Between liberal and non-liberal

Both sides work to occupy the entire spectrum of public discourse, thereby denying space for alternative dissenting voices

By Author Kanika Rai Dhanda   |   Published: 13th Jan 2020   12:15 am Updated: 12th Jan 2020   9:03 pm

Recently, a national newspaper published an article with the heading “The intolerance of liberals”. It contends that the “liberal” mindset in the country is intolerant of differences of opinion and the non-liberals are tolerant of their protests, including the most recent ones on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC). The article contends that this “liberal” viewpoint is not based on “objective” facts.

The article claiming lack of “objective debate” on the CAA/NRC assumes complete clarity on it when it is still awaiting judicial scrutiny. The author confounds political and legal rhetoric with facts. This confusion is characteristic of both liberals and liberal bashers, who are in an unagreed contract to occupy the entire spectrum of public discourse, thereby, entirely wiping out the alternative dissenting voices from the ground.

This article sheds light on how the politics of “objective debate” plays out between the “liberals” and “liberal bashers” and prevents any meaningful discourse to take place in contexts like the CAA/NRC.

Beyond Binaries

When one of these two binaries are not in the frame, the dominant of the two groups invent the ghost of the other to battle it for a self-acclaimed victory. This is what is happening with regard to the ongoing protests.

The gamut of ‘left-liberal’ politics or ‘liberal’ ideology, ie, the Congress party and other national parties are precisely criticised for being absent from the on-ground struggles and failing to channelise the voices of protesting masses. But on the other hand, the same liberals are blamed for spreading misinformation.

By doing so, they are not blaming or shaming the liberals but the masses of India who are assumed to be culpable to any misinformation, to be incapable of grasping any legal or political terminology and its consequences.

If accusers cannot objectively point out who is disseminating the misinformation and how, one cannot but wonder if only a dissenting opinion is dismissed to be mere misinformation in a patronising manner.

Liberal Trap

What is this liberal trap? It is a turf with a fence beyond which you do not carry your tools of objectivity and reasoning because they cannot resolve logical contradictions. The turf here is the CAA and NRC laws and the fences are categories such as ‘minorities’, ‘religious persecution’, ‘only aforementioned three countries’.

Therefore, everything looks green on the turf with the fences intact. However, law is not in the letter per se but the spirit behind the letter and the reasoning behind its formulation. These protests fight the spirit and not the verse, they doubt not the actions but the intentions behind the law.

The same objective reasoning that the author seems to demand is selective and is not extended beyond the turf and fences of legal vocabulary to justify the classification itself and the motivations that shaped these classifications. This is the reason why the CAA fails to hold a rational ground and is arbitrary at best. The act is considered arbitrary for the lack of rationale for including Afghanistan if the reference is made to the history of partition, for choosing religious persecution over any other persecution or civil war or genocide, for excluding muslims (who are also persecuted on religious lines) hiding under the terminology of ‘minorities’, for not considering the Hindu minorities in the Buddhist states of Sri Lanka or Bhutan. These are the questions that move people on the ground to reject the CAA and this reality is countered by the right-wing elite by repetitive tautological letters of law; or worse by dismissing it as misinformation.

Likewise, with regard to the NRC, protestors are deemed ignorant and their demonstration of objections premature without the rules being determined by the government. However, it is the lack of clarity that is the primary motivation for the current outcry.

Moreover, the excuse that rules for the NRC have not been created is a matter of procedural law and cannot be sought as a defence for the substantive intent of the law. Also, extending reasoning beyond the fences of the turf, it follows that the residue of the NRC is bound to be screened through the eyes of the CAA. Hence, any delinking rhetoric can be objectively termed as misinformed myopia.

Seeing Merit

The anguish expressed by my fellow Harvard colleagues on the matter of an interview with an Assamese proponent of the CAA was in response to a series of similar videos, which frame the current government’s policies in a positive light by selectively interviewing adherents and ignoring voices of dissent.

As it is often said in some of the media channels, it is the age of snowflakes where any stone hurled in any direction is perceived as a guillotine on one’s personal integrity. In the times when students and their batchmates from many different universities in India are facing incomparable brutality and threats from university administrations, it is despicable to use media platforms to articulate threats of being taken down from alumni associations abroad.

If people in responsible positions take themselves less seriously and their professions more seriously, they would be democratic in representing and reporting factual subjective and dissenting voices for viewers and readers to formulate their own objective opinion.

(The author is an Advocate and a Harvard alumnus)


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