This Article is From Jul 03, 2017

A Response To Swapan Dasgupta's Times Of India Blog

Swapan Dasgupta has an extraordinary blog piece in this morning's The Times Of India. In it, he lists the philosophical and temperamental sins of liberals who, to use his word, "flaunted" Not In My Name placards at the protests organized across India on Thursday against the recent cluster of lynchings that have sickened India and the world. The violence has mostly been in the context of people transporting cattle, or people suspected of eating beef, neither of which is illegal. The victims have been mostly Dalit or Muslim.

Dasgupta frames this anti-lynching protest as an expression of aesthetic more than moral outrage. This is presumably because "aesthetic" can be dismissed as a slighter, more frivolous philosophical obsession, confined to those few rich enough to have time and space for such minor preoccupations. 

After spending half his time quite reasonably agreeing that in addition to political violence, there is, in fact, much ugliness and violence in Indian civic society, Dasgupta presents two major arguments for why protesting this ugly lawlessness, and the Prime Minister's silence, is self-defeating. 

His first argument is that the protest displayed politically-coloured "selective indignation". Dasgupta cites the protesters' silence on the lynching of Kashmiri police officer Ayub Pandith in Srinagar just a few days earlier, the inference being that liberals don't mind murderous mobs as long as they are Muslim. This is just factually incorrect. Either Dasgupta wasn't there, or he wasn't listening, because Ayub Pandith was mentioned several times on stage. And there were certainly politics there, but they were entirely personal. I'm pretty sure it's normal for people to have political opinions. It's very helpful at the ballot box.

More broadly, Dasgupta accuses the protesters of repeatedly invoking "the beef controversy", as if this constitutes needless overreach in a protest against killing people for eating or being associated with beef. He says the murder of a teenaged Muslim boy on a train in Haryana is a reflection of popular mentality, not of politics - as though no BJP leader has ever enabled and encouraged this mentality by demonizing Muslims as aliens to India, as Hindu-murderers, and as a community Hindus can never live with (Exhibit A: Chief Minister of UP Adityanath, appointed by PM Modi); as though no BJP political figure has ever legitimized the murder of an innocent Muslim by draping the corpse of his murderer in the tricolor (Exhibit B: Union Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma); as though no BJP leaders have ever attended meetings where people were exhorted to kill Muslims (Exhibit C: A Sangh meeting in Agra in 2016 attended by several BJP leaders); as though there is no such thing as Hindutva-affiliated groups in Uttar Pradesh running camps to arm and train children to hate and kill Muslims.

But citizens join the dots for themselves, whether or not they are particularly political animals, and many of us don't like what we see. Politically-obligated entities like Dasgupta much prefer the fiction that all dots are isolated incidents that do not amount to a pattern. This is his political task, as an ardent supporter of the BJP, and that too is perfectly transparent to citizens.

His second argument is the "generous measure of social condescension" he witnessed - not at the protest, but on social media chatter - which indicates, to him, that liberals are more concerned about lunching than lynching (I paraphrase). He says that the protesters represent a "rootless cosmopolitanism" which attempts to use the Constitution to sanction beef-eating in the face of common decency, since "the prohibition on beef carries a large measure of social sanction." To make this argument, he has to brush aside the BJP's brazen doublespeak on beef in the Northeast and Kerala with a low-volume "some states apart", and completely ignore the inconvenient fact that if social sanction were sacrosanct, we would not have laws against sati, gender violence, rape, and child labour.

Somehow he determines that all of this anti-murder protesting is aimed at fostering Hindu self-flagellation. This beats me, though not in the Hindu self-flagellating way. Stripped to the bone, his argument is that a confident Hindu would be radiant with understanding about the mob's feelings, rather than whining about murder. That if liberals weren't so culturally out of it, and had a "more evolved sense of rootedness", they wouldn't think the lynchings displayed a lack of humanity.

Dasgupta's piece would be inane, but unremarkable, if it stayed in this region, limiting itself to right wing cant and the journalistic equivalent of poking snails with a stick to see if he can hassle them into retreating into their shells. 

But he goes further, bookending his piece with an attempt to frame the anti-lynching protest as treachery. His opening quote about aesthetics is from a Le Carré novel, spoken by a British intelligence officer turned Soviet mole, explaining why he betrayed his country: '"It was," Haydon replied unhesitatingly, "an aesthetic choice as much as a moral one. The West has become so ugly."' Dasgupta's ending sentence is: "India may be imperfect, but it isn't so ugly as to warrant emotional treachery."

This is such a wonderfully whacked-out thing to say that, in another social climate, it would get a big laugh, but in today's climate of unthinking hyper-nationalism and political pseudo-nationalism, it is far more pernicious. For a Rajya Sabha member to gently, gently draw a link between liberals and treason, is nothing short of gentle, gentle incitement. It's disappointing at best, and willfully irresponsible at worst. Swapan Dasgupta knows very well that the greatest fight in India today is the fight over who does and does not belong in India, and under what conditions, and that those who do not enjoy what he calls "social sanction" are  vulnerable to the mob.

There are many such isolated instances of the Indian right-wing painting liberals as traitors, either directly or by insinuation. All of us, right, left, and centre, can join the dots.

This piece was updated on July 3, 2017 at 11:40 am.

(Mitali Saran is a freelance writer and columnist based in New Delhi.)

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