The past week has seen much drama and debate in the world of social media. The key players in the drama were a Bollywood actor and a Michelin Star chef. Both managed to upset sections of people and faced a public backlash. Both had to later apologise for their words or actions. The consequences for both, however, were entirely different.
The story started with the American show Quantico, where Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra plays the role of an FBI agent. In their 'The Blood of Romeo' episode, she finds some sacred rudraksh beads in the pocket of a dead man. This leads her to deduce that Hindu nationalists had hatched an elaborate terror plot to frame Pakistan for a planned nuclear attack on Manhattan. The plot was troublesome as Quntico's producer Josh Safran is on record saying, "For me, it was important to not ever put a Muslim terrorist on our show. There hasn't been one." People then asked why it was acceptable to invent a Hindu terrorist when it was not alright to portray a Muslim one.
The purpose of this article is not to focus on the maleficent plot and inherent bigotry of the story, but on events that followed, and the hypocrisy it exposed.
Not surprisingly, there was a public backlash in India and among American Hindus, after the episode was aired. Many were angry about the show but a lot of the ire was directed towards Priyanka Chopra, whom they saw as having betrayed Hindus and Indians. The self-styled 'liberal" brigade rooted for Quantico and Priyanka's rights. They railed against intolerance. The makers of Quantico and the actor subsequently apologised, and the matter ended there.
The story, however, took on a twist when a tweet by Michelin Star chef Atul Kochhar got highlighted. He was upset with Priyanka's role and had tweeted, "It's sad to see that you have not respected the sentiments of Hindus who have been terrorized by Islam over 2,000 years. Shame on You (sic)".
Some "liberals" flagged his tweet to JW Marriot Dubai, his business partners, and the UAE authorities. This opened the floodgates for acrimony, abuse and more. Kocchar apologised but the hounding continued. His contract with JW Marriot was cancelled. He faces likely prosecution, with a jail term and heavy fines in UAE. He is living with death threats even as his career and reputation lie in shambles.
The champions of 'liberalism' in India swung into action yet again. But this time, instead of fighting for his freedom of expression, they started the ugly dance of virtue signaling and hypocrisy.
A classic illustration of this behaviour was a tweet by mediaperson Barkha Dutt. She wrote:
What I like is that in some parts of the world there is still pressure to take back coarse bigotry compared to Indian Twitter where this statement would be called pseudo secular by the crazies! https://t.co/yj11O4X0Qn
" barkha dutt (@BDUTT) June 12, 2018
Her tweet was a textbook example of double-speak. She glibly brushed off death threats, the possibility of imprisonment and fines, as mere "pressure". In doing so, she minimized the intolerance of the many West Asian regimes, where criticism of religion and other things incur brutal punishment, which include stoning and beheading. Instead, she created false equivalence between social media aggression and real world violence, by pointing to the "crazies" on Indian Twitter. Moreover, her language indicated approval of the "pressure" for a man's crime of expressing his views, which one may or may not agree with.
Such a response can be expected from intolerant fundamentalists of all hues. But this was supposedly a "liberal" view, and it was echoed in many quarters. Most celebrated or mocked Kocchar's predicament, and/or labeled him a bigot. Only a few people like columnist Tavleen Singh had a nuanced take on his tweet. Singh wrote, "He got that wrong by a thousand years. But, to pretend that Islam came to India and Hindus gently is a foolish lie. A Truth Commission should have been set up long ago."
Those who have followed debates in India will know that liberalism has now been hijacked by a group of people who are essentially bullies. This, by definition, makes them cowards. Just like the schoolyard bullies, they pick on those who they know will not retaliate. They bend backwards and defer to those whom they fear. Thus, they use Hindus and other Dharmic faiths as punching bags to virtue signal, and fake secular credentials.
In a truly liberal world, all religions and religious texts would be open to critique and discussion. All ideas and opinions would be scrutinised. All voices would be heard, no matter how uncomfortable they make us. Anything short of that would be a sham.
But such an environment would entail risk and require courage. It would mean facing the wrath of fanatics who think nothing of silencing dissent with a sword or a bullet. It is far easier and safer to fake nonexistent principles, and cherry pick soft targets to prove it.
Senior journalist and author Minhaz Merchant summed it up succinctly when he said, "I'm not Hindu but regard the silent, complicit acceptance of Hinduphobia (as against rightful rejection of Islamophobia) by the lib-sec elite as proof that lib-secs are neither liberal, nor secular, nor elite."