But Sir Roger Scruton stood out by his ability to take on his opponents with elan. But in India, the conservative movement has failed to throw up stalwarts who can match their opponents step for step, and that’s disconcerting.
Legal academics and historians from the Ivy League, Nobel laureates, authors and social scientists of international repute have all been speaking quite harshly against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.
The only credible intellectual defence came from a top lawyer and also perhaps from a couple of right-leaning journalists. This gulf is visible now more than ever to the general public because the liberal, leftist or socialist intellectual never had more cause for activism.
After all, a right-wing government is pushing through conservative reform in a manner unprecedented in our independent history.
Students from the most premier educational institutions in the country have however been heavily influenced for decades by this vast gulf. For them, there has never been a satisfactory answer from the Indian right to many ideas that undermine the need for their very existence.
Ideas such as Tagore’s rejection of nationalism for humanism, Gayatri Spivak’s attacks on nationalism for excluding subaltern narratives or even the current intellectual sensation Yuval Noah Harari’s views on nationalism as a partly benign but transitory ideology fast losing relevance, hardly find mention, much less a response in the Hindutva discourse.
When Edward Said quotes Hugo of St. Victor to say “the man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land”, even a Hindu spiritualist is more likely to agree than disagree with this worldview even if it means repudiating nationalism.
How does the ‘Hindutva brigade’ then plan to prove its muscle beyond just the political arena? A typical “boudhik” (intellectual) session of the RSS begins with why the Indian idea of nation and nationalism is different from the western one.
The difficulty is that many Indian youngsters have already decided that we don’t need a nationalism at all. How does one convince them to sit through such a “boudhik” session?
Perhaps, people like Ram Guha and Aatish Taseer deserve more attention when they highlight the absence of India’s conservative intellectual and lampoon the ones being propped up as such by the political establishment.
The crux of the debate on CAA and NRC is the citizens’ attitude to outsiders. Critics draw from decades of pro-immigration intellectual input from the West.
But this liberal intellectual discourse has not gone unchallenged in the West. One country especially has chosen to prefer national identity over continental unity that thrusted upon it a liberal immigration policy.
Brexit was a battle that was fought on many fronts. One thinker, Sir Roger Scruton, made British nationalism and national identity the heart of the issue.
He was a philosopher of great repute, guiding conservative movements throughout Europe.
The victory for the ‘leavers’ was a vindication of his emphasis on “social trust” emanating from a “shared language, shared customs, instinctive law-abidingness, procedures for resolving disputes and grievances, public spirit and the ability of the people to change their own government by a process that is transparent to them all” as basis for deciding immigration policy and not just economic and utilitarian factors.
Constantly taunted as being ‘racist’ and ‘xenophobic’, he coined the term ‘oikophobic’ (aversion to home) to describe the immigration-loving western political elite.
In India, the first major reference to his work came in Ramachandra Guha’s article “Where are India’s conservative intellectuals?”.
While holding Scruton up as a model conservative intellectual, he strains to explain why even his brand of conservatism may not suit India because, according to him, for the RSS and its ideologues “nationhood is intricately bound up with religious affiliation” whereas in Scruton’s conservatism Christianity is just “one building block.”
Ram Guha may be wrong is his assumptions both about Srcuton’s philosophy and RSS’s conservatism. But the unfortunate aspect of his discussion is that the Indian right took no note of Scruton’s work till at least Swapan Dasgupta’s “Awakening Bharat Mata.”
Dasgupta rightly pits Scruton’s nationalism based on ‘community wisdom’ against the more well-established German philosopher Jurgen Habermas’ ‘constitutional patriotism’ (a term used by Prang Mukherjee to lecture the RSS at its own event).
It was not just Habermas’ philosophy, but the entire leftist consensus in western academic institutions that Scruton took on relentlessly for the last four decades.
In his “Thinkers of the New Left”, he criticised the works of 14 scholars who helped establish this consensus — E. P. Thompson, Ronald Dworkin, Michel Foucault, R. D. Laing, Raymond Williams, Rudolf Bahro, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Immanuel Wallerstein, Jürgen Habermas, Perry Anderson, György Lukács, John Kenneth Galbraith and Jean-Paul Sartre.
It is the works of these leftist thinkers and their successors that still dominate the academic landscape of JNU and many other premier institutions in India teaching humanities and social sciences.
An Indian conservative can never attempt to even speak to such students without understanding the works of people like Scruton.
Interestingly, keeping up with the times, Scruton responds even to ‘Silicon Valley guru’ Harari by falling back on Immanuel Kant’s “I think” and self-consciousness to prove his “biological reductionism” of human history wrong.
Sadly, as in India, leftist thinkers had always enjoyed greater recognition and state patronage throughout the world. As Scruton laments, despite their philosophy being proved wrong by world events:
Writers like Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu shot to eminence…Habermas and Ronald Dworkin collecting prestigious prizes for their barely readable defenses of ruling leftist platitudes, and the veteran Marxist Hobsbawm rewarded for a lifetime of unswerving loyalty to the Soviet Union by his appointment as “Companion of Honour” to the Queen.”
Recognition for Scruton first came from the Czech Republic in 1990s for his work in support of dissidents under communist rule. Recognition at home came much later in the form of knighthood in 2016 followed recently by state honours from Poland and Hungary.
Vile hatred, however, was more forthcoming from the same liberal elite that accused him of spreading hate. In April this year, left-leaning magazine New Statesman misquoted Scruton in an interview causing him to be shunted out of a government commission on charges of racism.
The magazine apologised later. Referring to this incident and the onset of cancer, Scruton wrote that “during this year much was taken from me — my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health, my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my peace of mind, my health.”
A true reminder of what it takes to be a conservative intellectual in today’s world. Scruton passed away a few days ago on 12 January. In his obituary remarks, Boris Johnson called him the “greatest modern conservative thinker”.
For the Indian conservative, there is much to learn from the works and life of Sir Roger Scruton. More importantly, there is much to lose otherwise.