The liberal school of thought

The contents of my tiffin box when I was in school... does anyone care? Whatever was in my tiffin box in Bombay (as it was then) I traded for a Tibbs Frankie and in Calcutta, I left the tiffin box at home and took money to buy a “bomb” which was a giant bread pakora filled with spicy potatoes.

Of course, I am not India’s best-selling author Chetan Bhagat. But unlike him, I do know how people made fun of the late Rajiv Gandhi, once prime minister of India, who did go to Doon School, unlike Chetan Bhagat, Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and me. Gandhi’s speeches were full of the phrase “Hamein yeh banana hain”, “Hamein voh banana hain” (We have to make this or that), so we laughed that he was turning India into a “banana republic”. These speeches were much like Modi’s Make in India sloganeering. Gandhi also used to forget his Hindi now and then like: “Hum jeetenge ya loosenge”.

That liberals in India only respect those who speak English of a particular sort, is childish stereotyping. Representation pic/AFP
That liberals in India only respect those who speak English of a particular sort, is childish stereotyping. Representation pic/AFP

I really don’t know whether Gandhi’s schooling had anything to do with these gaffes. And I don’t know which school Chetan Bhagat went to either. I went to several in different cities. However, my grammar teachers in all of them were obviously more stringent.

I heard Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar being interviewed on television the other day. He spoke in English. It was neither Rajiv Gandhi’s English nor Chetan Bhagat’s English. But more than the language, it was his clarity of thought and his articulate expression that made him sound convincing. I do not have the sort of insecurity complex that made me envy children with hotdogs in their tiffin boxes. Perhaps that is why I will never become either India’s best-selling author or India’s prime minister.

What any of this has to be with being liberal, though, beats me. You can go to Doon School and be a right-winger — I know several such. You can also go to IIT and IIM and not be liberal — I know several of those too. That liberals in India only respect those who speak English of a particular sort, is childish stereotyping.

Yes, there are class differences in society and some people find it easier to mingle with their own kind. This is true from the top to the bottom of the class structure. But there are many who dislike being trapped in such enforced strangleholds of class, caste, education, gender, community, race and religion. I could just as easily argue that it is the rightwing, the religious fundamentalist who seeks most comfort in his or her own sort.
They are terrified of the idea that the winds of the world might blow through their houses and pollute their prejudices, if I may borrow from Mahatma Gandhi.

In fact, two of the greatest Indians of the last century — Mahatma Gandhi and BR Ambedkar — were not the sort to bring hotdogs in their tiffin boxes and while they did both have foreign education, neither fitted this foolish picture of the snobbish Indian liberal. Perhaps MA Jinnah did — he prided himself on being Anglicised.

These three examples, though, demonstrate exactly what is wrong with such pigeon-holing. There is no typical ‘liberal’. We do not wear the same clothes, we did not go to the same schools, we did not all like potato ‘bombs’ and we do not all come from the same section of society.

But what we do have in common is something far more dangerous. We are not fanatical about our religious beliefs. We do not measure out compassion according to caste or race or religion or gender. We want to include, not exclude. We want to try new things, not get trapped by tradition or custom. We are not frightened by the arts or by knowledge or by creative expression, we want them to flourish. Science is not to be feared but to be embraced. The planet is to be saved not destroyed.

Do we make mistakes? Yes. Do we misjudge ourselves and others? Yes. But so what?

I cannot fathom where Chetan Bhagat gets the idea that ‘liberals’ would admire Modi and Shah more if they had been educated differently. But yes, we might respect them more if they appeared to be less, well, prejudiced?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on Twitter @ranjona

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1 Comments

  • kalu lohar04-Nov-2015

    Senior journalist is a bit of a stretch isnt it? Tired hack is more like it.

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