The truth about ‘appeasement’

Mihir Sharma, BS

Muzaffarnagar has been quiet for a very short while, but the vultures have only grown louder. In the aftermath of the communalriots there, a familiar pattern has emerged: an oft-repeated demand for “even-handedness” in the discussion of what happened – which amounts to little more than a demand that equal suffering and therefore equal victimhood be apportioned to both communities involved. As an extension, any reporting or mention of the Muzaffarnagar violence that appears to privilege Muslim suffering, , is suspect in the eyes of these defenders of “even-handedness”.This would be an unexceptionable demand, except when it starts taking liberties with facts. It is true, for example, that people both Jat and Muslim were killed, and people both Jat and Muslim killed. No implication to the contrary is acceptable. However, there is another crucial fact which is essential to note: that 45,000 Muslims are reportedly in refugee camps, the number of Jats in camps is a minuscule fraction of that. To the extent that Muzaffarnagar is a continuing tragedy; and to the degree that it reveals structural failures in Indian society, that is a very important fact indeed. In the absence of even-handedness in the real world, “even-handedness” in reporting would be an outright lie.

A similar pattern was visible during the violence one year ago in Assam. Then too, 2,30,000 Bengali Muslims were in camps and only a quarter as many Bodos; but that fact, and the inequality of impact it implies, was deliberately and cynically glossed over by most commentary.

Around this superficially reasonable, but actually disingenuous core of “even-handedness”, even more insidious narratives can be woven. One, in particular, is problematic: that victimhood was shared equally, but the state cares only about one sort of victim – the Muslim one. A glaring example of this was the Times of India’s Page One story on the subject. Here’s its headline in print: ‘Haven’t we lost dear ones, ask Jats as PM, Sonia visit riot victims.’ Here’s the headline online: ‘Jats sore at PM, Sonia for visiting only Muslim relief camps.’ The article claimed that the leaders of the United Progressive Alliance – and, by extension, what Delhi-based politician Yogendra Yadav tendentiously described on NDTV as the “secular establishment” – ignored Jat suffering. The text even said, specifically, that the UPAconvoys stops at Jat villages were “unscheduled” – an assertion which, according to several of those reporting on the convoy, does not seem to be true. For anyone who bothers to read the text of the article, the reason for this pseudo-secular desire to “skip” Jat relief camps becomes obvious: it isn’t as if the majority of Jats left home, and it isn’t as if they are in camps. One of the Jat villagers quoted in the story specifically says: “they are hiding in the residences of their relatives, or in other cities”. So why, precisely, did the Times of India imply the PM, representing the Indian state, should have been visiting camps that didn’t exist? The twisting of the narrative is obvious.

The fruit of distortion

The worrying product of this distortion becomes clear when you then read the commentary on the subject – such as Advaita Kala’s column on the subject in Mail Today. Riffing on a picture published of the prime minister being beseeched by a man wearing a skullcap for help – a man sufficiently “Muslim-looking” to gain VIP entry to a Narendra Modi rally, even – Ms Kala says: “this image only represents one side of the story, how deviously provocative a stance it is in its communication of this skewed understanding of secularity.” In other words, since Dr Singh was photographed with a man in a skullcap at a relief camp, he, like most Indian politicians since Nehru, was indulging in pandering to Muslim victimhood and ignoring Hindu suffering.

Ms Kala goes on to say she is concerned that she will be branded as “communal” for saying so. I don’t think for a moment she is (disclaimer: she’s a friend of mine), nor is what she wrote an uncommon sentiment. It’s a sad but inevitable consequence of what she reads and hears in the media – which is in turn the product of allowing a lazy on “even-handedness”, as well as a profit-seeking desire to craft provocative and tweetable headlines, to get in the way of telling the truth.

And, sometimes, even when telling the truth, the decision is taken not to tell the whole truth, again in the service of the reigning “politics-as-appeasement” wisdom. Consider, for example, the much-publicised “sting operation” by Headlines Today. This news channel – which is twice as irresponsible as Times Now while only being a quarter as entertaining – ran secretly-recorded interviews with Muzaffarnagar policemen in which the cops claimed that they had arrested, on August 27, Muslim men who were part of the original round of violence, but then had been forced to free them thanks to political pressure from powerful people in UP’s rulingSamajwadi Party.

Now, nobody can claim the SP is a fan of law and order; it is known for its tolerance of thuggishness, especially in the communities from which it draws support, among which Yadavs and Muslims are paramount. That the SP government was tardy and irresponsible in its response to the riots is beyond dispute; in fact, the timeline itself makes that clear, we don’t need this ridiculous “sting” to prove it.

So what is the point of such reporting? The crassly sensationalistic name gives it away: Operation Riots for Votes. The poor UP police just wanted to do their job, but were used to provoke riots instead, to kill Jats. The state is supposed to be secular, and even-handed; but it goes out of its way to protect Muslims, for electoral reasons.

Was this an accurate reflection of the attitude of the state? Read this careful reporting by The Sunday Guardian as a companion article. Far from just staying away from Muslims, as Headlines Today wants us to believe, the police then raided Muslim localities on the 8th and 9th of September. Residents complained they were forbidden to drink water, that children were beaten up and houses trashed by the police, who were using “communal language” all the while. The correspondents reported that signs of the destruction are still visible.

This will surprise nobody who knows even the slightest bit about communal riots in UP and Bihar; the local police and especially the Provincial Armed Constabulary are and always have been notoriously one-sided. And the “side” they back isn’t the “side” that we are being sententiously told the Indian state is on. They don’t pamper Muslims, they beat them up and arrest them without charges. Riots for votes, indeed. Whose votes, again?

A false equivalence

So what is the point of such narratives? Why is it that, on television, on Twitter and Facebook, and even in some print publications, we are being told the outright lie that the state is more responsive to Muslim pain than Hindu pain? The answer, of course, is that it permits even self-declared moderates to draw an equivalence between the Bharatiya Janata Party (which trumpets its disdain for state secularism from the rooftops of demolished mosques) and every other political force in India. The SP is not merely thuggish and backward-looking: it foments riots for votes. The Congress’ leadership is not merely out-of-touch and ineffective: it cares only about Muslim victims. Both of them see Muslims as only victims, and Muslims as the only victims. So why should Indian secularism matter, anyway?

Even Muslims are tired of this, we are piously told – never mind the fact that any Muslim you speak to in UP, like any Dalit, says he or she will vote first of all for those who will provide them with protection from the threat of violence. But that’s not the secularism or lower-caste empowerment good middle-class liberals would like to see, right? Because it gets you Mulayam or Mayawati. So embarrassing they are. So let’s pretend its all a product of “appeasement”, of “vote banks”, and not of a continuing search for basic security that is disgraceful in a state more than 60 years old.

To reiterate: the SP is not a shining light of the Enlightenment. And the Congress is the most opportunistic of panderers to religious sentiment one way or the other – Muslim in UP, Christian in Kerala, animist in Niyamgiri and, yes, Hindu in Gujarat. But there’s no logical link – none whatsoever – between agreeing to that and denying that upper-caste Hindu majoritarianism is more capable of enduring violence and dispossession across India than any other force. There is no logical equivalence between these truths about most of India’s political forces, and the preening dangers of Hindutva.

So when the equivalence doesn’t fit the facts, it should be discarded. And the simple truth is that in Muzaffarnagar, as always, the police did not work to protect Muslims. Yes, both killed both. But another simple truth is that here, as always, it is still overwhelmingly Muslims who are in relief camps and scared of returning to their homes. The simplest of truths is that the Indian state is not even-handed. The simplest of truths is that there is no equal protection. Imposing an “even-handedness” after the fact is a vicious distortion of reality, the sort that should be resisted and shown up for the barefaced and motivated lie it is.