By Swapan Dasgupta
In 1983, prior to a British general election which was easily won by Margaret Thatcher, I attended a conference on ‘Victorian values’ at Ruskin College, a Labour movement institution located in Oxford but detached from the university. The conference, dominated by those who believed that Thatcher posed a threat to civilisation as we know it, was unmemorable. Yet, one incident stood out.
A BBC crew chose to film one of the sessions, perhaps as an input for its larger election coverage. No one was particularly bothered until an earnest activist stood up and protested against what he imagined was political surveillance. Encouraged by this prickliness, others also joined the protest and made passionate speeches about BBC’s fierce anti-Left bias. There were a few voices of restraint but the gathering voted quite overwhelmingly to exclude the TV crew from the meeting.
Looking back on this footnote of footnotes in contemporary British history, two broad conclusions are warranted. First, despite the show of ideological bravado, the activists who saw the conference as an occasion to debunk Thatcher’s “reactionary” celebration of the Victorian ethos were also aware that they were fighting a losing political battle. In the Britain of 1983, Thatcher’s appeal to put the “Great” back into Britain had the support of not merely the middle classes but a large section of the ‘proletariat’. The anger at the BBC—seemingly representative of the Establishment—was also an admission of defeat.
Secondly, the visceral anger at the media was also a protest against intellectual marginalisation. Unlike today when the BBC flaunts an obvious Left-wing tilt, the institution tried to be more ‘balanced’ those days. A staid middle-of-the-road consensus set the editorial tone. This implied that other voices—whether of the Right or Left—were often ignored. It was this relegation to the fringes that the lefty activists were protesting against that afternoon in Oxford.
Even a casual overview of the chattering class storm over Wendy Doniger’s alternative history of the Hindus points to similarities in reactions. For a start, despite the ridiculous assertion by the publishers that their decision to reach an out-of-court settlement was driven by concerns over the safety of staff members, this was a battle that was not taken to the streets—unlike the disputes over Satanic Verses, Taslima Nasreen and M.F. Husain’s paintings. The conduct of the aggrieved Dina Nath Batra was never constitutionally unbecoming: he went through a court of law and got Penguin to admit that the book, in effect, violated section 295A of the Indian Penal Code.
Penguin’s contention that India’s laws are inherently illiberal may well have a basis but it is curious that liberals have on other occasions been very forthright in their support for harsher laws against what they perceive is “hate speech”—witness the still-born Communal Violence Bill.
What seems to unite the Left outrage I witnessed 30 years ago and Batra’s litigation is the shared sense of intellectual dispossession. The free flow of ideas in a democracy is invariably tempered by value judgments over what is ‘respectable’ and what is not. Those who rubbish Doniger feel, and quite legitimately so, feel that academia disregards those analyse faith from the perspective of believers. They believe that studies of Hindu faiths have been taken over, particularly in the US, by those who inherently sceptical of the larger Indian inheritance. This conviction is bolstered by the apparent arrogance of dominant intellectuals who refuse to concede space to those who have a more sympathetic perspective of Hindu theology.
What adds to the muddle is that despite their academic dominance those who are happy with a less reverential assessment of faith find themselves politically beleaguered. Just as the British Left of the 1980s found itself unable to counter the appeal of Thatcher, those defending Doniger are inclined to attribute Penguin’s surrender to what is colourfully called “creeping fascism”—a code for the rising support for Narendra Modi. Yet, rather than comprehend the reasons for Modi’s popularity, they would rather retreat into their bunkers and uphold their own certitudes while waiting for the proverbial hard rain to fall.
India is on the cusp of a consensus-breaking transformation and the reactions to Doniger’s woes symbolise the turbulence in the air.