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2016: Not a good year for the liberal

In many parts of the world, the individual is being made to adhere to the will of the collective

The American election result shows how powerful the resurgent movement against liberal views is. Photo: AFP
The American election result shows how powerful the resurgent movement against liberal views is. Photo: AFP

It hasn’t been a good year if you are—or are described as—a liberal. In many parts of the world, the individual is being made to adhere to the will of the collective; the one that wants to live and let live is being compelled to comply or (in some cases) die; the one who campaigns for tolerance is criticized for her intolerance of intolerance, her reasoned critique challenged with emotive calls for patriotism; his ideas dismissed as idealistic nonsense.

In the US, the “swift-boaters" who derailed John Kerry’s campaign and the “birthers" who tried to prove that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, have succeeded in transforming political discourse so much that it is now difficult even to agree on what happened, because we live in a post-truth (or better call it what it is, lies) world. The relationship between truth and facts has deteriorated—indeed, truth is philosophical and, as Pontius Pilate mused, it is not an exactitude, it varies; but facts are no longer facts. The American comedian Stephen Colbert joked about “truthiness"—things that sound true but aren’t—and we laughed; now the joke is on those who laughed, as Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America is being played out in front of our eyes with the election of Donald Trump.

The American election result shows how powerful the resurgent movement against liberal views is. Not all those who voted for Trump were racist, but racists and homophobes, as well as those who hated Islam, who disliked people of colour, have won, and they back Trump. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders has acquired a halo after being found guilty of a hate speech, and may well be a leading contender for prime ministership in a country that took pride in a liberal culture—think of Amsterdam’s “coffee shops", where you could do soft drugs, or a city with its own legal red-light district. In Britain, where I live, Little Englanders nostalgic for an order that ended with World War II wanted to return to the Enid Blyton landscape of a largely white England.

In France, Marine Le Pen thinks her moment has come—by making her xenophobia more palatable than her father’s rhetoric, she could storm the Élysée Palace in 2017. On France’s beaches, its supposedly enlightened police force began picking on women wearing burkinis, forcing them to wear less or leave the beaches. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who has known real authoritarianism—she grew up in what was then the German Democratic Republic, the Orwellian-sounding name of the authoritarian Communist East Germany—who opened her doors for refugees from Syria in an act of admirable compassion and humanity, finds herself on the defensive as she seeks another term. As a truck driver rammed his vehicle through a Christmas market, the liberal—and humane—value of keeping doors open for refugees is under fresh threat.

The master puppeteer who seems to be having the last laugh is the cynical leader yearning to regain Soviet glory, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, under whose rule dissent has been squashed, journalists and opposition leaders have been murdered, non-profits restrained, and other opponents pursued even in exile.

In fact, Europe should know better, given its history—not only of the two world wars, but the terrible carnage that accompanied the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. Patrol boats circled Europe’s frontier in the international waters to prevent boatloads of refugees from turning up ashore; the European Union entered into a profoundly illiberal agreement with Turkey so that it wouldn’t let refugees pass through the country and continue their exodus from war-torn parts of West Asia. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdoğan took advantage of the conflict and a mysterious, failed coup to unleash a vicious crackdown at home, purging schools and universities of teachers with “suspect" ideologies, jailing scores of journalists and a few notable authors, and ordering Turkish teachers abroad to return.

In South Africa, Jacob Zuma refused to arrest visiting Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, even though there was a warrant of arrest against him from the International Criminal Court (ICC). Like South Africa’s magical metamorphosis into a multiracial democracy, the ICC’s formation was considered one of the great liberal achievements, and with this one act, Zuma was accused of betraying the liberal ideals of the former and undermining the latter.

And Asia offered little hope—in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte proudly admitted that when he was the mayor of Davao City, he had personally killed at least three people whom he suspected of being drug dealers, and the voters didn’t seem to mind that. In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed admonished bloggers who want to write freely, saying it was not at all acceptable to write something that hurts the religious sentiments of others. “If anyone writes filthy words against our religion, why should we tolerate that?" she asked.

What about India? It became an important part of the global trend, with more organizations that claimed to be fighting for the vulnerable and marginalized being prevented from raising funds overseas—after Teesta Setalvad’s Sabrang Trust, it was the turn of Anhad (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy) and Navasarjan Trust, among others. A judge imposed diktats on how one should respect the national anthem. The court offered new constitutional concepts—sensitivity, patriotism, and compassion, none of which were defined in the Constitution.

“Sensitivity" disappeared when neo-nationalists on social media expressed outrage over a star couple’s choice of name for their newborn son. “Patriotism" meant not questioning the Prime Minister. And there was no “compassion" for the bank clerk who took his life; for the army veteran who is said to have broken down when he lost his place in the queue to collect his pension; for the thousands of migrant workers who are reported to be returning home as their factories shut down; for the people who reportedly died out of shock or stress induced by the move to invalidate old, high-value currency notes. Bharatiya Janata Party fans wouldn’t even call liberals by that name. Their preferred term was “libtard", an amalgamation of “liberal" and “bastard" or “retard". I’m not sure which.

Some journalists working in Maoist areas say they are being forced out, that academics challenging the police are being framed in questionable lawsuits; and the forces that oppose the liberal view take on increasingly uglier forms, imitating the tactics that Fascists deployed in the middle of the last century. Read Umberto Eco’s fascinating warning about how fascism recurs, first published in The New York Review Of Books in 1995, and consider the parallels on all continents, in many countries.

That sounds pretty dismal. What must the liberals do, then?

Richard Rovere, The New Yorker writer who died in 1979, once described himself as “conservative by temperament, radical by conviction, liberal by compromise". That is an eminently sensible description. Many, or most, of us are born into a specific stable order—of religion, language or culture, even nationhood, and we are meant to like things as they are. As we grow older, we don’t like the way the world works, and a complete, drastic overhaul seems promising—this is at the root of radicalism. But many of us shun extremes, and we are always finding the balance, the compromise, and that doesn’t mean a solution that no one wants, but a position that’s practical and yet based on ideals. That compromise is liberalism.

The essence of liberalism lies in believing in the dignity of the individual, respecting his/her rights and not infringing upon those, and believing that tomorrow will be better. It places individual liberty at the centre of human identity. Outwardly a virtue that seeks to do good for others, there is an innately selfish core—you want to respect others’ rights because you want yours to be respected. You want to have your say, and you let others have their say too. And yet, many who describe themselves as liberals have taken on positions that undermine the rights of others.

In the US and the UK, the “safe space" movement is silencing inconvenient voices that challenge the liberal orthodoxy. In the name of protecting the weak, some liberals have made it impossible for certain views to get heard, feeding their victim narrative and creating conditions that have enabled Trump’s rise in the US, Nigel Farage’s success in the EU referendum in the UK, and other right-leaning candidates’ appeal across many countries. They fight political correctness in the name of free speech, and therefore the response to them does not lie in silencing them, but in letting them speak and challenging them.

But while the liberal wants all sides to be heard, the radical left—which does not tolerate dissent either—ridicules liberal points of view. The bizarre spectacle of Europe’s radical left defending Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is one such example. The liberal is described as a defender of the status quo, and the status quo surely can’t be right for those who are waiting for the revolution. Liberals are meant to be tolerant.

Unsurprisingly, there are many ways to describe liberalism. There are the so-called “tax and spend" liberals in the US, who can’t resist creating new government departments to solve social and economic problems. There are the classic liberals, who have a deep distrust of the state and want its powers to be curbed and they trust individual decisions and markets. In his 1859 tract, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill posited the clash between authority and liberty, arguing in favour of the latter.

But the emphasis is, and must be, on the individual—a part of the plot sometimes many, who describe themselves as liberals, miss. They confuse compassion for the vulnerable with support for those who claim to lead or represent the vulnerable. The unconscionable consequence that follows includes defending the triple talaaq or the Shah Bano judgement of 1985 in the name of protecting minority rights in India, and defending sharia courts in the UK.

Critics of Indian liberals sometimes add the tag “Western" to imply that liberalism is a foreign value injected in the pure civilization that prevailed in India before alien influences contaminated that purity. That’s a problematic assertion; opponents of liberals who seek curbs on two freedoms—the right to dissent and the right to love—are using the laws that the British imposed on India. The penal code itself is a colonial gift. It forms the basis to outlaw same-sex relationships (the notorious Section 377, which all religious hardliners want to keep on India’s statute books), as well as the law which outlaws sedition—the law that liberals’ critics seek to invoke each time someone in India says something mildly nice about Pakistan.

There is a timely reminder of the richness of Indian tradition. In Patriots, Poets And Prisoners, which compiles articles of Ramananda Chatterjee’s The Modern Review, through which we are exposed once again to the civilized discourse of the first half of the last century, when India’s enlightened and debating and differing giants argued with each other, in the fine traditions that Amartya Sen celebrated in The Argumentative Indian, and outlined visions that helped create the environment in which a more honest Indian nationalism flourished and in which it was possible to conceive of the Indian Constitution. Editors of that volume, Nilanjana S. Roy, Anikendra Sen and Devangshu Datta, have reminded India of how opinions were expressed once, and how that was possible even at a time when a colonial power ruled India.

Democratic India deserves better. Let those windows and doors open, let ideas from everywhere pass through the land, so that Indians can love whom they like, eat what they like, drink what they like, think what they like, worship—or not—if they wish.

A short history of liberalism in India

■The idea of liberty, which places individual rights at the centre, comes out of the enlightenment thinking in Europe, seen in the thoughts of Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke. Liberalism is neither ‘left’ nor ’right’—the left seeks collectivist solutions and state control over the economy and political life; the economic right does not have satisfactory immediate solutions to injustices such as discrimination; and the political right can lead to fascism and religious fundamentalism. Liberals abhor those extremes.

■Early Indian liberal thinkers influenced by liberal thoughts included Raja Rammohun Roy and, later, Mahadev Govind Ranade, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mohandas Gandhi. The early liberals believed in incremental appeals to the colonial powers, but Gandhi chose radical options like civil disobedience and non-cooperation, while shunning violence. Jawaharlal Nehru believed in liberalism as well as socialism, and he wanted to harness the power of the state, represented by an elected government, for the ‘greater common good’.

■India’s last governor general, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, was a liberal and left the Congress to create the Swatantra Party. Another early standard-bearer of classic liberalism was economist B.R. Shenoy, who filed his famous ’note of dissent’, challenging the Second Five Year Plan and its emphasis on heavy industry and the role of the state in the economy. Swatantra, whose stalwarts included Minoo Masani and Piloo Mody, had its finest hour in the 1967 Lok Sabha election, winning 44 seats in Parliament.

■Some continue to articulate the liberal view—the Centre for Civil Society, the Liberty Institute, the Indian Liberal Group, and parties like the Swatantra Bharat Paksh and the Swarna Bharat Party. But they are on the margin; the right confuses liberals with the left (liberals don’t see state intervention as the solution to all problems); the left sees liberals as ineffective and privileged, defending their own interests.

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