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Boutique Liberal Activism: Has our freedom of expression really been suppressed?

Author: Vivek Agnihotri
Publication: Daily News & Analysis
Date: October 20, 2015
URL: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-boutique-liberal-activism-has-our-freedom-of-expression-really-been-suppressed-2136625

When the myth of secularism failed, freedom of expression became the new moral parameter. Intolerance is the new fad.

“You love it when I have problems. You love it because then you can be the good one…”, says Jennifer Lawrence’s character in the highly acclaimed film, Silver Linings Playbook.

It’s a game people play. More, if you happen to be an Indian Liberal.

Like everyone else, I was also born liberal. I played with every child, responded to every idea, and in my imagination, my world wasn’t divided between Hindu, Muslim, Christian etc. It wasn’t divided between rich and poor. There was no discrimination, no hatred. I loved women and men equally. For me, this world was one. Full of people who loved me, and whom I loved. Then who created these fragments in my mind? As I grew, at every step, my world kept shrinking. At every step, I was reminded of my unique identity in terms of my nationality, colour, caste and regionality. While in Bhopal, as a child of a powerful Government officer, I was an elite. Then I did some anti-establishment plays and local newspapers introduced me as a young leftist. When I went to study in Delhi, I became a vernacular, Hindi speaking, small town, middle-class, outsider. While studying in the US, I was a third world, brown Indian. Back in India, in advertising, I was an elite capitalist. When I joined the world of entertainment, I became a progressive creative person. When I joined Anna’s movement, I was a liberal, intellectual voice of Bollywood. Last year, when I openly supported Modi for PM, I became a right-wing bhakt. Recently, I questioned provocative ‘beefy’ statements of some, and now I have become a Sanghi, a Hindu. Hindus see me as upper caste Brahmin.  My family thinks I am not the same upper caste Brahmin as my children eat beef (not cow meat). In the film industry, I am either a commercial filmmaker or an indie filmmaker but never a pure filmmaker. I always feel fragmented and divided. This is true for everyone. Despite this fragmentation, discrimination and prejudices, I live freely, happily and in harmony with the other fragments of our society. We tolerate each other, effortlessly. Why are then some people feeling ‘creeping intolerance’ in our society?

The other day I was invited to India’s loudest news channel and the famous anchor asked for my stand on FTII issue. I said I am against the appointment of Gajendra Chauhan and also against student’s manhandling of the Director. I was told ‘No, you have to take one stand as I have to seat you either on my left or on my right.” In the school of Indian liberalism, you have to be pitted against someone. In the Indian Boutique of Liberalism, you don’t get to express your opinion until it’s in black and white. Conflict, contradiction and chaos are the tools to submerge any voice of reason. You have to be either here or there. You have to be in constant conflict. If you happen to be living in harmony, you lose your utility to them. You have to have a problem, for them to love you. You just can’t be against the lynching of a Muslim and in favour of cow-slaughter at the same time. Either you tweet about Muslim victims or Hindu victims. But never about both in a single tweet. We are dividing our worlds in 140 characters. Ghettoism of thoughts has replaced ‘global ideas’.  Branded, boutique activism has become the character of our intellectual society. When the myth of secularism failed, freedom of expression became the new moral parameter. Intolerance is the new fad.

Is our Freedom of Expression really suppressed? If yes, how come people are freely expressing it? I remember the times when plain clothed CID officers followed anyone who was anti-Indira. Are we really intolerant? How come we have so many political parties ruling so many different states? This means there is political tolerance. In industry we have equal opportunities for all kinds of enterprise. Malls exist in the midst of local bazaars and street vendors. Sikhs have shops in the heart of Srinagar. Biharis have farms in Punjab. Which means there is no financial intolerance. In administration, education and health we never question the religion or political alignment of the practitioner. If people can openly criticise the Prime Minister, ridicule religious leaders, question social taboos, debate issues ranging from FTII to bar dancers, return Akademi awards, make fun of regional leaders, it proves that there is no media or FoE intolerance. Close your eyes and visualise Indian map. Try to visualise each and every town, village and hamlet, focusing on how people live there? Are they at conflict? Are they killing each other? Are people eating what they wish? Are they wearing what they wish to wear? Do Hindus, Muslims, Christians and other minorities live, work, socialise together? We enjoy kavi sammelans and mushairas with same enthusiasm. We hum our geet and our ghazals with same joy. All young lovers fall back on Urdu shayari to express their love. Bollywood music will lose its sheen without Urdu lyrics. In movies, don’t we cry and laugh together? Generally speaking, people live in harmony and in a certain social order. Supreme Court opening at midnight to reconsider Yakub Memon’s death penalty on one side and some people celebrating Godse’s anniversary on the other side. It indicates that there is extreme tolerance for polarised cultural and religious sensibilities. Writers are free to write on any subject, take, and then return their awards as a protest. In art, in literature, in films and in almost all creative fields there is tremendous tolerance for different ideas and creations. We don’t buy a pot on the basis of the colour of its potter. Is this fear of intolerance built on real threat or perceived threat?  Does this exist in flesh or is it just a ghost?

Who is dividing our society? Who is communalising issues? When a Dadri happens why do TV channels invite Owaisi and Sadhvi Prachi? What has Owaisi’s relevance to this theme when he has no locus standi in the politics of UP? How is Sadhvi Prachi relevant to cow-slaughter? Is Sakshi Maharaj a spokesperson for Hindu aspirations? Is he the sole BJP MP to comment on every social issue? Why aren’t sane, rational voices heard anymore? Why haven’t I heard a ‘cow slaughter laws’ expert enlightening us on ‘Cowism’? I’ll tell you why. If you invite sane voices of reason, the game of boutique activism stands exposed. Boutique Liberal Activism feeds on misery of others. Schadenfreude is the oxygen of their business. That’s why they show only the miserable side of our society. Have you noticed that the evolved, enlightened and reasonable voice of India is absolutely absent from national discourse? Now, you decide, who divides.

Our society is divided into ‘overclass’ (as described by Michale Find) and ‘underclass’. Overclass has systematically siphoned off the national wealth leaving underclass to fight for two square meals. They either inherited or, in collusion with the corrupt regimes, appointed themselves to the positions of power and influence. With strong control over information, they kept underclass in the dark. Their word was the final word. The biggest trick the overclass played on underclass is keeping the hope alive that only they can get them out of this abject poverty. That we have problems and they have the solution. This is the same trick godmen and Satan play on us. The same trick Indian overclass played on us. This disproportionate overclass with social, economic and political clout has constantly shown disdain and contempt for the traditional social values and the underclass is now questioning their motives. If different ideologies, traditions and cultures co-exist and democracy finds popular favour, it’s not due to this narrow but influential elite. It’s due to the tolerance level of the underclass. With level playing field in social media, their game is exposed.

Two phenomenon disturbed this status quo. One, the advent of social media, and second, the rise of Narendra Modi. With the easy access to social and digital media, underclass started questioning the authenticity of information provided by the overclass. Suddenly, their statements are scrutinised, their credibility is questioned, their sinister campaigns and lies are exposed. Their dilemma is that they if they quit social media, they lose their relevance and if they stay, they lose their credibility. This war of intolerance isn’t between HDL (Hindu Defence League) and MDL (Muslim Defence league). This isn’t between the left and the right. This is between the overclass and the underclass. The intellectual hierarchy has been demolished. It’s a sad commentary that in the world’s largest democracy, the writers’ protest has become a subject of jokes. The power hungry artists, writers, academia and media in India waste so much time making political statements to hide behind their lack of intellectual stands. Michel Houellebecq wrote 'Submission', a strong political statement, he didn’t get press coverage for returning some award. The lustre is gone from our intellectual discourse. Secularism has lost its ideological currency. Artists, writers, activists are all suspects. Media czars have lost their access to corridors of power and to people’s hearts. It’s the overclass’ space that has been taken over by the underclass. Their discomfort is with the new order where the others are also heard. Hence, the feeling of shrinking space, by the overclass. They are intolerant to this new phenomenon— the emergence of underclass. They try to devalue this new, empowered underclass by associating it with Modi and, therefore, Hindutva, and that’s a grave mistake. The universe that was full of their voice has shrunk to accommodate this new voice. This is what they call an attack on FoE and growing intolerance.

They work exactly like religion. Most of the religious books are based on fear. If you do this, that will happen. Nobody knows what ‘this’ or ‘that’ is. Social justice, if it has to come, will come only from a free and fair market. Why didn’t our liberals tell us this simple truth? When agendas, vote banks and self-delusion take over, reasoning and sympathy are needed to keep up a common conversation. Without it, there is aggression, deafness, and an obsession with purification; hence the divisive politics of Boutique Liberalism.  Boutique Liberalism is an Indian tragedy and a very damaging detour into the quicksand of communalism. Indian Liberalism has come to mean the colour opposite of saffron. That’s their failure. In a desperate attempt, their new mantra is -“We don’t care if you are a gay, we want to know whether you are a liberal or a Sanghi gay?”

Stupid ideas thrive on stupid people.  If we let stupid ideas become central to our national debate, we are also proving ourselves to be stupid. Like excellence, stupidity is also habit forming. Who is stupid and dumb? The newsmen who sell rubbish as news or the audience who believe in rubbish as news? They will keep pointing at our problems. They will love us only when we have problems. This illusion needs to be destroyed before it sucks us in. We have that power. The power to ignore the stupid.

- Vivek Agnihotri is a filmmaker, writer and motivational speaker. He tweets at @vivekagnihotri
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