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Death of the liberal

Among a lot of things Anna Hazare's movement has brought to the fore is our shrinking space for liberal thought. On the Comment pages, in TV debates, on Twitter and Facebook, an invisible writ has been clear - you are either with us or against us.

india Updated: Aug 26, 2011 18:14 IST
Abhijit Majumder

Among a lot of things Anna Hazare's movement has brought to the front is our shrinking space for liberal thought.

On the Comment or Edit pages, in television debates, on Twitter or Facebook, an invisible writ has been clear -- you are either with us or against us. You cannot find merit in a rare, spontaneous and peaceful mass movement and still have some problems with the Jan Lokpal draft. You have to either show up Anna as an autocratic bumpkin or a democratic messiah.

"Will the 830 million people living on Rs 20 a day really benefit from the strengthening of a set of policies that is impoverishing them and driving this country to civil war?" Arundhati Roy writes in her essay 'I would rather not be Anna'.

Civil war? Really?

Or on Twitter someone asking why these "intellectual a*****s" were not writing about Manipur protestor Irom Sharmila before the Anna fasts. The debate around Jan Lokpal Bill is an example how language, stances are progressively hardening. You cannot be at the centre of a burning battlefield mulling like Arjun, finding good and ill on both sides. You have to be Krishna, take sides, or end up on the losing side of history even before those who lose the battle end up there.

One may argue that it is not happening only in India, but worldwide. Fair enough. But it is also happening in India. And a country where the world's starkest diversities are held together by such fragile magic could perhaps afford intellectual intolerance much less than others.

Take our polity. A Nehru or Jinnah could openly be fashionable, smoke, flirt, drink, joke, and sometimes make politically incorrect remarks. Jinnah had openly snubbed the Bombay governor's wife, Lady Willingdon, for offering his wife Ruttie a wrap to cover her low-cut dress, saying, "When Mrs Jinnah feels cold, she'll say so."

It was well known that Comrade Jyoti Basu loved his bedtime scotch and little shoes for his little feet.

We cannot imagine a Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi, LK Advani, Narendra Modi or Prakash Karat letting anything like that out in public.

Till a couple of decades ago, painters could paint their goddesses, Urdu poets could write scathingly about religious authority. A couple of weeks ago, two well-known Urdu poets in Bhopal actually had a fight at a poetry session, one accusing other of wearing shoes while reciting, the other chastising him of coming drunk to the mushaira. And one thought it was difficult to de-hyphenate Urdu poetry and intoxication.

In the late '70s, Jadavpur university students composed an underground, pornographic cross between Ramayan and Mahabharat called 'Mahayan'. There were similar epics re-made on the heartland's campuses by gifted pornographers using Kabir's style of doha. It is unthinkable that this sort of a thing would pass with just a laugh, without savage campus violence today.

But the biggest damage to liberal thought has been the radicalisation of liberal thought.

Intellectuals who call themselves liberal and progressive have narrowed down issues like dams, Kashmir, Naxalism, minorities, caste, tobacco etc to a point where if you, for instance, see the slightest merit in the Gujarat government, you become a fascist. Similarly, if you mention that you enjoy beef, packs of faceless trolls on Twitter would ask you if you would even cook your mother and eat her. RSS-leaning intellectuals will pounce upon your slightest praise for the Congress or the Left.

Events from the recent past, like half-a-dozen full moons over a forest, have brought out the werewolves in Indians. The Ayodhya movement and Babri demolition, Shah Bano case, Mandal agitation and the Gujarat riots refuse to go away, with their echoes in blast after blast, strident blog. But the more profound agents of narrow, polarised thought have been the less obvious ones -- globalisation and technology.

Technology, especially the internet, has created dark corners where one can spend cosy hours with one's low self-esteem and frustrations, not take the hard work of forming informed opinion, and shoot blindly from the dark. In cyberspace, one can live with one's shadow, the intolerant, angry fanatic. Globalisation or liberalisation, at least in the form we have known them, choose the fittest by the measures of the Corporation. You need a narrow set of skills. You need to be specific and not abstract; decisive, not ambivalent; focused, not diffused; compete to kill (rivals or those with a different view), but not allow to live.

You must have attitude, not angularity. You are expected to manage your boss, goal, or target; not engage the larger world. You can laugh at others, but not at yourself (what will the consumer of your goods or opinion think?).

Most of our leading intellectuals -- many of them fiery critics of the corporate world -- fit snugly into all these corporate attributes. It is as if without realising, they have internalised the dynamics of the same Corporation they rage against.

Our activists-intellectuals would breeze through CEO interviews. They are narrow, focused, goal-oriented, intolerant towards competition or difference, humourless, and relentless. And all this makes them the new, self-proclaimed 'liberals'.

That is why you have to either declare, 'I am Anna', or 'I am not Anna'. You cannot lampoon a bit of Anna, and be a bit of him.