It was in 1972, the year that Phanishwar Nath ‘Renu’ contested the assembly election as an independent from Forbesganj, in Bihar, and lost, that a translation of his acclaimed Hindi novel, Maila Anchal was published in Kannada. Growing up in the 1980s, it was part of a liberal-literary households’ karma in Karnataka to read Renu, besides Bengali greats like Tagore, Saratchandra, Bibhutibushan Bandhopadhyay and Bimal Mitra.
The list, in fact, was longer, and included many other giants from other Indian languages like Thakazi Shivashankar Pillai, Vaikom Mohammed Bashir, Kartar Singh Duggal, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Ismat Chugtai, and Ashokamitran among others. This was in addition to reading Kannada’s own stalwarts like Kuvempu, Masti Iyengar, Shivram Karanth, Lankesh, Karnad and Ananthamurthy. The liberal and humanist construct was through these writers, all of them writing in India’s regional tongues. They thoroughly interrogated the rural and the urban, the complexities of caste and creed, and the multiple dimensions of history and mythology.
Therefore, recently, during the election campaign, when Narendra Modi quoted Renu from Maila Anchal, one felt something was terribly out of place. The worldview of Renu did not agree with all that Modi had stood for, yet, he picked a line from his great work, and nonchalantly wove it into the emotion of his election rhetoric. It helped that the line he picked had ‘Bharat Mata’ in it. But, one can be assured that Modi’s Bharat Mata and that of Renu’s cannot see eye to eye, or shake hands.
Renu, a close associate of Jayaprakash Narayan could be described either as a Gandhian-Socialist or a Socialist-Marxist. In both his life and writing, he operated in this broad ideological terrain. He participated in the Quit India movement, fought against the Nepalese monarchy, a Hindu kingdom, and went to jail during the Emergency. To protest the unfair treatment of JP, he returned the Padma Shri and surrendered his pension, very much like the “award-wapsi” in Modi’s first term. In fact, Maila Anchal, which is a particularised portrait of a village is a rich exposition of societal, political, and linguistic diversity. In fact, this novel inspired a new approach in Hindi literature, which was interestingly labelled ‘regionalism.’ This should make it amply clear that Renu in no way aligns with Modi’s Sangh philosophy.
The Sangh’s appropriation
But, the selective, decontextualised representation of the regional language, liberal tradition has been part of the Sangh parivar scheme. It is very much akin to the appropriation of a spiritual liberal like Vivekananda, or a constitutional liberal like Ambedkar, or a revolutionary icon like Bhagat Singh. The Sangh did not have a pantheon of heroes, and they made it their post-truth mandate to unabashedly borrow from right across liberal traditions of the literary, political and spiritual for their ideological project and strip them of their expansive worldviews.
While they borrowed many, they tried to destroy some like Nehru, because, paradoxically the creation of a serious liberal enemy was also part of the ideological project, and Nehru aided them on multiple fronts. Nehru was a stellar model of all that the Sangh tried to differentiate itself from. He could be subject to circumscribed projection as elite and an inheritor of legacy; as English-speaking; a representative of Enlightenment reason and modern science as against native knowledge, and as a man who regarded history over mythology. He could also be projected as an Indian archetype of Western moral debasement.
Anyway, sticking to just Sangh parivar’s borrowing of icons, it is now a known game. But the question is how did this go unchallenged? One plausible explanation is that in recent years, the definition of the liberal got framed in awfully narrow terms. This is pretty obvious if one takes a look at the flurry of commentary that has appeared on the subject in the mainstream press and social media. It has largely revolved around two categories of people, not mutually exclusive though. One, those who represent the uncodified elite values of New Delhi’s Lutyens’ area (‘Khan Market gang‘ being its latest alias). Two, those who predominantly use English for their social and intellectual exchange. For all practical purposes, a monolingual. But, seriously, can India’s liberal tradition be confined to a few square kilometers of New Delhi, and to one foreign language?
The political right, with a certain deliberateness and tact concocted this misleading discourse, and the hapless monolingual liberal responded to this with gusto and gloat, as if it was a validation of their crown position in society. They never, in the last few years, tried to expand the idea of the liberal to include those elsewhere in the country, and those who deliberated primarily in languages other than English, that is, the more rooted variety. This was a fine cultural trap set by the Modi ecosystem to bolster an already ballooning narrative of exclusion and reclamation, and the unthinking English liberal fell for it. Liberal was, and is, an umbrella term, but they cleverly attached wings of specificity to it. They reduced it to a binary battle between Lutyens’ elite and the rest of India, between English and the regional, while it is clearly not so simple.
It can be argued that the Lutyens’ liberal became an easy prey to the Sangh trap because his/her project is not the society but himself/herself. There is a flirtation with ideas and its sources, not in the best liberal tradition of intellectual engagement, but for generating false moral equivalence. The absence of steadfastness is about being malleable and surviving at all times. They have one argument when Modi looks vulnerable before the polls, and another after he wins, and in both cases, nothing is decisive. They are constantly hedging bets, and they can quickly normalise any verdict or situation. There are some honourable exceptions to this though, but there is nobody who understand this coquettishness better than Modi. He never fails to hold a mirror to them and has now, condemned them to the ridicule of memes.
The regional liberal
While the English liberal has been busy reacting to the agenda set by the Sangh parivar appearing like cheap fakes of Voltaire and Rousseau, the regional liberal has been getting his/her hands dirty, and has also been paying with his life. The deaths of Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, Rohith Vemula, or Gauri Lankesh – and many little-known others – should serve as reminders. While the English liberal rambled, the regional liberal has desperately attempted solutions, and inspired political action. While the English liberal developed a fancy for a non-committal political discourse though data science and its colourful charts that look like Pantone postcards, the regional liberal scrambled to create a ‘chemistry’, and a cultural narrative opposite the growing cult of Modi.
After the assassination of Kalburgi, public intellectual and linguist G.N. Devy shifted base from Baroda to Dharwad to launch Dakshinayan, and inspire small pockets of resistance; Kannada writer Devanur Mahadeva has failed continuously, but has not given up building progressive political coalitions; the man who fought the mining lobby in Bellary, S.R. Hiremath, has tried to revive Jayaprakash Narayan’s Citizens for Democracy crisscrossing the nation on tiring rail journeys; people like Avinash Patil of Dabholkar’s Maharashtra Andhashraddha Nirmoolan Samiti have gone from state to state advocating the anti-superstition legislation, and none can forget how a Kanaihya Kumar fought valiantly in Begusarai. Add to this software engineer Pratik Sinha’s fight against fake news sitting in Ahmedabad. Also, the award-wapsi movement that happened in protest against rising intolerance in India in Modi’s first term, again, had the regional liberal in the forefront.
These are only a few case studies, there are many more sterling examples, and there are of course the unheard and unseen who form a good part of the 63% that didn’t vote for the BJP. Those branded as ‘urban Naxals’ and pushed to jails are an independent argument. So, clearly the action is outside Delhi, yet, all the chatter is about a few square kilometers of Lutyens’ Delhi.
As historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in his book Fractured Times (2011):
“The road from the democratic ideal of the Athenian agora to the irresistible temptations of the shopping centre has shrunk the space for the great demonic force of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: namely, the belief that political action was the way to improve the world.”
In this sense, the regional liberal, who has pursued action appears a tad anachronistic, while the English liberal has clearly been in the clever shopping centres of opinion, on social media as well as the mainstream press.
The regional liberal, be they a Malayali or a Telugu or a Marathi or an Odiya or a Kannadiga or a Tamilian, has to be preserved for much bigger reasons. As we have observed earlier, he/she is a target of appropriation by the right. It is not just the ones who are dead, but also the living. During the Karnataka assembly polls, once a symbol of Dalit pride and progressive politics in Karnataka, Siddalingaiah, was neutralised by BJP president Amit Shah by making a surprise visit to his Bangalore home. This forced the retired revolutionary to answer charges of ‘betrayal’ by his former colleagues and admirers in terribly mundane terms of being ‘a good host’ and ‘a good listener’. The poet had forgotten the power of symbolism.
The language debate
The other big reason unravels whenever there is a language debate. Like the one that happened recently when ‘Hindi imposition’ in the draft education policy of the Union government got widely discussed. Here, it is important to ensure that the regional liberal does not pick the sub-nationalistic side, because it can be an easy and urgent counter to the punitive nationalism of the right. We are seeing this play out in Mamata Banerjee’s West Bengal every single day. In recent years, sub-nationalism, coupled with identity politics, has become as ugly as nationalism. It has become, to borrow Hobsbawm’s insight again, “anti-universal powers of blood and soil.” Its leadership is not guided by benign pride, instincts of liberal humanism, and rootedly cosmopolitan ideals anymore, but commanded by chauvinism that pushes the boundaries of exclusion every moment.
What British writer Jeremy Seabrook writes in his essay ‘Fighting Back,’ in the context of Brexit and the ascendancy of Trump, may bring clarity to our current predicament. He says: “The problem for discomfited liberals is that their opponents have a more plausible story; rich narratives of countries ‘taken over’, changed beyond recognition, cultures diluted and populations mixed. Talking back control, defining borders, the nationalistic sentiment, xenophobia and nostalgia – what a potent appeal all this has.”
“The talk of ‘reclaiming’ the tradition of tolerance, openness and liberal thought is the language of restoration. In other words, it is a profoundly conservative project, because it seeks a reversal of what has happened, and wants to put back in place a status quo ante which appeared, for a long moment enduring, but which in fact was demolished in the twinkling of an eye.”
If we understand Seabrook correctly, then the English and Lutyens’ liberal is engaged in a conservative project of restoration. He or she is simply wishing that the old order that made him/her comfortable just floats back to the calm shore. But such a thing is never going to happen. If a countervailing narrative has to be built against the surging viciousness of it all, then, there has to be new thinking and a new method. The best bet to develop this can be placed on the regional liberal. He is still groping and distracted, but his interest in the finer shifts of caste, class, culture, economy and language, and not merely the technocracy of power, will help him construct an alternative story, as appealing or more than what has captured the attention of a small majority of the voting masses for now.