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  Opinion   Oped  09 Jan 2020  Why it’s wrong to say liberals are intolerant

Why it’s wrong to say liberals are intolerant

The writer is an advocate and an alumnus of Harvard University. She can be reached at kanikadhanda@gmail.com
Published : Jan 9, 2020, 1:13 am IST
Updated : Jan 9, 2020, 2:53 pm IST

These protests fight the spirit and not the verse, they doubt not the actions but the intentions behind the law.

Likewise, with regard to the NRC, protesters are deemed ignorant and their demonstration of objections premature without the rules being determined by the government. (Photo: PTI)
 Likewise, with regard to the NRC, protesters are deemed ignorant and their demonstration of objections premature without the rules being determined by the government. (Photo: PTI)

I am compelled to write this in response to an article on “The Intolerance of Liberals” recently published in a national newspaper. It contends that the “liberal” mindset in the country is intolerant of difference 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). That article also contends that this “liberal” viewpoint is not based on “objective” facts. My response  aims to shed 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 CAA/NRC.

The said article claiming lack of “objective debate” on CAA/NRC assumes complete clarity on this matter that is under debate and awaits judicial scrutiny. The writer 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 alternative voices of dissent from the ground.


When one of these two binaries is not in the frame, the dominant of the two groups invents the ghost of the other to battle it for a self-acclaimed victory.

This is what is occurring with regard to the ongoing protests in the current political context in this country. The writer of that article, Priyanka Deo, intentionally or unintentionally performs the same feat by complaining about her Harvard peer group and then simultaneously bashing liberals, thus allowing the wave against liberals to wash other dissidents.       

The gamut of “left-liberal” politics or “liberal” ideology – the Congress and some other national parties – are criticised precisely for being absent from the on-ground struggles and failing to channelise the voices of the 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 understood 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 cease to wonder if only a dissenting opinion is dismissed to be mere misinformation in a patronising manner.   


The fundamental problem in the arguments put forth by Ms.Deo is that she falls prey to the “liberal trap” that she claims to despise. What’s this “liberal trap”? It is a turf with a fence beyond which you do not carry your tools of objectivity and reasoning as they cannot resolve logical contradictions. The turf here is the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens -- and the fences are categories such as “minorities”, “religious persecution” and“only aforementioned three countries”. Therefore, everything looks green on the turf with the fences intact. However, the 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 rational ground and is arbitrary at best. The law is seen as arbitrary for the lack of rationale for including Afghanistan, if the reference is made to the history of India’s Partition, for choosing religious persecution over any other type of 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 Hindu minorities in the Buddhist states of Sri Lanka or Bhutan. These are the questions that move people on ground to reject the CAA, and this reality is countered by the right-wing elite with repetitive tautological letters of the law; or worse by dismissing it as misinformation.


Likewise, with regard to the NRC, protesters 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 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.    


In the larger scheme of things, this is what occurs when people who lackformal training in political philosophy or law but work as journalists, who instead of focusing on reporting the issues, take up a stand and pursue them in the form of videos or articles to defend their stand vociferously. In doing so, they eliminate the possibility of merit or substance in a differing viewpoint. Ms Deo falls prey to precisely what she says the “liberals” lack.

The anguish expressed by my fellow Harvard colleagues on the matter of an interview with an Assamese proponent of the CAA was not about this sole instance, but in response to a series of similar videos which frame the government’s policies in a positive light by selectively interviewing adherents and ignoring voices of dissent. Moreover, while Ms Deo reacts to the comments with emotion, calling for reason, the comments with reason on her posts are met with silence. Courtesy is desirable, butcan only be upheld when one is granted an audience. I completely advocate spaces for discussion where one can discuss and debate amid differing viewpoints and is not relegated to express anguish in order to be heard. However, my attempts so far on the social media have been dismissed by “non-liberals”. People expressing alternate arguments are defined as “trash” by some of the followers of Ms Deo. Their ideas are informed by simplistic arguments put forth by forums like New India Junction.


As it is often said in some 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. At a time when students and their batchmates from many different universities in India are facing incomparable brutality and threats from university administrations, it is despicable to see journalists use media platforms to articulate threats of being taken down from alumni associations overseas. 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.


Tags: national register of citizens, citizenship (amendment) act