The Right Wing and the Myth of Selective Outrage

The constant propaganda that 'liberals' are selective in their criticism allows the right wing to assume a sense of victimhood

A spectre is haunting Indian mainstream and social media these days. Or rather, has been, for some time. In the wake of the gruesome lynching of a Muslim man by a mob in Dadri on September 28, allegedly at the behest of the son of a local BJP leader, that spectre suddenly seems to be making itself visible with greater vividness. Propagated by those with broad sympathies for the Hindu Right or, at the very least, the BJP, this is the idea that ‘liberals’ who have condemned the Dadri lynching as communal are guilty of selectively outraging at causes that involve Hindu perpetrators and Muslim victims.

In a variant of the argument—and one that needs to be commended for its ingenious sophistry—the criticism of a government that either tacitly encourages such actions or is indifferent to them at best then becomes proof of the deep-seated illiberality of the liberal lot, a form of prejudice against the BJP, Hindus, and Hinduism more generally. Evidence for such claims is inevitably thin, but consists typically of referring to an imagined or attributed liberal silence to particular incidences of Hindu oppression in Bangladesh, violence by Naxalites, the displacement of Kashmiri Pandits, or global conspiracies involving the Church, the Gandhi dynasty, and the agents of both.

The claim, reeking of a sense of self-pitying and injured hurt, is necessarily vague. Indeed, it has to be vague to the point of being meaningless for it be to infinitely repeatable like a mantra. It can be used for any occasion when an aura of victimhood needs to be conjured by Hindu nationalist ideologues, till it starts to function like an objective memory of a truth mysteriously concealed by nefarious interests.

Absurd claim

This absurdity of the claim is revealed both by an appeal to the history of protest against communal violence in India. But history, as is well known, is what the Hindu Right has always found distinctly discomfiting; ergo, its attempts to reshape the objectives, scope, and method of what it deems the tradition of anti-Hindu secular history in India. Additionally, the belief—symptomatic of our times—that if something cannot be Googled it does not exist, translates into a convenient refusal to actually undertake even any basic research to confirm any particular claim of the myth of selective outrage.

Any familiarity with the history of protest in India will reveal that civil society groups, citizen initiatives, and prominent individual voices have consistently spoken against the actions of the Indian state, regardless of which political party has formed or spearheaded a government and regardless of which community has been the perpetrator or victim. Radha Kumar’s book, The History of Doing: An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women’s Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990, is an excellent chronicle of the history of struggles for gender equality in India. Even a cursory glance at the archives of the South Asia Citizens Wire will reveal a consistently critical opposition to the oppressive policies and practices of various state governments and religious or ethnic groups (whether they are majorities or minorities) and fundamentalist organisations within any of the nations in the region. Academics, journalists, and activists within India have drawn attention to the excesses of the Indian state, whether under the temporary stewardship of Congress-led or BJP-coalitions, in Kashmir, the Northeast, or against tribal communities.

And what the purveyors of the myths of selective outrage are either unable, or, more likely, unwilling to recognise is that many of the people and voices speaking loudly against communalism today are the same voices who spoke up after the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom in Delhi and the 1992-1993 communal riots in Mumbai. I do not simply mean prominent writers or activists in the public eye, but rather the ordinary citizens who marched in protest, or drew attention in their classes to the links between ideology and violence, or participated in confidence-building exercises in their neighbourhoods between members of different religious groups.

Unpacking the curious category of the ‘liberal’ in the imagination of the Hindu Right is also illuminating. Some voices in the Hindu Right, for instance, will claim that they are the true, authentic liberals while others will dismiss liberalism itself. Some will claim they are classic liberal nationalists while expressing sentiments that show them to be dyed-in-the-wool cultural nationalists. The lawyer Sanjay Hedge recently pointed to a similar contradiction in the Hindu Right’s understanding of secularism, which involves both a rejection of secularism per se and the claim that Hinduism itself is an intrinsically secular faith.

The much-reviled ‘liberal’

The ‘liberal’, as the Hindu Right understands him or her is essentially a catch-all oppositional category, to include secularists, so-called ‘anti-Hindus’, Marxists, Maoists, Congress and AAP members, unfavored media persons, or critics of the government. Its extreme generality is what allows it to be deployed quite easily as term of abuse, as a synonym for dissembler. Under the slightest scrutiny, though, it is exposed as an incoherent formulation that collapses under the weight of its own contradictions.

It is not coincidental that the death of Akhlaq, murdered in Dadri by a 200-strong mob of Hindus, was sparked by a rumour. Or, to call it for what it is—by the outright lie that his family had slaughtered a cow. Falsehoods so blatant and pernicious can only be supported by a scaffolding of other lies, that are constantly reinforced across various media. Akhlaq’s family must have been guilty of cow slaughter. The media must have blanked out the evidence. The liberals will not hold the media accountable. Why are we calling the mob that killed him Hindu even if the members were so? Foreign-funded NGOs must be involved. Anti-Indian interests funding well-known television channels must have hushed it up. Turncoats and quislings within the government must have betrayed Hindu interests. To this glorious galaxy of paranoid claims belongs the idea or the myth of selective outrage. It already operates as a kind of common sense among what, in caste and class terms, is a privileged Hindu majority with a persecution complex. Fear the day it also becomes a reason of state in India.

The writer is a US-based academic