Pakistani politician Salman Taseer's assassination has been viewed by many as the death of the dream of a liberal Pakistan. The believing yet secular Muslim, the openly westernised yet rooted Pakistani, the critic of orthodoxy yet the patriot, these values are seen to be increasingly swept away in the avalanche of zealous Islamism and hatred of liberals rampaging through a country where the 'jihadist' is now seen by many as the keeper of the national flame. Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, Taseer's killer was showered with rose petals when he was produced is court, hailed as a 'ghazi' (warrior) by maulanas and as a hero on Facebook.
Tragically, a young religious hardliner's act of murder was painted as heroic for killing an individual perceived to be too anti-religious, too Western-oriented and too elite. There are no Mumtaz Qadris in India yet, but the 'nationalist' rage against 'firangi pseudos' and a militant outrage against those who denigrate 'Indian culture' is a fast spreading epidemic.
Who are the famous 'anti-nationals' today? Arundhati Roy heads the list, with a court ordering an FIR against her for 'anti-India' speeches. Academic Ashis Nandy has had a sedition case filed against him by the Gujarat government despite being one of India's most respected scholars. Sedition cases have also been brought against journalists in other states. Actress Khushboo had a multitude of cases filed against her for denigrating 'Indian culture' simply because she spoke publicly of pre-marital sex.
India's best known artist MF Husain is considered a betrayer of Mother India by 'nationalist' groups. Writer Rohinton Mistry was also called 'anti-national' for having the temerity to write a novel that offended the Shiv Sena. Scholar Amitabh Mattoo's candidate for the post of vice-chancellor of Jammu University was opposed by groups calling themselves 'nationalist' even though Mattoo has been seen as one of India's most talented academics. Binayak Sen has been held guilty of nothing less than rajdroh by the courts and cast as an 'anti-national'even though Chhattisgarh has been his karmabhoomi for decades.
Why is the Indian liberal the target of so much rage? Part of the reason could be the 'Arundhati Roy effect'. The enormous power and beauty of Roy's writing notwithstanding, she infuriates a section of the urban middle-class, evoking white-knuckled rage like no other. The saying goes: every time Roy writes an essay, a hundred more recruits line up for the 'nationalist' cause.
The anger against Roy has a strong sense of social grievance too. She is repeatedly castigated as someone far too successful and far too beloved of the West. Thus any nuanced argument or public stance contrary to 'nationalist' opinion on Maoism or Kashmir is in danger of being immediately trapped in the 'Arundhati Roy effect' and denounced and stereotyped as unpatriotic. There's a lesson for liberals here perhaps: to build bridges with newer generations and with different social groups, perhaps the liberal needs to urgently speak a more inclusive less alienating language and not overstate the case. To be fair to the nationalist argument, by constantly portraying India as a country of, to quote Roy, “communal killers, mass murderers, corporate scamsters, looters, rapists, and those who prey on the poorest of the poor,” may delight western readers but is insulting to domestic opinion.
Advancing and sustaining the liberal argument today is more important than ever. An economy growing at over 8 % is creating a hyper-nationalism among the urban middle class which is expressed in social media and through television channels that specialise in raising temperatures along with their TRPs. There are plenty of warning signs that liberal freedoms are under threat from the young and the rigidly hardline.
Youths shouting 'Vande Mataram' actually spat on SAR Geelani, acquitted in the Parliament attack case, at a seminar in Delhi University. Another seminar on Kashmir was ransacked and violently disrupted simply because the Hurriyat's Mirwaiz Umer Farooq was present, editors have had their homes stoned because they dared to write against building wasteful Shivaji statues, art exhibitions at Baroda University and in Mumbai have been vandalised because of their 'anti-Indian obscenity', theatres staging so called 'anti Hindu' performances have been targets of bomb attacks, novels in university curricula have been publicly burnt, and on Twitter young right-wing hardliners give vent to rage, even issue death threats, against elitist liberals and the 'pseudo-secular' media who they feel are 'betraying Mother India' by supporting minorities.
In the face of this shrill hyper-nationalism, the liberal may not be in danger as he is in Pakistan, but in India he is certainly on the backfoot. The politicians are not of much help. When Digvijaya Singh of the Congress inveighs against Hindu terror or the RSS infiltration of police and judiciary, his utterances only become part of the war or words between the Congress and the BJP. When Rahul Gandhi speaks of the dangers of communalism, he still does not convince that he can craft a liberal vision for the Congress that is not just a Delhi babalog vision of noblesse oblige to the 'poor' on the one hand and a certain disconnect from India on other, exemplified in the night stays at Dalit homes in the company of then British foreign secretary David Miliband. Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar is perhaps the only Indian politician today embodying a rooted unassuming liberalism yet Nitish's vision is centred on Bihar and is still not an all India outlook for the future.
The decline of the Indian liberal is a subject on which historian Ramachandra Guha has written with great insight. While Guha sees the Indian liberal squeezed from the doctrinaire approaches of the Left and Right, yet now the liberal faces another enemy too: the youthful, hardline and nationalist, paler versions of Malik Mumtaz Qadri. Salman Taseer was murdered in Pakistan by a young hardliner because Taseer was considered anti-Islam. Will there be a day when an Indian will be faced with mortal danger from a young hardliner because he is considered 'anti-national?'
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN. The views expressed by the author are personal.