ISO intellectuals and their intolerance

Arnab Ray | 17 Sep 2016 04:19 PM
What Chetan Bhagat is to Indian writing in English, Ram Guha is to popular modern history. Unlike Mr Bhagat though, Mr Guha is an ISO-certified intellectual where ISO stands for Intellectual Standards Organisation, that august body to which I some day hope to gain admittance. Hoping to get some tips and tricks, I sat through his interview on an English language channel, and I can say with confidence, I came away enriched.

Guha’s basic contention, which I am presuming is explicated further in his new book that he was promoting, was that India is more intolerant than at any time it has been since Emergency. Now I was tempted to say that the very fact that he is saying this on TV contradicts his assertion of suppression of free speech, since at one point, he even brings up Pakistan and North Korea, to imply we are only marginally better than them.

I also felt that pinning Canada and Sweden as examples of what we should aspire to be in terms of a liberal society was rather silly, given that these two countries have nothing of the demographics, diversity and history that we have, and that Ram Guha, being a historian should know that most of all, but then I told myself “Jara bhavnao ko samjho” and moved on. 

Though really I could not move on, perhaps because I think of intolerance as a systemic problem in Indian politics and social life, not one for which one political party can be singled out for; a malaise which draws sustenance from poor protections for free speech afforded by our Constitution which allows people to be arrested for forwarding cartoons or making social media posts -- a Constitution which, surprise of surprises, Guha’s hero Nehru amended to brutally curb the free speech guaranteed in the original version drafted by BR Ambedkar and adopted by the Constituent Assembly.

But then what do I know? I am just a struggling author with no  bully pulpit, and no TV channel to promote my book.

After this, Guha rues the absence of Right-wing intellectuals in the country, in a kind of Shatrughan Sinha from Betaaj Badshah style: “koi jodidaar chahiye jiske saath hum panjaa lada saake”. He later mentions Dr Bhagwati and then disqualifies him as a Right-wing intellectual because “He does not believe in the persecution of Muslims”, in one fell-stroke defining Right-wing intellectuals with about as broad and as black a brush as possible, namely those that believe in genocide of minorities. Yes. Tough finding someone who is going to stand up and call himself “Right wing” after that definition.

Now one would have thought that the hallmark of an intellectual, specially a self-professed liberal one, would be to eschew sweeping generalisations,and  instead recognise the uniqueness of multiple schools of thought and nuances, even the ones that he does not agree with. Alas, Guha uses “Right wing” as a synonym for “Not like me” and by extension “Wrong by definition”. According to him, “Right wing” implies RSS implies “a slavish obedience to the fascist ideals of Golwalkar”, and  if you identify yourself as Right, you are all this by association. Such gross generalisations used to demonise the “other”, I presumed, would have been rhetorical tools of  fundamentalists, not “liberals”.

This is not unique to Guha. Most of his fellow ISO-certified “liberals” are also extremely closed to any kind of signal outside their echo chambers, just as much as “Right wingers” are. This becomes even more ironic when they then rue the absence of Right-wing intellectuals, after working actively towards making sure such intellectuals are never heard in the public or in the academic sphere, denying them a stage to express their opinions or hounding them out of academic spaces.

This the  distinguished men and women of the “liberal” persuasion can do, exerting as they do an almost absolute control of academia and mainstream media. Any attempt to break their control is considered intolerance, which is also why they believe social media has reduced the level of intellectual discourse, since in social media they can’t so easily silence the people calling out their inconsistencies, misrepresentations and outright falsehoods on a daily basis.

There were other eye-openers. I learned that identity politics is fine, as long as it is done on the lines of caste. I learned that Ambedkar, Gandhi, and Nehru were Guha’s heroes (ok I knew that before, having read his books), and I wanted to do to Guha his Golwalkar move, namely read out what Gandhi thought about black people and imply that Guha is racist, since he just referred to Gandhi as his role model. I desisted from doing so, because I do not have the ISO certificate and the forum to do so. And because I think it is wrong to use this line of argument.

I came to know that Guha opposes a ban on alcohol imposed by Nitish Kumar, and instead favours high taxes, the principle being to price the poor out of the market. Realistically though, higher prices would not stop a person from drinking, it would just make him even more desperate for money and more prone to abusing his family and engaging in crimes. On the other hand, higher taxes would have no effect on the elites, who presumably won't care whether there is a cess of 120% or 150% on their Scotch. Not that this should be of any concern. As we know, the elites never do bad things when they are drunk, and a number of pavement dwellers outside Best Bakery in Bandra can attest to that.

One would have thought that a well-founded intellectual argument would either take the form of a libertarian  (Government should minimally regulate adult activity) or the diametrically opposite, benevolent sarkar mai baap socialist one (Government should strongly regulate the activities of adults for public good, which if you support, also leads to, by extension, moral control, censorship and other assorted intolerance evils).

However what is advocated by Guha is neither here nor there, which if I didn't know better, I would say simply stems from a belief that poor uneducated people should not be allowed to drink, hence making it more expensive would solve the problem, but elites like him should.

Overall though, I can say I learned a lot, if not on the certificate programme for intellectualism but definitely on how to promote a book. And honestly, right now with “Sultan of Delhi: Ascension” on the verge of release, that’s the skill I most need.