POLITICS

The Trouble With Swapan Dasgupta's 'Lynchings Are Bad, But....' Argument

Whataboutery.

04/07/2017 12:57 PM IST | Updated 04/07/2017 12:57 PM IST
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People participate in support of the campaign 'Not In My Name' against lynching of a Muslim teenager Junaid, at Carter Road, Bandra, on June 28, 2017 in Pune.

"It was without any doubt, a hate crime."

Political commentator and Rajya Sabha member Swapan Dasgupta admits unequivocally what many refuse to countenance — that the recent killing of Hafiz Junaid, a young Muslim teenager on a train appears to have been motivated by bigotry. The argument might have been over a train seat but the murder was bigotry plain and simple.

Sometimes when something is so plainly ugly, it's best not to qualify it.

This was a hate crime but...

There should be no buts about something as terrible as what happened that day.

And yet we are unable to resist.

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Many citizens hit the street in support of the campaign 'Not in My Name' against lynching of Muslim teenager Junaid at GPO, on June 28, 2017 in Lucknow, India.

It was a hate crime BUT we are like that only. Indians, you see, are prone to mob violence. Remember the revolt of 1857? "Sadly human life is very cheap in India," he writes. This time around it just happened to be a Muslim one. We should not read too much into it since we routinely bludgeon suspected witches and lynch robbers.

Solution: Better policing. This is an example of "callousness and ineptitude of law-enforcing agencies." That is indeed true. But as if to underscore that point, even as Mr Dasgupta was writing his column, news came that a police officer from Bulandshahar who stood up against local BJP leaders without fear or favour has been transferred. It was seen as an issue of party pride and a complaint was made by the local leaders against her to the Uttar Pradesh chief minister. And we wonder why the police seem callous, inept and unwilling to step on the toes of the powerful.

Suspicion of beef is merely the excuse. The real target is the suspicion of the other, the construction of the bogeyman, the Fifth column, the traitor in our midst.

It was a hate crime BUT what about that other one? We cannot talk about the riots of 2002 without bringing up the riots of 1984 as if one stain somehow justifies, or at least excuses, the other. This time too we have a whatabout story ready. The NotInMyName protests galvanized around young Junaid but what about Ayub Pandith, the policeman lynched in Kashmir by separatists milling around a mosque? As a matter of fact many of the protests did speak about Ayub Pandith. But no matter.

Solution: There is none really. Even if the protests spoke about Ayub Pandith, the corollary to the whataboutery argument runs like this. Yes, you spoke about X, but you tweeted far more about Y. Whataboutery has always been a strategy to silence an argument rather than expand it to be more even-handed. One can take media to task for underreporting one attack over another but it does not in any way mitigate the horror.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Many citizens and celebrities hit the street in support of the campaign 'Not In My Name' against lynching of a Muslim teenager Junaid, at Carter Road, Bandra.

It was a hate crime BUT you have to understand this is India and the cow is sacred to millions of Indians. Therefore this "irritation" over "the denial of food freedom" is an "affront to common decencies" and an "extravagant display of rootless cosmopolitanism". Basically, when in Rome one must do as the Romans do.

Solution: Eat your steak medium-rare in your club in London. But do not upset the natives by demanding beef in India. The problem is nobody goes out with placards saying #NotInMyName because they want chilli beef fry and like azaadi they want it now. The agitation is not about what's on the menu or what's off the menu at the Kerala House canteen. They are protesting because they are saying nobody should be lynched for what they eat or on suspicion of what might be in their refrigerator.

Incidentally "rootless cosmopolitanism" as many like Gyan Prakash have pointed out was the favoured term of Nazis.

Incidentally "rootless cosmopolitanism" as many like Gyan Prakash have pointed out was the favoured term of Nazis when they wanted to paint Jews as "alien to the Aryan culture of the German nation" as part of a "totalitarian mobilization of the population".

And thus Mr Dasgupta reveals what is really at stake here.

The problem is this is not about Je Suis Steak Eater at all. Suspicion of beef is merely the excuse. The real target is the suspicion of the other, the construction of the bogeyman, the Fifth column, the traitor in our midst. If Mr Dasgupta goes to the likes of Bengal Club and orders a steak, no one will raise an eyebrow. Even Dalits, unless caught skinning a cow, are relatively immune from being identified as beef eaters though they might be attacked and discriminated against on many other fronts. Someone from Nagaland can face "chinky" epithets in Delhi or be asked to show their passport to prove they are Indian, but they are not tagged automatically as beef eater.

But someone who looks Muslim is and he is quickly and automatically targeted as one in too many of these lynching stories. The boy on the train was not transporting cows like Pehlu Khan in Alwar. There were no WhatsApp forwards suggesting he had slaughtered a cow and had beef in his refrigerator like Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri. The attack in the train shows we do not need a cow, dead or alive, to play gau rakshak anymore. What the mob needs is a Muslim who looks Muslim and needs to be shown his place.

As Mitali Saran writes on NDTV: "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."

Many have pointed out cow protection laws are not new at all. Most of the ones in place were set there during Congress rule. It's unfair to single out the BJP for opening this can of worms. The laws might have been on the books but what has changed right now is the context. The cow has been placed firmly on the national agenda. Vigilantes are happy to take the law into their own hands and police and bystanders do little. The groups that violently attack in the name of the cow claim blessings of the ruling party and the ruling party does not disavow them, at least not too loudly.

Yes, the Prime Minister finally spoke out on lynching. He said no one had any right to do this. He spoke of his pain and anguish and told a story about a cow who inadvertently killed a boy and then starved herself to death in anguish. But the incidents of lynching will need more than anguish from the Prime Minister. He will have to show that there are actions that will match his words.

There's a proposal for a bill that makes lynching a non-bailable offence punishable with life imprisonment. But first we must be able to condemn a lynching at the highest level without any buts.

The Trouble With Swapan Dasgupta's 'Lynchings Are Bad, But' Argument

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