The rise of the righteous

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Donald Trump’s victory proves again that public discourse across the world, including India, is now shaped by opposing factions with sharp political identities cast as if in stone. Should we not resist being forced to choose between such righteous absolutes?

When someone pointed me to the influential Lebanese-American scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s scathing essay ‘The Intellectual Yet Idiot’, or IYI, the questionable grammar of the title presumably kow-towing to its convenient acronym, >which was published on medium.com and is reproducible only in its entirety, I nearly laughed aloud to find India in the opening line. Taleb’s rant calls out the pervasive visibility accorded to ‘no-skin-in-the-game’ intellectuals who tell us how to think, eat, speak and vote, despite being rather miniscule in number. He makes some valid points and touches upon issues that have also been giving pause to more epistemological writers such as Tabish Khair in ‘ >Questioning the liberal Left’, and >Ramachandra Guha in Democrats and Dissenters on polyglot historian Benedict Andersen, who “didn’t treat nationalism with the kind of distaste that many political scientists have had for it”.





These readings point towards a more layered grasp of India’s complex diversity, which is too unique to be guided by the assumption of absolute ideological lines that liberal intellectuals tend to favour or, for that matter, by emulable precedents from elsewhere. The subcontinent’s journey to Independence was led not by amiably like-minded collaborators but spirited and original thinkers who often disagreed, negotiated and evolved slowly towards a unity of purpose, their towering examples too many to recount here. I miss them so! Would it be simplistic to wonder whatever happened to us in the 70 short years since then?



To speak only of recent months, simmering tensions that have escalated rapidly include a restive Kashmir, with the film industry’s ban on Pakistani artistes forced by extreme political sentiments following the Uri provocation sure to sink the hearts of pacifists (the ‘surgical strikes’ and diplomatic manoeuvres that followed being the response of a duly elected government); the ugly schismatic violence manifest in Bengaluru over the Cauvery protests, which saw the gentle Kannadiga spirit held as much to ransom as the farmers of a thirsting Tamil Nadu across the State border; and alarming cow vigilantism that just won’t let up ( >this perspective, and I use the word with care, in The Hindu, makes interesting reading here). It would be easy to say social media makes things worse with real or contrived outrage and the most dreadful jokes shared compulsively, but it also appears that the world is becoming a more polarised place in the sort of decadal build-up often driven by economic underpinnings, the effects of which aren’t immediately perceived.



The public discourse over these and other issues in an incommensurable nation appears to have been waylaid by two jarring camps of uncertain numbers. One side claims descriptions such as ‘modern’, ‘liberal’, ‘intellectual’, ‘activist’, ‘agnostic’ (or ‘spiritual’) and ‘secular’, which are often further presumptively linked to ‘educated’ (the ‘English medium’ remains silent). The other wears the mien of ‘conservative’, ‘orthodox’, ‘traditional’, ‘religious’, ‘devout’, ‘nationalist’ and lately, ‘intolerant’, the last with visible annoyance but apparently little regret. The positions are antagonistic and the labels are often seen as badges of honour by both sides in what seems to be an unstated war for discrete political identities. The strong whiff of sanctimony that trails the opposing factions is ironic in its equivalence.





It is, at many levels, dramatis public personae divided into vote banks by wily politicians and milked for TRPs by a corporatised media, both of which aspire to subjugate popular reason to their respective advantages. Renowned Israeli Indologist David Shulman writes in > Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine , his unvarnished account of his years with the >Ta’ayush (Arabic for ‘living together’) partnership, to which he is donating the 75,000-shekel he got with the Israel Prize he was awarded earlier this year: “Many people, it seems, are not aware that an active Israeli peace movement exists. Even in Israel, Ta’ayush and other organisations impinge upon the lives of relatively few Israelis; even those who have heard the names tend to know rather little about what we do. Some Israelis, naturally, hate us. In their eyes, we are aiding and abetting the enemy. The public media sometimes contributes to this distorted vision by creating artificial symmetries: the violent settlers on the extreme right are deliberately paired, especially on the TV news channels, with the so-called extremists of the left. This creates a pleasant sense of balance and positions reporters and editors somewhere safe and comfortable, in the very heart of what they like to describe as ‘the consensus’. In fact, nothing could be more misleading.”



These lines remind me of the sort of orchestrated polarisation we are seeing in India today, which further appears blind to the essentially porous nature of a historically multicultural society and the personal views of the majority of the sentient individuals who make it.



The middle ground, if it can be called so, is left to be occupied by that lone ranger who is perhaps best described as the consumer: a curiously dispassionate creature required to work such long hours for the capitalist masters of a reform-driven India (the term co-opted by data-crunching economists over quarter of a post-liberalised century) that he is chiefly concerned with the state of the nation’s broadband services and such other existential matters of import.



In a polarised world, both the leftist and the rightist compete to dominate the public discourse and different forms of media. We are unable to lay claim to more amorphous identities — we don’t belong so much as we are assigned to either/or sets of viewpoints. Meanwhile, canny political dispensations and a corporatised media provide the larger vote banks/audiences with what they want to hear. Is it any wonder that Brexit is underway, dissenters are widely seen as unpatriotic in India, and Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States?



>Benjamin Barber writes, in Jihad vs. McWorld, his 1992 essay which first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and was later expanded to a book, “markets are enemies of parochialism, isolation, fractiousness, war”. Related themes on western capitalist hegemonies, the role of ethnicities in a globalised world, and the denouements that may arise from this potent mix were explored over the financially turbulent 1990s in expositions like Thomas L. Friedman’s >The Lexus and the Olive Tree , Francis Fukuyama’s >The End of History and the Last Man and Samuel L. Huntington’s >The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order , even as globalisation made swift inroads everywhere.



Call him what you will, at least the consumer makes no tiresome claim to moral piety. Even his numbers, though, appear to be dwindling as he is driven underground by the sway of social media that rewards strongly-held yet mostly impersonal opinions (that is, other no-skin-in-the-game viewpoints) with gratifying ‘followers’, thus isolating the quieter members of the same communities, who may feel less certain about everything.



Could it be that ideologues inspire their followers to look for the comfort of demagoguery over the heads of sharply critical liberal-intellectuals unable to accept ‘politically incorrect’ viewpoints outside their own?



It is far easier to polarise than try to understand, and empathise with, the emotive impetuses guiding great masses of Indians, their heterogeneous identities also drawn from deeply felt and divergent religious, caste-based, linguistic, regional, financial, culturally evolved and often less formally educated contexts. History has valuable lessons to offer but evoking the bogey of the past in some incendiary contemporary contexts seems to serve no purpose — leave alone the Vedic period, the India of today is very different from what it was during the Mughal era or over its colonisation.



Long before the Brexit shocker, the historian Dharma Kumar, in her 1993 essay >India as a Nation-State , rejected the theory that “20 countries, say, instead of one, would leave the people of India less oppressed” and commented, “instead of deploring our lack of homogeneity, we should glory in it. Instead of regarding India as a failed or deformed nation-state, we should see it as a new political form, perhaps even as a forerunner of the future. We are in some ways where Europe wants to be, but we have a tremendous job of reform, of repairing our damaged institutions, and of inventing new ones.”



Meanwhile, the absence of ambiguity leads to a dangerous loss of richer, layered meanings. It’s dangerous because polarised assumptions assign us to social ghettos out of which eventually emerge landslide mandates and new legislation for the world’s largest and most variegated democracy — some of these controversial laws, such as Tamil Nadu’s 69 per cent quota in higher education, or Maharashtra’s beef ban, or the recent quashing of Punjab’s law to stop sharing the waters of Ravi and Beas — eventually end up being examined for their constitutional validity in the Supreme Court. This has been further followed lately with combative defiance to the apex body’s verdict by incumbent governments, as seen in both Karnataka and Punjab. I don’t think it inconceivable that our celebrated Constitution, a result of the infinitely egalitarian wisdom of our founding fathers and mothers, may have difficulty being adopted today.





When political thinker, resolute federalist and Padma Bhushan awardee Balraj Puri, who spoke fiercely and fairly for opposing sides, passed away two years ago, he was mourned in Jammu and Kashmir across the troubled State’s fissured divides with a regard that few can claim. He wrote of Muslims in India since Partition, among his five authoritative books on the Kashmir question, “They [Muslims] invariably possess non-religious identities, like belonging to a region, class, party, profession and so on. These identities (mostly shared with other religious communities) are as much part of the objective reality as Muslim identity.” His road map for J&K called not only for a clearly delineated Centre-State relationship but also decentralised self-governance percolating down to the level of the Panchayat for the distinct cultural entities of the Kashmir Valley, Jammu, and Ladakh (he was instrumental in the formation of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council). With rare percipience, Mr. Puri believed all regions had dissimilarities that need to be respected. “Development is no substitute for political aspirations of people,” he said with an intellectual honesty that might be seen as dangerously foolish today.



Could it be that ideologues inspire their followers to look for the comfort of demagoguery over the heads of sharply critical liberal-intellectuals unable to accept ‘politically incorrect’ viewpoints outside their own? Is it time to ask this question of ourselves, all of us?

Yeh judgemental kya hota hai?” asks the guileless protagonist of English Vinglish, Gauri Shinde’s charming story of a vernacular woman’s struggle to find the very dignity she intuitively accords to others — whether as empathy for her gay teacher of English or her unforced acceptance of her niece’s American fiancé. In people-to-people contact, citizens belonging to antithetical standpoints often belie preconceived misgivings that impact bilateral ties between nations, or even statehoods within nations.



We must hope that the polarised sides deciding most public discourse today don’t leave such a no-man’s-land between them that people who don’t see themselves as belonging to either side hesitate to walk it. We must also dearly hope that, in the meanwhile, the intellectual does not meet the same lexicological fate that the feminist did.



“I, too, am capable of hate and of polarising the world,” Prof. Shulman writes in Dark Hope. “Perhaps the balance, individual or collective, is always precarious. Here is a reason to act.”



(This article has been modified after publication, including for errors)

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