Friday, May 07, 2004

Liberalism in India

Another Kumar -- this one calling himself P Kumar -- has made a helpful suggestion, albeit in the midst of some non-constructive comments. He pointed me to Ramachandra Guha, who has lamented the decline of liberalism in Indian civic life. Guha puts equal blame on the Hindu right and on the Marxist intellectual culture that has dominated Indian universities since the 1970s.

I've come across two interesting pieces by Guha, which I'm still digesting. One is a recent interview. Here he questions whether the extreme goals of today's environmentalist movement are viable, and makes a swipe or two at Arundhati Roy (not quite a full-scale critique). The other is quite a substantial piece, called
"The Absent Liberal." It originally appeared in EPW in 2001, but is now available on Outlook India (the latter has a website that is easier to navigate; both sites require registration -- sorry!).

For those too lazy to register at Outlook, here is an excerpt from the end of "The Absent Liberal":

Who, Now, Is An Indian Liberal?

Still, there is little question that Indian liberals are an endangered species. They once dominated the intellectual landscape. Over the years, the middle ground they occupied has been rapidly vacated, as younger scholars choose to ally rather with extremities of left and right. The process of polarisation has been aided by the two major controversies of contemporary India: the battle over the Babri masjid in Ayodhya, and the battle over the recommendations of the Mandal Commission.

A properly liberal position would have implied opposition to the Sangh parivar’s Ayodhya campaign coupled with opposition to the recommendation of the Mandal Commission. For liberals seek to limit the influence of caste and community on the state and in civil society. They also reject policies that would make individuals – Muslims in one case, upper castes in the other – suffer painfully for injustices that might (or might not) have been committed by their forefathers.

In point of fact, there have been few takers for the anti-mandal, anti-mandir [mandir=temple] position. Indian scholars and writers divide themselves almost equally into a pro-mandal, anti-masjid camp, and, on the other side, into an anti-mandal, pro-mandir camp. Some scholars who oppose the demolition of the Babri masjid on the grounds that one cannot right historical wrongs are quite prepared to overlook this principle in the case of Mandal. Other scholars, who argue that the expansion of reservation would affect the functioning of institutions, were nonetheless prepared to silently support the forces of Hindutva, claiming that behind its fanatical facade a movement of national renewal was gathering force. These are then the illiberal banners under which Indian intellectuals have increasingly chosen to march: caste hatred and Hindu pride.

[. . . omitted a paragraph on Rajni Kothari and M.N. Srinivas]

Numerous lesser – or lesser-known scholars – have followed Kothari and Srinivas in this flight from liberalism. The left-leaning among them now thinking that poverty has endured because they mistakenly believed that class, rather than caste, has been the chief determinant of social inequality. Atoning hugely for this error, they now hope that reservation, and reservation alone, will transform India. On the other hand, liberals inclined towards nationalism have come to believe that India has stayed backward because it is not, in a cultural sense, united. Only Hinduism, they argue, can provide the glue of unity so necessary for success in the world of competitive nation-states.

Despairing of change through incremental methods, erstwhile liberals have thus found comfort in the methods and rhetoric of extremism. Perhaps they have been pushed to the extremes also by the need to stay ‘relevant’, to keep in step with now seem to be the dominant politico-intellectual trends in India. These are what I have called ‘the identity politics of the left’ and "the identity politics of the right". It is between these two tendencies that the younger generation of Indians are asked to choose.

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