Resurrection of the Oped space

The last few months have finally seen the Oped Page emerge as a battlefield of ideas

Newspaper Opinions

A fundamental feature of a free society is that it upholds not just the right to free expression of opinion, but also fosters the expression of contrary views.  For public exchanges of ideas, the principal channel that has hitherto been utilised is the free press- the ultimate flag-bearer of free speech. However in 21st century India, the battle of ideas seldom manifests itself over the pages of our newspapers. Which is why it’s important to pay attention to the spirited debate that has been going on for about three months now between Ashutosh Varshney, Harsh Gupta and Rajeev Mantri on the very idea of India.

The idea of India, a term emerging out of the thought of Rabindranath Tagore, has been invoked innumerably – but not challenged enough. The conventional conception of India has been challenged, especially in the last two and half decades, more in the electoral battlefield than in the intellectual arena. However, to be a democracy in a substantial sense we cannot afford to have an intellectual climate which does not promote the free exchange of ideas.

The public debates between Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar and Patel about the Indian state resulted in us becoming a constitutional republic which guarantees the free expression of opinion. Ironically, the level of engagement over ideas in public forums has only reduced since then. The senseless TV squabbles where a set of familiar faces play musical chairs across news channels passes as public debate today. Perhaps the nature of the TV medium is the culprit here, but print media doesn’t suffer from this impediment. Although there have been some interesting exchanges in The Hindu and more dramatic fights in The Outlook, our opinion pages rarely become a forum of continuous contestation. The Times of India’s edit page-grandiosely called The Times Of Ideas-carries an insipidly predictive Times View vs Counter View section that often reads like the merits-demerits PPTs prepared by MBA-grads.

In this climate, the debate in the Oped pages of Indian Expressbetween Harsh Gupta, Rajeev Mantriand Nirmala Sitharaman with Ashutosh Varshney and Javed Anand is heartening. It all started with a quote that appeared in New York Times on December 22, 2012. In thatarticle, Varshney was quoted as saying “Modi’s politics is against the idea of India… The idea of India has a clear place for minorities as minorities, not minorities simply as individuals”. This was soon followed by a Christmas Day column by Varshney inIndian ExpressModi needs a Vajpayee–in which he argued that in a multi-polar party system, the taint of the 2002 riots would make it difficult for Modi to emerge successful in2014.

Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta’sRepublic Day piece in MintLet us debate the Idea of India– was a response to Varshney’s 25-word NYT quote. Mantri and Gupta highlighted the rejection of the communal electorate with the adoption of India’s Constitution toargue that in independent India Hindus and Muslims should be treated as individual citizens- as Indians-and not by their group identities. They alsoargued thatModi, by addressing “six crore Gujaratis” doesn’t differentiate between Hindus and Muslims unlike India’s “secular” politicians.

The Op-Ed pageof Indian Express on February 13, 2013 was unique with a direct face-off between Mantri-Gupta and Varshney. Mantri and Gupta in “One versus group”, point out the double standards of “secularism” which flays any special treatment of the majority community as communalism – but accepts such rights for minorities in the name of protection. Such treatment by India’s left-liberals, they argue,“assist the state in slowing India’s natural evolution from a discrete salad bowl to a composite, dynamic melting pot”.

Varshney’s response- Why India must allow hyphens– argues against a melting pot that turns group identitieslike Muslim Indians, Dalit Indians or Bengali Indians into a single identity of Indians.France, Varshney argues, is the ultimate melting pot while US accepts hyphenated identities like Italian-American, Jewish-American, Indian-American. Varshneyposits the difference in approach as the two ideas of India- one based on European-style nationhood promoted by Hindu nationalists and the other which sought the recognition of diversities, as promoted by Gandhi and Nehru, which were enshrined in the Constitution.

The debate over the columns of Indian Express spilt over online with two articlesappearing in www.firstpost.comon the same day. Lakshmi Chaudhry highlighted the strands of the debate to show how false ideological debate blinkers our political discourse. R Jagannathan– who declared Gupta and Mantri as the winners of the debate- argued that instead of hyphenating or de-hyphenating citizens, we need to avoid hyphens and a unified national identity will emerge over time through the forces of demographics, urbanisation and capitalist economics.

The debate in Indian Express continued the next week with others joining in. Nirmala Sitharamancontended Varshney’s argument that America allows minorities to flourish and attacked him for reducing the debate to deride Modi. She argued that Varshney draws a false disjuncture between Hindu nationalist ideas and those in the Constitution. Javed Anand’s response next week charged Mantri, Gupta and Sitharaman of misreading Varshney and argued that democracy has come to mean majoritarianism in India as there was institutionalised discrimination against Muslims and state-sponsored terror against minorities had impunity.

Harsh Gupta’s response on March 8, 2013 – “Against entrenched identities”sought to correct the “inadvertent characterisation” of his arguments and clarified that individuals may see themselves through hyphenated identities, but the state should not recognise them with its policies. He countered Anand’s argument on institutionalised discrimination by giving the example of disproportionately poor performance of Muslims even in computer-checked exams to argue that in aspects like the backwardness of women, the fate of Muslims is attributable to its socio-religious conservatism. Varshney’s response on March 20, 2013 – Hyphens and national unity-censures Gupta for blaming Muslims for their own misery and believing that low marks in multiple choice exams demonstrated an absence of discrimination. He argued that hyphens signify inclusion and a political ideology that pushes minorities to un-hyphenate is undesirable.

Debates about the idea of India- the nature of the Indian state and citizens-are indeed interesting and the winner would vary based on one’s ideological position. Even then, from the Constitutional perspective, it’s clear that the constituent assembly rejected Consociationalism which provided various communal groups separate representation and instead adopted a liberal democratic system with the individual at its core. However, the Constitution also gave certain groups like religious and linguistic minorities, historically deprived communities and socially and educationally backward classes some special rights. It also provides for asymmetrical federalism whereby certain states like Jammu &Kashmir and regions like the schedule areas have unequal power. So the hazy truth might lie somewhere in between Gupta’s and Varshney’s arguments.

The debatewas unique as it had seven participants and enough back-and-forth responses to keep it interesting. It may still not be over, but it’s fair to say that the quality of debate declined after the high point on February 13, 2013’s op-ed page.In some ways, all the players re-entrenched the stereotypes- the NRI social science professor attacked Modi for opposing the liberal consensus on India, the men from business supported Modi and accused left-liberals of slackening India’s progress, the woman from politics unimaginatively parroted her party’s sentiment and the Muslim activist repeated old arguments about minority marginalisation.

Despite this, the fact that the different participants argued from various vantage points without resorting to shallow diatribes is positive. With most of our Oped columns seemingly couched in ideological neutrality, we often do not have thedesirable diversity of opinion in our newspapers. By engaging in a trenchant yet reasoned debate, Varshney and his critics have shown that the Oped page can indeed become a forum for the clash of ideas.

Matthew Idiculla

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  • Please rewrite the piece after getting your laptop’s spacebar replaced and functional.

  • Vijai

    “Consociationalism”?, come on brother, lighten up a bit.

  • NewFangled

    I agree with this author that the series of Op-ed’s was a refreshing change in our otherwise staid (paid?) media. And definitely better than TV debates, where it would invariably have ended up with Modi bashing is some form or the other.

  • This has been quite a fascinating debate. On reading your impressive piece, which provides a nice summary of the issues, I read ( and re-read) all the op-eds mentioned. Here are some thoughts:

    — This debate is not about ModivsRahul or CongvsBJP. This is an important debate about what is the role of groups and individuals in our country India, that is Bharat. R Jagannathan, Laxmi, and largely Mantri&Gupta have stuck to that point. Varshney, and Javed have gone off tangent on many ocassions.

    — I found the writings of Varshney disingenuous, full of snide, and more suitable to that of a political operative than an academic. Instead of engaging about ideas that Mantri&Gupta put forth Varshney started with predictable attacks on Modi, raised the bogey of his online followers and Nazism, and tried to score cheap political points. In fact, he did not even engage about the central point about inherent contradictions of Indian secularism, its effect on nationhood, and its effect on the socio-economic development of minorities (the group it purports to protect). This suggests to me that either he has entrenched positions, or is too pleased with himself to give this issue any thought.

    — Laxmi makes a better attempt at critiquing Mantri&Gupta. However, Laxmi makes some demonstrably false claims. For example, contrary to her claims, left liberals did not mobilize against Shah Bano case and ended up being mute spectator. This specter of mute spectatorship by the left liberals have been repeated innumerable times to be counted: Muslims in general and Muslim women in particular have been the primary losers because of this.

    — Despite attempting to critique Manti&Gupta, Laxmi ends up making their point most emphatically in the following passage “we tolerate army excesses in Kashmir or minimise the killing of Kashmiri pandits or offer mitigating excuses for Naxal violence. It is the basest example of identity politics when we give greater primacy to the identity of a victim or the accused than the crime”