THE BLINDNESS OF BIGOTS - Education is no bar against a dangerously selective view of facts

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By Ramachandra Guha ramguha@vsnl.com
  • Published 13.09.08
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The internet is, among other things, a vehicle for egotism and bad taste. In blogs and emails, some people tend to express themselves more freely, that is to say more crudely, than they would in letters sent by post or in signed articles in the press.

In June this year, I received an email from a young man objecting to a passage in an essay I had recently published. This argued that while Muslim and Christian bigotry were visibly on the rise in India, because of the fact that Hindus constituted four-fifths of the country’s population, Hindu bigots were more dangerous. To this argument the young man replied: “Diversity is all fine but a country needs to have something to unify it... Moslems [sic] can continue to breed and swell, and that is all OK. They can kill us without reason because we are a secular country, and after all they are not as fanatic, you see. I have to keep silent when the mullah across the street uses vitriolic language against the Hindus. But then, you would never have heard sermons at the mosque, would you? Have you ever heard of such language in a temple? Considering that you visit one?”

The young man then went on: “Sir, the world is not around your armchair, or what you read in the news. Get out and go around the people you are so sympathetic about. They consider themselves Moslems first, Indians next. I know of friends who openly sided with the Pakistani army during the Kargil war. But you wouldn’t want to talk of that. You would rather talk of having a Moslem general, right?”

In his mail, the young man also claimed that “except for a few violent spells, and very few, the Hindus have largely remained non-violent except when provoked by the Muslim community. Why is that everyone talks of post-Godhra, but nothing of those who were burnt alive in the train by the Muslim mob? You will realize the reason why people stand by [Narendra] Modi. He may not be the most ideal person, but it is better to support a person who will protect us than side with someone who doles out benefits to those so ill-deserving of them.”

In replying to this mail, I suggested that it was “a shame that a well educated man like you has not just swallowed the innuendos, half-truths, and prejudices of the RSS types, but also that you speak in the same hectoring, intolerant voice….[P]lease do rid yourself of such bigotry. I am sure you are more human than that.”

I then explained my own political philosophy in these words: “I am a liberal for whom decency and democracy comes first, even before patriotism (which is why I abhor what we are doing in [promoting a military dictatorship in] Burma). I have no party affiliation — within India, my only allegiance is to the Indian Constitution.... Since you ask, the reason why, in India, Hindu bigotry is more dangerous than Islamic bigotry is simple — we are 85 per cent of the population.”

I then urged the young man to “get out of this black and white, conspiratorial way of thinking (as in imputing motives to those who disagree with you).” I also asked him to “think carefully” about the larger argument of my original article — which was that “the Sangh Parivar’s unacknowledged model is mullahdom. Do we want to make India a Hindu Pakistan?”

I received no answer. Then, six weeks later, another mail from the same man landed in my inbox. A series of bombs had been planted in crowded places in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. “Now that the nation is under attack from the very people you were defending [sic],” wrote my correspondent, “what do you have to say now? After all you place humanitarian values over patriotism, right?... You said that Hindu fundamentalism was more dangerous. Unfortunately, Hindus are taking a lot of crap while the Government sleeps on POTA and other anti-terror laws.”

The young man continued: “No, but it is only the few Mozzies who are a problem. Don’t consider the rest who stand around watching the whole show without protesting, who don’t care a damn for internal reforms within their community, who don’t see anything wrong in bombing innocent people in the name of Jihad.”

He then concluded: “Mr Guha, if the recent events have not woken you up out of your slumber, nothing else will. God save this country from intellectuals, self-professed and otherwise… Meanwhile, you can write another article in your sympathezing [sic] magazines about how Hindu fundamentalism is the cause for all that you see around you.”

I should be inured to such mails by now, but truth be told, it is still unnerving to be at the receiving end of such personal hostility. How can a man have such hatred and animosity for someone he has never met or seen? That said, the anger against me paled in comparison with the anger against the one hundred million and more citizens of India who happen to be born into the Muslim faith. These one hundred million and more sovereign individuals, each with their own distinct lives, careers, hopes and fears, were here portrayed as a single, aggregate, unpatriotic, and ever-threatening mass. The language was in shockingly poor taste; as in the use of that derogatory phrase, “Mozzies”.

When the first mail arrived, what struck me was the abusive tone; when the second one came, what came to mind instead was how utterly irrelevant it was. Many Indians, and most of them Hindus, had just fallen victim to a terrorist attack. Rather than express concern for the dead, or their grieving families, my correspondent’s first thought was to get even with a writer with whom he had previously had a contentious exchange. The deaths and injuries of his fellow Indians, his fellow Hindus, were of no concern to him. All he could think of was his own vindication. Had not the bombs proved once again that the Muslims, all Muslims, were rascals after all?

In his first mail, the correspondent had introduced himself as having a postgraduate degree, and a job (as I recall) in a pharmaceutical company. Clearly, a little learning is a very dangerous thing. His education notwithstanding, his mails marked the young man out as a bigot. A bigot is one who selects, from the world around him, only those facts or half-facts which confirm and strengthen him in his bigotry. Thus, when an Israeli air-strike kills civilians in the Gaza Strip, the partisan of Hamas thinks not of the dead or the injured, but of how he can use the incident to convince himself (and his people) that the only way to treat the Zionists is to collectively exterminate them. In the same manner, al Qaida would have welcomed the pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, as a confirmation of their belief that Hindus — all Hindus—were never to be trusted.

As it happens, I live in Bangalore, and was in the city when the bombs here exploded. And, quite by accident, I visited Ahmedabad the week after the blasts there (to attend a meeting scheduled much earlier). Fortunately, in both cities the citizens held their nerve. I was heartened by the response of the Amdavadis in particular. Heeding the lessons of 2002, they treated this latest incident not as an ‘attack’ but as a tragedy. The talk was not of retribution or revenge, but of attending to the injured and of keeping the peace. The Gujarati press, which had incited the mobs in 2002, was now very restrained. This time, at least, the citizens of Gujarat had honourably placed humanity above bigotry. Would that all Indians, all the time, act on the same principle and in the same way.