The curious case of Indian liberals
At the heart of every ideology are certain principles. These principles must determine how parties react in every situation. But all too often, our parties make it up as they go along, abandoning these principles, caring nothing for consistency and following policies that are entirely contradictory, writes Vir Sanghvi.Updated: Jul 12, 2009 12:55 IST
Secular liberals like myself often puzzle over the contradictions in the BJP’s approach to issues. Why should Indira Gandhi be reviled as the architect of the Emergency when the BJP seems completely in love with Sanjay Gandhi and his legacy? Why is an invasion of Bangladeshis a threat to India while it is okay for millions of Nepalis to come and work in our country?
The same is true of the Left. Why is liberalisation such a bad thing when two successive chief ministers in West Bengal have introduced economic reforms that closely parallel what Manmohan Singh is trying to do? Is there one law for Delhi and another for Calcutta?
The issue is not one of belief. I respect the Left for its tenacity in clinging to the ghost of Karl Marx. And the BJP has every right to believe in Hindutva.
The issue is one of consistency. At the heart of every ideology are certain principles. These principles must determine how parties react in every situation. But all too often, our parties make it up as they go along, abandoning these principles, caring nothing for consistency and following policies that are entirely contradictory.
But why single out political parties? This is as true of individuals and commentators. And, more to the point, it applies as much to secular liberals and to the contradictory way in which we approach issues.
Let’s take the case of reservation. By now, it should be clear that most liberals oppose an extension of reservation. It’s not that we are against lower castes, we say, it is that we are for the principle of merit. Once you start reserving seats in Parliament or in engineering colleges, for so-called disadvantaged minorities, you destroy the basis of any system based on elections or merit.
So far so good. And secularists have stuck to this principle even when we have been faced with demands for reservation for Muslims. We accept that Muslims are far more disadvantaged than many backward castes. But we argue that reservation is not the answer. There must be better ways.
Except, of course, that all these reasoned views are tossed out of the window when it comes to women’s reservation. Then, the very same arguments that we dismiss when they are used on behalf of Muslims, Yadavs and the like, are recycled on behalf of women.
We are told about the injustices done to women. About how Parliament cannot be truly representative if it does not reflect the composition of society, etc. etc.
Many of the advocates of women’s reservation would bitterly oppose any move to reserve seats for lower castes in their daughters’ colleges. But they see no contradiction in demanding reservation for their daughters in Parliament.
It gets worse. When the likes of Sharad Yadav and Uma Bharti say they will oppose the Women’s Reservation Bill, unless it creates a separate category of reservations for lower castes, this is dismissed as shameful casteism.
But what’s the difference? Either you are for reservation or you’re not. If the advocates of women’s reservation are for reservation — which, by definition, they must be – then why are they so opposed to reservation for lower castes?
Could it be that secular liberal commentators are simply casteist?
Or could it be that they haven’t thought out the issue clearly, haven’t referred back to their liberal principles and have made up their positions as they go along?
I suspect it’s the latter.
Let’s take another example. Every secular liberal I know thinks that what is happening to M.F. Husain is a disgrace. An artist has every right to paint Hindu goddesses in the nude. If some people object to these paintings then they shouldn’t see them. It’s as simple as that.
But the protestors have no right to censor Husain’s freedom of expression. That freedom is the basis of liberalism.
I agree with that view entirely.
But here’s the problem: why do we take a different view when it comes to visual representations of the Prophet?
Assume now that Husain had painted reverential portraits of the Prophet Mohammed. There would have been no disrespect, no nude depictions, etc.
Would we have supported his freedom of expression?
I would have. But I doubt if many secular liberals would have agreed with me.
They would have said that Islam forbids visual representations of the Prophet no matter how respectful and that, therefore, Husain had done something that was unforgivable.
Where’s the consistency in those positions? Why is it a question of freedom of expression when Husain paints nude portraits that many Hindus find offensive? And why is it a question of protecting the feelings of a religious community when somebody paints the Prophet?
All the arguments used to dismiss Hindu objections can be used to dismiss Muslim protests. Of course Muslims are forbidden from visually representing the Prophet. But why should that injunction apply to non-believers or to those who choose to lead secular lives? If Muslims are offended, they shouldn’t see the paintings.
The Husain example is hypothetical. But the case of the Danish cartoons is not. Most liberals will tell you that they were appalled by the death threats and the hysteria generated by religious leaders in India and abroad. But they will also say that the cartoonist should not have visually represented the Prophet and that papers should not have carried the cartoons.
Does this make any sense? One rule for Hindus, another rule for Muslims?
I could go on. But I think I’ve made my point. All too often, liberals base their positions on political correctness and on what we think sounds reasonable and compassionate.
But forget our principles, lose sight of consistency, and we demolish the basis of the liberal society.