"From Closet Idealist to Professing Liberal"

Keynote Speech of Sreyoshi Guha at the Asia Liberty Forum 2017, Mumbai
What does it mean to be a liberal in India
FNF South Asia

About five odd years ago, my school principal asked us a question. He asked, “Which is the freest country in the world?” I remember someone tried to say that it would probably be India, considering it is the biggest democracy. Our principal shrugged it off. He said, “I am not talking about the number of people and the nature of the polity governing them. Think. I am asking you, which country in the world is the most free?”  

At this point, I must ask you all to hold that thought while I take a minute to thank my publishers – FNF, CCS and on a very personal note, Dr. Meinardus and Ms. Nupur. Forgive me, but four years into the legal discipline, I suffer a rather inconvenient professional hazard of bulleting most of my thoughts. Therefore, I thank you, with all my heart, for two very specific things. One, for giving us all, from day one, a space where we could be ourselves; and two, for being the reason that I stand here today. Here, at the Asia Liberty Forum, 2017 – what I’ve been told, is the most important meeting place for liberals in Asia.

I stand here today, surrounded by people who are here to breathe life into the existing liberal agenda. Almost immediately, I am struck by how we currently live in a global political context that is graver than most of us imagined it could be. I feel compelled, therefore, to reach back into my childhood and bring forth Spiderman’s humble reminder that great power brings with it great responsibility, and the wisdom that we cannot know which country is the freest, without understanding what freedom truly means. And liberty, at least in India, cannot be understood unless viewed against what it seeks to overcome.

I cannot attempt to do that in entirety. But today, I intend to begin the process. So, I propose we do something crazy. Let’s imagine liberalism in India as a person. Say, she’s beautiful, but not conventionally. She sports a pixie haircut but her favourite thing to wear is a comfortable, loose cotton kurta. She could perfectly rap the most recent Jay-Z hit, but on some nights she can only fall asleep to Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s Afreen. She speaks her mind. Or at least, she wants to. She wasn’t there during the Bengaluru mass molestation but next time, she will spend a little longer picking what to wear when she goes out. She will leave a party before she gets too drunk. When the government announced demonetization, she heard about some people dying in the wait. She tried to explain to her parents that even if you support the majority party, criticism of government policy is the duty of a responsible citizen. She was shushed. This wasn’t the first time. She knows it won’t be the last. She wants to be herself. Yet, every single day she loses in the battle against her true enemy: rigidity of mindset, constantly nurtured to achieve more profitable agendas.

It’s been a while since our book has been adorning my bookshelf. A glance at the cover and my mind buzzes with that simple question – What does it mean to be a liberal in India? Knowingly or unknowingly, FNF has shaped the most important political discourse of our time. It is saying, yes we know you call yourself a liberal. But what does that word mean to you? Are you actually a liberal in the true sense of the word, or are you just a phantom of it – shrouded in the innate hypocrisy of a country that is always a little too scared of its people’s liberal conscience?

Is your liberalism enough to take this country forward into a new millennia – even as the more developed of nations step back, surrender even, to their archaic prejudices? Even as your own country does so, every single day? Do you ever let the girl in the pixie cut and the loose kurta win?

I promised myself that I will not give away anything specific about our book. Doing that would snatch away from the reader, the book’s unique beauty. I will however, tell you that it tries to answer that terribly confusing question my teacher asked us all those years ago. It attempts to give expression to the girl in the pixie cut that lives a little bit, in each one of us. To be honest, there hasn’t been a single time that I have flipped through the pages of this book, and not felt a train of goosebumps along my skin.  Most of the time I wonder how in God’s name I made it alongside these amazing, intelligent people – some of whom have become good friends over time, and whose thoughts always put me in a state of awe. Other times, I think about how all of us are just ordinary young people, doing ordinary young people things: like going to college, writing blogs during our free time, or even just figuring life out. I read their stories over and over again. If what you believe in makes you who you are – then this book will promise you, in nineteen different ways, that when it comes to the spirit of liberalism – Young India will never run out of things to say.

When I wrote the essay, I decided to call myself a closet idealist. Almost everywhere I go, people ask me what it means. I used to say that it’s what you get when you live in contradiction – hiding away what you believe in. It’s been a year since then and I have grown in many ways than one. Ordinarily, I would document this personal growth through the fact that I recently battled an angry pigeon at my workplace washroom and lived to tell the tale. But, mostly, it’s about how many times a day I realize that all of life is a search for our greatest expression. It is in pursuit of that true expression that I find myself free of any fear that could put my opinions in a closet.

As of today, then, I am a hopeful idealist. One who sees conversation as the starting point of any revolution – intellectual or otherwise. So yes, I did not speak of our book for a reason. Pick it up. Feel the goosebumps along your skin. This is the political discourse of the India of tomorrow. This is each of the nineteen of us in an attempt at reaching our greatest expression. This is the beat of liberalism, steady against the chest of this vibrant country. Come, it seems to say. Let’s talk.