India, Indian Society/Culture, Writing

The Tyranny of Labels

Liberalism accompanied with a surge in conservatism

It is increasingly difficulty to escape labels. One is either a liberal or not, and along with that description comes a whole set of readymade beliefs. The very act of being able to slot yourself in these neat categories, brings along with an ability to exude certainty from every pore about holding some pre-fabricated positions on some favourite subjects. When a question is framed in terms of these labels, the answers tend to be predictable. When we ask whether the liberal space is growing in India, the truth is that we already know what the answers are likely to be. The optimistic liberal will agree enthusiastically and hunt down data and anecdotal evidence that supports the case while the pessimist will bemoan all that is wrong with everybody else. Likewise the conservative will, launch into a well-rehearsed rant about pseudo-liberals and their pretensions. Any argument becomes less an exercise in meaningful debate and more about scoring points and using hoary gambits.

A meaningful examination is possible only when we step away from the coded meaning of these labels and ask more fundamental questions. The experience of liberalism has goes beyond its limited meaning of holding a certain set of views on certain subjects- it involves the ability to lead one’s life with a greater sense of control over it, the desire to accept and be tolerant of other perspectives and the willingness to factor in larger human needs in the choices one makes as an individual. Viewed from this perspective, the question of liberalism and conservatism actually breaks down into questions of continuity and change, open-mindedness and reflexive thought and independence as against a desire to belong to a pre-formed school of thought.

For the Indian urban middle class, the sense of control over one’s life has by and large increased substantially. Traditional authority structures have diminished in power, leaving more room for the individual. The possibility of social and economic mobility is higher than ever before, leading to a sense of opportunity. In an everyday sense, we see a levelling out of some social differences as the emerging class enters the economic and social mainstream. The idea of having romantic relationships before marriage is becoming more acceptable and socially legitimate and the ability of women to lead their lives with a relatively higher degree of control is increasingly visible. We can see these changes find reflection in our popular culture which displays dramatically lower levels of repression and is open to fresh characterisations.

So what of the rising tide of moral policing and chauvinism that we seem to see all around us? What about the regional chauvinism in Mumbai, ultra-nationalistic gestures that hold sport and cinema hostage, right-wing cultural conservatism that sees incidents like the attack on girls in pubs in Mangalore- the list is depressingly long. Add to that the return to a particularly pernicious form of intolerance shown by the Khap Panchayats and it seems likelier that we are returning to a more primitive form of conservatism.

While it is undeniable that we have seen a spurt in such incidents in the recent past, two things need to be kept in mind. A lot of these extremely talked-about incidents were of a highly symbolic nature that altered very little on the ground. Women across India do not feel hesitant about going to the pubs nor is there a stream of North Indians in Mumbai who are packing up and going back home. The presence of an overbearing controversy-hungry media has created a huge market for symbolic unrest. The antipathy towards moral policing has ironically created a profitable market for staged stunts that ensure quick national notoriety at very little actual cost. Raj Thackeray has understood how to play this game masterfully.

Also, even when these actions touch a genuine chord among people, chances are that these are marginal reactions to the larger mainstream change that is overtaking those who want to hang on to older ways. Threatened by the prospect of being deluged by forces of change, the sentinels of the past react with excessive aggression; in their anger lies not a sign of things of come but of things that are passing into the past. The Khap Panchayat is a classic case in point; the violence is a study in fear rather an exercise of power and needs to be read as such.

Of course, there is a rise in conservative sentiment and ironically, this has nothing to do with the past. If in the earlier days, we held on to our way of life for it was the only thing we had which we could call our own, today the desire is to protect our new found status as consumers. The tendency of live in a self-contained enclave with an exaggerated regard for oneself is visible in a significant section of empowered India. It is this consuming class that reacts with ultra-nationalistic anger and regards all those opposed to the things it holds dear with contempt. This new conservatism with its accompanying signs is an assertive form of revivalism, conflating a mythic sense of nostalgia with notions of patriotism thereby conferring a sense of righteousness and legitimacy on its words and actions. Greater affluence has only made this group more vocal. The internet is awash with this new religion, which operates as a dedicated group and carpet-bombs its view on all available fora.

The Indian refusal to choose between things is in evidence here too. What we are seeing the simultaneously the rise of greater liberalism accompanied with a surge in conservatism. On the one hand, modern technology does not only create newer platforms of shared understanding but is enabling revivalism as well and on the other the liberal shows an inability to move beyond labels that have become ossified with time. . The middle class is as liberal with tradition as it is conservative with modernity. Or perhaps it is the liberal who hangs on to tradition while it is the conservative who using modernity.

Democratic World- April 2012