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Need for a national conversation

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Now that Pranab Mukherjee’s controversial visit to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh headquarters at Nagpur is over, we may do well to focus on the best takeaways from this risky gambit. He underlined again the unique position he commands in Indian politics. No one else could ever have swung it and all criticism only magnified the event. Statesmen rise above politicians by skilfully converting events of their choice into landmarks in political history – to magnify the message they seek to convey.

Whatever may have been his reasons, his two outstanding acts are that he dared to cross the Rubicon of political untouchability and that he reminded the lion in its den that “a dialogue is necessary not only to balance competing interests but also to reconcile them”. He repeated that “[o]nly through a dialogue can we develop the understanding to solve complex problems [of divergent strands] without unhealthy strife within our polity”.

Let us analyse the plea for a ‘dialogue’. The last four years have surely been the bitterest in post-Independent India – the most strenuous one for liberals, democrats and pluralists as they watched the jackboots of the aggressively intolerant trample all over cherished values and institutions. Recent electoral swings against the regime have given some hope, but it would be myopic to ignore the depth to which cancerous cells have penetrated the body polity and to assume that future electoral victories, if any, will blow them away. A long period of chemotherapy of the polity is unavoidable and this calls for both periscopic vision and realistic planning.

Let us look at others equally tormented. Columbia University’s Mark Lilla pleads for an urgent “national conversation” on “identities” in a fractured polity. In his book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Lilla insists that “identity issues are something that’s been simmering below the surface for a very long time and this flash out from the Right, very suddenly, just brings home…. (its) incendiary nature…” Now that liberals have seen the devastating results of their dismissal of ‘identity’ – the Hindu identity, in our case – it may be time to revisit the apartheid against right-wing Hindu fundamentalism. Else the deep divide in Indian society and politics in the Narendra Modi era may lead to a situation too terrible to imagine.

Can we start by trying to understand if there is any truth in the charge that liberals are actually the privileged, Western educated, creamy layer that has dominated power, academia, media and the arts far too long? That Left liberals have monopolized the discourse and the goodies of State support? That they hardly ever co-opted the votaries of Hindutva and the Right into their discourse or even permitted them to share the same table? Left liberals, by running down anything remotely linked to Hinduism or the ‘genius’ of ancient India, have actually pushed the Hindu Right towards greater absurdities. For instance, D.D. Kosambi was marginalized by his fellow Marxists for ‘going native’ and dabbling in subjects like Indian religion and folk beliefs – even though he employed copybook methodologies of scientific socialism. Ram Manohar Lohia was similarly dismissed as a Hindi-belt rabble-rouser in spite of his impeccable PhD from Germany. His insistence that, in the Indian context, caste matters more than class ultimately catapulted his supporters to power in many states and at the Centre, but he is still shunned by both academics and journalists.

Anything to do with worship is derided by Left liberals as a hangover of obscurantism – without the realization that many Indians ‘breathe religion’ all the time. Critically dissecting the Ramayana and the Mahabharata may demonstrate secular credentials, but it does block out discussion on how these epics have knitted together ‘the idea of India’. Those who believe these tales are ‘genuinely historical’ are not, ipso facto, irrational or ‘communal’ – they are often more ‘secular’ in their approach than their counterparts in other religions. The tragedy is that most liberals stay away from the religious life of India for fear of excommunication by the intellectual elite or of being out of sync with Western academia. But the West has already had several painful encounters with religion through the centuries to reach its current state where religion is decoupled from daily existence. India remains steeped in religion; when liberals ignore it, they are, in effect, ignoring reality. And this applies to all religions: not just Hinduism.

There is still time to slow down the relentless drift towards a Kurukshetra where two irreconcilable ‘Indias’ fight it out to the bitter end. Liberals like Shashi Tharoor and Pavan K. Varma have taken the plunge through their books, Why I am a Hindu and Adi Shankaracharya: Hinduism’s Greatest Thinker, encouraging debate and trying to recover Hinduism from uneducated trolls. India is, after all, created out of a wondrous equilibrium that resulted from untiring dialogue between originally hostile forces and ideas. It is, indeed, a metaphor for the ‘management of contradictions’ that has worked through argument, accommodation and assimilation.

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