It is more than likely that had the controversy over the abrupt cancellation of Carnatic music singer TM Krishna’s concert not centred on the National Capital, it would have passed relatively unnoticed. One of the quirks of news in India is that anything that happens in Delhi becomes a ‘national’ concern. To my mind this suggests a grave distortion in the prevailing information order.
Having said that, I find the cancellation of Krishna’s concert inexplicable and indefensible. The Airports Authority, sponsoring the Spic-Macay festival of classical music, was under no obligation to invite the singer to perform in Delhi. However, having done that it was discourteous to say the least, to abruptly say that he was no longer welcome.
It is important to note that Krishna wasn’t asked to perform on the strength of his political views. That he has strong views on various subjects and is sharply critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP is well known. Indeed, Krishna has made it a point to publicise his views at every opportunity. The right to have strong views and even hold views that others find objectionable is inalienable. The views, however, have absolutely nothing to do with his undeniable talent as a Carnatic singer and his contribution in attempting to give this style of classical music a modernist flavour. More than a politician or even an activist — which he often tries to be — Krishna is an artiste and this recognition is due to him.
The blame for the cancellation has been put on those the liberal media chooses to call ‘right-wing trolls’ active in the social media. The term ‘troll’ is distasteful and makes it out that most of these individuals with sharp views are only engaged in stalking and heckling those they disagree with. Some no doubt specialise in abusive conduct. But abuse is not the monopoly of the Indian Right. My personal experience suggests that there are individuals professing ‘liberal’ and ‘secular’ values who too are obsessed with abusive and very hurtful retorts to social media posts. I tend to ignore such interventions — and as a rule I don’t block those who have other perspectives — but I recognise that there are individuals who haven’t developed the hide of a rhinoceros.
Whatever the approach to abusive sniping on the social media, there is just no way public bodies should cave in to sustained social pressure, unless they have erred grievously or shown remarkable insensitivity. In the case of the Krishna concert, I don’t regard the original invitation to be a step too far. It was perfectly in order and warranted by the occasion.
This brings me to larger issues. For some time now there have been recurrent complaints that social media has lowered the tone of public discourse and introduced gutter language in public life. The complaint is warranted only insofar as social media has allowed disparate voices, previously unheard, to now be heard and factored. Some of the interventions are no doubt lacking in civility and vocabulary but at least the space has been made more broad-based. Gone are the days when only a few editors had the privilege of determining what news or views were suitable for public consumption. In democracy we have to accept the good with the bad.
Secondly, the suggestion that intolerance is somehow a prerogative of the Right is absolutely preposterous. In India, the Left-liberal elite had a stranglehold over intellectual discourse for much of the 70 years since Independence. This wasn’t because their ideas were deemed superior in the intellectual marketplace. The grim truth, that many people appear to have forgotten, is that contrarians had to fight a veritable guerrilla war to get themselves heard or even to have access to public and academic platforms.
This was most marked in the field of history writing where, from the time Nurul Hasan embarked on his ideological cleansing, there was a complete stranglehold of those who professed to be Left. The rich tradition of empirical research that the likes of Sir Jadunath Sarkar and RC Majumdar bequeathed was quite consciously suppressed by Stalinists who felt that there was no place for dissent. The manner in which the historical debate around the Ayodhya dispute was sought to be manipulated by the historians and the media has been documented in detail by the Allahabad High Court judgment of 2010. The section dealing with the duplicity and deceitful conduct of the ‘secular’ historians should be made obligatory reading.
It is also pertinent to remember that this Left intolerance didn’t stem from a distaste of so-called communalism. In the field of economics, any dissent from the Nehru-Indira statist consensus was met with ostracism. The likes of Jagadish Bhagwati were literally hounded out of academia and others had to content themselves with writing pamphlets for the Forum of Free Enterprise.
Today, we can see examples of this Left-liberal intolerance in the universities of the US, and to a lesser extent in the UK, where anyone with ‘different’ views is routinely prevented from speaking in the campuses.
The Stalinist tradition of infallibility and correctness must not be emulated with counter-Stalinism. It is important that the Indian Right, having been intellectually persecuted for decades, goes out of its way to claim the moral high ground. Yes, we know that the Literary Festivals, the international media and the cosmopolitan elite that bankrolls the new news portals believe that the Right should be denied space and dispatched to an Indian Gulag, but that is no reason to give the other side the privilege of victimhood by unleashing a form of White Terror.
India has always thrived in an atmosphere of openness and debate. Krishna’s performances must not be subverted, but neither should the proponents of India’s vivisection be allowed to disrupt those they despise. I believe if the Right shows restraint and dignity, the Stalinism of the other side will be exposed before too long.