Dear Liberals, Hold Onto Those Awards

Published: October 21, 2015 20:30 IST
The writers and artists who have returned their awards to protest a few murders allegedly by the Hindu right: what will they do when things get much worse?

People do extreme things when their anguish is not being heard. They shout, they scream, they threaten violence and self-harm, they throw shoes and ink on other people's faces. The returning of awards represents not just a strong expression of protest, but also a sense of exasperation over not being heard.

Every liberal complains the liberal space is shrinking, the fringe is going mainstream. Eminent historian Romila Thapar says liberals must speak up, public intellectuals should be more visible, not cede space. This is ironic because the right complains that liberals and leftist intellectuals have a monopoly over the public discourse in India, that they have too much voice, control over too many institutions.

Here is how I see it: the left/liberal/radical speak, but they are not heard. These are two different things.

The liberal space in India began shrinking much before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister. It has continued shrinking because the liberals are not speaking, but rather because the liberals have utter contempt for mass communication. Our public intellectuals are rather too private. The liberal intelligentsia is unable to shed its Brahminical arrogance.

In her essay The Public Intellectual in India, Romila Thapar complains about the circus that our TV news channels have become. They are shouting matches. Whether we like it or not, these shouting matches are defining the public discourse in India today, as indeed in much of the world. You won't see too many left-liberal intellectuals, there because they refuse to participate. They think they are boycotting an evil medium, but what they are doing is ceding public space. "There are two kinds of people who refuse to appear on our channel," a TV producer once told me, "intellectuals and Congressmen."

Ok, to expect serious intellectuals to attend the Arnab Goswami court could be a bit much. But that's not all. The Indian left has a historical problem with mass communication, and its boycott of TV news is only one example.

Returning his Sahitya Akademi award, Hindi writer Kashinath Singh said that Chetan Bhagat is a "bazaru" or populist writer. He compared Bhagat to writer Gulshan Nanda, whose novels were turned into Hindi films in the 1970s, saying that Nanda was never taken seriously as a writer.

Not everybody has to write popular fiction, but I bet we won't see a left-liberal Chetan Bhagat anytime soon. Singh uses the word "bazaru" derogatorily, but I'm sure even exalted writers go to the bazaar for shopping. The bazaar gives you whatever is in demand, and also creates demand with new and attractive goods the masses would like. The bazaar is where the public comes together, chats and makes new friends, exchanges ideas and information. It is crucial to the public sphere. Our public intellectuals, however, not only want to shun the bazaar of ideas to create high art, but are also not apologetic over insulting everything that is popular.

This political and cultural vanguardism of the Indian left is a hangover of the Communist era. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and our leftists slowly became post-communists, but the bad hangover stays. The left sees the poor as its "constituency" and sees the middle class as right-wing by definition. It no longer engages with the poor because it has resigned itself to the failure of communism. As for the growing middle class, it can never deign to have a dialogue with those bazaru people, those capitalism-loving, mall-going petty bourgeoisie.

The average Indian left-liberal had, for years, great contempt for the internet, dismissing it as the medium of the elite. Today she has upgraded herself but to little avail. Earlier the left-liberal use to run little magazines, today they run small blogs and websites, starting their little fights over who's more radical. They complain about online abuse from the right, and they wring their hands over click-baiting headlines, and shudder at the thought of getting too many hits. The fewer people that read them, the more successful they think their intellectual exercise has been. There is no intent to engage with the wider public, because the subaltern can't speak and the bourgeoisie doesn't deserve to be spoken to.

The liberals can blame TV news for being a shouting match, but they can't blame the Hindu right for dominating the political discourse on the internet. The Hindu right saw in the internet a great opportunity to speak directly to the middle class youth and convert them. The left-liberal isolates itself here as well.  

To see Hindutva online discourse merely in terms of the abuse it comes with is to be reductive. It is the conscious strategy of the Hindu right online to reply everything, to win every argument, settle every debate in their favour. You will see them attack the liberal spaces with (often abusive) responses, but you will rarely see left-liberals responding with the same alacrity.

The best example of the left-liberal attitude towards mass communication was its response to the Jan Lokpal movement that later became the Aam Aadmi Party. While the movement was seeking to mobilise diverse sections of society, our left-liberals were busy fulminating over its lack of radical purity. While Narendra Modi was sharpening his knives for the 2014 election, our left-liberals were busy attacking the Lokpal movement day in and day out. It was a time when they were not silent, they were not unheard. Their derision of the Lokpal movement was driven only partly by the misplaced fear that it would help the BJP by attacking the Congress. It was driven as much, if not more, by the contempt they have for the masses. For them, there is only one way the masses should be mobilised, which is by following a peasant movement they would lead.  

The Lokpal movement resulted in a party that may have its own problems, problems that it owes to the nature of mainstream politics in India; yet even today, the liberals are unwilling to admit that the Lokpal movement showed it is still possible to have mass mobilization, and enter mainstream politics, without being Hindutva.

Today, a new left is emerging. You see it in the Pink Chaddi campaign, you see it in a YouTube video where a young woman sings a rap song against a corporation, you see it in young professionals taking on the Hindu right on Twitter. This is a left that will not seek permission from the old guard that's busy decimating itself. These are not people who will care whether the fuddy-duddies think they are bazaru. They don't have the Communist hangover to shake-off. Give them time, they will speak, and be heard.

(Shivam Vij is a journalist in Delhi.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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