Rampant ad hominem and dogmatic warriors

December 20, 2019

Rohit Dhankar

Currently India is going thought a particularly difficult phase in its constitutional history. In the particularly vicious struggle between political ideologies, the society is in a turmoil and citizenry is getting polarised day by day. One hears every day that the very democracy is at stake. Or that secularism is in danger.

Secularism is an essential principle in a democracy. No democracy can ever be non-secular; or no non-secular state can ever be a democracy. Simply because democracy is premised on the worth of individual, freedom of individuals and wellbeing of each citizen is equally important in it. Discrimination by the state on the basis of religion of its citizens contradicts the above-mentioned principle; namely, wellbeing of each citizen is equally important.

The quality of democracy depends heavily on the quality of its citizens. “The first requisite in this connection is … the capacity for clear thinking and a receptivity to new ideas. …. which is the distinguishing mark of an educated mind. A democracy of people who can think only confusedly can neither make progress, nor even maintain itself, because it will always be open to the risk of being misled and exploited by demagogues who have within their reach today unprecedentedly powerful media of mass communication and propaganda. To be effective, a democratic citizen should have the understanding and the intellectual integrity to sift truth from falsehood, facts from propaganda and to reject the dangerous appeal of fanaticism and prejudice.”

Together with clear and independent thinking; democracy necessarily requires freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression a fair dialogue is not possible. Because rational persuasion is the only legitimate way to achieve agreement in a democracy when faced with divergent view points and conflicting interests. Without freedom of speech free and genuine dialogue is impossible, and thus rational persuasion does not get a chance.

A concerned citizen in democracy does not only speak his/her mind truly, clearly and fearlessly; but also listens to opposite views calmly, carefully and responds rationally. One who does not have a capability to listen to and understand the views of his/her opponent objectively can never be a critical and clear thinker, and his/her voluble spouting of views does not help democracy, nor saves any of the democratic values.

Usually, the people who can not listen to an argument against their views and become angry when faced with opposition have imbibed ideas without properly understanding and/or without having proper arguments to support them. They usually are aping some guru, ideologue, intellectual icon, or even vacuous celebrity. The lack of properly understood justification of their dearly and dogmatically held position makes them feel internally vulnerable when faced with well argued opposition. Since they are incapable of countering the argument, they become angry and attack the person who had committed the sin of presenting opposite idea, with arguments beyond their intellectual capability. This attack on the person, rather than countering the argument is a very wide spread logical fallacy, and is called ad hominem.

Some blatant examples of ad hominem can be as follows:

“Some people were talking. Ram and his friends believed very strongly that the earth is cuboid shaped. Krishna was surprised and said: “Well, if earth is cuboid then how come we see the mast of approaching ships from sea shore first, and the rest of the ship appears later? How come the shadow of the earth on the moon in lunar eclipse is round? It seems the earth is round in shape.”

Ram: You don’t know language. You pronounced “letter” for “later”.

Krishna: Ok. But you understood what I am saying. So, what is wrong with my argument?

Ram: And you don’t like cuboids, that’s why you are saying this.

Krishna: Fine, but what is wrong with my argument, as such?

Ram2: we have to look into your history, you also said moon is round.

Krishna: Ok, but what is wrong with my argument about the earth?

Ram3: You have a sick mind.

Krishna: Thanks. But what is wrong with what I am saying?

Ram4: Oh my God, he says earth is round. What abomination.

In the present-day CAA and NRC debate too many people are talking like this. That does not mean that there is no serious and genuine discussion going on. Yes, there is good and genuine debate as well. And that is helping the democratic processes. Layers of the issues and argumentation are being continuously unravelled.

On the other hand, people like illustrated above are also masquerading as defenders of democracy and secularism. Most such people cannot read properly, cannot understand an argument, are completely closed minded on important issues. Spout out what have listened from their masters, and think that they are doing great job. Initially, such mindless shouters were only with the Sangh Parivar. Now, both sides have such armies.

They may have imbibed some ideas, formed some beliefs which are widely appreciated in the society. But have imbibed them without rational analysis and understanding their true meaning and proper justification. Now, the views happen to be so wide spread in the society and the icons are so vehement on these ideas for their own agendas, these foot-soldiers who do not know how to argue feel virtuous and self-important in getting angry and attacking people who happen to question such them.

This brigade does not understand that in a liberal democracy defending your opponent’s freedom of expression is an important value. You allow, and even defend you opponents right to speak, and then critique it in civilised language. When we start attacking and attempting to shame people for their ideas we already have lost the ground.

Moral decisions are not about applying a principle dogmatically. There is no real moral dilemma that does not involve at the least two conflicting values in the same situation. Therefore, moral decision is about carefully arriving at a judgment regarding which value should get precedence. This is different from always following a rut. A moral judgment may demand abandoning the well-trodden path and creating a new trail.

Those who genuinely believe in democracy, secularism, freedom of speech and equality can not afford to attack people for their ideas however wrong they may be. Wrong ideas necessarily require analysis, resistance and should be discarded. But all through a civilised discussion. Those who can not criticise and discard an idea without attacking the person who expressed it, do not know even the first principle of public dialogue.


19th December 2019






What is wrong with Amartya Sen’s well-argued article “Dissent and freedom in India”

February 13, 2016

Rohit Dhankar

Amartya Sen’s article in Indian Express, 13th February 2016, titled “Dissent and freedom in India” is very well-argued and balanced.

(http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/amartya-sens-column-dissent-and-freedom/ )

Sen rightly notes that we are too tolerant, to the extent tolerating intolerance. That we should be more determined and proactive in defending our freedom. He also rightly notes that neither Indian constitution nor Indian tradition, including Hindu tradition, can be blamed for this intolerance. The constitution gives Indians freedom to express and disagree. The Hindu tradition (he quotes the famous Nasadiya Sukta from Rig Veda, the ultimate in scepticism about God to my mind) according to him was “familiar with, and tolerant of, arguments about religious beliefs for more than 3,000 years”.

He blames the intolerance on, (1) small organised groups, (2) their “imagined entitlement of “not to be offended” (an alleged entitlement that does not seem to exist in this particular form in any other country)”, and (3) colonial era “British law, primarily Section 295(A)” which puts “on a pedestal … the sentiments of any religious group”. Then he suggests five strategic points to resist “unfreedom” being imposed on us, all of them are perfectly valid, very good and can be very effective if used with commitment and judgment.

In all these points one sees a clear mind of a Nobel Laureate and great intellectual. All these points are briefly but very well argued and make perfect sense. Actually they put the finger right on the ailing nerve.

And yet, something is deeply wrong with Sen’s article.

That wrong is not in what he says, not in what he argues for, not in the way he argues, not in his facts. That wrong lies in what Sen has left out unsaid, what he deliberately avoids, what he communicates without stating, an overall un-argued argument he makes effortlessly.

In his well-written 1200 word article Mr. Sen makes references to 9 examples of intolerant behaviour of small organised groups which imposed ‘unfreedom’ on the majority tolerant population. Seven of them are sound and justified examples, even if somewhat repetitive. One can question and debate only two of them. Court cases on MF Hussain and Wendy Doniger. They were court cases, and a citizen has the right to go to the court against something which s/he finds objectionable and illegal; it is for the courts to decide whether to uphold the appellant’s contention. In both these examples the cases were not pursued to the end. But he is partially right even here, as he blames Section 295(A) of IPC, on the basis of which such complaints become justiciable and in the light of which the outcomes might have gone in favour of the appellants.

What is wrong in the article is his careful choice of the examples. Out of nine examples only one example puts the blame of attacking freedom on a Muslim group—that of Satanic Verses. And even there it is put on the government of the day. All other examples are those of unjust restriction of freedom by Hindu groups.

Taslima Nasrn’s plight, attacks on Lokmat office in Maharashtra and subsequent unconditional apology of from the paper, Kamalesh Tiwari being in jail, having a prize of 51 lakh on his head announced by a UP cleric and continuing violent protest to hammer home the demand of death penalty for blasphemy, chopping of fingers of a Kerala professor for a question in examination paper that mentioned Muhammad; none of these are alluded to in his article. These are recent examples, if one goes little farther back than Satanic Verses one finds example of serious communal riots on making Muhammad a character in a Kannada story and a host of many more such cases.

Sen, therefore, is creating an impression that the threat to freedom and imposition of ‘unfreedom’ is from the small but organised Hindu groups. Actually, it might be alleged that he considers the examples of Muslim groups’ imposition  of unfreedom primarily as out comes of attack on a religious minority; and therefore, just a reaction from the minority and not instances of imposing unfreedom.

As long as our tallest intellectual remain selective in siting instances of intolerance and keep focussing on one wrong doer, either condoning or ignoring the other, we will not be able to defend the freedom of speech, we will not be able to stem the tide of intolerance. Actually, we will be strengthening one intolerant group (the Hindu one) and encouraging the other (the Muslim one).

Some very wise intellectuals interpret this demand for mentioning and condemning both groups as ‘a balancing act’ of giving ‘equal blows’ to both groups; a demand for ‘if hit one,  hit the other as well’. This is excessively moronic interpretation of this demand. It is not to balance your blows; but is a demand for commitment to always, by principle, call a spade a spade. Respecting the truth equally wherever and in whatever shape it is found; without considerations for political correctness or ideological commitments or your current political purposes. Because the truth filtered through these screens is no more a truth, it becomes a falsehood, it becomes what Harry Frankfurt calls “bullshit”.

Yes, this is a very high moral demand. Not easy to meet, even if you happen to be a great intellectual. But then freedom of expression is a very high moral principle; you cannot buy a diamond for dimes. If you are not prepared to pay the price of freedom in coins of truth and fairness you are condemned to forfeit it. The choice is yours.

It is important to say all this particularly in response to a well-argued and largely balanced article by a top level and much respected intellectual. As the value of valid and forceful arguments is likely to be reduced by simple omission which can be interpreted as a biased selection. And also, because the very potent strategic points listed in the article are likely to become operationalised in an imbalanced and unfair manner by the politically correct intellectuals.

In today’s climate it is easy to interpret what is written in the paragraphs above as a justification of what small organised Hindu groups are doing. Again, it would be a moronic interpretation. These groups rightly deserve condemnation and punishment as per the law; even if other groups committing similar crimes go scot-free, it does not justify leaving them scot-free as well. But such condemnation and one-sided punishment will not stop the intolerance. It will only create a mentality of unjustified victimhood in them and their resolve to perpetrate their heinous acts will only strengthen. To eradicate a malaise one has to give appropriate treatment to all infected by it; being selective leave the virus flourishing and it becomes resistant to your medication in due time.


Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus

April 3, 2014

Rohit Dhankar
The debate around Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus has stopped being interesting. But I was reminded about it in conversation with some scholars yesterday. There are some partially formed ideas in my mind about this whole episode, they came to for in this conversation. So thought of sharing these ideas on this informal forum. Obviously they are not fully developed.

The petitioners
So far this time the petitioners cannot be faulted on legal grounds.
• I am not aware if they have issued any threats of violence or actually indulged in it.
• They have countered Doniger on her own ground. Provided a list of errors, mistranslations and untenable interpretations. This is appropriate and proper way of countering a book. Veracity/acceptability of all this could be more or less objectively ascertained.
• They have used the law of the land. If the law is faulty one cannot blame the petitioners for its use. Make better laws, but as long as they are available, one cannot stop citizens from using them.
• They claim some of Doniger’s interpretations etc. are offensive to Hindus. They are no representatives of Hindus and cannot claim anything on behalf of all Hindus. However, they have the right to express their own opinion if they felt slighted. This is their opinion, they have right to express it; but withdrawal of a book on this basis certainly is not justified.

• It is Penguin’s right to decide whether they should consider the claimed errors and misrepresentations weighty enough to withdraw the book.
• This is also their right to decide if the legal battle is becoming too costly for them. We cannot demand moral commitment in the face of financial losses from a business, a publishing company is ultimately a business.
• But we can morally blame a business for not upholding the moral principle of freedom of speech, which is so integral to publishing. And Penguin can be blamed for that. There is a difference between a binding demand and moral blame.

Wendy Doniger
• I have read only one book by her about a year and half back, actually the book under question.
• She did not come across as a scholar to me at all. It is more of a popular writing with shoddy scholarship.
• Mistranslation is replete.
• Misinterpretation is the meet of the book.
• Still there are many places where she shows insight and also presents not-commonly known references and flashes of insight.
• At places she sounds to be deliberately courting controversy.
• But an author has the right to do all this. And authors do make errors.
• In my view authors do have the right to offend deliberately, if they want to oppose certain views.

And still to my mind it is a serious issue of freedom of speech/expression

• We should oppose the laws that could be used too easily and too heavily against the authors and publishers. Authors and publishers need more space in a free and democratic society.
• We should disapprove of the weak-kneed publishers and shun them.
• We should expose and disapprove of citizens who use unwanted laws to propagate their own views and thwart others; it is an issue of opinion making and not disallowing them from using such laws.
• We should express our solidarity even for bad and shoddy authors.
• But we should also appreciate the more legal and informed path the petitioners are taking. That allows them a legitimate path to air their grievances. This is an improvement upon threats of violence, burning properly, killing of authors, and so on. This could be considered a step towards finally accepting that the books should be countered by books/articles only. The movement could be seen as resolving grievances through violence–>legal recourse–>Countering academically and through informed debates.

Legal recourse is a form of discourse, we should appreciate that.

This is purely on the basis of available information. It is fairly possible that the Shiksha Bachao Samiti (or whatever it is) is actually taking the legal path only to foment trouble enough to create street violence. If we see signs of that, of course, they should be condemned and countered on different grounds.

Doniger’s own defense in a New York Times article:

As usual: half-truths, misinterpretations and self-importance.

Can I call Lalu’s, Khap Panchayat’s and Maoists’s interpretation of Democracy an “Indian Understanding of Democracy”? There is no problem in including all this as various interpretations of democracy, but can one say that that is how actually Indian democracy looks or is? That is what Doniger does.

In the NYT article she says nothing about her faulty translation. Under-emphasises the other interpretation of symbols—for example, Lingam also is supposed to be a symbol of ‘aadi creative energy’.

By the way I have no problem regarding her book. All badly written books have equal right to be published and sold. But she does not even respond to charges made by someone as intellectually puny as Dinanath Batra and his friends!!