To understand #NotInMyName

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Shivam Vij published this on June 27. Excerpt:

[Liberals] still romanticise their days at the JNU campus in the ’80s – what an innocent time it was. The still think their marches and slogans will Bring Down Fascism. The people who will march today, feeling self-important about fighting the good fight, don’t understand they are actually helping Hindutva. The more you make a campaign out of Hindutva obsessions – cows, meat, Muslims – these keywords become the central agenda of politics.

Liberals think they can take on Hindutva on its turf and defeat it. That this is not possible should be obvious after the experience since Babri. The only way Hindutva could be defeated is to change the keywords of political discourse from the ones Hindutva wants – cows, meat, Muslims – to the ones it is more apologetic about, such as violence against Dalits, farmers’ agitations, the distress faced by small traders due to demonetisation and GST.

Ashley Tellis rebutted with this on June 28. Excerpt:

[Vij] contradicts himself right off the bat by pointing to the rise of attacks on Muslims since the BJP came to power and then spends the rest of the article telling us that we should not use the word Muslim at all as that is rising to the click-baiting of the BJP. He teaches us that we must give up the words ‘cows, meat and Muslims’ and replace them with ‘Dalit, farmer, small trader.’ It is the stupidest piece of advice ever given by a journalist to anyone. But then, journalists like Vij tend to be the stupidest people around. So perhaps he should take this advice himself and not write articles about protests that according to him have nothing to do with Dalits, farmers and small traders.

I’m coming into this issue as someone who’s not ignorant as much as has embarrassing trouble understanding the syntax and language of such issues. Earlier yesterday, I’d had my doubts about #NotInMyName and asked a friend about them. At first he seemed dismissive (calling my concerns “wooly”) but after some badgering, he answered them one by one (I had nine questions). By not attacking my observations and explaining to me where I was wrong, he has gained an ally (irrespective of how much that means to him or his causes). But how Tellis has replied to Vij I think will make it harder for anyone who is simply looking for answers to take a stronger position in public debates, and to approach him with their doubts.

I realise that Tellis is fully within his rights to call Vij ‘stupid’, as well as that the fight against Hindutva fascists is as sensitive as it is crucial and in which no one will spare anyone else any inches (either in newspaper columns or political estate). I also realise that Vij is an experienced journalist and whose views should have been debated as such (instead of by disparaging all journalistic commentary). For example, by discussing why he sees it fit to make an overly specialised point about strategies when #NotInMyName is really about concerned citizens speaking out against a particularly insidious motivation for murder, as well as the murders themselves, as a collective for the first time. However, a very important intra-communal unity is at stake here: the more vicious public debates we have, the more it will seem like a ‘conversation’ cordoned off to those masses for whom an awareness of social and political issues is only just budding. It places quite the cost on being uninformed (not being ignorant) that those who would like to be informed might not deserve (and it can’t be that everyone’s undeserving of it!). And when this cost is already so high, when the specialised language of the social sciences is already so hard to decipher for an outsider, Tellis’s – and Vij’s and others’ – level of incivility only makes things worse. This isn’t to say Vij wasn’t saying disagreeable things – but only that there’s a way to dismiss them, and how Tellis did it seemed less that and more… spectacle.

As my friend Akhil told me, “To me, the tone and argument of Shivam Vij’s article seems more problematic than Tellis’s response. Of course Tellis could have countered it better than firing off a rant, but who encourages Tellis’s style of writing and who benefits from it explains why such messy debates exist and there’s little we can do about it. Vij wrote a piece lacking substance, but controversial enough to generate traffic, saying things just for the sake of saying things. I’m not sure he wanted a meaningful debate in the first place.And I’m sure Tellis didn’t want a scholarly debate at all because he found the very premise of the arguments ridiculous.” All this also prompts the consideration: Tellis v. Vij, and Tellis v. Rajamani (salvo, return), both played out on the pages of journalism websites (Huffington Post, News Minute and Sify). Should these websites, or any others for that matter, have also been responsible for first introducing the issue (not just as a staid news report like Business Standard did but also in the form of a very important debate playing out between scholars – Vij may not have been one but Rajesh Rajamani  and Tellis both are), through which readers could be appraised not just of the overarching narrative of fascists v. liberals but also that of how scholars are choosing to frame – or not frame – their relationship with #NotInMyName? I think so.

More Akhil: “Either we can enjoy lengthy theoretical debates on the internet or physically make our presence felt. A healthy cultural of debate is always desirable, but when the intent is malicious and counterproductive to actual efforts to make things better in such desperate times, it’s difficult to hold back angst in the interest of civility. The onus is of course on the editors of the websites to present the debate in such a manner that serves a more important purpose (to give the audience diverse perspectives) rather than to run clickbait rant that eventually leaves little space for critical engagement.”

My friend’s answers, in case anyone’s interested:

1. Who is the campaign for? Whose attention will the attendees be clamouring for?

For the bulk of Indians (or Hindus, more precisely), whose silence in the face of the BJP’s majoritarianism is providing space for the lynchers and killers.

2. How will (anyone) participating in #NotInMyName help the oppressed minorities?

Oppressed minorities will feel hugely relieved and reassured by a good turnout across the country. I would say the overall size is what will reassure them more than individual names or faces.

3. Doesn’t the name ‘#NotInMyName’ feel more like an abdication than a protest?

The crimes are being committed in the name of ‘nation’, ‘Hinduism’, ‘Bharat mata’, ‘Indian values’, etc., so it is important for people to say, “Sorry, you don’t have exclusive rights to define what is Indian, what is Hindu, what are Hindu values, etc.”

4. Saba Dewan, the filmmaker whose Facebook post snowballed into the #NotInMyName protests, told Business Standard, “We want to convey that whatever is happening in the society is not happening in our name; I do not approve of it.” Why do we presume those who are perpetrating the lynchings care what the urban, upper-class, upper-caste observers think?

Those who are perpetrating may not care but the puppet masters who have created a culture of impunity, who control the police and whose own statements have encouraged the lynch mentality, DO CARE – especially about what the urban, upper-class-upper-caste thinks.

5. Are the campaign’s organisers making any efforts to actively involve minorities in a meaningful way? And is there a way to do this without turning it into a spectacle?

I think the idea is really to ensure Hindus turn out in the largest possible numbers. I suspect people are sending the call to Muslim friends as a kind of solidarity message but to Hindu friends in order to ensure they turn up.

6. The protests are set to be held in 11 cities: New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Trivandrum, Kochi, Patna, Lucknow, London, Toronto. According to an IndiaSpend analysis, cows-related violence since 2014 hasn’t happened in any of these cities but in usually rural areas outside them.

This is a solidarity event so it doesn’t matter where cow-related violence took place.

7. What does the ‘name’ in #NotInMyName stand for? If it denotes religious orders and/or caste, then why does it appear to be an exclusively upper-caste mobilisation?

The Indian upper middle class is largely upper caste so it may appear that this is an upper caste mobilisation, in the same way rallies for LGBTQIA+, FoE, media freedom, etc. issues do.

8. Isn’t there a difference between Muslims using the phrase ‘Not In My Name’ to speak out against ISIS’s brand of Islam, or Americans using it to speak out against their government using their money to fund the War Against Terrorism, and privileged people marching under the banner to decry lynchings perpetrated in the name of preserving the same socio-religious order whose benefits they enjoy?

All of these cases are different. The anti-ISIS protests come from genuine Muslim revulsion against ISIS but also the pressure in Western society for the participants to dissociate from Islamic extremism.

Americans against War on Terror is similar to the Indian protest today, where people in whose name bad things are done (war on terror, attacks on minorities) tell the rulers to STFU. Sure, the rulers can say, “You STFU, you are enjoying the privileges of being American (cheap oil, etc.)” – or Hindu – but that is neither here nor there as an argument.

9. To the people saying “not in my name”: what do you usually lend your name to?

The answer is obvious: just look at the petitions we have carried on The Wire over the past two years by pretty much the same set of folks doing today’s mobilisation: justice for Rohith Vemula, Akhlaq, Pehlu Khan, support of FoE, etc. etc.

Featured image credit: OpenClipart-Vectors/pixabay.