An open letter to Gurcharan Das
Author: Ashok Chowgule
On September 27, 2015, you wrote an article with the title “Smriti Irani, have a good cry. Then give 240m kids a chance”
In the article you quoted from a test result of 2011 which showed the abysmally poor results of Indian students in an international test. If my memory is correct, Smritiji became the education minister in 2014, and I wondered how could she be responsible for the mess. So, in response, I wrote on October 26, 2015, an article titled “Abuse and Social Realities”. It is available at:
In my article, I pointed out that you were falsely blaming Smritiji for the mess in the government schools due to the provisions of the Right to Education Act, which, as you yourself noted, it was promulgated in 2009. In your article, you wrote: “Instead of improving the quality of government schools, RTE has unleashed a corrupt inspector raj upon private schools, leading to the closure of many on dubious grounds.”
I also wrote that you chose not to name the real culprits for the situation. One of them is Aruna Roy who used her clout as a member of the super cabinet, the National Advisory Council, which was reporting to the then super prime minister, Sonia Gandhi. Nor did you name the then education minister, Kapil Sibal. I had suggested that you did not do the naming and shaming because such people are part of your social reality. Holding them responsible would make your social life most uncomfortable, since you would be interacting them at the various ‘attractive’ events that abound in Lutyen’s Delhi. And you would also be interacting with others at such ‘attractive’ events, and these others would criticise you for criticising those within their intimate social circles.
I had also suggested that you had no problem with criticising Smritiji since your personal interaction with her would be rare, if at all. Additionally, the others in your social circle would actually applaud you for supposedly taking on the ‘high and mighty’, even though they know that your basis is without any merit.
I had sent you my article at your email address, from which you have responded a few times to messages I had sent you. Now, on June 12, 2016, you have written an article titled “Arrogant liberals are doing a big disservice to liberalism”, which is available at:
You have chosen to ignore the point that I made about abuse and social reality. While this is your choice, I would like to reproduce one sentence from my article: “By writing the way he has done, that is blaming people selectively and that too on the basis of social prejudices, he is doing a great disservice to those who think that he is a genuine provider of informed analysis.”
You begin your article as follows:
A few months ago, I was at an attractive event in Delhi, surrounded by elegantly dressed, articulate Indians and a sprinkling of foreigners. Into this privileged gathering walked an awkward young man who someone recognized from Hindi television. He seemed to be lost and was mostly ignored until someone provoked him and there followed a loud, ugly argument over the JNU controversy. He put up a spirited defence of the Hindu nationalist position but he was quickly shouted down. He felt humiliated and left hurriedly. Once he was gone, the ‘secular-liberal’ gathering relaxed, but not before heaping condescension on this ‘low life’ with his ‘crazy ideas.’
It seems to me that you do not recognise that you yourself have been just as condescending as your ‘secular-liberal’ friends have been at the ‘attractive’ event. There is no indication whether you defended the ‘awkward’ young man while the argument was going on, or even after he left. Had you done so, you would most probably have been shouted down in the same way as the ‘awkward’ man was. And, maybe, you would have had to make a similarly humiliated and hurried exit as the ‘awkward’ young man.
You have dismissed everything the ‘awkward’ young man said. However, it is necessary for you to find out whether the views expressed by the ‘elegantly dressed’ people are in consonance with what so many others think. For example, with respect to the JNU controversy, you may have read an article by Jaitirth Rao, where he starts with:
I have been wondering for the last few days as to why so many PLUs – People Like Us – my friend, in other words—hate JNU? It is important to note that virtually all my friends live in Mumbai, Bangalore, Pune, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Chennai, Coimbatore, Hyderabad and so on. My friends are pretty unanimous in hating or in at least disliking JNU. It struck me that their cities of residence had something to do with their feelings. These are all productive cities, committed to the ethos of growth, progress, prosperity, constructive actions, entrepreneurship, making things, selling things, creating jobs and so on. They are distinctly different from our parasitical, unproductive and dysfunctional capital—Delhi.
The types of ‘attractive’ events that you frequent in Lutyen’s Delhi are very different from what happens in cities which are not parasitical, unproductive and dystfunctional. Tragically, those living in Lutyen’s Delhi think that they have the brith right to demand that large amount of resources generated by the productive cities be spent on pampering them.
I wonder if you are aware of the fact that the top five Hindi news channels are watched by some 10 crores Indians, while the top five English news channels are watched by some 10 lakhs. That is the Hindi viewership is 100 times (yes, 100 times, not 100%) more people than the English viewership. I trust you recognise that the views express by the ‘awkward’ young man, who was sort of hounded out of the ‘attractive’ event, have a much larger traction than the ‘elegantly dressed’ people.
You will be right to say that the theme of your article is to castigate what you call ‘secular liberals’ for their intolerance to the views expressed by the ‘awkward’ young man. However, you do it in a reverential way, as opposed to the harsh way that you do to those who do not subscribe to your ideology. When you wrote about Smritiji, and now the patronising attitude towards the ‘awkward’ young man, shows that you are unwilling to cross the Lakshman Rekha that has been drawn by the ‘elegantly dressed’ people, and be firm in telling them off.
Here it is pertinent to point out what one Bhaskar Roy wrote in 1999:
Its phenomenal growth notwithstanding, the BJP has always lacked acceptability in that segment of society for which BBC and the Time magazine serve as a window to the world. A party whose social character is essentially small-town lower middle-class, it has been diffident in approaching the city elite.
This is very similar to your description of the ‘awkward’ young man. Futhermore, in your article you wrote:
The problem with secular liberals is that we go to the same elite schools and universities where the faculty is liberal and left-leaning…..It is hard for a Hindu nationalist to get into an elite college, either as a student or a teacher. It may be because the candidate is less comfortable in English but there exists a clear bias in favour of liberal privilege….As a result, the liberal ideology remains confined to a small elite.
The problem that you now seem to realise (a Modi effect?) has been in existence for a long time. The sentinels of the information flow prevented the ‘elegantly dressed’ people from knowing the views held by the ‘awkward’ young man. The ‘elegantly dressed’ people thought that an alternative perspective just did not exist. And hence the Delhi and non-Delhi dichotomy, as expressed by Jaitirthji, has a long history.
Recently, The New York Times published a two part commentary by Nicholas Kristoff on how the left-liberals deliberately kept out the conservatives in many of the humanity sections of academia. The two articles are;
A Confession of Liberal Intolerance
The Liberal Blind Spot
Nicholasji’s essential point is that while these academics preach diversity with respect to ehnicity and race, the moto is: “We’re fine with people who don’t look like us, as long as they think like us.” He also says that when it comes to the conservatives, the left-liberals have changed the famous Voltaire quote to: “I disapprove of what you say, so shut up.”
Like you, Nichoslaji has pleaded for the left-liberals in academia to ensure that there is not just ethnic and racial diversity, there is also an ideological diversity. His reasoning is best expressed in the following two quotes:
“When perspectives are unrepresented in discussions, when some kinds of thinkers aren’t at the table, classrooms become echo chambers rather than sounding boards — and we all lose.”
“Universities are unlike other institutions in that they absolutely require that people challenge each other so that the truth can emerge from limited, biased, flawed individuals. If they lose intellectual diversity, or if they develop norms of ‘safety’ that trump challenge, they die. And this is what has been happening since the 1990s.” (Quoting what Jonathan Haidt, a centrist social psychologist at New York University, said.)
From the first paragraph of your article, it is clear that it is not just the universities in India that have become echo chambers, but so also the discussions at ‘attractive’ events. Given the abysmally low levels of the viewership of English news channels in India, and hence the unavalibility of an alternative perspective, there is a danger that the intellectual discussion at the ‘attractive’ events may well die, as is happening in the humanities department in the universities in the USA.
I also thought of highlighting to you some of the other quotes from the articles by Nicholasji:
“It’s rare for a column to inspire widespread agreement, but that one led to a consensus: Almost every liberal agreed that I was dead wrong.”
In my article regarding Smritiji I gave my reason why I feel you are a not a very effective interlocutor to those who seek your views on what is happening in India. It is not at all my contention that you should crawl in the woodwork and disappear, figuratively speaking of course. Instead, I would like to suggest to you, without meaning to be impertinent, that you do an honest study and really understand that the answer to your question (“Why are there so few liberals in India?”) is that they were really very few all these years. With the advent of the social media, the ‘awkward’ man realised that his views, and not those of the ‘liberals’, were actually mainstream, and so had the courage to spoke up at the ‘attractive’ event. Jaithirthji could sift the wheat from the chaff. I think you can too, and thus become more relevant to the needs of the society which many people expect you to articulate accurately.
The ‘awkward’ man can perhaps have much to teach you, and others at the ‘attractive’ event, if you had just taken the pains to listen to him, instead of shouting him down. You would have to overlook his poor English. Perhaps you may wish to learn better Hindi so that you can more effectively communicate with other ‘awkward’ men whose English may even be worse. There would also be other elegantly dressed, articulate Indians and some foreigners who would have empathised with the ‘awkward’ man at the ‘elegant’ event and not shout him down. There are, in effect, many opportunities for you to be better informed, and I suggest, again without meaning to be imperetinent, that you use them.
Before I end I really have to pick a quarrel with you when you say: “Over the past two years an unhappy divide has grown, something we did not expect when the nation elected Prime Minister Modi on the promise of ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’.” This gives an impression that over a period of 67 years India had become a land of milk and honey, and that the advent of Narendraji as the prime minister has destroyed it all. Let alone Jaitirthji and the ‘awkward’ young man, I think you will have very few takers for this postulation outside your circle of ‘well dressed’ people. And this is one of the many reasons why I am suggesting to you do an honest study of what his happening. What you have now written about arrogant liberals, and the confessions of Nicholasji, have been pointed out by those called conservatives for quite some time now, and, hence, nothing really new. What is needed is a follow up on these issues by those who call themselves liberals, if they want to become relevant.
I shall share this letter with some people including those who would be quite comfortable when attending the ‘attractive’ events of the type you mentioned. Some of them would be part of the shouting-down brigade. I will provide you with the list in an email to you.