First it was Amartya Sen
. Then Amitav Ghosh
. And now U.R. Ananthamurthy
. One is an internationally renowned economist, and the other two are eminent litterateurs with a vast body of work behind them. All three have one thing in common: They have stated publicly that Modi would not be their choice for prime ministership.
In itself, this is—and ought to have been—an innocuous statement. In a democracy, every citizen has a right to choose her political candidate, and express her backing for, or criticism of, whoever may be in contention. Yet their statements not only made news but also provoked a severe backlash. It was demanded that Sen be stripped of his Bharat Ratna
, and Ghosh became the target of rightwing Internet trolls
. But it was Ananthamurthy who was subjected to the worst abuse
, and that too from the official spokespersons of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
. The severity of the opprobrium heaped on Ananthamurthy is ominous in that he is the first intellectual to speak out against Narendra Modi
subsequent to his nomination as the BJP
’s prime ministerial candidate.
Writers and intellectuals have rallied around Ananthamurthy. Most notably, the writers’ association, PEN Delhi Centre, has issued a statement
in his support, defending an artist’s right to criticize any political figure, and “interrogate the world that he or she inhabits. But what is curious, and most worrying, about the Ananthamurthy episode is the argument put out by the BJP, among others, that his criticism of Modi is “undemocratic”. When, and how, does criticism become “undemocratic”? Can it ever?
In a classic essay titled Repressive Tolerance
(1965), the German-American political philosopher Herbert Marcuse
examines the nature of tolerance in a democracy, and how tolerance and intolerance can both be either democratic or undemocratic. He argues that there are two kinds of tolerance. One is the liberal abstraction, a notion of tolerance that envisions benevolent neutrality toward views across the spectrum, from the extreme Right to the extreme Left. The other is the historical practice of tolerance, which has always been—and can only ever be—partisan. Tolerance of the extreme Right, in an unequal society, works against human freedom, while tolerance of the extreme Left tends to reduce inequality in the distribution of freedom and misery.
According to Marcuse, even in the most democratically advanced societies, liberal tolerance is both the space where human liberation can take root, and also the space where the “tyranny of the majority” acquires momentum. It is this dynamic that is at the heart of how a democracy transitions to fascism, a phenomenon that Marcuse experienced, and studied, firsthand. The Berlin-born Marcuse was based in Freiburg during the rise of Nazism in Germany. He was forced to flee to the US, where he worked with the government as an analyst of intelligence reports on Germany. He subsequently deployed the insights he developed as a dissident academic living in Nazi Germany in his critique of American democracy.
Marcuse begins by asking why we value tolerance. His answer is that tolerance is valued because it is necessary to enlarge and enhance the content of human freedom and autonomy. If we all agree that the whole point of society is progress, and if we all agree that progress means that every human being in a society has more and more control over his life (autonomy), and more and more freedom, then we must distinguish the two possible outcomes of tolerance: expansion of human autonomy and freedom, or suppression of it.
Before we go further, it is worth noting that freedom, for Marcuse, is not just freedom of expression or assembly or opinion; rather it is “liberation, a specific historical process in theory and practice”. In other words, freedom is not an abstract entitlement to do with the individual self but a reality that circumscribes possibilities for a given individual. So it is possible for an individual in a totalitarian regime to enjoy greater freedom than it can ever be possible for anyone in the freest democracy. Conversely, it is possible for a citizen in a democracy to experience greater oppression than a given bunch of individuals in a dictatorship.
Plenty of things are tolerated in a fascist dictatorship; plenty of things are not. Plenty of things are tolerated in a democracy; plenty are not. Of course, in either case, there is always a gulf between theory and history. But tolerance exists in both. Yet crucially, there is a difference in the kind of tolerance that is practiced in each.
For instance, summary executions might be tolerated in one; not in the other. Criticism of political leaders might be tolerated in one, not in the other. The persecution of minorities might be tolerated in one, not in the other. If we all agree that democracy is a far more liberating way of organizing society compared with a dictatorship, Marcuse explains why this might be the case: “The liberating force of democracy was the chance it gave to effective dissent, on the individual as well as social scale…”
He then goes on to make his famous case for “repressive tolerance”, arguing that in a democracy, it is the duty of intellectuals (it is the duty of everyone, actually, but with the greater power of the public intellectual comes greater responsibility) to be intolerant of all words and deeds that serve to limit human autonomy and freedom.
The question then arises: who decides whether a particular word or deed would enhance human freedom or curb it? Marcuse turns to John Stuart Mill
for an answer: “Human beings in the maturity of their faculties”. He quotes Mill, “Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion.”
This does not mean, as the neoliberals and the Platonists believe, that we should hand over decision-making powers to an educated, enlightened elite and keep the ignorant masses out of important discussions such as to do with monetary policy or the General Anti-Avoidance Rules. Rather, Marcuse argues, it means that we work to create a truly free society where every individual would have an effective say on all matters that pertain to his life (autonomy). We know that no democracy is close to that stage yet. But getting there is what progress is about. It is why we stopped living in caves and invented agriculture (freedom from hunger) and democracy (freedom from oppression). That, after two millennia of so-called progress, we are still to deliver freedom from hunger/oppression to millions of individuals is something we as a society can choose to tolerate or not tolerate. And whichever route our toleration takes serves as a report card on how free or progressive our country is.
Coming back to Ananthamurthy, as a society, and as individuals, we can choose to either tolerate or be intolerant of the kind of rightwing attacks on those who criticize a political figure. How do we decide which is the right course of action? And no, this is not a matter of relativity, says Marcuse. There is a right and a wrong here, which one accesses through the exercise of reason.
The reason the criticisms of someone like Ananthamurthy or a Sen hurts more, than, say, the words of aDigvijay Singh
or a Manish Tewari
, is that the latter’s criticism of Modi can be easily neutralized or explained away as the motivated rant of a political adversary. Not so in the case of a public intellectual, who holds a distinct form of social and moral capital that often carries greater weight compared with the highly devalued political capital of our elected representatives tainted by allegations of corruption and cupidity.
The precondition for the framework of tolerance wherein the likes of a Sen or a Ghosh or an Ananthamurthy can freely express their opinions is the intolerance of the speech of those who seek to dismantle that framework. So while it is commendable that writers and intellectuals have come out in support of Ananthamurthy, it is not enough. Other public intellectuals who happen to share views similar to these three need to speak their minds fearlessly. Intolerance of the intolerant is the price of authentic democracy, just as partisanship on behalf of liberty is the mark of authentic liberalism.