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Posted at: Jun 17, 2018, 12:47 AM; last updated: Jun 17, 2018, 12:47 AM (IST)

The liberal tolerance of intolerance

Right-wing rule: The author finds an ominous similarity in Trump's win and the reign of Narendra Modi: public opinion is manipulated, principles of democracy disregarded and xenophobia provoked. He also condemns other acts of illiberalism like Arundhati Roy charged with sedition and the Babri Masjid's destruction under previous regimes claiming to be tolerant and secular

Sandeep Dikshit

Political scientists are trying to decode a series of recent political events that have taken place in quick succession. Popular vote has brought to power many leaders who have little time or respect for liberal values. So, is the sun setting on liberalism?

Chancellor of Ashoka University and former head of The Telegraph’s edit pages for two decades, Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s books were valuable in bringing clarity about the events underlying the 1857 revolt against the Raj, especially in its epicentre of Awadh.

Mukherjee, with his partiality to Georg Hegel, ventures further afield this time. While he won’t venture to declare the curtains on the practice of liberal values; relying on the German philosopher’s famous quote, “The owl of Minerva flies at night,” he makes the point that more clarity will come only after the present stage of history is over.

But till then, liberalism is definitely in the twilight zone as it is weighed down by the burden of its contradictions. The principal practitioners of the four liberal values — freedom, tolerance, a sense of fellow feeling and an overall belief that as human beings we will become better — have consistently indulged in double speak. Right from the time liberalism originated from the wombs of enlightenment, it has been beset by deep set contradictions in its theory and practice.

John Locke paid significance to the individual; Thomas Hobbs brought in the concept of the sovereign state and Adam Smith rounded its edges while the Dutch scholar Erasmus defined liberty of the man. But among others, Isaiah Berlin has succinctly pointed out the flaw in liberalism: Individuals aware of possessing the power of reason coerce other human beings who are not so enlightened. India experienced 200 years of rule by the sword where the priority of the empire overrode liberal principles.

It was no surprise that by the end of the 19th century, liberalism was under attack both in Europe and India due to its emphasis on the individual leading to anonymity of human beings (the Romantics), three levels of alienation (Marx) and by non-Marxian critiques from Europe and India (Gandhi and Tagore). Yet, it was noteworthy that none questioned the absolute value of freedom or liberty.  

Mukherjee sees the Russian Revolution as a prominent nail in the eclipse of liberalism followed by rule of the Third Reich in Germany under Hitler. In both cases political violence was elevated to a cardinal principal of governance.  This was the outcome, he argued, from a major strand of liberalism that argues that a rational society can be fashioned by reason. 

After the Second World War, the challenge to liberalism continued despite the fall of authoritarianism in Germany. The west made the concept attractive by adopting the Keynesian formula of providing social and personal security to its citizens. The State became an active player, an idea enthusiastically promoted by social democrats. But the State regressed in matters of culture, morals and expression of opinion. This `classical’ liberalism had a short shelf life; giving way in late 1960s to a new version where the individual was sought to be freed from the shackles of the State. It was helped by the unintended developments in Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Interestingly, the end game coincided with the arrival of full-blown liberalism in India with the economic aspect completing the missing part.

But 2001 saw a retreat from the idea of a non-interventionist State. That challenge to liberal theory has become more frequent and may have brought into power Narendra Modi. It is here that a detached tour de force slips into the pettiness of the present; where transitional events are treated as milestones — the comparison of Hindutva warriors with Hitler’s storm-troopers is overblown, so far. But Mukherjee does detect an ominous similarity in Trump’s win, Brexit and the reign of Narendra Modi: public opinion is manipulated, principles of democracy disregarded and xenophobia provoked. These, he feels, are not ephemeral but deep-seated.

Liberalism’s intense focus on self-interest and selfish desires of individuals may have let loose forces that cannot be controlled and ultimately lead to victimisation of human beings, frequently in other lands. Similarly, enlightenment did bring about the improvement in the lives of the people in the particular geographical area but the progress was used to rob the freedom of other people.

What is in it for India? It is justifiable to condemn various acts of illiberalism under the premiership of Narendra Modi. But as Mukherjee points out, Arundhati Roy and Binayak Sen were charged with sedition; Satanic Verses was banned; and, the Babri Masjid brought down — all under regimes claiming to be tolerant and secular. In the end, power is suspicious of dissent. Liberalism in practice has not been tolerant of intolerance. That is its Achilles’ heel.


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