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Comic stripped

Parliament is now a body of fragile selves. They won’t draw a sword for liberty

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published: May 16, 2012 3:05:26 am

Parliament is now a body of fragile selves. They won’t draw a sword for liberty

Is the controversy over the Ambedkar cartoon in the NCERT textbook a sign of a deeper intellectual and cultural malaise? The plot line is eerily familiar. One set of politicians raises,in this case falsely,the apprehension that a cartoon is offensive. There is a high-pitched debate. Members of an offended community accuse others of insensitivity and impunity. Others respond by variously denying that the image in question is offensive,or more generally that even if it is at the margins,it should be protected. The rest of the political class,ever mindful of the sentiments of the public,quickly caves in,without real thought or debate. So we have a public culture in which the definition of what counts as offensive rapidly expands,more pretexts are found to increase the chasm between different groups,more fetters are put on thought,more intimidation is used to send a warning to intellectuals and more excuses found to exercise control. And all this is done under false pretexts and a contrived political consensus. It reflects the ultimate triumph of sullenness over humour,cowardice over liberty,conformism over individuality.

In this case,the demand was not to ban but to remove the cartoon from a textbook. But its impact on intellectual inquiry is chilling. Frankly,it is not clear how much public outrage there is against this suffocating conformism. Part of the problem is that we become defenders of free intellectual inquiry only when someone else’s sentiments are outraged. The list of groups that claim to be outraged keeps expanding. Variously,expression has been curbed on demands from Muslims,Marathas,Hindus,Lingayats,Sikhs,etc,and now Dalits. In each case there is little point in arguing about the objective facts about the relevant work,whether it is indeed offensive or not. The lines of perception are reversed. The object is a pretext to express offence. It is not the cause. Why do these layers of resentment so easily find expression? And why is there so little resistance to them?

There are several reasons. First,most community identities in our politics are constituted by a narrative of victimhood. A community needs to feel under assault from outside to be given a vividness and salience. And a shared narrative of victimhood is what papers over other divisions inside communities. In the case of Dalits,these narratives are grounded in a deep history of oppression. But other groups also need to irrevocably have an investment in a history of real or potential oppression. So we have a moral psychology oriented to feeling under assault; and the need to give expression to it,as a group becomes powerful.

Second,the things that unite groups are icons,not thought. Thought is dangerous,because it can potentially create disagreements. Interests are dangerous,because they take different sections of the community in different directions: middle class members may not have quite the same interests as landless labour. But it is icons that act as a badge of membership. It is not their content,but their ability to signal who is a member of a group. And this badge has to be worn on our sleeves as it were. We signal group membership by defending icons. And it is a feature of these icons that they have to be exclusive. Ambedkar may have been politically marginalised in his lifetime. But it is often hard to convince Dalit intellectuals that others can revere Ambedkar,though not in quite the same iconic way. This has happened at all levels. For example,when Aurobindo or Gandhi become icons,their thought becomes irrelevant. For icons to live thought has to die; for Gods to be worshipped their presence has to be abstract.

Third,we cannot avoid the unfortunate fact that we have a public culture that produces two different kinds of insecurities. The first is political insecurity. The only politicians we have who know the ground they stand on,and who are politically self-confident,are those who have strong community identifications. They have an investment in the politics of offence mongering. The rest simply do not have the political self-confidence to take a stand on anything. If our founding fathers,Nehru,Ambedkar,Patel,were intellectually more self-confident,it was in part because they had a basis for their authority that was widely recognised and shared. If you ask what the basis of authority is for most of our MPs,it reveals the ugly truth. Their authority is so contingent,tenuous and insecure that you might as well say that the emperor has no clothes. That is why they have spent more time defending Parliament in the abstract than getting on with their business. That is why we have the shocking spectacle that none of the so-called young progressive MPs can take an independent stand; they are more reactionary than our founding fathers were. As we celebrate 60 years of parliamentary democracy,we would do well to remember that it is now a body composed of fragile egos and selves. And fragile selves will never draw a sword for liberty.

The second insecurity is intellectual. Let us face it. Our intellectual cultures don’t have a shared basis for conversation. Like politicians,our authority has also been established by group think rather than shared protocols of professional excellence. Intellectual argument has largely been a contest for spoils: Hindu intellectuals claiming marginalisation by leftists,and minority intellectuals caught in that intellectual crossfire. It should be a matter of concern that Dalit intellectuals are few and far between. In some senses they felt genuinely beleaguered. This has been exacerbated by the alignment of identity and reason in intellectual discourse. No intellectual can,by definition,transcend their social identity. And reservations have the unintended consequence of creating an unspoken psychological distance between groups. The excellence of those in the system is thought to be tainted by privilege; the excellence of those coming in by reservation. It simply increases an inchoate insecurity all around. Insecurity is the enemy of intellectualism.

The phenomenon we have witnessed will recur. The political science textbooks that are now being re-examined were a momentous achievement,in terms of pedagogy,content and the process by which they were written. They are a tribute to the dedication and imagination of the two advisers,Yogendra Yadav and Suhas Palshikar. They were debated in Parliament in 2006 because Congress MPs had objections to them. They somehow managed to survive. It will be the ultimate irony if we come to such a pass that Arjun Singh looks like a greater paragon of liberalism than the present establishment.

The writer is president,Centre for Policy Research,Delhi,express@expressindia.com

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