The Naipaul-Karnad Controversy: Crisis of Indian Liberalism?

[This article has been published in Asia Times Online in a slightly modified form on 17 Nov, 2012. You will find the piece here: “Indian Liberalism has a Rough Week.” And strangely, after almost about a month and a half, another version (similar to this blog piece) was published in The New Delhi Post with some editorial oversight regarding spelling etc. You will find the link here: “Our Liberalism. “]

One more piece on the Naipaul-Karnad fracas? Hasn’t enough been already said and positions taken? Certainly, most of the things that needed to be said have already been said. My modest purpose here is to draw attention to the fact that the debate has mostly been conducted within the rubric of secularism in India and its discontents. A second related purpose is to illustrate the problems associated with such a position.

While watching televised debates on three prominent television channels and reading the opinion pieces, I had this question in mind: why is the whole issue reduced to a debate about Indian secularism? The host of one of the television programs explained that such an explanatory framework was provided by Naipaul himself when he responded to Girish Karnad’s offensive as a problem of Indian secularism and its rigid principles. Still the question remains: why is this affair perceived and conducted as a debate about secularism? Is it the myopia that does not allow Indian intellectuals to think beyond secularism when Muslims are dragged into any controversy? Or, is it a deliberate effort to invoke secularism as the yardstick to judge Muslim deviance from what the standards of a liberal polity should be? In either sense, the debate has been allowed to be co-opted by the state because in India, like in the western countries, the state is the ultimate arbiter of secularism.

In a 2007 piece in New York Times, “Liberalism and Secularism: One and the Same”, literary critic and theorist, Stanley Fish offers a critique of such a state-centric view of liberalism, when he writes: “It is a form of political organization that is militantly secular and incapable, by definition, of seeing the strong claim of religion – the claim to be in possession of a truth all should acknowledge – as anything but an expression of unreasonableness and irrationality.”

Although Stanley Fish would not like to make a distinction between liberalism and secularism, for me, the Naipaul-Karnad debate is not so much about secularism but liberalism. At the core of Indian liberalism, in the championing of the rights of minorities, especially Muslims, one could always sense a discomfort about Muslims’ zeal for religion. The defense of Anil Dharker – the director of Mumbai Literature Festival – that he has supported Muslims in Gujarat riots cases despite Muslim history of rape and rapine in India is the typical liberal position in India: we know that Muslims have a tainted history; Muslims are potentially communal; Muslims are always on a short fuse; Muslims are disloyal but we still support these guys. We support them because we are liberals. In this liberal position, more emphasis is laid on the liberal self or on the one who espouses liberalism than on the one for whom liberal ideals are being upheld. In India, liberalism is more of a performance than a commitment to the other, who in this case, is a Muslim. That is because the object of liberal subject’s pathos and empathy is capable of extremism himself/herself. That is why our liberals are always looking over their shoulders for fear of being stabbed at their back. The Naipaul-Karnad controversy points to a liberalism of a particular kind that is, as again Fish reminds us, closed-minded “with respect to religions that do not honor the line between the secular and the sacred…” And liberalism can be defined only through this separation and in no other way, even in a country like India where the state is supposed to be tolerant of all religions.

In a televised debate, when the playwright, Mahesh Dattani asks, ‘Are we truly secular?’ he is actually asking: ‘Are we truly liberal?’ He seems to hit the nail on its head. A truly liberal position does not have to reduce every argument about Muslims to an argument about secularism. That’s a statist position. Every Muslim is also a human being, as much as a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Christian, or a Sikh is. A truly liberal position should have treated Naipaul’s politics as an attack on human beings and Karnad’s position as an attempt to salvage the human and not just as an incidental defense of secularism.

Naipaul’s retort that Indian secularism is always defined vis-a-vis Muslims is not quite the point. Rather, in the broadest sense, this controversy is directly about Indian liberalism and indirectly about Indian nationalism. We must remember historian Gyan Pandey’s contention that Indian Muslims constituted – and continues to constitute – Indian nationalism by becoming the boundary where the claim of being ‘naturally’ Indian is fought. When our liberal thinkers and intellectuals agree that we must accept that Muslims came as invaders and marauders, they are merely re-invoking the boundary line. Because Indian Muslims have a tainted history as invaders and because of their religious zeal, they cannot be sufficiently secular, and by implication, Indian. In a way, our liberals are fighting a losing battle!

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