Treat the Politically Correct and the intellectually puerile Leftists as idiots, which is what they are. Do not respond to them in a shrill manner. They are spoilt brats at best.
The Editor of Swarajya asked me to consider an article on Intolerance. I demurred at first. After all, a fairly sober article of mine on beef (Swarajya, October 2015) literally got slaughtered with acerbic comments, so I hesitated. To write about the current Intolerance Controversy in India means that one has to be at one of two polarized ends—hysterically criticizing the current dispensation or defending it vociferously. There are very few Ruskin Bonds around who can gently point out that intolerance and even violence is nothing new in our country. It is just that current 24- hour TV makes it appear like a new problem. There is also of course, selective coverage where some incidents, speeches and happenings get disproportionately more time than others.
Luckily for me, just as I was trying to grapple with the formidable task assigned to me by the Editor, along came the news that the leading Republican candidate for the American Presidency, Shri Donald Trump, has decided that his country should win the Olympics title on the subject. It is always easier to be objective about a distant country, even a country like the US, for which I do have considerable admiration and fondness. The question that I thought I will try to address and understand is why the front-runner in the political party of Abraham Lincoln is taking the positions that he is.
Why in the country which traces its intellectual descent to Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain and Martin Luther King should Trump’s words resonate with large sections of the public? What exactly is happening here in this quintessentially immigrant and multi-cultural nation, whose State Department bureaucrats constantly and with unrestrained pomposity, lecture the rest of the world about discrimination and human rights?
I sat back and thought, an exercise which I would recommend, at least as an occasional activity for social media bloggers and trolls who seem to like to communicate in a blazing hurry. Why is Trump saying what he is saying? And interestingly, why is his public position ending up being quite popular? My conclusion is not an original one. But here it is for what it is worth: intolerance, or perceived intolerance seems to me to be a delayed reaction to decades of political correctness.
For several years now, western academic and media institutions have been dominated by people who can be loosely described as left-liberals. They have set a tone where it is perfectly in order to criticize vociferously and viciously the White Race, especially White Males. In fact, it is not uncommon in leading American universities to dismiss Plato, Aquinas, Dante, Cervantes, Bacon, Montaigne, Spinoza, Kant and Pushkin as Dead White Males, who are not worth reading. Instead, students have been encouraged to read fashionable “subaltern” authors who come from “oppressed” or “minority” groups—African American Women or Native American Balladeers and so on.
My son Vijay pointed out to me that it is entirely possible to get a Bachelor’s Degree in History from a top American university without reading Gibbon, Macaulay, Turner, Toynbee or Braudel. In fact, ignoring these Dead White Males and focusing on politically correct subjects like “The Impact of Western Imperialism on the Middle East” or “The Native American Experience in the Eighteenth Century” or “The Role of African American Women in the Nineteenth Century”—all of which are popular courses where high grades can be obtained—is the path to academic success.
One notes the utter lack of interest in Periclean Athens, the Fall of Rome, the Florentine Renaissance, Elizabethan England or for that matter even the Federalist Papers. No one can argue that revisionist histories which focus on subaltern subjects which were earlier ignored, is an important corrective. But to do so by ignoring or denigrating mainstream western culture as belonging to Dead White Males and as supportive of wicked colonialism/racism/imperialism/neo-colonialism/neo-liberalism/male chauvinism and so on constitutes a different kind of political incorrectness. White Males are now the persecuted ones. Or at least, there is enough public discourse for them to believe that.
It is not an accident that Mr Trump prefaces most of his so-called outrageous statements with the following: “It may not be politically correct to say so. But I am going to say it.” The simple point he is making is that his perceived political intolerance is no different from the political correctness of his opponents. Due to repeated, loud, intemperate and almost racist criticism of White Males, they have now retreated into a fortress where they, legitimately or otherwise, feel that they need to defend themselves and the weapon of Mr Trump’s choice is equally intemperate vocabulary.
We can and we should argue with Mr Trump using the Scottish Enlightenment traditions of rational empiricism—the same tradition that is denigrated by Leftists. But, Mr Trump, a 2,000-mile-long wall simply will not work. Centuries ago, Chinese emperors misdirected the resources of their people to build a 6,000-mile-long wall—supposedly the only object made by humans that is visible from outer space. Mr Trump, even this Wonder of the World did not work. Invaders simply bribed some guards and got in.
Almost 2,000 years ago, the Roman emperor Hadrian built a wall, which was named for him. (One would know this if one reads Gibbon, who is disliked by Leftists) Hadrian’s Wall also did not work. The migrants who wanted to entire the Roman realm, entered it anyway. In the last century, the French built the “impregnable” Maginot Line. The Germans simply bypassed these walls and fortresses. In more recent times, in 1973, the Israelis were shocked when the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal and breached the fabled Bar-Lev line. Mr Trump, your 2,000-mile-long wall will be utterly pointless and ineffective.
The problem with using empirical data to counter Mr Trump is that we will then have to deal with awkward questions that he will raise regarding the racial, ethnic or religious composition of welfare recipients, criminals and terrorists. But these are precisely the statistics that politically correct Leftists do not wish to discuss. Some years ago, I mentioned to a British friend of mine that I had a hunch that among the so-called Asians (a meaningless catch-all expression used by British Leftists), who are in British jails, those of Pakistani origin would be disproportionately high, both in absolute and in percentage terms and contrariwise, those of Indian origin would be disproportionately low. My friend dismissed me as a chauvinist. This refusal to look at empirical data when the conclusions may be inconvenient from the perspective of political correctness, severely weakens our ability to counter the likes of Mr Trump.
Mr Trump’s recent call for a halt to Muslim immigrants and visitors into the US, even a temporary one as he argues, really surprised me. In a country where lawmakers are explicitly prohibited by their Constitution either from having a State religion or from oppressing one, his call sounds really bizarre. And then it occurred to me that the worst enemies of contemporary Muslims have been western Left-Liberals. They have created a situation where it is perfectly in order to accuse Israel of being an “apartheid State”, but where criticism of strange and inchoate utterances by Iranian leaders are a no-no. After all, it is all the west’s fault for kicking out Mossadegh!
Today’s Iranian leaders are completely denied agency. All their words and actions are merely because they are puppets reacting to earlier western crimes. Again, the politically correct refusal to look at data. Many countries have been the victims of western, and for that matter, other empires. But their leaders are not excused when they behave irrationally on that account. The Israeli situation is even more difficult to understand. Empirical analysis would require us to see how people vote with their feet. It seems obvious, at least to me, that if Syrians want to flee Syria and get to Germany, then in their opinion, Germany is a better place to live in than Syria. No publicity is given to the fact that Israeli Arab citizens have not tried to move to Egypt or Jordan or the PLO-run West Bank or Hamas-run Gaza or for that matter to Germany! Would they not be doing that if Israel really were a brutal/wicked/bad/racist/proto-Nazi/apartheid state?
But Israeli-phobia is perfectly in order. It is Islamophobia that is frequently condemned by Leftists. The anti-Israel rhetoric in western academia paradoxically results in so-called “common” folk like Mr Trump turning anti-Muslim. I know for a fact that in the recent past, a distinguished alumnus of the London School of Economics (LSE), who happens to be an Israeli tech entrepreneur and who was supposed to make a speech at his alma mater on something as inoffensive as emerging technologies, was denied space to do so by the LSE, where the faculty, the administration and the students union are all anti-Israel.
Why LSE students should be denied knowledge of emerging technologies, that too from an alumnus, surprises me no end. Trump’s intolerance is at least bare-faced and out in the open. The behaviour of the LSE Dons is intolerance clothed in contemporary fashionable politically correct language. Given the earlier reference to walls, it might be worth pondering over the fact that the Israeli wall has resulted in a drastic reduction of terrorist violence. Mind you, I for one do not think this will work for ever. My advice to my Israeli friends is to think of this wall as at best a temporary palliative.
To turn to India, the capture of academia and the awfully spelled Akademis by Soviet fellow-travellers has been an ongoing process for more than 60 years. Again, a crucial battlefield has been history. The pink-hued historians who have dominated Indian academia (one education minister, the remarkable Nurul Hasan, had an openly stated policy of accommodating Marxists in taxpayer-paid sinecures) have been ably supported by assorted Leftist historians ensconced in British, French and American universities. Our sarkari historians have understandably dismissed earlier British writers as colonialist/ imperialist etc etc. They have also demonized distinguished Indian historians such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar and Nilakantha Shastri as “communal”, whatever that word might mean. The Leftist vision of India’s past is one where Hindus and Muslims lived in idyllic fraternal bliss until the British divide-and-rule games started being played. Of course, they have only bad things to say about Brahmins and Banias. A blurb I read on a book cover leads me to believe that Dead Brahmin Males are the Indian equivalent of Dead White Males.
The games played by Leftist historians are fascinating. They will dismiss the violent accounts in the works of medieval Muslim historians as propaganda that should not be taken seriously. Such “texts” are not apparently authentic sources. At the same time, they will give extraordinary publicity to obscure “texts” that suggest Brahmin-Buddhist or Jain-Shaiva or Shaiva-Vaishnava rivalry with the intent of making the politically correct point that all violence is similar.
Consider the Indus Valley controversy. British archaeologist John Marshall’s view that invaders destroyed Mohenjodaro and Harappa is pretty much discredited by today’s experts. Some archaeologists have noted that fact that many Harappan sites are on the banks of the dried-up Ghaggar, which has been traditionally referred to as the Saraswati by the common people in that part of the country. Others have made the case that the drying up of the Saraswati and its turning into the Ghaggar may have been the result of earthquakes. All this is fine. But what the Marxists cannot hear even for a nanosecond is the argument that since the Rig Veda has an extraordinarily passionate hymn to Saraswati, where it is clear that the reference is to a river, could it not be the case that there is a connection between the Harappan settlements on the Ghaggar and the composers of the Rig Veda? (Incidentally, the Rig Veda has no hymn to Ganga!).
Most people would find this arcane discussion irrelevant and uninteresting. Assuming one is interested, all these matters concerning a distant past, could be talked about rationally, referring to the despised Scottish Enlightenment traditions. But Marxists have decided that this Ghaggar-Sarawati business is a malign Hindutvic plot of Living Brahmin Males. So they must debunk it. Of course, they have their allies in western universities. Their important argument till date seems to be that horses are central to the Rig Veda and that no Indus Valley seal shows a horse. Therefore there can be no connections. QED. Some over-enthusiastic and foolish persons tried to fake a horse seal, thus weakening their case further.
I have not studied with distinguished Leftist historians in western universities. But I do have a smattering of statistics. There are two types of errors that one can fall into and mathematicians, being simple folk, unlike Marxist historians, call them Type 1 error and Type 2 error. Mathematical logicians sometimes refer to these matters as “absence of evidence” and “evidence of absence”. If we concede that there is no Vedic connection to Harappan sites because horses are absent in Harappan seals, how does one deal with the presence of the unicorn in various Harappan seals? Does this mean that 3,000 years ago, there were unicorns roaming around on the banks of the Indus and the Ghaggar?
I was surprised at the vehemence of the arguments on both sides. It turns out that the arguments have nothing to do with history. Marxists are hell-bent on proving that the composers of the Vedas were migrants into India, while the Hindutvics position the same composers as indigenes. Again a fairly pointless and futile debate. But the current demands of “political correctness” apropos of subsequent invaders and migrants require, as far as Marxists are concerned, a concerted effort to discredit the Saraswati theories.
While Marxists are almost uniformly positive towards Afghan and Moghul rulers, they hate the British who are responsible for all our problems. In this, they are joined by Hindutvics who dub any attempt at a balanced and a possibly mildly positive view of British rule as a product of accursed Macaulayputra minds. In this regard, both groups embrace the political correctness of the anti-British stance. I personally think that a great deal of our national schizophrenia would end if we simply accepted British rule as a part of our history and acknowledged that this dispensation did leave us with several positives. It is in fact the failure to do so that I would refer to as jejune intolerance.
Let us now turn to more local issues that have hogged the headlines. The case of Perumal Murugan is fascinating. He was born in the Gounder caste and he has written a book about certain old customs that may (and then, they may not) have prevailed decades and centuries ago.
Now whatever their origins and whatever the nature of their earlier factually correct or incorrect quaint customs, the fact is that today Gounders are an affluent, upwardly mobile and assertive group. Some of them therefore decided that Mr Murugan should be ostracized/persecuted/silenced. The fact of the matter is that Murugan is not stupid. He should have realized that he was taking a risk and one wonders if he would have taken similar risks of offending other caste or religious groups!
As far as Professor Kalburgi is concerned, the situation is even more obvious or complicated depending on your point of view. He wrote a book about the family of the Prophet of the Lingayats. Many (not all) Lingayats took objection to Kalburgi’s views. Kalburgi at first retracted and apologized. He subsequently retracted his retraction. He must have known that he was taking a great risk. Many followers of Prophets do not take kindly to perceived insults and are capable of violence. When he retracted his retraction, Kalburgi definitely signed a potential death warrant.
While Leftists have rushed to Kalburgi’s defence, one wonders how they reconcile themselves to their admiration for Mohammed Iqbal. Iqbal is regarded by many Leftists as a great philosopher, a pretty questionable assessment in my humble opinion. But be that as it may. In the good old days of the British Raj, a Punjabi Hindu publisher came out with a book that was seen by many Muslims as critical of the Prophet of Islam. The publisher carefully suppressed the names of the authors of the book. The publisher therefore became the target of those who took umbrage at the insults to their Prophet.
The publisher was physically assaulted twice. On the third occasion, he was actually murdered. The justice of the Raj ensured that the young murderer was hanged. Iqbal came out publicly supporting the actions of the murderer; he led his funeral procession and made a speech at the funeral that can only be read as a eulogy for the dead murderer, or avenger, depending on your choice of vocabulary, or defender of the faith, if you care to choose Iqbal’s vocabulary. Now I ask our Leftist friends, who have anointed Iqbal as a philosopher, whether in their opinion Iqbal was tolerant?
Ay, there’s the rub. It would be so inconvenient and politically incorrect for Leftists to answer this question, which in all fairness they should if they are willing to rant and rave and publicly return prizes and awards (some doubtless well-deserved and others almost certainly undeserved). The Hindutvic response that none of these Leftists protested when a Kerala professor’s hand was cut off or when Taslima Nasreen was hounded out of Kolkata and Hyderabad is almost identical to the position of Trump supporters that political correctness has made them victims and therefore the so-called intolerant response should not be surprising.
The similarities between the western Leftist attacks on Dead White Males and the attacks on Dead Brahmin Males and for that matter Living Bania Males are striking. Just like the supporters of Trump, the extreme Hindutvics have concluded that these are not simply academic controversies. These are in fact attacks on all Hindus. Hence their bristling hypersensitivity.
There is some justification for their anger. In the US, several NRIs objected to a California history text book which, while discussing Hinduism, focused excessively on its weaknesses. The same NRIs took exception to extensive publicity that the Ganesha story was Freudian in nature and that his trunk was a phallic symbol. Frankly, I sympathize with the NRIs. Here is a hard-working NRI bringing up his or her children in California, trying to tell the children that they should pray to Ganesha in order to do well in their studies. Along comes a Leftist historian/anthropologist who pretty much expresses contempt for this point of view and gets a great deal of press and internet publicity. What exactly is the NRI supposed to say to his/her children at this time? A real problem there and one which deserves a sympathetic response.
While the criticism of Brahmins as casteist/ oppressive/ obscurantist is par for the course, the criticism of Banias is more insidious and dangerous. In its dying days, the UPA Government ran a television ad where a young, light-complexioned jhola-carrying NGO-type woman openly mocks at a trader addressing him as “O Laaley”. If such an allusion had been made to a Jew or a Muslim, it would definitely have been classified as anti-Semitism or Islamophobia. But a Hindu Bania is an acceptable target for those who believe in correctness.
The nauseating spectacle of using taxpayer money to attack one Hindu caste, was of course never objected to by any Leftist. The Hindutvics certainly have a point when they feel that the attack is really a broader one on Hindu traditions, Hindu culture and Hindu society. That is the basis of the similarity between their supporters and what seems to be a large section of American Republicans who smell an attack on western culture and traditions.
Having said all of this, I do not wish to close by defending intolerance as an appropriate response to dim-witted Leftist political correctness. Two wrongs do not make a right. In fact, by falling into the trap of combating political correctness in this manner, ironically one ends up giving a measure of justification to the Leftist phobia of Fascists—real or imagined. In this context, there should have been a loud and strong condemnation of the horrific lynching of an old man who may or may not have had a meat of his choice in his refrigerator. In the years to come, this singular failure to defend an ordinary citizen’s right to privacy in an emphatic manner will continue to haunt the present dispensation.
The better response to political correctness is to adopt an attitude of Olympian disdain. I notice this among my many white American and British acquaintances. They do not get sussed when people accuse them of being racist/imperialist/colonialist or for that matter for being descendants of racists/imperialists/colonialists. Some of them, who obviously have psychological conditions of self-hate, even join the critics. The more sensible ones have an intelligent patronizing attitude as if they were indulging hysterical children.
When the late U.R. Ananthamurthy wrote a book caricaturing Brahmins (after all, caricaturing Brahmins, living or dead, is very politically correct), I remember several elders in my Brahmin family simply dismissing the writer. “He is an idiot. He will pay for his comeuppance in the next life if not in this” was their response. I strongly recommend to my Hindutvic friends to take this approach. Treat the Politically Correct and by the same standards intellectually puerile Leftists as idiots, which is what they are. Do not respond to them in a shrill manner. They are spoilt brats at best.
Similarly, I would recommend to Gounders and Lingayats to treat their detractors with amusement and contempt and not with arguments or attacks. And above all, I would recommend to the sensible Muslim to ignore cartoonists who mock their Prophet. They should take the position that the cartoonists will be adequately dealt with through the process of divine justice. After all, the Jewish Holy Book says something as follows: “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord.”
And as for Mr Trump and his supporters, while acknowledging that we owe them a debt for taking the intolerance debate away from India to America, I would add that I am not sure they should discontinue their present tactics. It seems to me that they do provide some much-needed comic relief in a world overburdened with the sanctimoniousness of the politically correct Leftist dictators of taste.
The author is the former CEO of MphasiS, and was head of Citibank’s Global Technology Division. He is currently the Executive Chairman of Value and Budget Housing Corporation (VBHC), an affordable housing venture. Rao is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Swarajya.