Popular Indian stand-up comedian Vir Das is facing lawsuits in India for allegedly defaming his country at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. The topics Das touched on — the plight of Indian farmers, concerns against sexual violence, and the saffronization of India in cricket against Pakistan — should not have evoked such a strong reaction in a “secular democracy”.
After all, comedians, talk-show hosts, and Hollywood artistes routinely caricature their political leaders and highlight social justice issues. There is a popular clip, “America is not the greatest country in the world anymore,” from an American show called The Newsroom. Such free expression and criticism is possible in some secular democracies, but not in all countries. Those who have curbed free speech include the oligarchs in Saudi Arabia, theocrats in Iran, authoritarians in China, and electoral autocrats in Turkey, Pakistan and India. Just as there are Pakistanis who rail against award-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy for besmirching the reputation of the country, so too there are Indians who hide their prejudice behind a thin veneer of patriotism. Nationalism and jingoism, however, are the last refuge of scoundrels.
Pakistanis and Indians are more than happy to voice their concerns against Islamophobia and structural racism in the West. However, despite living as minorities in the West, many Pakistanis continue to air their prejudice against Ahmadis. Similarly, many Indians perpetuate the most vulgar Islamophobic caricatures of Muslims. They continue to beat the dead horse on the racism of Winston Churchill and the colonial British but turn a blind eye to their own prejudice.
It is disconcerting that educated and economically resourceful people whose silence emboldens a discriminatory narrative go unchecked. There is not accountability for them. While Muslims are held answerable for the crimes of Islamists, there isn’t a similar accountability for Hindus to answer for the crimes of the Hindutva brigade. Additionally, unlike Hollywood that has at least taken a socially progressive stance against Trumpism on issues of immigration and racism, Bollywood conveniently ignores and perpetuates the most contemptuous Islamophobic tropes.
The brunt of this institutionalized hatred is not only borne by conservative Muslims who wear long beards or burkas, but also by the most liberal class of Muslims who marry outside their faith and don’t necessarily bother with the strictures on sexual mores or dietary restrictions including wine. After all, many Indian Muslim celebrities, despite their wealth and influence, must remain strategically quiet lest they invite the wrath of bloodthirsty Hindutva mobs and cow vigilantes that have publicly lynched Muslims in recent times.
Again, the problem here is not the mad foot soldiers of the Hindutva brigade but the educated and economically resourceful classes that minimize, ignore, and even rationalize such incidents on social media. For them, the Muslim remains the eternal stereotypical jihadi who oppressed them for hundreds of years. They continue to nurse wounds allegedly inflicted by the long-dead warriors from Central Asia, Persia, and Afghanistan in the age of Empires. And like any bully, they channel their rage not against modern-day Uzbekistan, Iran, or Afghanistan but on those much weaker than them: the Indian Muslim minority and Pakistan. Similarly, while they have issues with the Islamic faith and spew memes with pigs, they tone this rhetoric down when it comes to the Jewish faith and its equally strong prohibition of pigs in Israel. This confirms that bullies only respond to strength.
Returning to Vir Das, who is one of the latest victims of majoritarian prejudice, I do not think that what he has uttered in his “Two India” spiel is radical enough to warrant lawsuits. After all, many Punjabi Indians in the West have strongly resisted the leading Bharatiya Janata Party government and supported the farmers.
Similarly, in the post ‘Me Too’ world, many women’s rights activists would reject the whataboutism and minimization of the sexist tropes of the Hindutva brigade. Indeed, with such social support, Das clearly felt confident enough to speak on those issues. One shudders to think what would have happened to him had he voiced his concerns on the Indian citizenship law against Muslims or the systemic persecution of Kashmiri Muslims in India. So much for the public relations campaign by the “largest democracy in the world.”
The need of the hour is for Indian Hindus to reclaim their faith and public discourse from the Hindutva brigade. In essence, just like Muslims, Hindus have to wrest their faith from extremists.