Ram Guha, not so sadly, exposed his own 'liberal' position

Suraj Kumar Thube
Suraj Kumar ThubeMar 21, 2018 | 17:24

Ram Guha, not so sadly, exposed his own 'liberal' position

Ramachandra Guha has never been a friend of mine, and on many issues we may never stand on the same side.

It is, therefore, with no regret that I must dissent with his recent piece in The Indian Express "Liberals, sadly", which incidentally is a reply to his friend Harsh Mander's piece in the same newspaper ("Sonia, sadly").

Guha responded to Mander's article wherein the latter said how Sonia Gandhi has left the Muslim community in political wilderness after talking about BJP successfully managing to paint the image of Congress as a "Muslim party".


Irrespective of what one feels about this proposition and the way it was made by Mander, Guha's response is baffling, to say the least. He believes that an individual-centric liberal approach must take on both Hindu and Muslim communalists.

Photo: DailyO

The above line sounds innocuous on paper. However, it opens up a lot of disturbing silences that liberals like him refuse to take on board.

To begin with, why is there such an emphatic insistence on treating Hindu and Muslim communalism on the same footing, giving equal significance to both in the present-day context? There is no gainsaying the fact that any type of communalism is detrimental to the society at large. At the same time, do they pose similar sort of threat, at both ideological and practical level, to the very ethos of constitutional values in today's context?

Staying true to the classic liberal position of assigning the same number of demerit points to both parties, it conveniently refuses to point out the more fearsome of the two.

Hindutva politics by far is the single most significant threat to our constitutional values at present. By playing this safe balancing act, Guha does a great disservice by not pinpointing which is the greater evil between the two.


Moreover, he glosses over the contradictions within liberalism, its ambiguous and non-radical nature that ends up not finding problems with one particular phenomenon.

In the second paragraph of his article, Guha constructs a hypothesis of a burqa in a symbolic sense being akin to a trishul. He further goes on to say how it represents the most reactionary, antediluvian aspects of faith and how to object it in public is sign of liberalism and emancipation. Without a doubt, the people who would agree with such a retrograde proposition are the militant right-wing nationalists. 

He implies that burqa symbolises the mindset of a "medievalist ghetto". That a burqa is worn out of choice and can actually act as a sign of exercising your agency does not occur to him. By casting a blind eye to the enormous complexities of the Muslim society, he proposes a rather anachronistic binary of modern Muslim liberals on the one hand and anything and everything associated with religion as reactionary and antediluvian on the other. This becomes a rather lazy invocation of liberal secularism which ignores the bigger, hegemonic evil in the present context.

The above example shows the fallacies of the liberal fetishisation with "emancipation". At best, it takes them perilously close to what the extreme right-wingers believe in. It becomes imperative to ask how the "religious" and "religious fanaticism" are viewed, especially from the liberal prism.


At a time when the Hindutva phenomenon is rising unabashedly, what purpose does it serve to talk about the general virtues of "Muslim liberals"? How efficacious is this stand in our desperate times of today?

He refers to three Muslim liberals as examples who worked "to fully engage the community with the modern world". He provides no reasons as to why and how the liberal proclivities of these personalities can be emulated now. Even after quoting Hamid Dalwai extensively, there is  absolutely no deliberation on its context, his own political compulsions and leanings and, above all, the gravity of the threat to the "other" in that period of time as compared to now.

The fears that riddle the Muslim community today are markedly amplified. Guha fails to provide any viable input as to how taking recourse to the thoughts of a Muslim liberal intellectual of the 1970s will help dissect the political, social and psychological predicaments of the community in the present.

By far, his most tenuous position is how all types of obscurantism, traditionalism and revivalism can be confronted by liberal democracy. Not only does this place liberalism on a superior pedestal with a misleading underlying assumption as a messiah for all evils, but it also views liberalism devoid from its historical roots.

Can the roots of liberalism be kept away from the political trends of our present times?

By finding faults with the gullible masses for not navigating the seeds of destruction and violence, the blind faith of the liberals in the project of modernity keeps itself conveniently away from being implicated in any way to the nurturing of this rise.

Most importantly, as Pankaj Mishra talks  about it in his recent book, Age of Anger, the one thing that the liberal project fails to take on board is its complicity in giving rise to what he calls ressentiment.

Mishra argues that it is the dialectic of this modernity that produces this ressentiment which is nothing but a psychological state containing elements of hatred, rage, inferiority and deep sense of frustration.

Guha's unquestionable faith falls flat when seen from this prism of the active connivance of liberalism in shielding and subsequently providing space for the burgeoning of fascistic elements in the society.

As Marxist scholar Murzban Jal says, "Liberalism is nothing but a breeding ground for the proliferation of communal forces." One cannot entirely rely on the proposition of liberal politics confronting communal tendencies unless its own encounter with these forces over the years is not well substantiated.

More than it being a response to Mander's article, it focuses a lot on the largely enervated model that pits the infallible liberal secular model with the "regressive" ideas of faith and tradition. He also creates a straw man in a certain context which basically is trying to say as to how we should have the right to criticise anyone. It is a straw man because surely Mander does not disagree with this obvious statement.

In trying to respond to a limited argument, Guha ends up exposing a host of loopholes in his own liberal position. 

Last updated: March 24, 2018 | 14:27
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