The current socio-political discourse in India reflects the ruling political philosophy. Not only does the Indian government espouse this philosophy, it facilitates, encourages, engages and therefore emboldens others to put this rightwing Hindu thought into practise. Thus the lynchings, murders of intellectuals, denigrating of those who hold counter views. This is not a phenomenon localised to Modi’s India, variants of it has risen in Trump’s America, Duterte’s Philippines, Erdogan’s Turkey, Hasina’s Bangladesh, Turnbull’s Australia and Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmmar to name a few countries.
This right-wing ethos reveals itself in a variety of ways in normal everyday discourse – climate change denial, umbrage against affirmative action, racism, dehumanising others, vocally supporting violent acts. Currently in India , it extends to blaming liberals, women, Christians and Muslims for the disaster wrought by the floods in Kerala. Many Indians are also suggesting that aid and assistance to the survivors should not be given because of the large population of Muslims, Christians and beef eaters there.
Much of this discourse is garbed in intellectualism whenever possible, when not, in logic or in religious-cultural sentiments.
However, what comes across in the conversations with those of the right on these subjects is that these are less about an exchange of ideas and more about them venting their spleen, casting aspersions and belittling if not victim shaming.
One now understands that the right and their apologists are fueled by half-baked and ill-informed information and conspiracy theories. ‘Climate change is a hoax fabricated and perpetuated by the US to prevent countries from developing’, ‘African-Americans are worse-off now than before the civil rights movement’, ‘how is it Africa does not have ancient monuments like other races?’, ‘ we will not support Kerala in its time of need because they eat beef.’- are some of notions that have shown their face. There is a confidence and self-righteousness in the ignorance the right regurgitates. The information they consume communes with their fears, anxieties and feelings of being wronged thus giving them this veneer of inviolability. Further, the reason why these theories proliferate and are parroted exponentially is because of the innate human desire to seek out short cuts and easy answers.
Is There a Right Response?
There are challenges when one comes across such views. The first is separating the person from her views. This leads to the second – to continue engaging instead of disregarding the individual and their outlandish claims. The third is to prove how perforated their contentions are without disrespecting them. Finally to admonish them for their disquisition in a way that does not offend them.
Herein lies a problem, the right wing have appropriated the terms ‘Politically Correct’ and ‘Free Speech’ and weaponised them against the other and against liberals. Thus free speech means that one should not be politically correct. The right have perfected the art of torquing up issues and then using the defence of free speech to defend their discourse and suggest that being politically correct stymies the exchange of ideas.
So when statements like ‘Dalit students in IIT should be taught by Dalit Professors’ – insidiously suggesting that Dalits are not smart, don’t have the potential or have not proved themselves and is also a way to perpetuate the caste system – are expressed it is expected that no one find fault with these views or the person expounding on them.
Have Liberals Been Wrong?
Ram Madhav, former ideologue of the right wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and current National General Secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was correct when he said liberals are no longer relevant. The space, and the easy access to it, that the liberals were supposed to have created to exchange ideas has been usurped by the right.
Now, the right are not only gatekeepers to the space but are moderators too. It should be said that the space that liberals created was not secular, as it crowded out and sidelined views considered anachronistic. Instead of assuaging apprehensions, the people who voiced them were mocked and banished. This has now come to bite liberals.
The Way Forward
Is the issue today of rightwing thought or that it gives carte-blanche to put these thoughts to action? When Henry I supposedly said frustratedly ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’, it was misconstrued to be an order which led to four knights murdering Thomas Beckett the Archbishop of Canterbury.
One cannot separate thought from action even if two different individuals are involved. The bile ridden rage of the intellectual, her fears and her casting aspersions becomes an act of intellectual violence that goads others to more potent physical violence.
FaceBook and other social media giants are trying to play catch-up as they try to douse online fires started by rightwing arsonists. On being called out, these bullies morph into crybabies suggesting a liberal conspiracy to stamp out free speech.
To deal with the right many suggest that they be shamed, others suggest one cultivates an inquiring mind so as not to be swung by what appears to be the truth. However, shaming may not work especially when there is a large population settled in the right. With the right flooding the internet with information it is now becoming harder for people to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Instead, what about allaying fears of loss of identity or the perceived disrespect felt by one community by the actions of another or the weeds of distrust sown in people that prevents them from fact-checking? Humans are emotional and therefore fragile, and susceptible to reaching for the lowest hanging fruit. The right recognises this and has been using it to great effect.
The right has created a new normal which the secular liberal has not found an answer to. The liberal has to go back to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to mold a befitting solution to the right.
*Samir Nazareth is the author of 1400 Bananas, 76 Towns & 1 Million People. He tweets at @samirwrites