A similar thing is happening in the national debate in India regarding the intolerance of the majority Hindus towards the minority Muslims. It is no surprise to most people who have been following events in India that there have been several high-profile attacks on Muslims by Hindus in the last two years, with the active encouragement of senior people in the ruling BJP government at the centre: Mohammad Akhlaque, Pehlu Khan, and Junaid Khan come immediately to mind. These attacks are often tacitly encouraged by the ruling party at the centre, by its key ministers, MLAs, MPs, party Vice-Presidents and intellectuals making statements justifying such attacks, while the person who is the unquestioned leader of the party – the Prime Minister – whose word is paramount, maintains a studied silence and refuses to condemn the statements of his party members and even his cabinet colleagues. There was also the horrific attack on Dalits in Una, where they were publicly flogged outside the police stationby a mob.
When liberals in India are shocked at these murders, disenfranchisements, and injustices, and speak out against them, supporters of the Hindu right in India often confront them with the following arguments:
- What about the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits? Did you protest about that?
- What about Sikhs who were killed in 1984? Did you protest about that?
- What about Hindus who were killed by Muslim mobs?
- What about the riots that took place in Bengal recently when a 17-year old posted an offensive cartoon about the Prophet? Did you condemn the violence?
- And what about the time when Kamlesh Tiwari was hounded by Muslims for making offensive statements about Islam? Where was your commitment to free speech then?
Collectively, these arguments are referred to in modern parlance as “Whataboutery”, because all of them start with “What about…” They are attempts to distract the focus from the issue at hand to a completely different issue.
The Hindu right has been hammering on these points consistently for years now. And it is clearly having an effect in framing the debate. Some time back, I watched a program on NDTV titled “The Big Fight” and subtitled “Selective Outrage.”
The focus of the program was whether civil society members are guilty of selective outrage; whether they only protest and complain about Muslim victims of discrimination, and not about Hindu victims; whether they stay silent about restrictions on freedom of speech on Hindus, but not on Muslims; whether they only protest about the murder of Mohammad Akhlaque in Dadri, but not of Ayub Pandith in Kashmir; whether they are silent about Malda; and so on. Civil society members who participated were subjected to grilling by those from the right-wing to prove their even-handedness and to prove that they were not biased.
And the interesting thing is: they fell for it. They stood there in the studio trying to prove their bonafides as unbiased human rights campaigners.
This, I will argue in this article, is a bunch of hooey.
And it is a sign of how much the Hindu right has succeeded in brainwashing Indians that this happened on the only mainstream liberal TV channel in India. The anchor, Vikram Chandra, was also agreeing that those who did criticize human rights violations needed to be fair and even-handed and not selective.
That is a sign of how deep the rot runs in our morals in India.
The idea that one is not entitled to talk about injustices unless one talks about all injustices is a red herring that has been successfully implanted in the Indian liberal psyche today. Injustices do not become any less unjust just because someone else has endured similar injustice. Murder does not cease to be abhorrent and repulsive simply because it has occurred elsewhere and with someone else. Discrimination does not become any more palatable simply because they have been experienced by other communities. [perfectpullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Injustices do not become any less unjust just because someone else has endured similar injustice.[/perfectpullquote]
It is also an impossible and unnatural expectation to argue that one has to be consistent in opposing all forms of injustice in order to be a credible opponent of injustice. Consider the situation in which I, as a Tamilian, would have faced in Mumbai in the 1960s, where Tamilians were subject to harassment and beatings because they were perceived to be taking jobs away from Maharashtrians. If I chose to complain about the plight of my fellow-Tamils (even if I had not been personally affected), could someone tell me that my complaints were not valid unless I talked about, for example, the injustices faced by tribals in India; or that faced by Biharis in Bengal; and so on? No.
To take another example, think about the Telangana agitation of 2009-2011. People from the Telangana region wanted their own state and did not want to be part of the Andhra Pradesh state. They had their grievances as to why they wanted this new state – a list of perceived injustices they were facing as part of the state of Andhra Pradesh. Without getting into the validity of those grievances, all we need to note is that nobody asked the Telangana activists, “What about Vidarbha?” Vidarbha, too, is a region seeking statehood for itself, separate from Maharashtra. Nobody asked that question because it was obvious that the Telangana activists were only fighting for their cause. They were not saying they were fighting for every disenfranchised community in every state in India who wanted their own state. The point is that every agitation, complaint, grievance, demand, or movement needs to be evaluated and judged on its own merit, not by looking at other agitations, complaints, grievances, demands, or movements. People need to decide for themselves if there is merit in the claims of injustices and decide whether or not to support them.
To take yet another example, would someone who is fighting for the rights of Dalits be asked “What about the rights of blacks in America? What about the discrimination they face? Why aren’t you talking about that?” Or would he be asked why he did not talk about the persecution of Jews in the world through history? Those are totally irrelevant questions to the question of Dalit injustices. To be sure, there are injustices in all these cases. But if I am a Dalits rights activist, that is my focus – I neither have the interest nor the knowledge to talk intelligently about the problems of blacks in America.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Intolerance is intolerance; both the actions of the Bengali Muslims and the extremist Hindus who forced Husain to leave India are intolerant. That one does not talk about one intolerant incident does not make the other incident tolerant.[/perfectpullquote] To come to some of the specifics of the arguments raised by the Hindu right, I do not know enough about the Kashmir problem. I agree that there has been an injustice against the Kashmiri Pandits, but I do not know much more beyond that. I have not spent the time needed to study the problem. So I do not speak out about the injustice done to Kashmiri Pandits. But that does not in any way reduce the moral force of my arguments when I talk about the horrible injustice done to a Pehlu Khan, who was lynched in public view for no fault at all – he was legally transporting cattle for dairy use, and had the requisite papers. I think this is a glaring and grave injustice, and whether or not I speak on the issue of Kashmiri Pandits does not make this any less of a grave injustice.
I have written about the injustice done to the Sikhs in 1984. But let us say that someone does not ever talk about it. Does it make his argument that a Junaid Khan was brutally and unfairly killed in a train just because he was a Muslim any less accurate or less valid — just because he never spoke out about 1984?
Let us say that someone did not speak up about the recent intolerance of Muslims in Bengal, who went on a rampage, causing riots and destroying property, simply because a Hindu posted an offensive cartoon on FB – that he or she said nothing about the fact that these Muslims wanted to lynch the teenager and burned down his house. If that same person raised the issue of MF Husain being hounded out of India by Hindu right-wing militants issuing death threats to him for his nude paintings of Indian goddesses, is his argument any less valid? No.
Intolerance is intolerance; both the actions of the Bengali Muslims and the extremist Hindus who forced Husain to leave India are intolerant. That one does not talk about one intolerant incident does not make the other incident tolerant.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I have the right to selective outrage, just as everyone else has. My selective outrage does not reduce the force of my arguments or make my arguments any less valid.[/perfectpullquote] It does not matter what else I comment about. I can choose to only talk about atrocities against Muslims and Dalits. That does not make me any less credible as a commentator. The only thing that should matter to my credibility is whether the arguments I am presenting are factual or not; whether they actually do represent an injustice. Two wrongs do not make a right. That some Hindu may have been treated unjustly does not make injustice against a Muslim justice. One murder does not cancel out the other.
People have their own pet causes. One person may constantly write about atrocities on Muslims; another about atrocities on Dalits; a third about atrocities on linguistic minorities in a particular state; a fourth on atrocities against Adivasis in the jungles of India; and a fifth about animal rights. Nobody needs to be a pan-Indian or a pan-World crusader against injustice for their arguments to be taken seriously. The only thing that is relevant is whether their arguments (that an injustice has occurred) has merit.
If I choose to highlight atrocities against Muslims and Dalits, you can choose to highlight atrocities against Hindus (if and when they do occur). My not talking about those does not make me a hypocrite. I am only a hypocrite if I oppose your right to speak about the injustices you wish to highlight.
Unfortunately, the present government does not seem to view all its citizens equally.
It should be understood that while my prescription applies to private citizens, it does not apply to Governments, whether of the Centre or the States. Governments are expected to be fair towards all their citizens; and so they should be equally concerned when a Muslim or a Dalit or a Christian or a Buddhist is hurt or aggrieved as when a Hindu is. Unfortunately, the present government does not seem to view all its citizens equally.
What is worrisome is that most liberals do not understand this basic fact, as the NDTV debate proved. Rather than defiantly say, “Yes, I will only talk about atrocities against Muslims and Dalits; if you so choose, you are welcome to highlight any atrocities against Hindus,” I find secular commentators everywhere falling over themselves, trying desperately to prove that they are even-handed in their criticism of right-wing Hindus.
What I am trying to say here is that there is no need for that – what matters is whether your arguments are factual and objective.
Nobody should have to apologize for the shortcomings in their knowledge or their inclinations – only for providing false information.
Incidentally, I have never seen a liberal ask a Hindu right wing activist “What about Akhlaque?” when the Hindu right-winger tries to bring up the subject of Kashmiri Pandits. All of them acknowledge that the grievance of the Pandits is a legitimate one. And that is the fundamental problem – that the Hindu right simply does not recognize injustices against minorities as injustices, unlike liberals who do acknowledge injustices against Hindus.
What this means that the main purpose of the whataboutery practiced by the Hindu right is not to highlight atrocities against the majority community, but to de-legitimize complaints of genuine injustices, such as lynchings, beatings, and disenfranchisements, done to minorities.
First published on LEFTBRAINWAVE