Bigotry, neo-bigotry and the ugly Indian Liberal

by RANJAN SREEDHARAN - Oct 2, 2013 10:30 AM +05:30 IST
Bigotry, neo-bigotry and the ugly Indian Liberal

If you have been on social media for a while, it’s not long before you realise that bigotry is a big concern for the class that identifies itself as “liberal” and “left-liberal”. Go by their pronouncements and the world is divided, as always, into two camps — the good and the bad. It’s a demarcation based largely upon the “bigotry” test. The good folks are free of bigotry while the bad guys are overfull with it. Go a little further, and the same test, the same criterion, gives rise to another elemental classification of great import to Indian polity. This is the monumentally important “secular” versus “communal” divide.

It’s a fact that the secular label is much sought after in Indian politics because it confers on its owners a property akin to inoculation. The exact mechanism by which the immunity works is quite simple. India’s mainstream media has a much higher tolerance for infractions of the law and of good taste committed by the secular personality than by delinquents of the communal kind.

In fact, once you are marked as communal, you also lose the right to be judged by your accomplishments. The good that you do will be deemed not good enough (or even bad) simply because you don’t sport the right tag. Elaborate statistical fudges, to do a Disraeli proud, are deployed to pull down your achievements. A rockstar economist is commissioned to author a report a pornstar would hesitate to own up to.

On the other hand, the secular tag confers on you an automatic right to crimes as diverse as the plunder of public money, consorting with enemies of the state, wreaking terror upon your fellow citizens, lighting the first fire in communal conflagrations… in fact, the right to commit any crime in the law books and out of it, and still be deemed a worthy citizen of the country, fit and proper for its most exalted constitutional positions and for its highest civilian awards. One of these days, a paedophile will hope to have his punishment abated simply by slipping in this one line into his court pleadings, “Modi is not fit to be PM.”

By now, it’ll be clear that I am deeply sceptical about this whole fixation with bigotry and with the general direction of our wider debate about secularism and communalism where the only degenerate purpose is to hand out certificates of entitlement to an inbred, incestuous elite. I am sceptical not because I have trouble in recognising bigotry as a failing, or even that I happen to be one myself. I am sceptical because I see how liberalism that emerged as a reaction to narrow-minded religion has now evolved into a hugely intolerant creed of its own. The opposition to bigotry has become so vicious that it’s actually become bigotry in its own right, what I would call “neo-bigotry”.

2. The Socialism Parallel

Thanks to the way the former Soviet Union packed itself off to the dustbin of history, it’s now widely acknowledged that socialism—notwithstanding its appeal to our higher, nobler instincts—just does not work. But having arrived at the obvious conclusion, I fear we have ended up missing sight of the really worthwhile lesson. A system dependent upon the inherent nobility or goodness of its people for its day-to-day functioning will sooner crumble under the weight of unfulfilled expectations. In contrast, a system that acknowledges, and works with, human failings will likely prosper.

For example, we know that even common folks are capable of feats of tremendous courage and sacrifice. But to expect people to show extraordinary courage as a matter of routine would be asking too much. That’s because we like to reserve our highest instincts for special occasions, like that Sunday best worn to the weekly church service.

The free market system which makes allowances for human failings—selfishness, for example—works better in the long run than its alternatives designed to work perfectly when manned by perfect human beings. A system which keeps its eyes and ears open to the slightest act of real and imagined bigotry, and primed to take off into self-righteous rant upon the first sighting, will end up tilting at many a windmill.

3. Bigotry in perspective

There may even be a scientific reason why tolerance for some forms of bigotry needs to be kept alive. An old proverb in English says that birds of the same feather flock together. By instinct, we are more comfortable with people who look like us, talk like us, and think like us. Even those who rail against bigotry appear to subscribe to the wisdom of like feathers flocking together. A celebrity anchor seen at the forefront of this campaign studied at Oxford. He is married to another celebrity anchor equally shrill on the subject and who also went to Oxford. May I suggest that if this gentleman had faith in his words beyond the idle talk, he would have set a heart-stirring example and married his maid’s daughter? In drawing attention to this factoid, my purpose is not to score a cheap point. Far from it because in my own life I too have played safe, and I suspect many of you reading this post have done the same.

Interestingly, as we grow up, the first instances of bigotry—the bigotry that comes naturally to us—is not usually about religion or caste or things like that. We are more likely to set upon some kids in the group who have physical attributes that set them apart. It could be a stutter, a limp, a constantly runny nose, or teeth that project out. What it suggests is that the need to feel superior to someone else the easy way, without having to work at accomplishing something superior, is innate in humans. It is an ingrained flaw just as we are all, say, selfish.

The point, then, is not to gloss over bigotry but to recognize that in a long list of human failings, some serious and many not so, bigotry cannot be the most pressing concern facing humanity. Once we’ve arrived at this bit of uncomplicated wisdom, we see the futility of taking on the mantle of a comic book hero, dedicated to ridding the world of this “most deadly” human failing.

The socialist fallacy was about creating a new socialist man who would work selflessly for the glory of the state while expecting in return little beyond the barest necessities of life. Today, the great liberal experiment is about creating a new “liberal man” liberated from prejudice and bigotry. This is equally a fallacy because no sooner is bigotry in one form eliminated than other kinds rush in to take its place. In due course, count on the new strains to become even nastier than the one it supplants.

Here is a further thought. Once you accept the idea that bigotry in some strain or the other is inevitable with humans—the need to feel superior to others the easy way—there is even a case for tolerating bigotry based on abstractions of ideas and beliefs. Because, without the outlet of the bigotry of ideas and beliefs, we’d be stuck with bigotry based on concrete physical attributes or other permanent attributes acquired at birth (like race or caste). And that can be a bigger tragedy because ideas and beliefs give rise to an inclusive kind of bigotry—at least it wins you acceptance within your group without further questions. It also allows the victim today to become the perpetrator tomorrow. A three feet tall dwarf is constantly underestimated and constantly subject to snide glances but, on occasions, he too gets his moments. In contrast, in a world freed of bigotry based on beliefs, if you are stuck with a stutter, a limp, a voice more appropriate to the opposite sex, you are picked on for the rest of your life.

4. Fetish for finding bigotry

One of the first things we do in the morning is to brush our teeth. We do it because it’s a good habit, so good it’s recommended we do it twice a day. Okay, how about when you brush your teeth three times a day, or four times? Is that really necessary? Or, consider what happens when you make a fetish out of it and end up brushing your teeth nine and ten times a day. When people call you on the office intercom and you are not in your seat because you’ve made a dash to the restroom, when you find yourself discreetly stepping out of an important meeting, or when…. well, never mind. At this point, a good habit becomes a fetish, an obsessive compulsive disorder.

In the same way, with some of our leading lights today, the campaign against bigotry has become a self-destructive fetish. The obsession distorts perspective and leads them to ignore other essential aspects of nation building. In going down this path, India will no doubt become a nation of fine, upstanding citizens freed of all traces of bigotry, but look out of the window and you would still see a country wallowing in disrepair.

5. Henry Ford

If one man deserves credit for having given birth to the automobile revolution, that would be Henry Ford. History is categorical about this pioneer and his outsized contributions to the car industry beginning with the assembly line method of manufacturing automobiles and the revolutionary Model-T Ford. Here’s something that’s not well known about Ford. As outstanding as his achievements were, in personal life, he was a bigot, a notorious anti-Semite who believed the worst about Jews and who used his wealth and ownership of a weekly newspaper (the Dearborn Independent) to “personally stoke a powerful propaganda campaign.” Incidentally, in Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, Henry Ford is the only American mentioned by name.

Fortunately, Henry Ford was an American and the good thing about America is that history out there is written largely by a professional class more circumspect about weighing the evidence before putting down conclusions to paper. America does not have the dominance of the left-lib types that infest academia in India who are prone to rewriting stuff for finer alignment with their own shibboleths. All the same, here’s a thought. What would be the outcome if America too had been dominated by left-lib types given to repositioning facts? Let me guess.

“Contrary to popular belief, the automobile revolution was not sparked off by Henry Ford. It was the Volkswagen Beetle that outsold the Model T by X million and that really set the ball rolling. Henry Ford’s contribution is all media hype.”

“Actually, the Model T was not very fuel-efficient. It returned X.Y miles to the gallon whereas the competing Model AB returned a superior X.Z miles to the gallon.”

“The Model-T had a serious design flaw. Its tyres were prone to punctures and needed replacement every X miles compared to Model BC that needed replacement only after Y miles. Moreover, Model-T’s radiator required a topping up every now and then while Model CD could go on for a month without the radiator being topped up.”

“The Model-T was available only in black colour whereas competing products were available in exotic shades like incandescent ivory and shimmering turquoise.”

Okay, you get the picture, right? Well, here’s another thought relevant to how some countries progress in leaps and bounds while others get stuck in a quagmire of their own making. In a country like America strongly committed to economic freedom, Henry Ford could carry on with his business pretty much the way he wanted. Think of the case if he had been an Indian operating under our system of licenses and permits.

Ford would, of course, be first required to apply for a license to set up a car plant. Imagine further that licenses for car plants are being vetted by a committee whose members are Barkha Dutt, Rajdeep Sardesai, Sagarika Ghose and (for intellectual heft) Ramachandra Guha. Anyone familiar with their footprint on social and other media would know how deeply upset they are by the evident bigotry of a section of our people. Under this committee, I suspect Henry Ford’s application would be turned down with a terse file noting, “Denied. Promoter is a bigot.”

6. Groups are normal

When I joined SBI in 1991 as a probationary officer, I was part of a group of about 300 people recruited from all over India. We were split into groups and packed off for classroom training to five or six different places. At Indore, I was the only one from Kerala, the well represented places being UP, Tamil Nadu, AP, and Delhi. Pretty soon, you could see a broad north-south divide in the way people would hang out together, with further sub-divisions based on language.

Here’s the important point. Notwithstanding the groupism, the two stints of training (five months in all) we had during the two years of probation were, by common consent, the most fun we have ever had in our careers. Twenty years later, some of our best friends go back to those days.

Soon after probation, I was at a training programme in Hyderabad where I ran into a batchmate who had done her training at a different place. Naturally, we exchanged notes about our training experiences from probation. As I gathered, hers was not a good experience at all. It seemed she was vehemently opposed to the idea of people getting into groups based on narrow considerations of language, caste or religion. But every where she looked she thought she was confronted by evidence of such groupism. Eventually, she became pals with some three or four others who apparently shared her revulsion for groups and they would hang out together, giving a wide berth to the rest.

I saw traces of lingering bitterness, the feeling of having been let down badly by batchmates who did not meet her exacting standards. I was struck by the irony that someone opposed to groupism would end up forming a group opposed to all groups. My friend was a nice girl and I got along well with her. Looking back, I now think she was the Barkha Dutt of the batch, in the way she decided for herself that she and her ilk were good and noble and all the rest not quite. Having come to a self-serving conclusion, she made herself miserable. I’m sure she did her best to make others miserable too.

7. In a ditch

Imagine I am a Brahmin wedded to terribly outdated notions of the purity of caste, the “idea of caste” if you will. Actually, it’s a little worse because I also believe in untouchability. One day, walking on the outskirts of the village, I fall into a deep ditch. I shout and shout, but no one hears me. A couple of days pass and I begin to see flashes from my past life. Suddenly, I hear a noise from the top of the ditch and I see a human face peering down at me. I am so relieved. But hey, wait a minute… isn’t he an untouchable? My dilemma is acute, it’s a choice between my life and my notions of caste purity which I’ve lived by for a lifetime. If I am pragmatic, I’d choose to get rescued. If I am dogmatic, I’d refuse the help and pretty much stew in my own juices.

India is in a ditch. Our stalwart liberals have, after years of denial, woken up to the crisis at hand. As we look up for help, the face that peers down at us wears rimless glasses and sports a white beard. But the refrain from our liberal and left-liberal crowd is, “He is an untouchable… he does not accord with our idea of India.” If allowed their way, our liberals would sooner have India physically wiped off the map of the world so that their “idea of India” can be preserved (and perhaps pickled) in all its purity.

8. Kishwar and Padgaonkar

Dilip Padgaonkar is a former editor of the Times of India who checks all the right boxes to make the grade as a stalwart liberal in India. When the scandal over the ISI sponsored Washington lobbyist Ghulam Nabi Fai broke, his name figured in the list of Indians who had happily accepted Fai’s hospitality in order to give succour to voices hostile to India. And that’s another paradox. You can be all for “the idea of India” even as you are wined and dined by, and lend your voice to, stridently anti-Indian forces. Old-fashioned patriotism is not a virtue in this tribe.

Anyway, this story was told on twitter by Madhu Kishwar who is the Senior Fellow at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (New Delhi) and in recent days a powerful intellectual voice backing Modi. Kishwar had just appeared on a television panel discussion where she defended Modi when she got a message from Padgaonkar. He said, “I saw you on NDTV defending Modi. Please delete me from your list of friends and contacts.” As Kishwar recounts it, her reply was, “Gladly, Dilip.”

Liberalism is seriously illiberal when it encourages dialogue with your country’s enemies and those dedicated to wrecking India from within, but would treat as vermin those fellow citizens who believe in an idea of India different from yours. The Indian liberal may have successfully liberated his mind of bigotry. Unfortunately, the ensuing vacuum appears to have given way to a load of poison.

9. Essay topic

When I was in junior school, the most popular topic in essay-writing was, “The wonders of science.” The same topic would turn up in Hindi as, “Vigyan ke chamatkaar.” I am reminded of those days because, till about a year ago, a favourite topic among India’s lib and left-lib crowd was, “Why Modi will never become PM.” Since then, a lot has happened. Today, even the chronically deluded sees faint outlines of the writing on the wall. The favourite topic has now shifted to, “Why Modi is not fit to be PM.” Amartya Sen, Amitava Ghosh, U.R. Ananthamurthy… the chorus has begun and as we head to elections, count on it to become even more shrill.

I’ve now come to the end of this essay having penned about 3,000 words. I believe I’ve been vigorous in pursuit of my arguments, a little abrasive in one or two places, but I’m sure I’ve been polite throughout. It’s now time to unsheathe the dagger. The next time I hear another pompous, self-serving articulation of “Modi is not fit to be PM”, I swear I have my retort ready.

“Dear friend, shove it up, will you?”

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