Why India’s Liberals Need to Bury Their Differences and Stick Together – Now More than Ever

Social Commentary

Why India’s Liberals Need to Bury Their Differences and Stick Together – Now More than Ever

Illustration: Aishwarya Nayak

Last month, I would have thought that Kunal Kamra getting into hot water with liberals was fake news. One would think a comic who makes the PM the butt of nearly all his jokes would be a liberal darling. But reality is stranger than fiction, and last Thursday, the liberal bubble was rife with hair-splitting arguments over Kamra’s conduct. Minutes after Kamra confronted occasional journalist and full-time BJP lackey Arnab Goswami on a plane, not only was he at the receiving end of hate from right-wing trolls but he was criticised by the liberals for heckling Goswami.

How Kamra “should have” or “could have” acted became the domain of those who feel that Kamra showed liberalism in a bad light by invading Goswami’s “personal space” on an airplane (even though “invading personal space” is probably listed under “key skills” on Goswami’s résumé). NDTV’s Nidhi Razdan said that Kamra’s behaviour was on a level to which she would “rather not stoop” in a tweet. The issue caused such a schism among liberals on social media that it led to a flurry of thinkpieces.

It took a guman firing at anti-CAA protesters outside Jamia Millia Islamia to break the spell. Kamra himself summed it up best in a tweet, where he pointed out while the right-wing was busy egging each other on to “goli maaro”, liberals were more interested in defining what constitutes heckling.

Unpopular Opinion Alert: This holier-than-thou attitude is probably what often makes liberals less effective than their rivals from the right-wing. Even the anti-CAA protests – which have been buoyed by an unprecedented show of unison across the country’s many socio-economic fault-lines – only took on their diverse character after the brutal police clampdown on the student protesters at Jamia in December. But even that wasn’t enough for liberals to bury their differences and put up a united front.

This holier-than-thou attitude is probably what often makes liberals less effective than their rivals from the right-wing.

During the initial days of the protests in December 2019, the first cracks appeared when the question of whether the Islamic chant of “La ilaha illallah” belonged in the movement. Some believed it gave the protest an unnecessary religious colour, others felt it represented the existential threat posed to the Muslim community by the Act, and neither camp would entertain the opposite viewpoint. Shashi Tharoor, a Congress MP who would be considered another favourite of many liberals, as well as an avowed critic of the CAA, became a casualty of social media’s cancel culture after he tweeted, “Our fight against Hindutva extremism should give no comfort to Islamist extremism either. We who’re raising our voice in the #CAA_NRCProtests are fighting to defend an #InclusiveIndia. We will not allow pluralism&diversity to be supplanted by any kind of religious fundamentalism.”

Ok, Tharoor is a tone-deaf “uncle”. Clearly, there’s no religious fundamentalism involved when it comes to Sabarimala, in his books. But it didn’t stop with Tharoor. There was the usual hand-wringing about “disturbing public life” over the sit-in protesters at Shaheen Bagh, and outrage over the masked thugs attacking JNU students was mitigated by fence-sitters stating “we don’t know all the facts”. We liberals come together when an external threat looms, but are all too content to engage in sanctimonious one-upmanship as soon as the immediate danger appears to have passed. People who diverge even slightly from the purest values we must uphold are labelled “garbage”; their views considered “trash”.

A piece published this January on Newslaundry, titled “Why India’s Twitter Liberals Are like a Circular Firing Squad”, hits the nail on the head. “Unfortunately, the Left has for long promoted the cancel culture. They have espoused a holier-than-thou attitude – an attitude that refuses to accept differences even within their own group,” writes the author. But at this point, when opponents of liberalism are prepared to shoot at those disagreeing with the government, can we really afford to let this go on like this? It’s all hands on deck, and this is not a drill.

In such polarised times, can we afford this sort of petty bickering? Minor differences in ideology should not become major hurdles to progress – a problem that plagues liberals the world over. Talk show host Bill Maher, himself a self-proclaimed liberal, often speaks about how liberals with an agenda of political correctness often work at cross-purposes to one another, even covering it in a segment on his show, Real Time. Maher expounds on this further in an interview to The New York Times, saying, “The difference is that liberals protect people, and P.C. people protect feelings. They don’t do anything. They’re pointing at other people who are somehow falling short of their standards, which could have changed three weeks ago.” It could be said that Maher is reacting to his critics who have labelled some of his more problematic takes on Islam as Islamophobic, but he does raise a valid point about liberals sabotaging one another.

Minor differences in ideology should not become major hurdles to progress – a problem that plagues liberals the world over.

A new, less idealistic, more pragmatic sort of fellowship is the need of the hour. The tendency of the woke to eat the woke has been a source of great amusement to conservatives, who watch from the sidelines as every significant social or cultural movement spearheaded by liberals starts to disintegrate under the weight of the many voices trying to drown the others out. For all that liberals love diversity of faiths, races, and genders, they could learn to love diversity in liberal thought as well.

It’s one thing to question and questioning our little bubbles is essential. But being constantly cynical of each other’s motivations doesn’t help. Think back to how when most of Bollywood’s A-listers were maintaining a studied silence on the nationwide anti-CAA protests, many online commentators were bemoaning how these influential public figures were shying away from controversy. Yet, when Deepika Padukone arrived to show solidarity with the battered JNU students ahead of the release of her film Chhapaak, there was a vocal section of people questioning whether her motives were pure or if it was just part of an elaborate PR stunt. Liberals need to accept the allies they have, rather than expecting everyone to pass some sort of stringent personality test, because in the current global climate, they are swimming against the tide.

In the most recent example, a gathering of the LGBTQ community to celebrate Mumbai Pride over weekend was marred by disagreements between the organisers, Queer Azadi Mumbai, and some of the participants, who wished to raise anti-CAA slogans and carry anti-CAA signs to the event. The organisers came in line for backlash from people who, by rights, were part of the same movement. Once again, despite having more similarities than differences, two groups of liberals were driven apart by what should have been a civil, even polite, disagreement.

Perhaps it would help to think of different types of liberals as members of a family. Not every member might read the same newspaper, or support the same sports team, or want to watch the same TV channel, but the family is able to stay together despite these differences. Those differences might annoy people once in a while, but it doesn’t stop them from looking out for each other.

It’s possible to disagree without having a falling out, and that’s something that liberals in India and across the world would do well to remember. Nobody is born a liberal, they become one. Countering conservatism and fundamentalism, resisting the establishment, supporting the marginalised – doing any one of those things is hard enough by itself. The least we can do for each other is not make it any harder. Not at a time when bullets are being fired mercilessly.