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The Hindu Notes for 13th October 2018

The usurpation of free speech

Furore over a BBC programme captures the worldwide success of the far right in capturing space on diverse platforms

  • Last month, ‘Newsnight’, a weekday BBC current affairs programme, faced much criticism online over a segment due to be aired that evening on 35-year-old Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon, better known to the world as Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the English Defence League and a cause célèbre of the far right globally. Alongside the provision of yet another platform to him, it was the way the story was promoted that troubled observers the most. Ahead of the programme, ‘Newsnight’ ran images of Mr. Robinson staring determinedly into the camera, his mouth covered with duct tape. “Is Tommy Robinson a man raising concerns that others ignore, or a far-right figure exploiting the victims of sexual abuse for his own ends?” asked the programme on its social media promotional.
  • This image of Mr. Robinson muzzled was the very one that he and his supporters had been seeking to project, despite the fact that as Miqdaad Versi, a spokesperson for the Muslim Council of Britain, noted on Twitter that in the last three months he has been mentioned on broadcast over 100 times. Far from him being shunned by the media, he has been interviewed on prominent news shows in recent years, as well as being an invitee at the Oxford Union. “Is Tommy Robinson being ignored and silenced by the media asks the media who won’t stop reporting on him,” tweeted Amna Saleem, a Scottish-Pakistani writer rather fittingly. The preposterousness of the suggestion that he is being silenced is also evidenced by his social media profile: clips of him speaking, often looking furtively into the camera as if to emphasise the supposed silencing, attract millions of viewers.
  • Image management

  • The notion that the far right is being muzzled despite the inordinate media attention it has garnered — from print, television, radio and digital — is one that it has managed to project with great success, feeding into the wider image the far right has attempted to propagate of it being an anti-establishment, revolutionary force. It also appears to be something that many of its proponents ardently believe. “We are being gagged,” a supporter of Mr. Robinson, wearing a t-shirt with the logo “#Free Speech #Free Tommy”, told the Canadian media website The Rebel Media outside a court recently. Hundreds of his supporters gathered outside the Old Bailey last month for a hearing over allegations of contempt of court that Mr. Robinson is facing over his filming of suspects in a criminal trial involving “grooming gangs”. While his supporters have insisted he is a “martyr” to the British cause, and the only one to speak out, others have rightly pointed out that he has simply exploited the case of grooming gangs to further his toxic, Islamophobic world view, exacerbating the situation and taking the attention away from the victims and the debate on real practicable ways in which grooming gangs could be prevented from harming more people in the future.
  • He is far from the only figure on the right in Britain to present himself as a “brave soldier” of free speech, and the “oppressed” — as among the only ones willing to take on the “dangerous liberals” supposedly trying to clamp down on free speech and impose their world view to the determinant of the marginalised majority. Katie Hopkins, an ultra-right campaigner, proclaimed herself the “Jesus of the outspoken”. In May, a “Day for Freedom” protest took place on London’s Parliament Square that attracted leading figures on the right. In April, Mark Meechan, a right-wing comedian, sought to portray a fine of £800 by a court in the U.K. for teaching a dog to do a Nazi salute for a YouTube video in terms of the curtailment of free speech.
  • In academia

  • The same contention has also been propagated by sections of the right more broadly. In an article last year, Niall Ferguson, the right-wing British historian of empire, insisted that the “biggest threat to free speech” came from the left. Last year, when academics and students protested against Oxford University’s support for the “ethics and empire” project that sought to create a list of the rights and wrongs of the empire, publications such as the Daily Mail accused them of bullying and attempting to silence Nigel Biggar, the professor behind the initiative. Last year, the Daily Telegraph ran an incendiary story accusing a young black student of “forcing” the University of Cambridge to replace white authors with black authors and only retracted the factually incorrect story after huge public outrage and a torrent of abuse directed at the student herself.
  • It has also manifested itself in other ways. Last year Britain’s Universities Minister gave priority to a requirement that universities be required to guarantee free speech or face fines and potential de-registration in a consultation that was set to take place, pointing to “examples of censorship”. This again appeared to be an acknowledgement of an argument propagated by those on the right that “snowflake” students — too easy to take offence — were somehow stifling voices on the right through no-platforming initiatives that sought to protest the space given to them to voice offensive perspectives. There have been a handful of cases where students have pushed for particularly controversial speakers not to be allowed to speak on campus, yet the right managed to put the issue at the top of the government’s agenda, despite the many challenges facing Britain’s university sector.
  • The mainstreaming of this perspective has been toxic and debilitating on public life in the U.K. and beyond. A fear of being perceived to be closed to the perspectives of the right — which has been labelled “balance” — has led to a willingness by media outlets to offer voices even on issues where scientific consensus leaves little doubt. Earlier this year, the BBC faced much criticism over the space it provided to climate change deniers, until a briefing note sent to the staff in September pointed to the danger of a “false balance”. “You do not need a ‘denier’ to balance the debate,” the organisation was forced to clarify to its staff in a reference to man-made climate change.
  • Meanwhile, the far right has continued to rise steadily, spurred on by burgeoning acceptance of the issues raised by them that would once have been unthinkable, including by the media. There are over 100 live terror investigations related to the far-right as of October, while it emerged that MI5 is to take the lead in dealing with right-wing terrorism amid rising concern about its reach. Last week at least five men were arrested in connection with a video that showed the burning of an effigy of London’s Grenfell Tower. The blaze at the tower, home to largely ethnic minority residents, in June 2017 killed 72 people.
  • Beyond Britain

  • The usurpation of the free speech debate by the far right is, of course, not confined to Britain. It has become an essential part of the playbook of the movement across the world, while Mr. Robinson himself is held up by right-wing figures across the world as a poster-boy. The unwillingness of the media in Britain and beyond to call out those efforts for what they are will only continue to bolster that effort. The ability of the media to confront the far right, without unconsciously or otherwise adopting its rules of engagement, and its positioning of debates, is likely to be one of its biggest challenges going forward.
  • A lost opportunity for the Congress?

    The party had everything going for it in Chhattisgarh, but showed no initiative

  • With the first phase of polling for the 90-member Chhattisgarh Assembly concluding on Monday, the month-long election schedule for the five States — Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana and Mizoram — finally began. Despite a boycott call by the Maoists, the turnout was about 70%, according to provisional figures put out by the Election Commission of India.
  • Of these five States, it could be argued that Chhattisgarh should have been the best bet for the Congress to register a victory — and in case the party fails to do as well as expected, it may look back in regret at some its election tactics.
  • Though Chief Minister Raman Singh is reasonably popular in spite of being in power for 15 years, it is natural to expect some anti-incumbency against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the State.
  • Political developments

  • Even some anti-incumbency would put the BJP in a difficult situation as the party managed to win the 2013 Assembly elections with a very slender margin, with less than 1 percentage point of the vote between it and the Congress. But political developments in the State suggest that the BJP is all set to win again this time as well.
  • Ajit Jogi, for long the face of the Congress, has floated his own party — the Janta Congress Chhattisgarh (JCC) — while the State Congress working president and well-known tribal leader Ramdayal Uike has joined the BJP.
  • The inability of the Congress to form an alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), which eventually joined hands with the JCC, could damage its electoral prospects.
  • Past elections

  • Here are the reasons why Chhattisgarh could have been an easy State for the Congress to secure. Though the BJP won three consecutive Assembly elections — 2003, 2008 and 2013 — its victories have been with a very narrow margins. The victories have just slipped from the Congress’s hand on all three occasions. The BJP also won a large number of seats with narrow margins. For example, in 2003, 26 seats of the 49 seats the BJP won were with a margin of less than 10,000 votes.
  • In 2008, 27 seats of the 50 seats the party won had a margin of less than 10,000 votes. In all three Assembly elections, half the seats won were with a margin less than 5,000 votes. A marginal shift in the support base of the BJP could result in the party losing between 12 and 14 seats, which would be good enough for the Congress to register a victory.
  • But the Congress has clearly missed the bus completely. It remained inactive even after the formation of the JCC. Mr. Jogi, without doubt, was the backbone of the Congress in the State for decades. His political move is bound to damage the vote bank of the Congress. Even after Mr. Jogi’s exit from the Congress, it may have been possible for the Congress to put up a strong contest against the BJP if it had managed to form an alliance with the BSP.
  • The first phase

  • While this would be the first Assembly election for the JCC, its alliance with the BSP is an important factor. Mr. Uike’s defection is also sure to not only damage the support base of the Congress but also add to the support base of the BJP.
  • This means that in the State which has voted the first, Chhattisgarh is certainly an opportunity lost as far as the Congress is concerned unless a miracle happens, which as of now appears to be unlikely.
  • The reason for renaming places

    It is the RSS-BJP’s message that Muslims have made no contribution to India’s cultural life

    reason for renaming places
  • We fail to see in the excitement generated by the incessant renaming of towns and railway stations in India that the past, which these new old names allude to, is an imagined land that we are being invited to inhabit. We are not exactly recovering lost ground, because as the Hindi poet Bodhisattva wrote, there never was a Prayag that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claim to be restoring now. What is being sold in the defence of capturing the glory of the past is an ideological construct.
  • This was clear when a nativist and “vulgar” name like Gurgaon was elevated to Gurugram. The defence used for the change was the myth of Gurugram having been the abode of Dronacharya. Gurgaon has been flaunted as a futuristic city. However, there was no protest from the citizens of this postmodern city to the name change. No question was raised about why the tradition of Dronacharya, who had tried to disable his student, Ekalavya, by cutting his thumb needed to be celebrated.
  • An imagined past

  • Why is the BJP getting away with this? Simply because, for a long time, we have been fed with nostalgia about an India that was “taken away” from us 1,200 years ago. We have been told — and we believe — that Bharat was once a “Sone Ki Chidiya (a golden bird)”. The era of the Guptas is referred to as “Swarna Yug (golden period)”. This historical imagination leads us to believe that the golden age ended with the coming of the Muslims and all we have to do now is go back to that period. When I heard an old, seasoned socialist lament the cowardice of the Indian people which kept them under different forms of slavery for more than 1,000 years, I realised that this is so deeply ingrained in us that it has almost become a part of our subconscious. This can also be the reason for Prime Minister Narendra Modi not facing censure in Parliament when he said, while speaking after the debate on the motion of thanks to the President for his address, that the slave mentality of 1,200 years continues to trouble us.
  • The subconscious feeling is that nothing new was created in this period, especially during the time of Muslim rule. It is that everything new was created before these rulers came here, and what they did was break what was created, distort them, or simply defile them by giving them new names, their names. So, the Babri Masjid could not be a new monument; it had to necessarily be built on the ruins of an earlier existing structure. Nor was the Taj Mahal; it was built on a Hindu temple. This feeling is of ownership as well as authorship. It feeds on a deep-seated inferiority complex among Hindus that the symbols representing India largely bear a Muslim identity, thereby making India look like a Muslim country. We take comfort in the so-called fact that nearly 95% of Muslims in India were originally Hindus who were later converted, and it is therefore possible to restore them to their Hinduness. It is the same belief that plays out in the quest to rename places and monuments — they don’t need to go, they only need to be renamed and rehabilitated.
  • It has been argued that even after centuries of “Muslim rule”, neither Prayag nor Ayodhya vanished. Ayodhya coexisted with Faizabad, and Allahabad kept Prayag alive in it. But the “originalists” will rest only after erasing Muslim or “alien” names which have covered the original Hindu names. But Indian culture presents a unique challenge for them. For example, how should Patna be rechristened? As Pataliputra, Bankipur or Patna Sahib? How do you deal with Sheikhpura? It has Sheikh, a Muslim-sounding name, plus Pura, which comes from a Sanskrit ‘pur’ or ‘puri’. What do we do with mohallas?
  • This brings us to the real intent, which is something else. In some villages in Haryana, Muslims live disguised under Hindu-sounding names. This is seen as their willingness to assimilate into “Indian culture”. Culture is manifested in names, clothing, food habits, etc. Muslims are constantly asked to adopt so-called Indian ways, which means accepting Hindu norms in all aspects of their life. It is now being argued that even mosques are not essential for their religious identity.
  • Cultural genocide

  • The renaming of places and “reclaiming” of monuments are part of a large and long process of cultural genocide. The term might be extreme for some people, but for Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, the cultural destruction of a group is as important as the physical annihilation of its members. According to Lemkin: “The world represents only so much culture and intellectual vigour as are created by its component national groups. Essentially the idea of a nation signifies constructive cooperation and original contributions, based upon genuine traditions, genuine culture, and well-developed national psychology. The destruction of a nation, therefore, results in the loss of its future contribution to the world... Among the basic features which have marked progress in civilization are the respect for and appreciation of the national characteristics and qualities contributed to world culture by different nations — characteristics and qualities which... are not to be measured in terms of national power or wealth.”
  • We need to stress on original contributions, on the genuine traditions that Lemkin mentions. A community feels diminished if it is made to think that it has not made any genuine, original contribution to the life of a nation of which it is a part. The drive to free India of Muslim influences is a clear message to the Muslims that this nation is not the result of cooperation between them and other religious communities. It is a message that they have made no contribution to India’s cultural life.
  • In The Discovery of India, Jawaharlal Nehru describes India as an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie have been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer has completely hidden or erased what had been written previously. Nehru understood the way cultures grow. They are not ordered from above. He does not propose that we go back to our origins to feel authentically Indian because there is no original point as such in the life of a nation. In the same vein, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in The Lies That Bind, says a nation is a “fabric to be woven, not a mineral to be mined.”
  • We must be clear that the present regime is not interested in culture. It is interested in capturing the nation by making Hindus feel that they have conquered this land and taken it back from “aliens”. A drug is being generated and it is putting people on a high. It is the drug of victory.
  • The nationalist project of the present ruling party is based on the idea of making invisible and subjugating an entire population to keep the majority in a permanent state of dominance. This renaming is part of a cultural genocidal project.
  • A history we must confront

    From the World Wars to Partition, there is a need to fill in the big gaps in Indian history textbooks

  • Two days ago, I watched my children being introduced to a parcel of their history — a tightly bundled up piece of the past that is difficult to confront. They were watching a Doctor Who episode on Partition called ‘Demons of the Punjab’. My son has just turned nine, roughly the age that my father was when Viceroy Mountbatten announced the results of Cyril Radcliffe’s red pen slashing through the map of imperial India. With that announcement, both my parents lost their ancestral homes, but they were the lucky ones for their nuclear families happened to be on the right side of that cartographical red line. Some of their extended family were not so fortunate.
  • The brutality of Partition

  • I watched my nine- and almost-11-year-olds grapple with the senseless violence that was hinted at, but mercifully not shown. As the protagonists of this television series travel back to August 1947, the lead character, the Doctor, says to Yas, whose history they are exploring, “It’s not just the country that gets divided. Tens of millions of people about to be displaced. More than a million about to die.” Coming as it did at the end of the ceremonies to commemorate the centenary of Armistice Day that marked the end of World War I, we were reflecting on the blood that has been spilled for our freedom, but I know I will have trouble helping them work through what they saw before going to bed that evening. As one character, a Hindu farmer living on land divided by the Radcliffe Line, says: “We’ve lived together for decades, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh. And now we’re being told our differences are more important than what unites us.” He is shot by his brother for marrying his neighbour and childhood sweetheart, a Muslim.
  • From the poppies of remembrance to the frenzied blood of communal hatred, that one day was emotionally draining. India, too, observed the centenary of the Armistice. It is finally acknowledging a part of its history that it has had an uneasy relationship with. For too long, India’s contributions in the two World Wars have been ignored. After all, India sent more than a million troops to fight for freedom in the Great War: at least 74,187, by one count, made the ultimate sacrifice. Indian soldiers fought and died in German East Africa and mainland Europe. ‘Vipers’ entered the Punjabi lexicon, without us honouring the soil at Ypres that soaked up Indian blood. Two decades later, almost two and a half million Indian soldiers would serve again in another bloody global conflagration. Indians fought with great bravery and distinction in north Africa, continental Europe, south and southeast Asia. Though this was not a war of India’s choosing, we sometimes forget that the war came into our country through the northeast. Some of the deaths of the Second World War were of Indian solders defending Indian soil. To ignore their deaths because this was not ‘our’ war would be a grave dishonour. We are finally rectifying what has been a gap in our observance of the contributions in blood and treasure that India has made in the two World Wars.
  • History in school

  • I never studied these wars in school. We studied ancient Indian history, ancient Rome, ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, etc. Back on the subcontinent, we worked our way up to the 20th century, and then to the freedom movement, eliding the Great War. We spent more time on the Khilafat movement without actually studying the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, and using the Second World War as a prop for the last push towards Independence. Yes, the Quit India Movement was vital, but we cannot continue to allow the sacrifices of India’s soldiers to be merely supporting structures in our history. Surely, we can honour both.
  • Of course we did not study Partition in school. As a nation, we have chosen to look away from the horror of the savagery we visited on one another in the name of religion. Yes, the British played their part with ruthless efficiency in their policy of divide and rule, assiduously visited on the nation as they consolidated their hold after 1857. But the knives and bullets and the hands that wielded them and other weapons were our own. That is the conversation I will have to have with my children tomorrow. That is my history that we must confront.