Friday, April 29, 2005

Squabble Among White Hats

In response to our post, My Country, Always Wrong?, challenging anti-nationalist (not anti-national) attitudes of Indian liberals, Dilip makes a strong retort. Game on!

First, a summary of Dilip's argument. He rejects chauvinism masquerading as patriotism. If India's project is self-evidently superior (our claim) then, he wonders, isn't it strong enough to withstand valid criticism? He dismisses our fear that liberals' India-bashing is driving Indians into the open political arms of cultural bigots. Finally, he suggests that real patriotism is about calling our nation to the greater things she is capable of.

We too reject chauvinism and bigotry (of all kinds, everywhere) -- indeed, we've written against it with some passion. See Shiv Sena Shoots Off Its Loony Mouth, Lynching of Books, Chaos in Bangladesh, Shame: Taslima Nasreen Revisited, Indian Beheaded in Saudi Arabia, The Arrack of Ostriches, Azadi Begins at Home, Blogger Freedom in Iran, Pogrom in Gujarat, and on and on and on.

But, rejecting blind obeisance to whatever our flag is should surely not blind us to the facts over which the flag flies.

We know India's political system is superior to our neighbors'. We can either minimize this out of exaggerated modesty or, as we advocate, we should assert our political values of freedom and tolerance all across our neighborhood by persuasion where possible, and by force where necessary. For liberals, such assertiveness is anathema, even though this is precisely, what Dilip calls, the greater things India is capable of.

Instead, liberals want to sue for "peace" with neighborhood dictators and chauvinists. Because free India has sometimes erred in its conduct, liberals make an equivalence with our infinitely worse foes. Equating India with the gutter of our neighborhood surely will leave us all filthy. We want to raise our neighbors to political modernity; liberals seek to pull us down in their mire. Who, then, among us calls India to the greater things it's capable of?

Does India have failings? Of course, it does -- and yes, our freedoms to criticize are essential for India to relentlessly erase these failings. We don't believe in smothering political ideas just because we happen to detest them to our core (see Narendra Modi). Criticism of India's failures versus its highest ideals isn't subversion; rejecting the factual superiority of the Indian project, that enables such criticism, is.

As to whether such criticism has led millions of Indians into the willing arms of cultural bigots, we must again point to facts. Apart from Indian-on-Indian bigotry, these political forces have few other ideas to offer. Yet, they were given the keys to Delhi, and to (the supposedly cosmopolitan & maximum) Mumbai, and to industrial Gujarat, and even the Hindi heartland. Surely Dilip, being a hands-on journalist, has read and heard the rhetoric that made this possible. Cultural bigots won in the past, and will again, by successfully painting secular liberals as a threat to India -- and millions lapped this up.

Now, Dilip has the luxury of writing off such people for being easily seduced by bigotry. We don't. These people are the millions of Indians who vote and elect our governments. We have to persuade them by making credible arguments that simultaneously allay their fears and uphold India's superior values. Absent this, as liberals tend to do, we end up debating meaningless abstractions in our cushy lives where riots never happen. This is why Indian secularism has taken the blows it has taken in recent years.

1 comment:

Dilip D'Souza said...

Game on, old man!

To begin at the end: I don't deny that Indian secularism has taken blows -- in fact, I believe it has utterly failed. This is just why some of us, concerned about this failure and the implications, have been in a quiet effort to find new meaning and relevance in Indian secularism. No more on that for now, except for this: we are very aware of the challenges of taking these ideas out into theatres where they will be fought tooth and nail. But we are itching for that challenge in the best liberal sense: our task, we believe, is to craft a vision for this country and put it out there in the marketplace of ideas. If it makes sense to enough people, it will win the battle of ideas; if it does not, it will die as it should. Our attempt is precisely what you describe: "persuade them by making credible arguments [etc]".

If many people lapped up the rhetoric that liberals are a threat to India -- and you're right, they did -- that only emphasizes the challenge before liberals: to craft that vision of India I speak of. It won't be in terms of the threat from some other factions of society, for I believe such a vision must appeal on its own. Not because the other visions have faults.

I don't have any "luxury of writing off" people who are easily seduced by bigotry: many times, I have been in acrimonious confrontations with them (one such). I can't write them off or wish them away even if I wanted to, which I don't. What I meant was, many people write to tell me, "I always hated the [XYZ], but it's views like yours that have driven me to their arms." I have no respect for such an argument.

Of course I believe India's political system is superior to its neighbours'. Give me a raucous democracy any day over religious countries or monarchies. But why are our neighbours the standard? If we pat ourselves on the back complacently saying we are better than them, we are leaping over a bar that's set pretty damned low. I believe this country has the people and potential to set its own standards, that other societies will then look up to. This is what I meant by calling this country to the greater things she is capable of. And I don't see how trying to call my country to those greater things gets turned into pulling it into the mire.

And yet, those greater things are in the realm of possibility. We are not a superior country solely because of our superior system. There is a certain reality out there that it hardly needs a journeyman journalist like me to see: it's there for all to see, every day. The condition of our poor. The profound lack of justice on various fronts -- from riots to people rotting in jail for years as "undertrials" to the ticket inspector I know who has been suspended for finding a station master travelling without a ticket. The hatred in so many people, on so many counts. The astonishing (to me) fact that 78M rural households -- 400M people, 40 per cent of India -- do not have electricity.

Should I really go on?

What possible good does it do to anyone to look at all this and say, well, we're better than that country run by a dictator? If I ask this question, am I really "subverting" my country?

You see, while I can see you and I disagree on some issues and themes, it seems clear to me that at least guys like you aspire to a better country for us all. (Do I put that clarity down to being a liberal?) As I believe I do.

But it amazes me that, given the same disagreements, guys like you assume that guys like me must necessarily be intent on pulling India into the mire, we equate India to filth, we are "anti-nationalists" (whatever that is), we want to "subvert" the country ... What a list!

Sure, the easy way to believe your views are superior is to think you have a monopoly on what's right for the country. To assume the other guy is a dangerous lunatic, or is on his way there.

But do try to understand: we are not. We won't vanish simply because you like to think we are nuts. There are a hell of a lot of us, every bit as Indian as you. You want to understand us, you need to start by recognizing that. Not so hard: after all, as I said, I recognize it about you.


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