Right Word | How illiberal liberalists killed liberalism in India: JNU as a classic case study

On 10 April, on the occasion of Ram Navami, a festival that celebrates the manifestation of Sri Ram on the earth and is celebrated across th...

On 10 April, on the occasion of Ram Navami, a festival that celebrates the manifestation of Sri Ram on the earth and is celebrated across the whole Bharat as well as by Bharatiyas and followers of Sanatan Dharma across the world, there were violent clashes in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). This Delhi-based university has been in news especially since 2016 when some students’ organisations and leaders professing Marxist ideology called for breaking Bharat into several parts. Slogans such as ‘Bharat Tere Tukde Honge, Inshallah, Inshallah’ were raised. Those who believe in this seditious objective of breaking Bharat have come to be known in Indian public discourse as ‘Tukde-Tukde’ gang. It continues to remain quite active in JNU. It has a strong ecosystem built over the last 50 years and hence continues to thrive.

It also continues to dominate student politics at JNU. On 10 April, this year, the ‘Tukde-Tukde’ gang raised objections to the celebrations of Ram Navami in one of the hostels resulting in the clash between those who wanted to celebrate Ram Navami and those who were opposing it. First, the celebrations of a pious Hindu festival that celebrates Bharat’s foremost cultural and national icon was violently opposed and on top of it, those who did this also tried to play the ‘victim’ card.

This is a typical style of the Left and Maoists — hit and run — to manipulate the public discourse through a meticulously planned disinformation campaign run through a select band of left funded and controlled media platforms, journalists, commentators, NGO activists and social media influencers. This is a strong ecosystem as mentioned above and it continues to have considerable influence over the present public discourse and especially the way global narratives are being built up targeting India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

But what we have witnessed on the JNU campus on 10 April isn’t the real disease, such incidents are the symptoms. The origin of the disease lies somewhere else.

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Some of the answers can be found by taking JNU as a case study. One such case study has been done by Makarand R Paranjape, a Professor of English at the JNU for more than two decades. Paranjape, a leading public intellectual, has recently come out with an interesting book, JNU: Nationalism and India’s Uncivil War (Rupa Publications; 2022). This book exposes the ‘intolerance’ of the so-called Left-liberals, commonly known as ‘LeLis’. Paranjape himself suffered at the hands of ‘LeLis’. He has recalled several incidents where he was targeted for being ‘Centre-Right’ and not towing the ultra-Left line of arguments.

Paranjape’s work is important not only because it is a first-person account of some of the most tumultuous events on the JNU campus but also because it points towards a larger global phenomenon of ‘illiberal liberalism’ that is very much prevalent on the JNU campus.

He tracks this global phenomenon to explore the appropriate context to have a balanced perspective about the actions, reactions and the agenda of Leftists, jihadists, Marxists and Maoists, which have considerable presence in both the faculty as well as in the student community.

Robin Phillips talked about the rise of ‘illiberal liberalism’ globally in The Twilight of Liberalism way back in 2011.

According to Phillips (The Twilight of Liberalism, London; Lulu Press; 2011, pp5), “While liberal totalitarianism’s dogmatic intolerance of dissent has put public debate in a state of paralysis, it has come to us in the package of ‘tolerance’, ‘equality’, ‘human rights’ and even — heaven help us — ‘freedom’.”

Paranjape applies what Phillips said in 2011 to the present-day Indian context, “Not surprisingly, the phenomenon of illiberal liberalism is as rampant in India as elsewhere in the free world. The same sort of blindness, or duplicity, evidently, prevails here. LeLi (Left-liberal) journalists, periodicals and intellectuals they patronise, often train their polemical guns on the Hindu right, but seldom on Muslim and other forms of ‘minoritarian’ intolerance.’”

In fact, what Lee Harris had observed in 2008, (The Suicide of Reason, Basic Books, pp41) seems quite appropriate today in the Indian context also as he had said, “‘Fanaticism of reason’ of the liberal West was preventing it from clearly seeing the greatest threat to its way of life, which was the ‘fanaticism’ of Islam.” It is important to note that Harris was arguing about this issue even before 9/11 had happened and the world realized how serious is the threat from radical Islam.

Paranjape takes this argument further where he talks about dismantling the pseudo-liberal regime in our public discourse which is often guided by those who reside and thrive on state money on campuses like JNU and perpetuate an illiberal regime that is extremely intolerant of an idea of based on truth, righteousness, nationalism and patriotism.

“Liberals seem to despise those who disagree with them. Instead of free and fair debate, they are more interested in rigging or slanting outcomes and decisions. Liberals, it would seem, no longer want the best ideas to compete for public attention. Instead, they wish to dominate by exercising unearned privileges. Hegemony, instead of discussion, seems to be their way. When they are thwarted, they become extremely upset, even bullying and violent.” (JNU: Nationalism and India’s Uncivil War; pp8).

This probably explains well the violence by the so-called liberals against the nationalists on the JNU campus on the occasion of Ram Navami. It is clear that those who blow the trumpet of ‘progressiveness’ and wear it up on their sleeves on the JNU campus, mostly support illiberal causes. Paranjape has demonstrated this through several incidents in his book. He observed, “Many liberals lack the integrity to admit that they are compromised in supporting illiberal causes such as the burqa or triple talaq, which for most is obviously a patriarchal-theological imposition rather than a matter of choice. I see similar patterns of hypocrisy, chicanery, expediency and, ultimately, rage being played out in India when the older, entrenched and entitled liberals are shunted out by the new regime.”

The question, now, is how to resolve this problem, especially in JNU. The solution can be found if one understands the origin of the problem. Based on personal and professional experiences on the JNU campus, Paranjape has traced the origin of the problem, as he says (pp 202), “To strike at the root of the problem, we must understand the system of patronage and propaganda that nurtured it. Their formula is simple-keep fees ridiculously low, next to nil, in fact; remove attendance requirements; subsidize all or as many students as possible; ensure inadequate hostel spaces so that seniors accommodate and indoctrinate juniors; create a self-perpetuating system of state-funded dissent; use state money to produce anti-state cadres. Along with this, ensure that the ‘true’ history of Communism is never taught. The idealism of the youth to work for the less privileged must be continuously harnessed — for an anti-bourgeois, anti-state, and ultimately, anti-national opposition.”

Claire Fox, director of the libertarian think tank, ‘Academy of Ideas’, wrote in an essay for The Economist in 2018 as a part of the debate on ‘illiberal liberalism’, “These key tropes — “we will not tolerate” and “this is not a debate” — are now frequently deployed to curtail discussion of issues deemed to be taboo, invariably to “protect” people deemed vulnerable from speech deemed hateful. This secular version of blasphemy follows a sacred script, written by those who consider themselves liberals. Dare to query it and you’ll be damned.”

And that sums it up well. What has been happening in JNU, when viewed in a global context, leads us to few conclusions: First, Left is not liberal. Second, what is being peddled in the name of free speech is ‘illiberal liberalism’. Third, what is being peddled in the name of ‘liberalism’ on campuses like JNU is actually pseudo-liberalism. Fourth, the self-proclaimed liberals are actually pseudo-liberals and they are the biggest threat to liberalism. They have betrayed liberalism as they have turned out to be the most intolerant of the alternative views. Fifth, the Western framework based on binaries such as Left vs Right and nationalism vs liberalism is a misfit in Bharatiya context. Our ‘nationalism’ is based on ‘dharma’ (there is no exact word in English for the term ‘dharma’, the closest translation would probably be ‘righteousness’) and not religion.

So, nationalists in Bharat are the true liberals as at the core of our dharma-centric nationalism is this Vedic message: “Ekam Sat Bahuda Vipra Vadanti” (Truth is One, but is called by many names by many people).

The writer, an author and columnist, has written several books. The views expressed are personal.

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