Closing Debate: Do Liberals Stifle Debate?

Kapil Sibal, Makarand R. Paranjape, Mihir Swarup Sharma, Sagarika Ghose, Salman Khurshid, Sonal Mansingh, Hardeep Singh Puri and Vikram Sampath moderated by Sreenivasan Jain

Once relegated to the fringes, political debate and discussion have entered the mainstream consciousness. Though it may seem like there’s never been a time like this to broaden your horizons and embrace perspectives from the other side, it’s becoming increasingly common for both sides to argue that the other is being intolerant of their arguments. The curtain-closer at ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival 2019, inspired by author Sagarika Ghose’s Why I Am a Liberal, took on a subject that has been at the heart of Indian political discourse lately: ‘Do liberals stifle debate?’

The debate, which moderator journalist Sreenivasan Jain quipped was “more strictly regulated than India’s insurance sector”, featured an impassioned address by Ghose. She raised a call to arms for the audience, recounting the persecution of Nayantara Sahgal, Gauri Lankesh, Kanhaiya Kumar and the other liberal artists and activists, who suffered similar fates. “Liberalism is for everyone,” said Ghose, dispelling the myth of support for a political party as the only marker for one’s adherence to liberalism.

Former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) professor Makarand R. Paranjape challenged the status quo, asking “Which of us sees himself or herself as a bigot or illiberal?” He made the case for re-evaluating the parameters that we use to define a liberal, saying that merely emulating the model and ideologies of the West is not going to lead to any progress.

“Those who are branded liberals today are a confused lot,” opined Union Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Housing and Urban Affairs Hardeep Singh Puri. He accused Indian ‘liberals’ of drawing inspiration from Western communists and being guilty of ‘abusing’ the nation, despite being “beneficiaries of state patronage.” He added that ‘liberals’ at JNU are so “ashamed of their Indian-ness” that you can’t so much as go there and chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai.’(Hail Mother India).

Who is a liberal? In Kapil Sibal’s words, it is “a person who allows everyone to say his piece… and if he opposes the state, he can’t be called anti-national, which the present government is doing all the time.” Continuing his criticism of the BJP government at the Centre, he added, “We owe allegiance to a constitution that is liberal. Freedom of speech is part of liberalism. Even Hardeep Singh Puri can’t deny this. His state and PM might oppose that but he can’t.”

Journalist Mihir S. Sharma called the framing of the question “meaningless and misleading. The moment you stifle a debate, you become less liberal by definition.” He further pointed out that the framing of the question misled one into imagining the existence of two equivalent groups: “Just because no one is a perfect liberal doesn’t mean that there is no difference between someone who is trying to be a liberal and one who is not.”

Author Vikram Sampath claimed that the “self-labelling” of many people as liberals has polluted the narrative: “The word liberal gets delegitimised and becomes a slur because of its abuse by people.” He instantiated his criticism by calling the “infamous award-wapsi (award-returning) campaign a deeply politically motivated exercise.” He further ridiculed false liberals: “The problem with reading Mein Kampf too much is that words like Nazism and Fascism keep rolling out of tongues without context.”

If there’s one thing that’s most commonly equated with liberalism, it’s the humanities. Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan awardee and classical dancer Sonal Mansingh extolled the power of art when it came to encouraging and embracing debate. “A dancer is a supreme liberal,” noted the artiste, adding that opening our minds up to each other’s views is the only way forward.

Former Minister of External affairs Salman Khurshid, meanwhile, turned the debate on its head. “Liberalism is not about moderate behaviour,” he stated. “A liberal is a person who believes that everyone has a right to be wrong.” He stressed that an ability to disagree is the very foundation of democracy, which is something we cannot afford to lose.

Dissent and debate lie at the heart of every functioning democracy, and they were more evident than ever at the closing debate of the 12th ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival. The question of whether liberals stifle debate – and arguably, what a liberal is – will probably not have a black-and-white answer anytime soon. However, the debate featured the exact exchange of perspectives and ideas that we have come to associate with free India. The final vote was a draw.

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