Why is Pratap Bhanu Mehta using a victimhood narrative?  (Subir Halder/India Today Group/GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • The problem is not with “liberals”, who live up to the description, but “fiberals”, or fake liberals. The problem is not secularism, but “sickularism”, a kind of covert encouragement to minority communalism, which calls out only one kind of bigotry.

Victimhood tunes play very well on the juke-box operated by India’s “liberal” public intellectuals, a.k.a. as the Lutyens elite. So, one should not be surprised that “liberals” themselves now believe they should use it to make themselves heard in the new context, where many of their hypocrisies and selective outrages are being called out by a raucous social media.

It is a pity that one of India’s more sensible public intellectuals, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, chose to use a victimhood narrative to make his point in a recent article in The Indian Express titled “Blame it on the liberals”. The blurb to the article maintains that “liberal-bashing is fun; you can say that they are not liberal enough and target them for being liberal too.”

There is certainly a ring of truth to this assertion, that one can make genuine liberals look less liberal by saying they ought to prove their liberalism in every case. But doesn’t the same logic apply to those whom the “liberals” target: anyone who wants to be identified as Hindu. Thus, a Hindu will be deemed liberal only if he stops identifying with this tag, and is effectively anti-Hindutva, whatever that means. And once we cleave Hinduism from Hindutva, then, of course, Hinduism itself ceases to be liberal, for it is all about Brahminism and caste atrocities. This is reductionism passing off as liberalism. Hindus thus have to rubbish their heritage and be held to account for every stupid statement made by fringe elements, or even ministers (like Satyapal Singh’s denial of evolution) in order to receive approval from “liberals”. But even then they are, by definition, not quite liberal, since they were born with the original sin of caste.

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The hypocrisy in all this never occurs to “liberals”: if Hindu groups want a change in the school curriculum to reflect more of India’s ancient heritage and genuine achievements, it is “saffronisation”. The same “liberals” who are quick to extol the “complexity” in historical characters like Aurangzeb or Tipu Sultan will not try to understand the inherent complexity of Hinduism. Nor will they support an improvement in school curricula merely because they dislike who is suggesting it. Thus, they will oppose the Centre’s decision to ban triple talaq, when it was their own lack of liberalism that failed Muslim women. “Liberals” ought to be ashamed that it is the “Hindu nationalist” Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is fighting social evils in Indian Islam, and not they themselves. Effectively, they are standing on the same side as retrograde ulema and reactionary elements, and not on the side they would usual champion.

Let’s take some passages from Mehta’s article and check if the same sentiment can’t be applied to people other than “liberals”.

In a context where some Right-wingers in social media now use “Left-Liberal” as a term of abuse for those they disagree with, Mehta has this to say:

We used to worry India had barely a handful of genuine liberals. Now, apparently, liberals are everywhere: Plotting the triumph of modest doses of equality, robustly defending individual freedom, resisting the tyranny of compulsory identities, using reason as a modest instrument for argument, engineering scepticism of religion, defending scientific values, making sure the world is full of cosmopolitans, protesting against great concentrations of power, protecting the environment, defending spaces for open-ended enquiry into the mysteries of self and society, probing history in its mercurial complexity, shoring up institutions as a bulwark against tyranny, and even making sure wine and cheese become dominant culinary options. Liberals are apparently so hegemonic that all of these values have triumphed.

Now, invert this and insert the word “communal” for “liberal”, tweak the sentences to make logical sense, and see what you get.

It would now read:

We used to believe India had barely a handful of genuine communal elements. Now, apparently, they are everywhere: plotting the destruction of equality, wilfully demolishing individual freedom, insisting on compulsory birth-based identities, using belief and faith as instruments to kill rational arguments, engineering hate against secularists and liberals, rubbishing scientific values, making sure the world is full of only “people like us”, protesting against great concentrations of Urban Naxals in educational institutions, encouraging the abuse of the environment, closing their minds to the idea of open-ended enquiry into the mysteries of self and society, reducing history to black and white, and weakening institutions to prevent them from acting independently, and even ending beef as a dominant culinary option. Communal elements are apparently so hegemonic that all liberal values have been crushed.

The point one is making is this: you can use words and sentences to make a simple statement with an element of truth in it or convert it into something more sinister by making absolute judgments using rhetorical flourishes. This is not the way of the true liberal, who too should be able to see the complexity of the truth even in today’s situation, where Hindu mobs apparently lie in wait to lynch Muslims, when the reality is that WhatsApp forwards can generate general hysteria and fear in ordinary people, leading them to beat alleged child-lifters to pulp.

Should this not enable sober assessments of wildly outrageous statements that demonise the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, where some random instances of vandalism or criminality involving some churches become false narratives of widespread “church attacks” and rape of nuns? When lynch mobs assemble – more recently they have been unrelated to cow-smuggling – everywhere, is the real problem not the failure of law and order in states, rather than blood-thirsty Hindu mobs running amok? When states legislate cow protection laws and then fail to enforce them, does this not leave space for private law enforcers and protection racketeers to make money from illegal cow transportation? Is it more likely or less likely that those who don’t pay protection money may be beaten up (or lynched)? This is not to deny Hindu bigotry, cow vigilantism or caste-based violence we see often. Not at all. We have to deal with this kind of violence and bigotry – and harshly. But the truth, dear “liberals”, is always more complex that the black-and-white narratives you peddle.

Take another passage from Mehta’s column:

The rise of the liberal is the downfall of India. If only liberals would disappear, India’s history would go better, all its economic problems would be solved, China would quake in its boots, rule of law would be restored, and no ethnic or religious divisions would divide India. Of course, liberals are, so we thought, Homo sapiens. So, admittedly, individuals who profess to be liberal will often display a variety of human vices: Self-satisfaction, hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, snobbery, self-interest, inertness, too much English, listening too little, instrumental behaviour, bad taste in fashion and sometimes even self-betrayal. Like the species in general, they could use more introspection as well. But, don’t be fooled. Liberal vice poses a special danger.

Now replace “liberal” with Hindu or Hindu Right, and see what you get.

The rise of the Hindu Right is the downfall of India. If only the Hindu Right would disappear, India’s history would go better, all its economic problems would be solved, China would quake in its boots, rule of law would be restored, and no ethnic or religious divisions would divide India. Of course, the Hindu Right are, so we thought, Homo sapiens. So, admittedly, individuals who profess to be Hindu or Hindu Right will often display a variety of human vices: Self-flagellation, hypocrisy, low self-esteem, denial of the reality of caste discrimination, self-interest, inertness, too much Hindi, listening too little, abusing too much on social media, instrumental behaviour, bad taste in facial fashion (tilaks on foreheads) and sometimes even self-betrayal. Like the species in general, they could use more introspection as well. But, don’t be fooled. The Hindu vice poses a special danger.

If “liberals” are wrongly be held to account only for normal human vices, that same can be said for almost every community, including the so-called Hindu Right. The creation of such artificial and reductionist identities – what is Right about the Hindu Right? – is clearly an illiberal idea.

In no liberal country that I know of are “minorities” given special status; the defence ought to be of human rights, the minority of one, and not minorities in general. And yet, in India liberalism is about defending the large minorities against a mythical majority, and the minorities within the minorities are left to fend for themselves. These kinds of “liberals” are the ones we largely see in public life.

In India, many if not most people masquerading as “liberals” are not liberals. They should introspect, as Mehta argues, and ask themselves: which genuine cause (which is not bigoted or anti-Muslim) that would benefit Hindus have you fought for? The rehabilitation of Pandits? Easy citizenship for Hindus displaced and ethnically cleansed from Pakistan and Bangladesh? The elimination of state intervention in Hindu religious places? Equal treatment and autonomy for all institutions, whether run by the “majority” or the “minority?”

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I am not ruling out passing mentions of these issues in some columns or even books by “liberals”, but no one has built up the kind of public pressure to make these changes happen. In a book titled Why I Am a Hindu, Shashi Tharoor gives the issue of freeing temples from state control one or two lines. The rest of it is a polemic trying to define who are not Hindus – kafirs to genuine Hinduism. Mehta himself has talked of autonomy of institutions in general terms, but he has never made it a cause celebre by pointing out that it is Hindu institutions – educational or cultural – that have always been assaulted by the Indian state.

I hope I have made my point. The problem is not with “liberals” who live up to the description, but “fiberals”, or fake liberals. The problem is not secularism, but “sickularism,” a kind of covert encouragement to minority communalism which calls out only one kind of bigotry. Anyone who would like to understand what “liberal” should mean, I would heartily recommend V Anantha Nageswaran’s cover piece in Swarajya, written some time ago, on Who Is A Liberal.

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