The Flight of the Liberals

Two RSS ideologues, who have no works of literature to their name, are set to take the stage at the Jaipur Literature Festival. But why is no one speaking up against it?

In 1985, the great Pakistani singer Iqbal Bano appeared in a black sari at a Lahore stadium before a crowd of 50,000 people. The sari had been banned by the country’s military dictator, General Zia ul Haq in his efforts at Islamising Pakistani society. He had been in power for seven years, his regime flush with money coming in from the Gulf and the United States as Pakistani-backed mujahideen fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. All voices of opposition had been silenced. One of those was of the communist and revolutionary poet, Faiz Ahmed Faiz. Although by 1985 Faiz was dead, his words were so scary to the military dictatorship that they were forbidden too.

None of this stopped Iqbal Bano. Defying Zia in both her choice of dress and her words, as the huge crowd marvelled at her defiance, she sang a ghazal of Faiz’s composition:

Hum dekhenge
Laazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge
Hum dekhenge
Woh din ke jis kaa waada hai
Hum dekhenge
Jo lauh-e-azal mein likhaa hai
Hum dekhenge…

We will see
Surely we will see
We will see
That day which has been promised
We will see
Which has been written in the divine tablet
We will see…

More than anything else, the words of the song mocked the power of the powerful. A day of justice would come, it said, when those wrongfully denied their rights would have recourse, at long last.

For that act of defiance Iqbal Bano was banished from public life and public performance. But her voice, the words she recited, this act of a woman alone on a stage against the most powerful man in the country, was an inspiration that liberals clung to, and have held close to their heart ever since.

Unlike in Pakistan, there will be no such acts of defiance in India. In its place, Indian liberals champion cowardice, compromise and collaboration.

On January 20, the Jaipur Literature Festival will debase itself as it offers its stage to Manmohan Vaidya and Dattatreya Hosabale, two members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), who have no works of literature to their name.

In conversation with them will be Pragya Tiwari, who, at least is writing a book on the Sangh Parivar, but these men have nothing to them except their membership in the “cultural organisation” that seeks to run our lives. They are not writers, editors, publishers, critics, artists, scientists, scholars or anything remotely to do with the literary world. They are merely “cultural ideologues”, apparatchiks, the PR men of a fascist cult whose core texts reject democracy, reject literary and cultural freedom and liberalism, and whose leaders – on a daily basis – question the very foundations of the Indian constitution.

Speaking in favour of their participation are luminaries such as Shekhar Gupta, who has said that opposing the RSS being onstage will lead to the shrinkage of liberalism. But liberalism is not what Gupta thinks it is. As Mukul Kesavan wrote so clearly after Gupta swung from condemning Nitish Kumar to appreciating him on live television as the Bihar election result trends turned, “to find the centre and call it moderation is a matter of taste; to mistake such triangulation for a new liberalism is just wrong.”

The writer Apoorvanand recently made an easy but misleading comparison between the participation of the RSS ideologues at JLF and of Communist leader Sitaram Yechury. But Yechury has written nine books and edited three. Exactly 12 more than Vaidya and Hosabale have been involved with combined.

At stake is not just the arithmetic of authorship. If we omit the contribution to literature, what exactly is the reason that we should engage with the RSS at a – forgive me if I emphasise this – literary festival? For Apoorvanand the answer is simple: power. He writes:

“It is the Right Wing, now in the ascendant, that is in the position to choose whether Liberals should be allowed access to prestigious forums. Keeping in mind the sensitivity of the Right-Wing masters of the day, even people who previously championed liberal democratic values have started to examine what they say. We see it being done in the universities where positions should actually depend on the recognition of an individual’s work by their peers in academia. But increasingly, heads of academic institutions are creating occasions to give platform to the so-called intellectuals of the RSS. So one should not be surprised or upset that the JLF is inviting intellectuals belonging to the RSS.”

Not being surprised by the display of power is one thing, not objecting to it, especially at a literary event, is another.

In Iqbal Bano’s day, Zia was in the ascendant. Bano objected, to her credit, and to her cost.

But I am being too harsh. The Sangh parivar has engaged with literature – by opposing it. Whether it is asking for books by Wendy Doniger to be pulped, the browbeating of Perumal Murugan, the boycott of Pakistani artists, the harassment and murder of rationalists, all of these lead back to the Right Wing, the one that is ascendant, that we are being asked to engage with – at an occasion dedicated to discussing literature. What are we then discussing? How literature can be pruned and neutered to fit the RSS’s cultural views?

Hum dekhenge,
Laazim hai ke hum dekhenge,
Kayar bhi, buzdil bhi,
Usul bikte dekhenge,
Hum dekhenge…

We will see,
Surely we will see,
Cowards too, the faint-hearted too,
The principles being sold,
We will see…

Oh, and if you were planning on protesting in front of that other RSS man, our sainted prime minister, it might be difficult. Apparently he is so scared of black flags and protests that his security does not let a black dupatta through, much less a black sari.

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