‘Liberals’ Vs. Nationalists – A Response to Sagarika Ghose
Eminent journalist Sagarika Ghose’s blogpost on the ‘fast spreading epidemic’ of ‘militant’ nationalism in India is simplistic and inaccurate in its analysis. The first flaw is the homogenous categorization of both liberals and nationals. The blog begins by highlighting the dastardly assassination of Salman Taseer and abruptly slips in reference to anti-Arundhati Roy sentiment in India, almost implying a moral equivalence between both.
Ms. Ghose names incidents involving ‘liberals’ like Arundhati Roy, Ahish Nandy, Actress Kushboo, MF Hussain, Prof. Amithabh Mattoo, Binayak Sen, SAR Geelani as examples of this ‘epidemic’. The list is a mixture of artists who allegedly hurt sentiments, academics who criticized government action and persons accused of flirting with terror and violence. What is common to all these people? Can views expressed on changing social trends be clubbed with the view that India is an “occupying force”? Is being accused of terrorism and maoist-links a qualification to be called ‘liberal’? Scores of innocent Indians have false encounters with our criminal-justice system on a daily basis. Why does only Dr. Binayak Sen deserve the support of 22 Noble laureates? Is it Dr. Sen or the alleged crime that is getting ‘liberal’ support? I’m not sure if some ‘liberals’ mentioned in the list would themselves be comfortable being clubbed with others. Who is this great Indian ‘liberal’? What does (s)he stand for? Whoever (s)he may be, his/ her sacrifices or his/her fights can never be compared to those of Salman Taseer. Indian ‘liberals’ don’t have to fight what Taseer fought against in Pakistan. Pakistan’s situation is testimony to the fact that if there is one thing liberal it’s the Indian state and it’s Constitution. Every responsible Indian citizen should fight against misuse of the State-machinery. One doesn’t have to be ‘liberal’ to do it. But fighting the State itself is quite different. Liberty cannot mean liberty to destroy institutions that guarantee freedoms, merely because there is misuse.
Ms. Ghose’s examples of ‘nationalist outrage’ are mistaken. The law of sedition is well defined and constitutionally recognized. If any person is charged of the offence, they will face trial in the same way that any accused in this Country is tried. It is nice to cite examples from ‘liberal’ countries. The last person to be jailed in the United States for blasphemy was one Abner Kneeland in 1838. Would Indian Muslims or even ‘liberals’ be okay if India followed the US in not taking action against a local pastor who threatens to go on a Koran-burning spree? The ruling party in India, a ‘liberal’-favorite, has initiated defamation proceedings against various individuals on behalf of its President. If the Indian law is ‘conservative’ for placing more fetters on the freedom of speech than in western States, it is ‘liberal’ for granting greater freedoms than in many other countries. Assessing rise in nationalism based on the number of sedition cases filed is not an intelligent exercise. If the Indian middle class is beginning to favour censorship, as Prof. Nandy would like us to believe, it is not just a reflection of new-found intolerance but also on how much freedom has been taken for granted by the likes of M.F. Hussain.
Ms. Ghose clubs instances of legal action against ‘liberals’ with those involving mob violence, to make out a case for her ‘rise in nationalist outrage’ theory. Kashmiri separatists touring Delhi and other places faced minor violence from protesting Kashmiri Pandits and nationalist-forces. If the reaction of Pandits is a result of a sense of victim hood, the support for such vehement protests amongst the middle class stems from disappointment with the kid-glove treatment these separatists got from our ‘liberal’ institutions. Even otherwise, vandalism and violent protests have always been trademark behavior for many organizations cutting across religious and ideological barriers, like the Shiv Sena and MIM. Attributing incidents of minor violence cited by Ms. Ghose to any new, emerging phenomenon of ‘nationalist outrage’ is inaccurate.
It might be true that rise in standards of living has allowed the Indian middle class to show more concern towards issues of national importance. But to say that “an economy growing at over 8 per cent is creating a hyper-nationalism among the urban middle class” is a concoction.
Even before we attempt to define Indian liberalism, it is essential that we divorce leftist extremism from it. The liberal Indian view on Kashmir is represented by the likes of Swaminatha Aiyar and Vir Sanghvi as opposed to rabble-rousing, left-wing thinkers and activists like Roy, Gautam Navlakhia and Sanjay Kak. While the former might place economic and other liberal considerations above emotional notions of Indian nationhood, the later positively dislike the idea of India.
The debate must be between liberals who respect and work within the contours of Indian constitutionalism on the one hand and nationalists on the other. I wish to conclude the comment by highlighting the difference in approach between these two ideologies on the question of Kashmir. Mr. Swaminatha Aiyar proclaims that “as a liberal, I dislike ruling people against their will.” It’s worth noting that the role of Pakistan in ensuring that Kashmiri Muslims remain alienated from India never finds mention in these liberal writings. The economic and human costs of holding on to Kashmir are often cited in response to nationalist arguments against separation. For a liberal, India is its people, its economy, its resources and its institutions. For a nationalist the emotional connect with the nation is indispensable. Sri Aurobindo says that “a country may have many languages, brother may be unable to understand brother, we cannot enter into each other’s minds; impenetrable walls stand in the way of uniting our hearts and have to be surmounted with much effort. Still there is nothing to fear…All these obstacles cannot impede us for ever; the Mother’s purpose, the Mother’s attraction, the Mother’s inmost desire cannot fail, it overcomes and destroys all obstacles and oppositions and is triumphant.” When the nationalist imagery of India is that of a mother, no sacrifice to preserve her integrity is worthless. If a branch of her children have been estranged the only option is to bring them back to her fold.
It doesn’t concern a liberal if Bankim Chandra’s Vande Mataram is truncated to satisfy internal dissent. It doesn’t concern a nationalist if sacrifices are made to sing of his motherland in full glory. This is the point where the twine can never meet.
Adithya Reddy is a friend of Centre Right India. He is active on Twitter.