Hindu Vivek Kendra
«« Back
The two-rupee liberal

The two-rupee liberal

Author: Jugular Vein/Jug Suraiya
Publication: The Times of India
Date: December 14, 2002
URL: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/cms.dll/xml/comp/articleshow?artid=31285063

If today Narendra Modi unfurls the banner of victory in Gujarat it will be partly my fault. For I am what I call a two-rupee liberal. Almost daily I face the two-rupee dilemma, in the form of two elderly gents who sit on the steps of the pedestrian subway outside the office.

They're too dignified to be called beggars. The term 'mendicant', with its association of spiritually inspired self-abnegation, might be more appropriate. One seems to be a Hindu, in that he wears saffron. The other appears to be a Muslim, from his cap and beard. They share the subway steps in an ecumenical amity that would put many a secularist to shame. Including me. My embarrassment is caused by determining how much to give each of them. If the coins in my pocket add up to two or four, it's easy: Each one gets half. The problem arises when I have only three rupees in change. Who gets the one buck, and who gets two?

More often than not, the person I assume to be a Muslim ends up with the two rupees. My reasoning, if you can call it that, goes like this: In India there are relatively more, and more affluent, Hindus to look after other Hindus, than there are Muslims to look after Muslims. My liberal credo urges affirmative action, no matter on how small a scale, to help the underdog. Or, as in this case, the undererdog.

But doesn't such prejudicial selection militate against my secularism, which is the obverse and necessary side of my liberalism? If my choice - no matter how well-intentioned - is based on a communal premise, how secular is my secularism? Am I not guilty of the sangh parivar charge of 'pseudo-secularism', and 'appeasement of minorities', both of which are synonyms for illiberalism?

Big deal for a measly two rupees, you'd say. I'd agree. Except that my two two-rupee dilemma is only a symptom of a bigger problem, which has to do with the nature of liberalism and that of its opposite. And what would that be? A liberal might be tempted to call it fanaticism. But in doing so, the liberal would call into question his own liberal credentials which include the legitimacy of the other's opinion, so long as it does not violate the law of the land.

The liberal, for whom the means are as important as the ends if not even more so, is forever questioning his own motives. The conservative (or whatever else you call him), for whom the ends are the means, is under no compulsion to trip over his own feet. Which the liberal does regularly. Whether the issue is two rupees or the need for a common civil code.

In the interests of gender equity, as a liberal I'm all for a uniform civil code. But this is uncomfortably close to the position the parivar takes, though for different reasons. Averse to aligning myself with the conservative (fanatic?) parivar, I shilly-shally on the issue, and end up sounding like Rajiv Gandhi on the Shah Bano case - which everyone, liberal and otherwise, agrees was a shameful instance of minority vote-catching.

The liberal position on the common civil code is that, in the case of a minority community, it should be left to that community to evolve a consensus within itself. According to liberalism, minorities have to be protected from majoritarianism. Fine. But aren't Muslim women a minority within the larger minority of Muslims as a whole, and might thus doubly be in need of liberal protection, even if that protection involves falling in line with what liberalism otherwise sees as an anti-Muslim policy? To fight shy of this on the excuse that one doesn't want to be seen joining ranks with Islam-bashers is to duck the question: How liberal, really, is your liberalism? Protection of minorities is a secular/liberal tenet. So is impartiality under law. What happens when these two tenets collide?

A pregnant woman is being held captive in a Nigerian prison until her baby is born whereupon the mother will be stoned to death for adultery under a local Islamic law. Liberals have, of course, denounced such cases of Islamic fundamentalism. But the overall liberal view has been that moderate, or liberal, Islam must be the foremost voice to be raised against the more radical forms of Islam. Why? Why should I as a so-called Hindu liberal differentiate myself from a so-called Islamic liberal in speaking out against inhuman practices no matter what supposed religious sanction they have? And if I do, don't I justify the charge of pseudo- secularism against people of my ilk, and thereby help to validate the actions of people like Togadia and Narendra Modi?

So what's the answer? A 'hard' liberalism to counter 'hard' conservatism - hell, why not just spit it out and call it fanaticism? A liberalism that, like its opposite, refuses to heed any voice other than that of its own monomania, refuses to see anything other than its own delusions?

Jingling in my pocket the ideological small change of my doubts, I walk towards the two elderly figures. What shall it be today? Who gets the two rupees, and who gets one? Play it by random chance? Put a stop to footling sentimentality and give neither of them anything? Do exactly the opposite of what I think Narendra Modi would do? But by doing that don't I, in effect, empower him? Become him?

Back                          Top

«« Back
  Search Articles
  Special Annoucements