Nothing New About Whataboutery
August 18, 2018
Above: The Khir Bhawani Temple in Ganderbal, J&K, was completely safe even though the BJP had claimed that it was “completely burnt”
~By Inderjit Badhwar
That last tongue-twister in the headline to this essay is an inventive neologism to explain the phenomenon of laying the blame for your sins and depredations on allegedly comparative misdoings in the past. Whataboutery, says the Oxford dictionary, is the technique of responding to an accusation or difficult question by making a counter-accusation or raising a different issue. The website Educalingo calls it the “fallacy of relative privation” or “appeal to worse problems”. It attempts to suggest that the opponent’s argument should be ignored because there are more important problems in the world, despite the fact that these issues are often completely unrelated to the subject under discussion.
A well-known example of this fallacy is the response, says Educalingo, “but there are children starving in Africa”. This implies that “any issue less serious than that is not worthy of discussion; or the common saying ‘I used to lament having no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.’ Or: ‘If you are prepared to go to war to protect Libyan civilians from their government, then what about the persecuted in Bahrain?’”
The Indian politician, in defending hate crimes, rape, murder, lynchings, mob violence, defiance of civic order has become particularly adept at this sinister, invidious art which combines fake news with historical falsities in order to justify a defiance of the rule of law and the administration of justice.Take a recent example. Any criticism of the lumpen misbehaviour of the kanwarias disrupting normal life and wantonly ransacking cars as they march on foot and ride in trucks with decibel-shattering loudspeakers, carrying holy Ganges water to temples, is condemned as being anti-Hindu (ergo, in today’s dreary political atmosphere, “anti-national”) notwithstanding the fact that an equal, if not larger number of Hindus, may not subscribe to this annual ritual.
Then it gets worse as whataboutery comes marching in with a vicious communal, anti-Muslim flavour: What about the Muslims who perform namaaz in public spaces or call the faithful to prayer from speakers atop their mosques? It does not matter that namaaz does not happen non-stop on moving trucks blocking major highways. A logical comparison, or a call for equal restraint under the law of the land is not the purpose; an odious condemnation calculated to provoke insecurities and stoke polarisation is the aim.
The spate of mob lynchings of Muslims which have bloodied these last four years—so much so that the Supreme Court was forced to condemn this barbaric practice in the strongest terms and insist that state law officials be held accountable for inaction—breeds apologists for these criminals even after they are caught admitting their murders in confessions filmed on hidden cameras by national TV channels.
One of these apologists, belonging to the ruling BJP, wondered why a few “stray incidents” were receiving so much public and international attention when hundreds of Hindus are or have been killed in unknown places. No time, date, or place, given. And reporters and anchors or even those engaged in internet blog-wars are often at a loss of words when the answers are staring them in the face.
The obvious one is, how does a past crime justify a current one? Logically, if you are justifying a current crime, then you are justifying the past one as well, because historical revenge is elevated to a “right” in this perverted moral calculus. Also implied in the defense of the atrocity is that the past one which justifies this one was ignored and unreported for reasons of religious or cultural bias by the media or historians. This too has an obvious retort: Then how did you come to know about it? Did you read it in the papers? Did you read it in the history books? If you did, then your argument and defense are both hollow.
Actually, the newspapers and historians have done a fair amount of truth-telling and exposes on hate crimes and massacres on the subcontinent in which innocent Hindus and Muslims suffered through the centuries. If the killing and rapes of Hindus by Muslims is ignored by the press, as claimed by the apologists of lynching and hate crimes against Muslims in India, then how do they explain the prominence given in India to the August 25, 2017 massacre of some 100 Hindu men, women and children by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army reported by Amnesty International?
You want to go back into whataboutery history? Where do we start? With the Aryan invasion which had Dravidian India on its knees before the spread of the Sanskrit-Vedic civilisation in 3500 BC? Bakhtiyar’s invasion of Bihar in 1202? Massacres committed by the Delhi Sultanate in 1265? Nadir Shah’s brutal invasion of the Mughal empire in 1739? The massacre of Mandyam Iyengars and Christians in the 1780s in Mysore? The Noakhali and Bihar riots in 1946? Partition? (by many estimates, two million killed, 14 million displaced). The Jammu massacres of 1947? (some four lakh Hindus and Muslims butchered in equal numbers)? The Hyderabad massacre of Muslims in 1948? The Nellie massacre of 1983? The anti-Sikh massacres of 1984? The Hashimpura Muslim massacre of 1987? The Bhagalpur riots of 1989? Karnataka’s anti-Tamil violence of 1991? Post-Babri Masjid…Godhra…Gujarat…Muzaffarnagar 2013…(These are but choice pickings.
Look up the properly sourced records in Wikipedia for more details on this horror story steeped in blood).
Actually, much to the dismay of the whatabouters, much of India’s medieval, colonial and post-Independence bloodshed has been on public display precisely because it was neither ignored by the press nor by historians or for that matter, commissions of inquiry. So, the idea that the “liberal, pseudo-secular media” is focusing on a few scattered “incidents” to indict one community while ignoring the other (even though two crimes do not make a right) just does not hold water. What is inexcusable is the Indian state’s reluctance to enforce the laws with all the severity at its command.
What is equally inexcusable is the reliance on ideologically motivated fiction by political leaders to absolve themselves or their parties of wrongdoing. Fake news is not an invention of the advent of social media or WhatsApp. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, BJP icon LK Advani, who popularised the term “pseudo-secularism” used classical whataboutery to prove that his campaign against this phenomenon is objectively justified. He said in February 1991:“Look at the deafening silence of all civil liberties organisations about Ayodhya. Why? Because it is an issue pertaining to the Hindu religion. If it was related to the Muslim religion, their response would have been different. All political parties which think it is their duty to defend the mosque, not one of them has spoken a word of criticism about the 55 temples broken in Kashmir. No one talks about it. Why these double standards?”
I was at the time leading the editorial team of India Today magazine. The magazine wrote: “This has been perhaps the most powerful counter-attack weapon in the BJP’s propaganda armory. It is a tactic used by the BJP to demonstrate that its crusade against ‘pseudo-secularism’ is not without foundation and that its opponents are hypocrites and anti-Hindu. When faced with this argument, the foes of the BJP’s Hindutva plank are usually stunned into an uncomfortable silence. This is because few of them have found the time to investigate whether or not the BJP’s line has any real substance to it.”
Hard-nosed investigative reporter Harinder Baweja was assigned along with a photographer to obtain a list of the vandalised temples from the BJP and visit Kashmir. Which temples were Advani and BJP stalwarts like Murli Manohar Joshi and Kedarnath Sahni and Madan Lal Khurana talking about? When were they demolished? The assignment was to tell it like it is. If the mass destruction of Hindu temples had actually occurred and ignored by the press and “secular” parties, it was unpardonable and ought to be exposed and condemned as vehemently as the demolition of Babri Masjid.
The investigation, backed with photographic evidence, revealed that the BJP and its leaders had either been misled on this issue or were obfuscating in order to score political points. The truth was that following riots in 1986, a few shrines were damaged and swiftly repaired. Also, the Kashmir government of GM Shah was dismissed by then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in retaliation. But even that paled into insignificance after the investigative team visited 23 temples—the names of which had been provided by the BJP itself. According to the list, all of these had either been burnt, damaged or desecrated.
The February 1993 investigation revealed that “except for two temples—Shailputri and Bhairav in Baramulla—the rest are all entirely safe. The more important ones, like the famous Khir Bhawani temple at Tula Mulla village in Ganderbal, 30 miles from Srinagar, or the Dashnami Akhara, located at Srinagar’s Badshah Chowk from where the annual yatra to the Amarnath Cave starts, are also safe even though the BJP would have you believe that they are ‘completely burnt’. Neither is the Akhara gutted nor was Khir Bhawani damaged by rocket attacks.”
Both temples, in fact, were being guarded by the BSF day and night, as were most of the important temples. “Khir Bhawani, for instance, where the BSF jawans say they will die before they let anyone damage it, continues even thro-ugh troubled times to host the Jeth Ashtami festival, where the Muslims mingle with the Hindus in offering prayers. Considered by Pandits to be one of their holiest shrines, the local Muslims of the area also strictly observe the custom of entering the temple only if they have not eaten meat.”
Fake news is not an invention of the advent of social media. After the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, BJP icon LK Advani, who popularised the term “pseudo-secularism”, used whataboutery to prove that his campaign against this phenomenon is justified.
In addition: “Smaller temples, situated in villages which abound with militants, were not harmed right through the 1989 to 1991 period when militancy was at its peak. And though Pandit families have migrated, even in villages which are left with only one or two Pandit homes, the temples are safe. The Pandit families have actually become custodians of the temples. They are encouraged by their Muslim neighbours to regularly offer prayers. In Dayalgam, for instance, a small village in district Anantnag, Maheshwar Nath’s is the only Pandit family. ‘Gita ki kasam, this temple has never been touched,’ Nath said as he opened the temple to show that it was undamaged.
“It is true that 52 temples were damaged in Kashmir in retaliation to the demolition but what is absolutely critical here is that it was not after December 6 but three years ago that the BJP started proclaiming from every pulpit available that scores of temples had been damaged, so much so that today almost every Hindu is mouthing the same argument.”
This story was no more than good old-fashioned fact-checking. It assumes special significance today as we are bombarded from all sides by fake news peddlers and whatabouters. Democracy’s best weapons against these insidious assaults on the facts are a free, fair and ever-questioning press and a commitment to enforcing the rule of law which has emerged as the only civilising principle of republicanism which guides humanity away from the path of wallowing in primeval slime.
First published in IndiaLegal.Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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