The perils of purling

BY TCA Srinivasa Raghavan| IN Opinion | 20/09/2013
Can the ability to turn a good phrase become a substitute to think a deeply analytical thought? Can earnest piety replace the exuberance of a new insight,
asks TCA SRINIVASA-RAGHAVAN. An army truck in Muzaffarnagar. PIX: Indian Express

 A new column that responds to commentary in our leading dailies

Scriptum Ergo Sum
TCA Srinivasa-Raghavan 

It was five or so years ago, I think, that  Pratap Bhanu Mehta, with his uncanny ability to press the middle class button, started off as a regular columnist for the Indian Express. For about two years, he was wonderful to read.

Sadly, however, adulation by an uncritical middle class readership looking for comfort but confusing erudition with intellectual effort and felicity with words with genuine analysis has rendered him repetitive and preachy.  

As a result, most people who used to look forward to his articles now pay him a back-handed compliment. They say “Oh, he writes so well, no?” This is like saying about a philosophy professor “She is so beautiful, no?”

Take Mehta’s latest offering, on September 19, where he assumes the pose of a wounded thinker pleading for good sense to prevail. It has a wonderful title, ‘The Fragility of Tolerance’ because it identifies the key characteristic of tolerance. It is fragile by definition because intolerance is so sturdy. The title could well have been the ‘The Sturdiness of Intolerance’ without affecting the meaning.

I looked for a new thought in the article and came up short. There are a lot of adjectives and adverbs, like deadly, criminality, incompetence, sordid, irresponsible, rabble rousing, irrelevance, dreary etc. The middle class, or the microcosm of it that reads the edit page of the Express, reveres Mehta for his erudition and loves these terms to describe the ruling elite.

Then there is the Doolittle type of rhetoric. “We came to believe that rural communalism does not translate into violence. We came to believe that contingent political alliances between communities are harbingers of secularism.” It is almost as if Mehta is addressing a public rally.

His central point is that India is seeing the emergence of a new kind of communal violence to which the old assumptions do not apply. Warming to this theme as he might have done at the Eagle and Child all those years ago, “The violence is increasingly rural,” he says, “...dependent on new kinds of riot systems.” 

Is it, now? Is he absolutely certain? Perhaps Mehta needs to acquaint himself a bit more with Hindu-Muslim relations of rural UP, especially in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. The pre-Babri Masjid demolition “discourse” was full of this “narrative” even in the newspapers. 

The unromantic truth is that Hindus and Muslims fought regularly in the Hindi belt which was all mostly rural anyway. To name just a few, Varanasi October 1809, Bareilly 1871-72, Karnal 1885, Bihar 1893... 

The “tensions”, as the euphemism would have it, began under Akbar who ruled that the expanding Mughal army would only procure its supplies from Muslims. Whole swathes of artisans converted to Islam as a result. Those that didn’t lost out and the number of people whom the Hindus hated suddenly became very large. 

I mention this because Mehta changes tack. “Our breast-beating about diversity is matched by the fragility of tolerance; the growth in democracy matched by infantilism over relationships between individuals and communities.” 

Gorgeous words, but alas empty of any real meaning I am afraid. In a sense, this is a riff of Rubenstein class. But that’s all it is, a riff, for filling the musical spaces.

He goes on: “The underlying structure of potential conflict remains, sensitive to the slightest political perturbation.”  So it does, so it does. But nice as the alliteration sounds, surely manipulation would have been more apt?  The British understood this Indian tendency to get “perturbed” well which is why they exploited it so admirably for 250 years. They saw the damage Akbar had done more clearly because they were not confused in the way we all are. 

“We need to move from a discourse of diversity to a discourse of freedom and human rights. Diversity, if not elaborated in the context of freedom, can be a fetter.” The sounds are profound but the meaning? 

He explains this by saying it is no use having diversity where your place in society is fixed for all time to come. “This diversity can be compatible with imprisoning people in compulsory identities.” 

Forgive me, but is this not just fooling around with words? Who says diversity and identity are inconsistent with each other? Mehta surely needs tutorial on set theory or at least on the works of D D Kosambi.

In this flight of wordy fancy Mehta even turns on himself. 

Most of his recent columns have been about the failure of state institutions. But here he says that statism reduces “every problem to a problem of administration.” Well, you can’t have it both ways. State institutions, like social ones, are about following rules which is what administration is all about. If you don’t administer the rules, the institutions break down. It doesn’t matter whether it is Parliament or the khap panchayat. The requirements for institutions to survive are the same.

Indeed, institutions are no more than a set of rules which need to be administered. 

Finally, we get the place he is coming from, the fashionable corner of the Western Enlightenment field where perfectly evolved individuals treat each other with respect, care and so on.  But as he well knows, this whole area of social philosophy is fraught with internal contradictions of logic and practice because of the conflicts inherent in balancing groups and individuals as the prime units of social action. 

Groups are a device for the protection of the individual. They will exist as long as individuals exist. The traverse between them is the slippery pole of social philosophy. Mehta surely knows this. 

Our discourse, he says, “seldom touches on how citizens treat each other, what they say about each other, the assumptions they make about each other's intentions.”

This sentence truly saddened me. It shows how little he is willing to acknowledge the actual discourse happening amongst non-Westernised Indians. It’s all out there including most importantly on TV serials. Millions watch them, in all Indian languages and discuss them.  

So he ends with a little moan of despair, couched as always in very beautiful prose. “We can only hope that a new political equilibrium will be able to keep the peace. But there is a gathering storm...The measure of the limitations of our democracy is that the past is about to come back to haunt in a major way.” 

It never went away to come back did it?

Let me end this critique by bringing to Mehta’s attention a three volume book by a well-known police officer of the 1948 batch called P R Rajagopal. It was published by Uppal and CPR in 1987 and dealt with exactly the sort of thing that is troubling Mehta, namely, the perennial nature of the Hindu-Muslim conflict and the role of politicians in it.  

I am sure the CPRs library has copies of it. After all, it funded the study in the late 1980s.  

Subscribe To The Newsletter
The new term for self censorship is voluntary censorship, as proposed by companies like Netflix and Hotstar. ET reports that streaming video service Amazon Prime is opposing a move by its peers to adopt a voluntary censorship code in anticipation of the Indian government coming up with its own rules. Amazon is resisting because it fears that it may alienate paying subscribers.                   

Clearly, the run to the 2019 elections is on. A journalist received a call from someone saying they were from Aajtak channel and were conducting a survey, asking whom she was going to vote for in 2019. On being told that her vote was secret, the caller assumed she wasn't going to vote for 'Modiji'. The caller, a woman, also didn't identify herself. A month or two earlier the same journalist received a call, this time from a man, asking if she was going to vote for the BSP.                 

View More