Another day, yet another award is returned. On Thursday morning, Indian scientist PM Bhargava announced that he is returning his Padma Bhushan to protest "the government's attack on rationalism, reasoning and science". After several writers returned their Akademi awards for similar reasons, ‘award-activism’ has picked-up, with filmmakers, artists, historians and scientists joining in or extending support.
The protests have been criticised as well, and not all criticism is undeserved. For instance, it is possibly false and at the very least unsubstantiated to say that the “scale of social violence is escalating” as the artists said. As many have pointed out, there is no data to prove that and the actual number of such incidents has increased since the Modi government came to power.
We have always been a casteist, communal country. Violence over cow-slaughter is not new, nor is Hindu right-wing extremism and government authoritarianism. They are undeniable characteristics of Indian society and politics, whichever government may be in power.
Further, it is also true that the recent spate of protests from the intelligentsia is the political reaction of elite, well-connected, well-funded, left-liberal ideological establishment, which survives on the patronage of the state or like-minded ideologues. Many among them are from the most elite circles of India. Broadly speaking, all of them hold the ideals of a liberal society and a pro-active state, which works for the betterment of the people. Thus, these protests of the elite cannot be considered as a ‘citizens’ versus ‘government’ fight, it is a fight between two ideological establishments, both equally influential and having ‘people’s support’. In other words, the biggest political opposition to Modi comes not from a political party, but an ideological group.
If one side has the support of the media, academia, NGOs and certain political parties, then the other side has a host of firmly-rooted political, religious and business interests which happen to be in power. When the left-liberal establishment’s way of life or ideology is threatened, it comes together in a neat fashion, attacking from all sides. And the Hindu right-wing uses that to strengthen their core support base, reacting with brazen illiberalism and attacking individual rights.
Both sides represent the establishment, neither side can claim to speak for the ‘people of the country’ or the ‘idea of India’.
Before you jump to any conclusion, this is not to say that writers, scientists and film-makers should not protest or return awards. It is their right and I would extend my support to them if I mattered so much.
We are under a political dispensation, which is either silent on or justifying attacks on individual liberties, and we have to fight back as citizens. But it is also important to acknowledge some of the hypocrisy and politicking behind recent events. In explaining why he returned his award, Anand Patwardhan writes, “What do we want from this government? Not much. Just its resignation,” clearly stating that his aim is that ‘this’ government should go, like that would be a solution.
First, we need to understand that all the recent incidents – Dadri beef murder, burning of Dalit children in Haryana, FTII crackdown by the government – are issues rooted in our society and culture. We are communal, casteist and too dependent on the government. And a political scuffle over these issues will do little to change our society or mindset.
When the very act of protest, even if for valid reasons, is political in nature, the response will also be political. The issue will be reduced to a political blame game, which will eventually face a natural death and nothing would have changed.
With all the pressure being built on the government at the centre now, perhaps Modi might lose the next elections. Then what? Crimes will continue to be perpetrated against the poor and under-privileged even under a ‘progressive’ government. The left liberal establishment will sit back and relax under such a government, as journalist Ravish Kumar points out. Again, disillusionment will set in among the people since nothing would have really changed, and it would only be a matter of time before another Modi sweeps the elections and comes to power to use it to his advantage.
Secondly, it’s the hypocrisy.
There is no problem with ‘hypocrisy’ in principle. Without hypocrisy, there is no politics. In his book Political Hypocrisy: The Mask of Power, from Hobbes to Orwell and Beyond, David Runciman writes that “hypocrisy, though inherently unattractive, is also more or less inevitable in most political settings, and in liberal democratic societies it is practically ubiquitous. No one likes it but everyone is at it, which means that it is difficult to criticise hypocrisy without falling into the trap of exemplifying the very thing one is criticising.”
But he adds, “In some places a tolerance for hypocrisy can do real harm, after all some forms of hypocrisy are inherently destructive of liberalism itself...”
And the hypocrisy of our left-liberal establishment is one such form. When the tone and aggressiveness of liberal activism changes according to who is in power, it sends the message that what you ‘do’ is not as important as what you ‘say’ is, that politicians can get away by pretending to be progressive.
There is a reason why the Dravidian movement, which rose to fight Brahminical hegemony, now actively supports OBC communities targeting Dalits. There is a reason why the RSS flourishes even under Congress rule. It is that our liberalism is selective, our outrage politically biased. We allow conservatism to foster when the political dispensation is favourable to us. And when we calibrate our activism depending on which political party is in power, we are complicit in destroying the ‘idea of India’, whatever that is.