Erich Honecker and Egon Krenz are not names anyone remembers now.
They were the GDR’s dictator and demi-dictator for several years, indistinguishable from the Berlin Wall and the “order to fire” along the inner border, which led to 125 people being shot and killed while trying to reach the West German border. No two persons in power have come to be disliked as much as Honecker and Krenz. Anti-communist protests grew in the GDR in the late 1980s. Honecker pleaded with Mikhail Gorbachev for assistance in suppressing them. The initiator of perestroika and glasnost refused outright. The two dictators tumbled out of power more or less together.
But liberalism is a liberal victor. If it were not, would it be any different from dictatorship? So, Honecker died in exile in Chile, unrepentant. Krenz , now 81, lives without any apparent regrets in the small German town of Dierhagen by the Baltic Sea after serving out a six year term in prison for manslaughter. His belief in the concept of East Germany, of East European socialism, of the erstwhile Soviet Union, is stronger than ever. He must admire Stalin. He most certainly does not admire Gorbachev.
He is liberalism’s natural gift to illiberalism. It could not have been, and should not have been, otherwise.
Historian Rudrangshu Mukherjee’s timely and gripping new book Twilight Falls on Liberalism has a simple message: The liberal, secular intelligentsia is founded on reason of the highest kind, not prejudice or dogma. It is outwitted by illiberalism at every turn like a sissy might be by a bully at school.
Mukherjee’s slender book gives examples of the credulity of the liberal mind or the liberality of the credulous mind , call it either, that serves itself up on a platter to be devoured by “the cunning of reason”. The “reason” at work being the sly argument, the deft ploy used to stir prejudice, kindle suspicion, incite hatred for the actor’s greater glory. This book scripts with concision and precision, like a Mughal or Kangra or Basauli miniature, the story of dictatorships, the history of oppression. And the fluctuating fortunes of liberalism. Mukherjee’s book takes us from the past, through literature, philosophy and active politics, to a study of liberalism’s present status.
Is the illiberal taking advantage of liberalism’s own tenets to destroy it? Is liberalism allowing itself to be decimated by its own nostrums? And are “we, liberal people” in deep denial? Denial about the dangers to ourselves, to our freedoms, our rights, political and personal ? Are we mis-reading as a passing fever what is perhaps a condition in extremis? Is our reaction to intolerance too, too naïve, too bhola-bhala ?
Mukherjee tells us of those who come “rushing in to abuse, harangue and beat up so-called ‘offenders’” with dedicated social media at hand. He identifies two target groups – the minorities and the secular intelligentsia. And he reminds us of the chilling fact that illiberalism is “tapping into a pool of public opinion that believes India should be a strong state”.
As I closed this deeply mind-churning book on the world’s liberal experience by one of the foremost historians of India, a line from a Raj Kapoor song in his 1959 film Anari came unbidden to mind: “Sab kuchh sikha hamne na sikhi hoshiari, sach hai duniavalo ki hmk hein anari…” Lyricist Shailendra’s words in the song are untranslatable but may be taken to mean “ We have learnt everything, we innocents, everything except cleverness…The truth, oh denizens of this world, is this: We are anari.”
Who or what is an anari? RS McGregor’s classic The English-Hindi Dictionary (1993) has, for anari in the first gloss, the following: inexperienced, unskilful, awkward. It has in the second, ignorant, foolish. In the third, a novice, an inept person. In the fourth and final: ignoramus.
With lynchings, murders of dissenters and the possible rendering of lakhs of people stateless, the book leads to the question: Is liberalism an ignoramus in the high school of politics? Is liberalism’s innocence going to be its undoing, its death ? Has Trump come to announce it? Is Boris Johnson going to toll the bell in London?
The answer to that, in Gandhi’s, Nehru’s, Ambedkar’s and JP’s India has to be different. It has to be: “Maybe so. But India is India. Recall ‘Civil Disobedience’. Remember ‘Quit India’. And do not forget that golden year – 1977.”