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Left-liberals' 'churlish' call to boycott Delhi riots book has one parallel: Dina Nath Batra

By Aviral Anand*

“I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” -- Voltaire quoted by Noam Chomsky in his essay, His Right to Say It.
A few days ago, a virtual launch of a book titled “Delhi Riots 2020” was vehemently protested by India’s left liberals, including by several prominent academics and writers. The book was authored by people sympathetic to right-wing views, especially with regard to the riots having been planned by the left.
Among the panelists on the launch event was a person who is believed to have been the agent provocateur during the riots, which was unacceptable to those who opposed the launch. The protests forced the publisher, Bloomsbury, to discontinue the plan of the book’s publication.
This brought to mind the book-banning hysteria created some years ago by someone who was a known right-wing member. Between 2010 and 2014, Dina Nath Batra, a member of the RSS, sent various legal notices to book publishers raising objections to different publications of theirs. Of course, it was his action against US academic Wendy Doniger’s book, “The Hindus”, that caught everyone’s attention, and for which he became chiefly known.
In the case of “The Hindus”, and other actions initiated by Batra against various publications, the publishers often succumbed to the pressure and took the books off the shelves.
Batra’s arguments and objections seemed puerile, uninformed, half-baked and sensationalist to most people, especially people on the left. He could even rightly be seen as a crackpot. Reams were written on this form of right-wing censorship and suppression of the freedom of expression.
It was not hard to see that Batra was up to some form of theatrics and his objections seemed archaic, though in respect of “The Hindus” he had made a case of the book being a “distorted and non serious presentation of Hinduism.”
Yet, it appeared to be a shock for most liberal Indians that such right-wing narrow-mindedness and brow-beating could attempt to muffle the voice of a respected academic.
Never mind the fact that Doniger had already been in the eye of controversy for a long while even back in 2014 and her writings were always considered a little scurrilous and discomfiting to her own colleagues in the western world.
A few years ago (2017), the US itself was rocked by -- and divided over -- the issue of speeches and presentations by right-wing representatives on college campuses. Several well-known colleges and universities, including University of California, Berkeley saw violent demonstrations and protests against the events. Interestingly, in 1964 Berkeley was home to the Free Speech Movement, with left-leaning students demanding the right to distribute anti-war literature.
At another institution, the genteel liberal-arts bastion in the state of Vermont, Middlebury College, there were ugly scenes by students at the invitation of a right-wing speaker by a student group. This after the student group had “invited a left-leaning Middlebury professor, Allison Stanger, to engage Murray [the right-wing speaker] in a public conversation following his talk…” 
That left-leaning professor, Stranger, was also physically assaulted in the student protests and she ended up writing a piece in the "New York Times" titled, “Understanding the Angry Mob at Middlebury That Gave Me a Concussion.”
The last thing we who are on the left need to be doing is, behaving in exactly the intolerant and knee-jerk manner that the right behaves. Of course, it is reprehensible that one of the prime instigators of the Delhi riots was an invitee to the recent book event. But that same person is on a number of platforms on social media rather openly -- he finds great approval and admiration from right-wingers on videos and posts on Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. Should he be hounded out from all those platforms as well? 
The last thing we who are on the left need to be doing is, behaving in exactly the intolerant and knee-jerk manner that the right behaves
The issue is that many on the left wing take so-called morally uncompromising positions, and if one may add, also emotionally-charged positions, the latter which they will not admit to. Just as all left-wingers are “Marxists and Urban Naxals” for the right wingers, so also those on the right are uniformly incorrigible bigots for the leftists.
But, for a lot of leaders in this country, the path of undiluted condemnation and censure was not the way forward when faced with two mutually antagonistic communities. Despite the injustice that Dr Ambedkar saw in the Hindu system, despite the hatred he faced from many in the Hindu community, he still held out hope that at least the future generation of Hindus would understand him. As he wrote in the Preface to his book, “Who Were the Shudras?,” while addressing his Hindu critics:
“But I do want to tell them two things: firstly that I propose, no matter what happens, to follow the determination of Dr Johnson in the pursuit of historical truth by the exposure of the Sacred Books so that the Hindus may know that it is the doctrines contained in their Sacred Books which are responsible for the decline and fall of their country and their society; secondly, if the Hindus of this generation do not take notice of what I have to say I am sure the future generation will. I do not despair of success.”
For an individual who faced boycotts all his life, Dr Ambedkar chose to use his scholarship, his erudition and his penetrating intellect to provide counter-arguments. It needs a certain degree of magnanimity of spirit to be able to transcend bitterness and animosity to respond with such pragmatism and hope. This was Dr Ambedkar’s way of communication with those who considered him as their foe; even his “Annihilation of Caste” was a way of keeping the dialog going despite the Hindu organization, the Jat-Pat-Todak Mandal, shutting him off.
One need not pander to the ways and pretensions of the utterly condemnable behaviour indulged in by the right-wing elements. But, somehow, a big-hammer strategy of boycott and outrage does not help if there are not larger, more coherent visions to make the other side see reason. Movements like the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the BDS effort out of Palestine do employ “boycott” as a powerful tool. Boycotting of English goods was a strategy used in the Indian freedom process. Yet, those battles were conceived with some idea of a plan and wider understanding of the struggle and end goals.
The Delhi Minorities Commission has put out a comprehensive report on the Delhi riots. For starters, that can be utilized to build a case and a narrative against the right-wing propaganda. A concerted plan to resist, oppose and counter Hindutva-inspired bigotry certainly makes sense. It is high time the left got its act together. It is not just an issue of “communalism,” that is, the pitting of two religious communities and the triumphalism of one.
It is also the grave matter of assertion of an ideology that is inegalitarian, an ideology that is rooted in social hierarchy, the diminution and devaluation of some human beings as opposed to others - and, consequently, committed to the perpetuation of the caste system.
Ad hoc, churlish actions such as a call for a boycott here or a petition there will not take on what the country is facing in the form of an assertive, social-media driven “new Hindutva,” which is also hydra-headed. The challenge has to be met head on at a minimum of two levels -- on the ground and in the intellectual sphere, in terms of countering disinformation campaigns and promoting some form of “social harmony” assertions.
-- 
*Writer based in Delhi NCR

Comments

In the case of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, a broad-based coalition of students was demonstrating to to gain the right to distribution pro-Civil-Rights-Movement literature. The Anti-War Movement came a bit later.
Barbara Stack
Free Speech Movement Archives Boardmember
www.FSM-A.org
http://www.fsm-a.org/FSM-A%20short%20histories.html
http://www.fsm-a.org/FSM_Participants.html

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