There is a story that most Muslims learn at a young age, about an old woman in Mecca who disliked the Prophet. Every time he would pass by her house, she would throw trash at him. One day when he was passing by and this did not happen, he enquired, and found she was ill, so he went to visit her to wish her well.
The core message of this story – that our interactions with others should be determined by our ethical standards rather than the way they treat us – is not unique to Islam. Much of the Buddhist philosophy of “right conduct” is based on this exact same idea, that an enlightened individual acts out of their own conviction rather than merely reacts to the world, avoiding being enmeshed in the cycle of karma. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna’s advice to Arjuna echoes similar sentiments.
For many people, such high-minded actions seem naïve, or at least more appropriate for the religious or moral texts we read but do not obey. We admire saints, but do not want them. Even for Muslims, for whom the Prophet’s conduct is supposed to be the best example of proper behaviour, such things remain as inspirational stories more than practised in life.
And yet this principle is not just relegated to the moral or spiritual sphere. It has practical application in the secular space as well. For example, any self-respecting state aspires to be more than just a criminal gang among other criminal gangs. This is why we respond to crime with law, and not with revenge. It is also why extra-judicial murders, whether called “encounters” by the Indian police, or “targeted killings” by the Israeli and US military, are so abhorrent. Instead of building a trust in due process, one in which decisions can be double-checked and mistakes revealed and corrected, we end up in a cycle of thuggery, with little legitimacy except for the terror one can wield. Even worse, such actions are paid for, and done, in the name of a general public that has no ability to enforce any checks or balances.
In business management too, we are taught that the first group necessary to communicate to is your own team, and then those receptive to your ideas. Only after that is it important to convince those independent of your organisation or those opposed to you. In military terms, this is known as esprit de corps, that almost ineffable quality which is found in a team of military personnel that truly believes in its mission, and is thus able to take on enemy forces that are larger and better resourced than itself if their opponent lacks that commitment.
This is a long introduction to make the case that when it comes to the wrestlers protesting against BJP MP Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh for alleged sexual harassment, it is both the moral as well as the pragmatic thing to do to support them. Many of these wrestlers have expressed their support for the BJP in the past, when the assaults were not against them. They may continue to support the government even now, or after their particular issue is resolved.
For those opposed to the BJP, it may be tempting to say, “Well, they made their bed, let them lie in it.” Or more pragmatically, that these are people who will only speak up for their own rights and not that of others, so it is no use supporting them.
There is power and honesty in these statements, but they do not capture the whole picture. When we act, or speak, to defend the rights of others it is not a transactional relationship. It is not, “because I defended you, you must defend me”. That would be good, yes, but we protest against immoral and illegal acts not just because we share a relationship with that person, but because we do not want to live in an immoral society governed by criminals.
For all the talk of “masterstrokes” and how the opposition needs its cold-blooded Machiavellian machinations, the most powerful weapon an opposition has is to communicate to its own cadre, to its own supporters and those likely to listen, that they represent a truly better option. They must show what they stand for, and it must be something that people can rally around. This is why when the rights of even the government’s supporters are violated by the government, the opposition must speak, and speak clearly.
Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.