Culture War after Article 370: It is for the Left Liberals to Lose it

Culture War after Article 370: It is for the Left Liberals to Lose it

Historical events do not always betray the culture of the times in which they occur; it is the intellectual climate they usher in and the narratives they engender, which reveal the deep structure of the society. But the structure is not an internally coherent one; there are multiple expressions of the same, united by obsession with an idea and divided by competing attitudes. Abrogation of Article 370 and 35A thus brought into fore deep fissures in the way we imagine nationhood and our place in it, to an extent that it almost settled the conflict between the idea of India as an arm-chair intellectual pursuit championed by left liberal intellectuals and an idea of India that is soaked in people’s cultural values as well as its territorial integrity. The prevailing environment today is perhaps much more substantive than Bismarck’s kulturkampf or its widespread echoes in American academia/cultural life. We may say that abrogation of 370 has settled the debate for years to come as to whose idea of India will prevail and what sort of responses to that idea will hold forth. That said, the post-370 environment was not a conversation/debate between left liberals and political conservatives, something which has mostly been a one-sided affair in independent India in favour of the former, but a more visceral and affective one that brought ordinary citizens to the heart of the debate.

The pattern of outrage

Before I proceed to substantiate what I mean by this, let me digress a little and take the readers to a local issue, which has a cross-regional pattern around it. On the eve of the Independence Day this year, a premier technical institute witnessed intense activity in its faculty discussion forum that continued for the next few days before exhausting itself. A faculty member deeply involved in the business of consciousness raising shared a video by prominent left intellectuals like Jean Dreze, Kavitha Krishanan et al. highlighting gross human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of 370. In perfect synchronization, more interview and opinion links were shared by more such concerned souls expressing outrage and anger, pointing out the procedural violation and even the move’s anti-constitutional character. The responses were equally acerbic that brought an abrupt end to the discussion and punctured the strategic timing of the expression of such outrage.

This is not to say that expression of dissent should not be welcome; in fact, they should be encouraged to create a dialogic society that is respectful to contrarian views. But what had been planned in the said institute was creating a climate of confusion leading to conditions of incredulity towards the idea of Indian independence. It was also a subtle attempt to hard sell what intellectuals and left-liberals call THE idea of India, a short-hand for a culture-denying principle by an aggregate of deracinated intellectuals trained only to exercise their rights to offend everything that is national, indigenous and organic. The timing of this articulation and the repetitive nature of selective outrage on the eve of Independence Day has a pattern and life of its own that assures its advocates a certain intellectual hubris, or even immortality. Provocation it was no doubt, but more than that, it was the conviction that undermining national integrity is cool and can receive sufficient traction among like-minded people and is a sure recipe for fame.

What happened in that institute is a microcosm of a larger template that saw in the abrogation of 370 the government’s anti-people measure (as if the idea of people does not include anything other than Kashmir valley’s Muslims) and its single-point agenda of silencing Muslims. The discriminatory nature of the Article that dehumanized women, lower castes, non-Muslims and refugees was conveniently forgotten and so was the surreptitious manner in which it had been introduced. Such perversion of intellect is nothing new and in fact has been the bedrock of what we have known all along as left liberalism, not in a classical sense but as an expression of Outrage Inc. given to a heady mix of socialism, liberalism, cosmopolitanism, minoritysm and anything else that can assure the desiring left liberal to announce his arrival. What is galling for the left liberal is the realization that his ability to outrage is increasingly meeting with way too many ‘reactionaries’ outside the ideological enemy camp, who till the other day were just a handful of stupid right wingers.

It is lost on many such intellectuals that at one point of time, their clarion call for progressive values had led them to over-believe their capacity to remain the reference point for debates around equality and to dismiss all those they oppose as eternal exclusivists. Over time, their being transformative actors has not only been eroded; their ideological adversaries in the political right have successfully replaced them as the new change agents. The former continues to demand the same adulation without realizing that they have become carriers of dogma and entitlement. Combined with this steady loss of relevance in the cultural sphere, their decreasing electoral success bordering on irrelevance makes them bite more than they can chew. It is another story that in academic and select media scape, they continue to enjoy visibility, disproportionate to their presence in the political sphere.

If the political right is the change and the left (of all hues) is statis, it requires a reappraisal of what we call the culture war, something which had been decisively controlled by the Left so far. But it would be wrong to assume that Indian culture war was derivative of the Western ones, where competing narratives jostled for space. In fact, in India there was no cultural right in the sphere of ideas and knowledge; it is still not there as a coherent school of thought or as a set of intellectual attitudes. The rise of the political right as the pivot of Indian democracy has not been translated into the consolidation of the cultural right as a coherent bulwark. Since the time of Nurul Hassan, the culture war in India was actually a cultural singularity spearheaded by what is called pejoratively as ‘the Khan market gang’, the elite controllers of how and what Indians should think. We may recollect that Thomas Mann had argued in early 20th century that culture is always national and that the threat to this culture was from an internationalist civilization. We may argue that India’s culture war is not fought between the left and the right; it is fought between the left and the people.

Kashmir as career

Kashmir (like any troubled area) had two sets of problems, one affecting the people and the state, something which is experiential and administrative, and the other is that it is a career for many scholars, academics and intellectuals. The second one involved endless iterations in seminars, funding applications, foreign travels, and publications – what we may call the knowledge producing potential of Kashmir. It is this idea of Kashmir as a knowledge field, combined with the fear of losing the same, that made the Outrage Inc. even more hysterical knowing fully well that 370 was essentially discriminatory.

One of the ways to sustain intellectuals’ careers was to promote Kashmir secessionism as a secular enterprise where the anti-India sentiment is supposedly cross-religious and cross-regional. No justifications were given as to why Pandits were removed from Kashmir if this insurgency was secular in character or why Ladakhi Budhhists were hardly part of this sentiment. It sounded sexy and attractive to call Kashmir a secular problem so that secular democratic India can be coaxed or coerced to accept their ‘legitimate’ demand. But once 370 was gone, many intellectuals saw it as a religious question and how Indian ‘annexation’ of Kashmir was motivated by the desire to conquer Islam. The standard intellectual trope of Kashmir secessionism as secular and Indian state’s response as communal not only alienated Hindus and Buddhists of Jammu and Ladakh, but also raised questions about intellectuals’ ability to be objective analysts.

Similarly, intellectuals including academics who spent decades in establishing that all identities are constructed rather than fixed suddenly realized that Kashmiri identity is not only immutable but is also under threat. It did not occur to them that Hindus and Buddhists too are citizens and are carriers of identities. Earlier if some groups tried to preserve Hindu identity, they were shown as revivalists, obscurantists, Hindutva brigade, lynch mob etc. No effort was made as to why, when and how Kashmir became Islamic and how its so-called Islamic identity may not be that old after all. There was no effort to see the evolution of this process of acquiring an identity and what Kashmir was like historically. The intellectuals failed to tell us as to why Marathi or Odia identity is any less important than Kashmiri identity and if all other states have lost their cultural distinctness.

Barkha Dutt in an article in Washington Post grudgingly admitted in 2018 that “Under Narendra Modi, India’s right is finally winning the culture wars” and acknowledged that political right always resented “the liberal leanings of India’s intellectual institutions, its disproportionate influence over mainstream media, and its stranglehold over the cliquish, closed drawing rooms of the socially privileged”. But what she did not recognize is that winning the culture war does not always mean groundswell of support for the political Right in the academic/cultural sphere. It is not a stretch to see that from its civilizational and religious foundation, culture for the political Right has moved to a territorial assertion, thereby secularizing the very idea of culture (evident in Uri and Balakot strikes as well as abrogation of 370). The same reinvention can be seen in political Right’s evolution from Hindutva to a catch-all ‘development’.

As mentioned earlier, many a time in the zeal to be champions of the people, left liberal intellectuals outrage more people and in the quest for justice end up rationalizing injustice. And through all this, they remain fairly convinced about their moral superiority of being tolerant, inclusive and cosmopolitan. Here are a few lines from a polemical pamphlet called Kashmir: The Case for Freedom by intellectual luminaries such as Pankaj Mishra, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali etc. The blurb invites the readers by creating a moral discourse about the dilemma of Kashmiris: “Kashmir is one of the most protracted and bloody occupations in the world. …. Ignored by its own corrupt politicians, abandoned by Pakistan and the West…..Kashmiri people’s ongoing quest for justice and self- determination continues to be brutally suppressed…..Kashmir: The Case for Freedom is a passionate call for the end of occupation, and for the right of self- determination for the Kashmiri people.” The blurb sees Kashmir as occupied by India, but more interestingly as a place abandoned by Pakistan. Abandoned by Pakistan? Are the authors inviting Pakistan to take control of Kashmir? It is not surprising that Roy has openly supported Pakistani military for being a principled institution and has questioned Indian military for using force against its own people. It is during these situations, intellectual discourse becomes indistinguishable from enemy propaganda and an open call to violence against the state.

The tricks of intellectualism

A few compulsive contrarians saw in the abolition of 370 Modi’s brute force to silence the minority, an accusation that they themselves may not have believed in private. It is common knowledge that majoritarianism in J & K was that of Islamic one, determined to erase every trace of Kashmir’s pre-Islamic past and non-Islamic present – be it the expulsion of Kashmiri Pandits or plunder of their wealth or abuse of their women or complete marginalization of Ladakhis. What was ignored in the selective outrage is the glaring fact that majoritarianism in Kashmir was not of Hindutva; it was Islamic and a part of global jihad. The same champions who so far had defended the rights of minorities elsewhere, chose to ignore J & K’s minorities because the minorities here did not fit into the left liberal definition of minority as Muslims. By advocating their cause, left liberals actually ended up defending the cause of majoritarianism.

Let us see how the intellectual class responded to the government move. It comes as no surprise that commending Arundhati Roy on her ‘expose’ of the Indian state, academic Veena Das said that India should stop believing that Kashmir is an internal matter. Since Kashmir is a career and its exchange value in the international knowledge production market is immense, it cannot be allowed to remain India’s internal matter. Salman Rushdie was not far behind: “Even from seven thousand miles away it’s clear that what’s happening in Kashmir is an atrocity. Not much to celebrate this August 15th”. It is the same Rushdie who was protected by all those bourgeois capitalist repressive states. One may be tempted to ask, as to why our intellectuals say things that are lies or half-truths, morally repugnant, politically mischievous and socially irresponsible? Why do they create an idea of India and Indian self-hood that is so very different from the way things are. Are they merely articulating what people think or are they interested to create an ideal template and compel people to reorient themselves vis-à-vis their narratives.

Writing about the British perception of 370 abrogation, Karan Thapar wrote that this was an “attempt to deny the Valley its cherished identity”, something that we repeatedly hear in left liberal discourses post 370. It is the same discourse that denies identity any existence outside historical materialism and sees it as constantly shifting, but may reconsider if the identity in question concerns non-Hindus. Kavitha Krishnan along with Jean Dreze and others travelled in Kashmir and produced a video after interviewing many: “Frankly, it looked like occupied Iraq or occupied Palestine”, thus repeating Pakistan’s official narrative. Krishnan also said there was no scope for anybody for speaking, yet she could interview people successfully.

Removal of Article 370 was unlike any other Modi magic. Unlike previous attempts in the economic sphere (GST, demonetization etc.) or quasi-religious (triple talaq or regulation of beef trade), Article 370 was essentially a territorial game and placed it alongside the earlier surgical strikes after Uri and Pulwama. The abolition of 370 was a decisive blow to the Left’s image of Modi as a fanatic hell bent on silencing minorities, and promoted a territorial understanding of India. India as just a territorial expression is popular among left historians according to which India did not exist before the British came, and that it is just a geography without any cultural glue. Modi’s masterstroke may be interpreted by the Left as bulldozing of Kashmiri voices, but by doing so, Modi corroborated the Left idea of India as a territory. So far left liberal critics had accused Modi of dividing the country along religious lines or fanning communal passions, but the integration of Jammu and Kashmir ruptured that narrative and reaffirmed an India that is one.

Left liberal intellectuals against people

Though the intellectual Left has always promoted an Orientalist image of India and has negated the agency of millions, at the time of deepening of democracy, culture and its articulation cannot remain elitist. Though some academics, journalists or authors took upon themselves to wrest India’s authenticity, it was outside institutional support. The right never had a coordinated agenda to replace or contest the left liberal discourse. If the narrative of organic and unified India survives today, it is because of ordinary people, their agency and their faith. Contrary to Marxist understanding of situation which handicaps the proletariat to imagine a better world (the reason why there is a need for intellectuals), common ordinary people (who routinely visit temples or stand up each time they hear the national anthem) kept that culturally and territorially integral India alive. These faceless insignificant people understood that dissent of certain kinds is not much different from anti-nationalism or secessionism, that a certain advocacy of human rights (say for Burhan Wani or Afzal Guru) borders on justification of terrorism and that certain ways of speaking for people is actually silencing them.

If the intellectual power of left liberals sprang from political power, and later continued with or without political patronage and sustained itself through elaborate networks, the apparent anti-intellectual streak of the present government did not create conditions for creating a counter narrative. Modi knew that India has changed and that it is asserting itself, not always through intellectual deliberation and obfuscation, but through straight talk, though at times unrefined and crass. What gave this emerging sentiment teeth is not conventional forums of newspapers, magazines, journals or TV discussions, but social media, whose anonymity gave ordinary citizens and peoples (regardless of their support for Modi and BJP) not just an outlet but also the conviction that intellectuals are contemporary anomalies and are interested in protecting their entitlements.

What is missing in the left liberal discourse is bare minimum self-doubt about the possibility of getting it wrong. This is quite anti-intellectual in the sense that a little bit of inwardness and self-reflexivity protects these advocates from truth claims. Interestingly though, this self-doubt has been articulated already by the political class (including Sashi Tharoor, Jairam Ramesh and Avishek Manu Sighvi) though the intellectual class has not been as resilient. This liberal syndicate exaggerates its ability to have access to reality and refuses to see it as mediated by their representation in writings and speeches. If Rahul Gandhi has made a U turn after being quoted in Pakistan’s representation to the UN, the Ramachandra Guhas continue to imagine the return of Communists and fail to distinguish between razing of the Babri Mosque by a mob and the abrogation of Article 370 by constitutional procedures.

For millions of Indians, it is the political right which is disruptive, facilitator of change (be it 370 or demonetization) and progressive in terms of protecting lower class/lower caste interest or in promoting women welfare (be it Ujjwala scheme or female supernumerary seats in IITs). And the political left (that includes radical left and left of the centre) and their intellectual agents represent the status quo, entitlement and an aversion to change. Modi did not create culture war’s crusaders in the form of intellectuals when the Left was going to the market commending themselves for having survived Modi’s fascism. Questions like “where are Right wing intellectuals?” were frequently used as self-congratulation. Intellectuals could not see that Modi has turned people (cutting across caste, gender, class, languages) against intellectuals and has made these people culture warriors. Contrary to Barkha Dutt’s belief, the political Right did not win the culture war; it is the Left who lost it.

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Jyotirmaya Tripathy

Jyotirmaya Tripathy is Professor in the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Madras.