There could not be a more grisly method, even when it involves no violence, to cover up ghastly crimes committed by a people than to indulge in the fallacy of false equivalence. In this fallacy, two incomparable things are compared and declared to be equal because there are always two sides to the story.
What is going on in the aftermath of the worst communal violence in Delhi since 1984, in which 34 Muslims and 15 Hindus have died, is precisely this fallacy. Thus, here, both Hindus and Muslims are at fault for the violence; hence the refusal to call it a pogrom or state-backed violence against Muslims despite all the evidence.
Moral equivalence completely obscures the root causes of a problem. It instead focuses on the immediate and the superficial, and is employed by well-intentioned observers as well as Hindutva supporters when on the defensive.
Thus, six years of relentless hate-mongering against Muslims is seen to be of no consequence in creating an absolutely inflammable social sphere.
In no period of Indian political history after Partition has so much hate pervaded the public sphere. WhatsApp groups and Twitter timelines have become a cesspool of the most morbid fantasies of hate against Muslims, all purveyed by otherwise “civil”, “decent” “educated” and “family-oriented” Hindus.
To place the responsibility of violence on the illiterate, poor and unemployed mobs is to completely miss the pathologies amongst us, the privileged and the powerful, which are the greatest enablers of violence.
These are the times when on the most watched primetime television news debates every night, it is absolutely normal for the anchors and BJP spokespersons to call Muslim panelists terrorists and anti-nationals.
These are times when the prime minister himself openly calls the entire Muslim community as rioters and brazenly mocks an Opposition leader as being punished by the Hindus, when the second most powerful person in the country calls a Muslim-dominated area as Pakistan, when the governor of a state propagates the most incendiary hate against Muslims daily, and when a chief minister of Uttar Pradesh equates one of the greatest icons of modern India with a dreaded terrorist: “There is no difference between the language of Shahrukh Khan and that of Hafiz Saeed.”
If this is the fate of a Shahrukh Khan, arguably the biggest film star in the world, what about that of an ordinary Muslim in Narendra Modi’s India?
These are the times when a Union minister can declare that Rahul Gandhi is the son of a Muslim. Of course, the insinuation is that being a Muslim is a crime – plain and simple.
To focus only on the Kapil Mishras, Anurag Thakurs, and the Parvesh Vermas, as if they are some elements which have gone rogue, is to miss that they are totally in sync with the discourse authored and sanctioned by none less than the prime minister of the Indian republic.
Whenever confronted with this stark reality, Hindutva supporters respond with whataboutery like “what about Waris Pathan?” and “what about “Sharjeel Imam?”
Moral culpability is denied through false equivalence. In this moral universe, Waris Pathan’s hate speech will be equal to that of Narendra Modi, and Sharjeel Imam’s to Amit Shah’s.
It does not matter that Modi is among the ten most powerful leaders of the world, the third most followed political leader on Twitter, commanding the support of 303 party MPs, and Waris Pathan is a former MLA of a party with two MPs and barely known to Muslims outside his state. It does not matter Amit Shah is supposedly the most powerful home minister since Sardar Patel, and Imam an ordinary student. Their speeches have the same impact on society in terms of influencing people’s actions.
In that case, can we also ask: if Imam’s speech to cut off Assam through a roadblock constitutes sedition, does Amit Shah’s speech terming an entire Indian minority community as Pakistan supporters constitute sedition as well?
It is not that Hindutva supporters equate vastly different phenomena with vastly different consequences, but they also willfully gloss over facts like 80%-90% of VIP (ministers, MPs, MLAs) hate speech has been perpetrated by the BJP, or that the head of the BJP’s IT Cell is the greatest disseminator of the most dangerous and fake communal propaganda. There is simply no comparison between the ruling party and other parties.
False equivalence is what equates anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests chanting the national anthem and the names of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh with pro-CAA protestors chanting “Goli maro…”
For the first time in Independent India, ordinary Muslims, especially women, have come out in large numbers, overwhelmingly in a peaceful fashion, breaking the shackles of the thoroughly self-serving and regressive religious and elite leadership, to protect Indian democracy and the constitution. This is a landmark moment. Yet, what does the legitimate and democratic protests get branded as? As “anti-nationals” and “traitors”.
And do not for a moment think that this is an outcome of the anti-CAA protests; for, much before the CAA was passed, the hashtags, “#TotalBoycottofMuslims,” “#BoycottAllah” and “#ProphetisGay” were trending on Twitter, with handles followed by Modi and senior ministers participating in them.
The same facetiously dangerous false equivalence can be seen when the argument of anti-CAA protestors inconveniencing public commute is proffered as a reason for the riots. Again, the killing people and burning of their homes is seen as a legitimate response to a civil disobedience tactic practiced from the dawn of democracy.
Further, it is asked in all innocence as to how the CAA is discriminatory, when it clearly challenges the non-discriminatory provisions of the Indian constitution and politically posits religious oppression as perpetrated by Muslim nations only (otherwise the Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka would have been equally deserving of citizenship). And when in combination with the NRC, the CAA is a dangerous proposition for Muslim citizenship.
Yet, the PM and his party term the Muslims as misguided by opposition parties.
Are the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 626 of the 750 European Parliament MPs, the Conservative Party-led government of the United Kingdom, the United Nations Secretary General, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, numerous other governments and independent organisations, international press, all, just as deluded as the Muslims of India to think the CAA as divisive and discriminatory?
But are they really deluded when the rioters destroying mosques explicitly mention CAA-NRC as a tool to remove Muslims, and the Hindutva propaganda on the ground also echoes the same narrative?
Muslims are not just deluded, but also apparently prone to violence. But the crucial question as to why in the past six years, Muslims did not come out on the streets, after many lynchings, after the revocation of Article 370 or the Babri Masjid verdict, is not asked.
The narrative of moral equivalence is persisted with regard to the Delhi violence, despite the overwhelming evidence of the police acting emphatically in favour of one side. A wide swathe of retired police officers has opined that it is impossible for riots to go on beyond a few hours, especially in the capital of India, with a relatively better-equipped and 80,000-strong police force, without police complicity and sanction.
When the police participates along with mobs of one community in targeting the other when, it breaks CCTVs to hide its gross violation of law, it stands alongside a BJP leader making a hate speech, it fails to respond adequately to 13,000 SOS calls, and it makes the grievously injured sing the national anthem, there are no two equal sides of the story.
Another move in equivalence is to blame everything on the incompetence of the police as if the deeply politicised police in India acts without the explicit instruction of its political masters.
What kind of an equivalence are we talking about when the high court has to be approached in the middle of the night to allow the safe passage of ambulances, when the judge who orders the registration of FIRs against hate speeches is moved out promptly (note: it is the same judge who convicted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar for the 1984 pogrom), and the police submits that it is not the appropriate time to register FIRs?
Where is equivalence when the prime minister takes 69 hours to even tweet a message about the violence, does not offer condolences to the victims, nor thinks it is important to visit the violence-hit areas which lie a mere 14 kilometres from his residence? This is the same PM who travelled 2,500 kilometres to visit a temple in Kerala – where a firecracker accident killed over a 100 people – and against the advice of the state police chief who was worried about scarce police forces being diverted for VIP security.
And finally, it is dangerous false equivalences which have led us to the conjuncture in which a speech of Harsh Mander (the former bureaucrat who played a stellar role in saving hundreds of lives in the 1984 massacre) made two months ago is charged with instigating the riots. The speech ended with these words:
“The only answer we have to their hate is love. They will resort to violence, they will instigate us to indulge in violence but we will never carry out any violence…We have learnt from Gandhi ji how to respond to violence and injustice. We will fight with non-violence.”
This is when false equivalence fails to recognise not only the unbridled state-backed violent majoritarianism but also its farcical nature.
To counter false equivalence and to assert what happened in Delhi was an anti-Muslim pogrom, we do not have to take the morally dubious position of denying that there has been the loss of innocent lives among Hindus as well (after all, what can be more heartbreaking than losing a 15-year old boy – the youngest victim of the violence, Nitin Kumar – who was killed while stepping out to buy food), or that the victims are not capable of brutality.
But to remain at the level of a statistical apportioning of grief, or false equivalence is to fundamentally misread the nature of the beast which has succeeded in replacing every critical problem in India with the narrative of a Hindu-Muslim war, and which has produced suffering even among the oppressors.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada, and tweets @nmannathukkaren.