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Arrogant liberals are doing a big disservice to liberalism

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A few months ago, I was at an attractive event in Delhi, surrounded by elegantly dressed, articulate Indians and a sprinkling of foreigners. Into this privileged gathering walked an awkward young man who someone recognized from Hindi television. He seemed to be lost and was mostly ignored until someone provoked him and there followed a loud, ugly argument over the JNU controversy. He put up a spirited defence of the Hindu nationalist position but he was quickly shouted down. He felt humiliated and left hurriedly. Once he was gone, the ‘secular-liberal’ gathering relaxed, but not before heaping condescension on this ‘low life’ with his ‘crazy ideas.’ 

I do not believe in sedition and I did not agree with any of the unwanted guest’s arguments. But I felt sorry for him and unhappy at the way he was treated. Of course, he was narrow-minded in his majoritarian approach to minorities; he was bigoted in the way he characterized Muslims. But he was also a vulnerable human being. He was less well-educated, and his weak English put him at a social disadvantage. Instead of empathy, he got supercilious scorn from a self-important liberal establishment that encourages diversity of identity but is intolerant of the diversity of ideas. 

Over the past two years an unhappy divide has grown, something we did not expect when the nation elected Prime Minister Modi on the promise of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’. I am a classical (not a left) liberal and do not share the beliefs of Hindu nationalists. I do not eat beef but I will defend your right to eat it. I was disturbed by the violence at Dadri and upset that the Prime Minister reacted so late. A few weeks ago, I was outraged by Swami Adityanath’s bizarre demand for the arrest of Akhlaq’s family for cow slaughter. I deplore the violence of rightwing extremists around the world. Having said this, I am also saddened by the arrogance of my fellow liberals. In the name of tolerance they behave just as intolerantly towards those whose beliefs differ from theirs. They are just as guilty of tribal behaviour as their opponents. And this may be a reason why liberalism is not growing in our country. 

The problem with secular liberals is that we go to the same elite schools and universities where the faculty is liberal and left-leaning. Some economics teachers may have shifted after the reforms from Marxism to market-based thinking, but culturally everyone is homogeneous. It is hard for a Hindu nationalist to get into an elite college, either as a student or a teacher. It may be because the candidate is less comfortable in English but there exists a clear bias in favour of liberal privilege. (It is easier, oddly enough, for a Dalit or an OBC to break into elite ranks because of reservations.) If you believe, as I do, that the Hindutva ideology is based on empirically false grounds, we must encourage its supporters to enter top universities and engage in free debate. Only thus will India produce genuine conservative intellectuals, whose arguments will be based on verifiable facts rather than on technological fantasies from the Puranas. By demonizing them or treating them condescendingly, we reinforce resentment and throw them deeper into Hindutva’s embrace. As a result, the liberal ideology remains confined to a small elite. And then we complain, “Why are there so few liberals in India?” 

The arrogance of the secular liberal is not only morally wrong, it is bad electoral strategy. If the Congress or the Left parties want to convert the voter to a liberal ideology, they will not succeed by the sort of contemptuous and dismissive talk spokespersons engage in on television screens night after night. Liberals need to remember their own creed: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Instead, they practise: “I disapprove of what you say; so shut up, you idiot.” This sort of behaviour drives people away. The liberal ideal is too precious to become the preserve of a political party or of sanctimonious intellectuals. It is also not an issue of the Right versus the Left — all Indians must embrace the liberal idea of a plural India that protects minorities. But we shall only win the heads and hearts of people with humility and by example.

Gurcharan Das, June 14th 2016

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