India’s selective outrage: Celebrate rebel heroes, suppress protests

The aversion of many Indians to social justice movements exposes a hypocrisy of social consciousness.

Published : Jul 18, 2023 17:39 IST - 8 MINS READ

A man with a body painting of Bhagat Singh during the Rath Yatra festival of Lord Jagannath in Ahmedabad.

A man with a body painting of Bhagat Singh during the Rath Yatra festival of Lord Jagannath in Ahmedabad. | Photo Credit: ANI

“This country is crazy about rebel heroes, but not about protest.” These words by Hindi poet and litterateur Raghuvir Sahay came to mind when one saw how many Indians reacted to the outrage and violence that erupted recently in France after the Nahel M. police killing. India’s big media houses, except for some English platforms, either ignored the violence or reported it with horror.

Social media saw a flood of comments that strongly condemned the protests. People posted to say that they regretted that France did not have a head like the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh who would have taught the protesters a lesson by bulldozing their homes or shooting them dead.

These comments reveal the nature of social consciousness that exists among a certain group of Indians. It is not a new phenomenon, but social media allows us to see constant proof of it every day.

On 27 June, when the police shot dead Nahel M., a black teenager of Algerian descent, in a Parisian suburb, people took to the streets in anger. They attacked and set fire to government buildings, vehicles, police stations, and shops. Some 23,000 arson incidents were reported in which 12,000 vehicles were burnt, more than 2,000 buildings were targeted, and protesters clashed with the police at many places. Around 4,000 protesters were arrested.

At first, the number of people in France who held immigrants and foreigners responsible for the protest was significant. The government, however, soon made it clear that of the 4,000 people arrested in the protest, only 40 were foreigners. It was the government that gave this clarification.

Systemic racism and protest: A tale of two nations

In India, the government invariably does the reverse. After the violence in Manipur, it was not only the State’s Chief Minister but also the Governor who made public statements blaming the violence on infiltrators and foreigners. During the 2019 anti-CAA protests, the Prime Minister said in a speech that one can recognise protesters from the clothes they wear.

The Indians on social media who outraged against the violence in France would have liked the French government to have said that such protests are anti-France or anti-national. The government has not done so. Yes, far-right parties have described the violence as a result of France’s generous immigration policies. But several commentators and political parties have also tried to understand the reasons for the violence. They do not support the violence and arson, but say that there is a reason for the anger—the fact that those who are not “native” French have little sympathy in the French political structure and face deep systemic prejudice.

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This is not the first murder by the police in France. It came to public knowledge when someone shared a video of it unfolding. Before that, the police said that the teenager was fleeing, and they had been compelled to shoot him for fear he would attack. But it became clear from the video that when the police shot him the car was stationary, and the boy unarmed.

The video also showed that deep prejudice against minorities is not a disease of the Indian police alone. But there is a difference. The President of France called the killing “inexplicable” and condemned it. This would be unimaginable in India, where government leaders always justify police action, especially against minorities.

There is a reason why France is home to so many people of Algerian, African, and Arab origin. It colonised these countries for centuries, treating them as resources. France brought in the people of these nations as cheap labourers. The economic prosperity of France would not have been possible without them. They did not, however, get the benefit of that prosperity. They are French citizens, but there is a clear divide between their areas and the neighbourhoods of the “native” French. They are not part of several civic amenities and security apparatus. Obviously, there is frustration and anger. Apart from structural discrimination, there is a history of security agencies being hostile towards these populations. One is reminded again of how in 1961 the French police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration for Algerian independence, even drowning many protesters in the river. The malaise continues.

Due to the arrogance of French liberalism, such structural racism is not called by its true name. Every time it occurs, state violence is called an exception, its seriousness reduced. As Professor Crystal Fleming rightly wrote in Al Jazeera, French cultural arrogance has avoided this truth, and liberals and leftists seem to be together in this elision.

Decades of accumulated anger erupted after Nahel’s murder. Everyone realises that there can be no solution for the violence without finding a solution for systemic racism. If a population never feels equal and always suffers injustice, it is not possible for it to always remain peaceful. Nevertheless, whether in Europe or the U.S., the number of people who understand the anger and violence, and the reasons for such protests, is also significant.

Protest culture in India: Understanding the majoritarian mindset

Protesting against injustice is a most human and natural expression. But many Indians, especially among the majoritarian population today, are shocked to see any expression of protest, whether in India or outside. For these people, the question of justice is always secondary. What comes first is the state’s unquestioned power.

Ideally, they would like to take away from people their right to protest. That is why the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh who threatens to avenge anyone who dares to protest against the government is so popular. If anyone opposes the government, he is ready with his bulldozers. Interestingly, even Indians settled outside India justify the use of bulldozers. Despite being American citizens, they demand the right to chant “Bharat Mata Ka Jai” in the US, but they cavil against giving minorities in India, who are bona fide citizens, the right to protest and advocate the use of bulldozers against protestors.

How can the government or state be opposed? How can the Chief Minister or Prime Minister be criticised? Even our courts have asked this question. As if the government cannot be opposed at all. As if a citizen’s rights end after voting and she has no other option than to bear with all the decisions and actions of the government for the next five years. As if it is not the people but the government that is supreme in this democracy.

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Perhaps a major reason for this mentality springs from the caste system, which is considered natural and unchallengeable, and which confers legitimacy on systemic inequality and injustice. “One should not cross one’s boundary”; “Everyone should know her place”—these are phrases well known to Indians. It is this mindset that has made protest an extraordinary thing in India.

In Madhya Pradesh, the tribal man with whom a Brahmin man behaved disrespectfully himself asks that the matter be forgotten. The culprit is after all the ‘pandit’ of the village; he did commit a mistake but now the matter should be put to an end, he says.

That is why when Muslims in large numbers protested against the amended citizenship law, a large section of Hindus turned against them. How can they block the road, they asked. This is the same population that does not blink when roads are closed to traffic or jammed for weeks due to a satsang or a huge pandal blocking the road.

When the farmers’ protest began, the same population turned against them, shocked that traffic had been stalled by the protestors. Be it labour, students, or farmers, a nationalistic population enthusiastically joins with the state to shut down protests. Invariably, the rallying cry is for the protection of state property or for the free flow of traffic, never for the rights of fellow human beings.

“People who cannot empathise with others will never be able to recognise injustice or oppose it. Such people will only hang pictures of Bhagat Singh or Subhas Bose on their walls. They will not actually go out and fight injustice as their icons would have wanted them to do.”

Ironically, this is the same population that worships Subhas Chandra Bose and Bhagat Singh for their revolutionary dreams. The same people who berate Gandhi for trying to win freedom by peaceful means. The ones who claim that India became free only because Netaji took to arms and started the INA.

These are the people who justify the murder of Gandhi for robbing Hindus of their “manhood”. But what is this “manhood” after all? Why does it never stir against any injustice? A “manhood” that appears during religious occasions and processions or while attacking Muslims or Dalits but one that cowers before the government regardless of any breach of democracy.

This group of Indians is unable to develop a relationship of sympathy with any other group except themselves. In fact, they consider all empathy a conspiracy.

People who cannot empathise with others will never be able to recognise injustice or oppose it. Such people will only hang pictures of Bhagat Singh or Subhas Bose on their walls. They will not actually go out and fight injustice as their icons would have wanted them to do.

Apoorvanand teaches Hindi at Delhi University and writes literary and cultural criticism. His latest book is Muktibodh Ki Lalten.

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