Why are liberals mad at Ram Guha?

In his latest column, the acclaimed historian wrote, 'While a burka may not be a weapon in a symbolic sense it is akin to a trishul...'

 |  5-minute read |   20-03-2018
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Historian, political commentator, author and columnist Ramchandra Guha fancies himself as a liberal. His critics, however, disagree. Vehemently. But why are Guha’s liberal credentials suddenly a matter of contention? It may have something to do with a column Guha wrote for The Indian Express, in response to another column by civil rights activist Harsh Mander, his “friend of some 40 years”.

Mander, in his March 17 column titled “Sonia, Sadly”, called Muslims “today’s castaways, political orphans with no home, for virtually every political party.” This was meant as criticism for UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who recently said at the India Today Conclave, “The BJP has managed to — I don’t say brainwash because that is a rude word — but it has managed to convince people, to persuade people that the Congress party is a Muslim party. In my party, the great majority is Hindu. Yes, there are Muslims too. So I fail to understand this branding us as a Muslim party.”

He further argued that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has succeeded in a “toxic majoritarian reordering of the rules of India’s political game”, managing to render Muslims not just irrelevant but also political bogeymen “whose visible support will frighten away all other voters”. Mander ultimately argues that if the so-called liberal and secular political parties (Congress in this instance) surrender to the “majoritarian common sense”, there is little that can be done. He urges ordinary citizens to do what they can to make sure Muslims in India are treated not as second rate citizens, but equals.

While Mander’s criticism was directed towards Sonia Gandhi, the Congress party and Hindus in general, Guha, who once famously noted “Historians cannot have political or religious leanings,” took it upon himself to do exactly the opposite and respond in the form of a decidedly provocative piece titled “Liberals, Sadly”. 

ram-guha_032018035257.jpgPhoto: DailyO

The historian's tirade begins with a false equivalence that has garnered much hate on social media. Where Mander’s column quotes a prominent (yet anonymous) Dalit leader asking Muslims to come “in large numbers to our rallies... but without skullcaps and burkas,” Guha likens this call for a certain dress code to the supposed liberal disdain for trishuls or tridents — a prominent symbol and weapon often used by fringe Hindu groups.

Guha writes: “Many people, this writer among them, object to Hindus flaunting saffron robes and trishuls at rallies. While a burka may not be a weapon, in a symbolic sense it is akin to a trishul. It represents the most reactionary, antediluvian aspects of the faith. To object to its display in public is a mark not of intolerance, but of liberalism and emancipation.”

Not only did Guha compare pieces of clothing to actual weapons, somehow implying they are equal in any and every respect, he partook in the classic privileged-entitled-male pastime of commenting on what women or oppressed minorities should wear and how they should behave — of course, under the guise of emancipation and liberalism.

Guha continues with false dichotomies when he says “one should recognise that discrimination by caste and especially gender is pervasive among Muslims too”, while vehemently clarifying that he detests “Hindutva majoritarianism” as much as Mander does.

Needless to say, his column was not well received on Twitter.

Ramchandra Guha may be a man of many laurels. But as far as his views on Islam go — especially the ones evident from his writing — he is definitely not a liberal.

Also read: The fall of Arvind Kejriwal's allegation politics

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Pathikrit Sanyal Pathikrit Sanyal @bucketheadcase

The author is a culture writer who likes talking about the internet, memes, privacy and all things pop culture.

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