Liberalism is Defeated. Long Live Liberalism!

Note: I am talking of political and social liberal ideas, not economic liberalism.

We should all be tired of being outraged every time liberal values are trampled upon. Outrage is meant for the exceptions. It is tiring for what is no longer an exception. Liberalism is defeated in India (and elsewhere, one could argue, but let’s limit the scope to India for the purpose of this article). The state is coming down hard on its citizens and the privileged majority is cheering on. Individual’s rights, liberty, freedom of expression, right to dissent are being frighteningly delegitimized.

Photo by Elijah O’Donell on Unsplash

No, let’s not fool ourselves that it’s a minor setback. Let’s not pretend that there is one screw gone loose in the system and once it is tightened we will again start marching down the liberal road. That’s not how it is. It’s a fundamental shift away from liberalism. It is one kind of a thing when the disadvantage of poverty is pitted against the disadvantage of being a Dalit. It is one kind of thing when the unemployed youth get taken in by nasty propaganda. It’s not right, but it is understandable. It has nuances which a poor and unemployed person, who is struggling to find a toehold, may not be willing to indulge in. It is one thing for all of this to happen. But it’s quite another what is happening now.

A middle-class person, who hasn’t suffered hunger, who has a decent roof over his head, who has no contacts with Dalits or Adivasis, who hasn’t been affected by communal riots (not in many years, at least), whose children are well-settled and hold good jobs, whose grandchildren are being brought up in relative prosperity and aren’t exactly lusting after the government jobs of the future, that person is convinced that he is a victim. He is not grateful for or proud of all he has. He is a victim. A victim of reservations, a victim of Muslim appeasement, a victim of Maoists (he has never encountered a Maoist). And while we humans always tend to find someone else to blame for the slightest of our miseries, it wouldn’t have been acceptable to turn that blame into this appalling sense of victimhood a few years ago. But now it is. And that thought is so comfortable, that it is well-nigh impossible to eradicate it. It. Just. Works. What is more, it works for those children and grandchildren too.

No wonder, liberalism is defeated.

This means a fundamental shift in how an average liberal person navigates the world around them. We knew that liberal values were not always practiced, but in certain spaces, nobody could have opposed them in principle. So, when the practice differed from principles, you could scoff, outrage, point out the divergence and hope that over time, as you point out and fight against more and more such hypocrisies, they will be fixed. Hence the world will become more liberal, even in practice, as the time passes.

That assumption of the theoretical acceptance even in the face of practical divergence is no longer valid. So, the task has moved fifty or hundred years back. The theory itself needs justification now. The ideas need to be sold all over again. The principles that we had assumed were well-accepted, need to be argued for all over again. Scoffing at diversions would be meaningless.  Imagine the reformers of the early 20th century who would have had to argue even with the most educated of the upper-caste people that untouchability was bad. And they would have had to argue that from a position of weakness. Well, we are back to that situation in the 21st century. Depressingly, in some cases, the issues may exactly be the same as they were 100 years back. In some cases, they may take a different form. But we have to start from a position of weakness, in even getting the principles to be accepted. We better eat that humble pie.

What it also means is that its a long journey all over again. The victory was never complete. But all the gains have been reversed as well. Even if the political power equation changes in the short-term, this beast of social conservatism has been legitimized and unleashed. Political overlords of any denomination are not going to challenge it.  They will only seek to utilize it. The only hope from electoral politics is that some balance of power is maintained with changing governments so that no one group can continue to inflict damages unchecked. The social fight is going to be long and repetitive. And also thankless. Let’s brace for that. Somebody may yet live to see the tides turn.


Whither Gender Equality in Religion?

You may or may not know a whole lot about it, but you would be living under a rock if you haven’t heard of the Sabarimala Temple case being heard by a constitutional bench in Supreme Court.

I don’t feel invested in the outcome of this case. They could ban entry of women in all functional temples for all I care. At least then nobody would be able to emotionally blackmail me into visiting them. (They should leave the ones with historical importance open, though. Else I will scream discrimination!)

I care about gender equality. Religion, however, is a lost cause to me. Almost all the mainstream religions are essentially misogynist and trying to reconcile them with the ideas of equality – specifically gender equality – sounds futile to me. (If it offends you, great! At least you care about gender equality. If you agree, thank you, and you are welcome! If you think it doesn’t matter what I think, congratulations! You are the wise one.)

Photo Credit: ragesh ev

As can be guessed by now, I am not a religious person. And that is the reason that despite the question of gender equality involved here, I do not care much about the outcome of the case. Religion just doesn’t matter to me (Thank God, I live in a liberal, secular democracy! Irony intended.)

When you are in such a position, you are likely to think that this is an unnecessary fight. A waste of court’s time, a waste of resources, a waste of whatever else, on an issue that doesn’t matter. I would have been inclined to declare so a few years ago. But like a few things, I talked about earlier, I have changed my mind on this.

I can’t reconcile my feminism and (any) religion. But that doesn’t mean that others are not allowed to be both feminist AND religious. I may have my priorities, but I am no one to dictate what kind of equality is important for everyone else, and what isn’t. I will choose my fights, and so will everyone else. Just because religion is not important to me, I don’t get to say that it shouldn’t be important to you too and you shouldn’t fight for gender equality in religion.

I don’t know which way the court will go. Whichever way it does, it may not make much difference on the ground. Even if the court decides to lift the ban on women’s entry, perhaps the only women trying to go in would be the ones who want to prove a point. The “really” religious women may never want to visit a deity who doesn’t welcome them. Or they may surprise us by defying such patriarchal customs around deities and visiting Him in droves!

But irrespective of what happens, it is a good fight. I can’t invest myself enough in it to follow the court proceedings closely. But I cheer on!

P. S. The case may still be very important from the point of view of legal precedence. Especially since it is a constitutional bench that is hearing it right now. Other religious matters may come up in future whose effects could be more widespread than this particular issue’s are and the decisions there may be guided by the outcome of this one.

Business & Entrepreneurship · Thoughts

A Translation Apocalypse

What is common between a Facebook joke about funny subtitles and a controversy around the results of one of the most important entrance exams students of this country take?

Bad translation!

The joke in question showed a screenshot of a movie scene with its English subtitle. The song fragment bahne de, mujhe bahne de from Hindi was translated in the subtitles as give me sisters, give me your sisters, instead of let me flow (or let me drown if you feel the need for more intensity).

A Hindi speaker can immediately figure out what had happened. The word for flow here sounds like the word for sisters in Hindi. The two words don’t have common origins. In their root forms, they are sufficiently different. It’s just this particular form of the verb flow that sounds similar to the plural form of the word sister. The pronunciations and spellings are not exactly the same. They are similar enough that you may make a typo and write one for the other in Hindi. But a native speaker is not going to confuse the meaning of the two words. Even if they had exactly the same spellings, there is ample information available in the context and this translation mistake cannot be justified.

And NEET organizers apparently mistranslated 49 questions! This happened in Tamil, a language that I don’t know. So, I won’t understand what the exact mistakes were. But a similar issue had come up in another exam a while back. There clearly putting English questions through Google Translate and blindly pasting the output had been considered sufficient work for translating a crucial question paper. While so much attention is focused on whether students will get grace marks and if so how much, nobody seems to be asking how so many errors crept in. Does it happen more often than is reported? And even when there aren’t outright errors, what is the quality of translation in these question papers?

Unfortunately, bad translations are not a one-off issue. In fact, they are so prevalent that nobody seems to care. In literary circles, people debate a lot about good and bad translations, the challenges of translations, losses in translation and what not. But it doesn’t get discussed enough outside of it. The result is that a lot of documents, manuals, websites, instructions, etc. are translated every day and they are translated poorly.

Just Another Odd Translation!

Typically, these translation jobs will go to some agencies claiming expertise in all languages and a fast turnaround time at a reasonable cost. The quality is, at best, implicitly assumed and never checked. Most of the time, nobody even thinks about the quality. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between ordering pens for the office, which nobody uses except to sign documents, and ordering translation of your most crucial content. As for the “expert” translators who work on these jobs, they are typically any graduates who can claim to know the two languages. Sometimes they might be agency employees; most of the time, the agency will pick a freelance translator. Their credentials will be their past work – sometimes for big-name clients – but of the same shoddy quality. It was not flagged because nothing ever is. Most of the translators at work around us have never bothered to really study the nuances of the languages they work in; they seem to have no notion of the complications involved in a good translation, and nobody ever asks about the target group for a translation job which should matter a lot in how something is translated. They mindlessly do the word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase translation without caring about whether the output would make sense to a native reader. When you encounter a weird sentence or phrase in your native language (listen closely to announcements in the airports and metros, read signages that would originally have been written in English), try translating it mechanically back to English and see if it doesn’t start making sense. The translator, however, is not aware or doesn’t care. Access to Google Translate has made things worse. Many of these “professional” content creators and translators have no idea how Google Translate works and how it can’t be used blindly. Sometimes it results in funny or wrong output like the examples mentioned. But meaninglessness and unreadability are much more prevalent. Corporates, governments, NGOs – everybody is getting these poor translations done every day. Nobody has a mechanism to check, because nobody seems to realize that you can’t take translation for granted. Translation is a specialized skill that needs the understanding of both languages, their similarities, their differences, their colloquial expressions, their phrases and idioms, their regional variations, and very importantly the target audience for the output. Nobody is being trained for any of that. A few great translators might be producing great literary output, but things that get used every day by common people are at the mercy of those who don’t care. Neither the person ordering the translation, nor the one doing it. Without realizing it, we are in a translation apocalypse.

A laughable Hindi translation of “organic”, but in Tamilnadu, I will excuse it!

What have I changed my mind about?

The most exasperating part of social media debates is when both sides blame each other for not keeping their minds open. There isn’t usually any hope in hell of settling this meta-argument about which party is open-minded, if either at all is. But the issue is a good introspective opportunity. How would you know whether or not you are open-minded? Of course, you think you are. But are you?


One good test is to see whether you have changed your mind in the last few years about any important issues. You may be so well-informed that you have never needed to, but statistically, most of us would not be in that group. Most of us would come across information or experiences which would challenge our existing understanding. So, it is a fair test to apply to yourself. Did you change your mind when it came to that?

I applied it to myself. I am happy to say that the exhaustive list of things I have changed my mind about is much longer. But talking about a couple of them is a good starting point.

This changing of mind comes about in two distinct ways. In one there is a clear moment of enlightenment. I can pinpoint exactly what idea, information or experience led me to change my mind. The other kind is more gradual, drawn out. There is no one moment of transition. But it isn’t difficult to know that the transition has happened. At one point of time in life my views are very different – even opposite of – what they used to be at another time in the past.

The latest experience is an example of the first kind. I was reading an article about Ambedkar and Gandhi and their differences over the issue of separate electorate for the Dalits. The compromise reached was reserved seats for them, but no separate Dalit electorate. Gandhi had to coerce Ambedkar into this compromise with one of his stubborn fasts. I had always thought that it was the right compromise and didn’t see any problems with it. It ensured a path forward for the Dalits without dividing the populace forever. But this article pointed out a problem there. Simply put, it is this. When Savarnas elect a Dalit candidate, they elect the one who will be convenient for them. If the majority of the voters are Savarnas, then even if the candidate is a Dalit his job is to woo the Savarnas and not the Dalits. In independent India, it ensured that most Dalit candidates elected were from Congress and not the Dalit parties – including Ambedkar’s. It was a lightbulb moment for me.

It doesn’t mean that the issues one sees with separate electorate disappear. But what it does mean is that there is a real problem the separate electorate was trying to solve, and this compromise does not solve it. So, I don’t know if separate electorates would have been a great idea in it is entirety, but reserving seats without separate electorate wasn’t the ultimate solution either! I changed my mind on the issue of separate electorate.

The other thing I have changed my mind about is the existence of God – God in a sense that most people find easy to justify. There has to be some power above us. How else is the world running? Humans can discover the formulae governing the physical world, but who made them that way? Even though I had given up on religion pretty early on, this concept of God was difficult to get rid of. If you keep asking “why” after every explanation, ultimately you run out of explanations. God was the only answer to the ultimate “why”. And living without that answer seemed impossible.

Unlike in the case of a separate electorate, I can’t pinpoint how or why my mind changed. But over time that necessity to have an answer to the ultimate “why” started sounding pointless, even childish. I was no longer demanding that answer. Because there was no right way of fulfilling that demand. Meanwhile, a lot of what was explained by God’s (rather inconsistent) ways could be explained better by evolution, probability, statistics, and the mechanics of human-made systems.

I used to think that what I came to believe was atheism. But someone better versed in philosophy than me explained that I was agnostic. That’s where I am. It has inevitably led me to believe that the world is purposeless. It is a difficult worldview to live with. But it is less delusional than believing in God. So yeah – I changed my mind about God.

What have you changed your mind about?


Lies, Damn Lies, and Institutions

If you take a tour with a guide in Rome or Vatican, they will tell you a nifty tale about the source of the worldly power of the papacy in Rome. The first Christian Roman emperor Constantine (bless him!) shifted his capital to Byzantium (later Constantinople) in the 4th century and left Rome to the Pope, they will tell you. It is easy to believe. The first Christian emperor is likely to have the zeal of a newly converted. A donation to the Church was in order, right?

There is one big glitch though. And a few associated “minor” ones! The big one is this. Throughout the middle ages, Roman Catholic Church claimed the same story based on a document called Donation of Constantine, through which the emperor had supposedly donated Rome (and Western Roman Empire!) to the Pope. During the time of Renaissance, though, the document was proved to be a forgery. The forgery was perhaps done in the 8th century when an actual “donation” did come to the Pope from Pepin – the King of Franks (who was a usurper and whose kingship was legitimized by the approval and blessing of two successive Popes!). But not secure in their position, they perhaps felt the need to invoke the “ancient” Constantine to give legitimacy to this new donation. We don’t like to believe in anything unless somebody in past believed in it too, right? I say these Europeans are indeed Indians!

Donation of Constantine

There are a few more reasons to not believe in the story. For example, Constantine wasn’t a Christian at the time he shifted the capital and this donation happened. He had proven himself tolerant towards Christianity with the Edict of Milan, which granted Christians the freedom to practice their religion and put a stop to their persecution. But he continued to patronize paganism and wasn’t baptized until he was on his deathbed (pious reasons have been discovered for this delay, but let’s not get into ecclesiastical debates here).

Constantine also didn’t seem to have any intention of giving away any part of his empire to anyone. A while before Constantine, Roman Empire had been divided into two parts – Eastern and Western – for administrative convenience. Otherwise, the empire had become too big to be managed by one emperor. So they had started having two co-emperors. Constantine had a co-emperor too. Until the partnership soured and he finally fought, defeated and killed his co-emperor to become the sole emperor of the empire. He is credited with unifying the Roman Empire again, not for chipping it off. The emperors that followed him also didn’t want to cede anything. Although ultimately they had to. Western Roman Empire was to collapse.

Finally, Bishop of Rome in the 4th century was not what Pope today is. He wasn’t the sole supreme leader of the Christian world. He was one of the bishops. Even among the important patriarchs, he was one of the five. In time Islam ran over the territory of three of them, Roman and Greek church parted ways, a lot of political, military and religious maneuvering happened before Rome and the papacy became the supreme symbols of Christianity (umm – just Catholicism actually).

Today the Vatican is this cute, little country sitting in the middle of Rome. Technically a theocracy, where visitor’s access is limited to only designated areas and where only Catholics can find work, it doesn’t invite outcries of bigotry or protests against “reservation” or “discrimination”. It is a harmless tourist destination, a nice eccentric piece of toy country to have. But even until the middle of 20th century, the papacy wasn’t this avuncular, harmless-looking institution. It was actively involved in the temporal politics of Italy. The compromise of leaving Vatican to them in return for them not claiming much else was arrived at by Mussolini. I suppose we could call Vatican a Donation of Mussolini.

For several hundred years now, the Rome (now the Vatican) hasn’t invoked the Donation of Constantine. But for almost 1000 years now we have known that they engaged in a forgery like that. Don’t you wonder how an institution with claims on superior spirituality survived such blatant disregard for right and wrong in pursuit of material greed? How did it not crumble under the revelation?

Well, it didn’t. It survived and it flourished. It conquered and it killed. Make what you will of human nature from this. But this is how things are with many more powerful institutions. With many powerful people too.

Time to stop wondering about how political parties, companies, and powerful individuals survive all the scandals and outrageously irresponsible behavior they engage in. There is something natural about their survival.


प्रिविलेज को पहचानो!

एक बड़े नामी अख़बार में एक जनाब ने बड़े पते की बात कही। कि दलित लोगों को भीमा कोरेगांव को लेकर इतना उत्साहित नहीं होना चाहिए। उस लड़ाई को दलितों की सवर्णों पर विजय बताना बेवकूफ़ी है। वह विजय अंग्रज़ों की पेशवाओं पर हुई थी। उस लड़ाई का जश्न मनाकर वे देशभक्त भावनाओं का अपमान कर रहे हैं।

बाकी उनको इससे कोई ऐतराज़ नहीं है कि दलितों का शोषण होता है और उन्हें आवाज़ उठानी चाहिए। लेकिन उस लड़ाई और उस कहानी के साथ नहीं।

क्या लगता है आपको, सही कहा उन्होंने?

मुझे शर्मिंदगी होती है यह कहने में कि कुछ सालों पहले तक ये तर्क मेरे लिए भी इस मुद्दे पर आख़िरी बात होती। इसके आगे कुछ बहस करने के लिए रह ही नहीं जाता। एकदम खरी बात जो है। वह लड़ाई दलितों और सवर्णों की नहीं थी।

लेकिन आज मैं इसपर आगे कुछ कहने को मजबूर हूँ। जो एक चीज़ मुझे तब समझ में नहीं आती थी और आज कम-से-कम थोड़ी-बहुत आती है, वह है प्रिविलेज। आप, हम, कई सवर्ण लोग, और वो जो इन अखबारों में लिख सकते हैं, अक्सर अपने प्रिविलेज को भूल जाते हैं। प्रिविलेज सिर्फ बंगलों में रहने वाले करोड़पति लोगों का ही नहीं होता है। अगर मेरी परवरिश एक धनी घर में नहीं भी हुई थी तब भी मेरा प्रिविलेज ये है कि मुझे कभी नहीं सोचना पड़ा कि किसी सार्वजनिक जगह पर जाने की अनुमति मुझे है कि नहीं। कोई माँ-बाप अपने बच्चे के कानों में नहीं फुसफुसाए कि वे मेरे साथ ना खेलें। मेरे गांव में रहने वाले संबंधियों को कभी गांव के बाहर, गंदे, उपेक्षित टोलों में रहने के लिए मजबूर नहीं होना पड़ा। उन्हें किसी ने नहीं कहा कि वे गांव के स्कूल नहीं जा सकते हैं। मेरी रिश्तेदारों में मेरी उम्र के वे लोग जो किसी काम के नहीं थे, उन्हें भी सड़कों पर रहने की नौबत नहीं आई। अगर मैने भी कुछ नहीं किया होता तो भी भूखी नहीं मर रही होती।  प्रिविलेज सिर्फ सोने की चेनें और दरवाज़े पर खड़ी गाड़ियां नहीं होती हैं। उन लोगों के मुक़ाबले, जो मुख्य समाज से बाहर पैदा हुए और कभी उसके अंदर घुसने का मौका नहीं मिला, हमारी रोज़मर्रा की रोती-झींकती ज़िंदगी बहुत बड़ा प्रिविलेज है।

और प्रिविलेज ये है कि हम अपने घरों और ऑफ़िसों में बैठ कर दलितों को ये भाषण देने में नहीं हिचकते की भीमा कोरेगांव की लड़ाई उनकी नहीं थी। और हम एक बार भी ये नहीं सोचते हैं कि हम कौन हैं उन्हें ये बोलने वाले? अगर 1857, जिसमें छोटे-बड़े राजा-रानी अपनी रियासत वापस पाने के लिए लड़ रहे थे, हमारा “प्रथम स्वतंत्रता संग्राम” हो सकता है, तो 1 जनवरी 1818 दलितों के लिए विजय का दिवस क्यों नहीं हो सकता है? हो सकता है कि हमारे विशिष्ट अख़बारी लेखक 1857 को स्वतंत्रता संग्राम भी ना मानते हों। ऐसा है तो वे कम-से-कम अपने सिंद्धांतों पर हर जगह अडिग हैं। उसके लिए साधुवाद। लेकिन दलितों को भाषण देना फिर भी एक प्रिविलेज है। जिस समाज ने उनका शोषण किया है, उसमें 1857 में पहला स्वतंत्रता संग्राम हुआ था, उसमें पेशवाई बड़े शान की चीज़ है, और उसमें अम्बेडकर से ज़्यादा दलितों के मुद्दों में गांधी को तवज्जो दी जाती है। आप ये सब उनके लिए सही नहीं कर सकते हैं। तो फिर उनकी ये ज़िम्मेदारी क्यों है कि वे सबकुछ आपके मापदंड और आपकी सुविधा से करें? जब बाकी का समाज तार्किक मापदंडों पर खरा नहीं उतरता, तो वे क्यों तब तक इंतज़ार करें अपने प्रेरक-प्रसंग ढूंढ़ने में, जब तक उन्हें कुछ बिलकुल सही तर्कपूर्ण कहानी ना मिल जाए? उन्हें भाषण देना आपका हक़ नहीं है। ये एक प्रिविलेज है जिसका इस्तेमाल आपको नहीं करना चाहिए।

और पता है प्रिविलेज क्या है? कि जिन सवर्णों ने भीमा कोरेगांव के उत्सव में जाकर हिंसा शुरू की, उन्हें कोई नहीं पकड़ रहा है। विरोध करने वाले दलितों पर सब चढ़े जा रहे हैं। और प्रिविलेज सिर्फ़ गुंडों की ही नहीं है। प्रिविलेज ये भी है कि हम दलितों से कह रहे हैं कि हमारी अर्थव्यवस्था, हमारी प्लाइट्स, हमारी ट्रेनें, हमारी रोज़मर्रा की ज़िंदगी तुम्हारी बात सुनने के लिए नहीं रुक सकती। ठीक है तुम्हारा शोषण हो रहा है, लेकिन विरोध ऐसे करो कि हमें कोई परेशानी ना हो।

जी। उनकी परेशानी हमारी परेशानी में ना बदले, ये हमारा हक़ नहीं है। ये हमारा प्रिविलेज है, जिसके इस्तेमाल के लिए हम उतावले हुए जा रहे हैं।

कुछ ऐसा ही है नारीवादी विषयों के साथ भी। लेकिन उसके बारे में फिर कभी।

Thoughts · Uncategorized

If you are a liberal, how can you be ‘intolerant’ towards me?

Being a liberal is not being stupid or mindless. Being a liberal does not mean we don’t stand up for anything. We stand up for giving space to ideas, for diversity, for freedom of expression, for the value of human life irrespective of people’s group identities.

Disagreeing is not intolerance. Liberals stand for the right to disagree, to argue their case, to bring change in the society. What is intolerance and what is not accepted by a liberal is bullying, oppressing, silencing and in the worst case killing of people and ideas. Most liberals will be particularly against a powerful entity like State (or a big corporation or a powerful person) indulging in or encouraging such oppression on people. And opposing THAT is not intolerance. It is very much being a liberal and being a human being with a spine.

I disagree with people who think there should be a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. But I don’t believe that they should be bullied, murdered or thrown out of the country for their belief. I will defend their rights to their opinion which is contrary to mine. And their right to express it. But I will not stand for it if they bully, threaten, harm or kill me or anybody else. And yes – I will also defend to the death my own right to disagree with them and express it without having to be fearful of persecution.

This in no way contradicts my liberal position.

Thank you!

Defenders of the regime these days think that they have closed the debate by asking this question to the liberals. “How can you say I am wrong if you are supposed to tolerate different ideologies?” is the question they pose in some variation or the other and think that they have illegitimized the liberals (‘libtards’ in their heads and even their speech all too often now) once and forever.

Above is an answer I wrote to one of them. If you get asked this question, and this answer helps, please feel free to copy-paste it. Just give a link back to this post so that some hate can flow towards me too and I can keep a track of just how f***ed up the world is.