None so blind...

If we are shocked by George Floyd’s murder, let’s also be shocked by the many murders the system commits in India

June 05, 2020 03:13 pm | Updated June 06, 2020 02:18 pm IST

Illustration: Mihir Balantrapu

Illustration: Mihir Balantrapu

“A riot is the language of the unheard.” These words by Martin Luther King, Jr echo over and over again as protests rage across the US in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, killed by a policeman for using a fake $20 bill. Two oceans away, in India, King’s words resonate. More so because average Indians get shocked by blatant racism in American policing, but wear a Gandhariesque blindfold when it comes to casteism and communalism in police departments closer home.

King’s words resonate also because Indians are being forced to re-examine words like ‘riot’, ‘protest’, and ‘activism’, not because we did not know their meanings before but because these words are being painted over by obfuscation. Controlling language is key to controlling thought; thus, for instance, when Britain replaced the name ‘Official Secrets Act’ with ‘Official Information Act’ in 1976, it could, without changing a single clause, pretend to transparency. Governments use such linguistic masks because, to misquote Orwell, they want heretical thoughts to become literally unspeakable.

But beyond changing words, what if we change the meanings themselves? What if the meanings of words like “activist” or “protest” are so twisted that their original import is entirely lost? That’s what we’re seeing today.

Referring to the US riots, New Delhi politician Kapil Mishra tweeted: “When wrong people hijack your roads, burn your city and attack cops, right people should not remain mute.” (Italics is mine.) Decoded, this means that it’s okay for the ‘right’ people — rendered ‘right’ by colour, caste, religion or state power — to run around with guns or lathis , but when citizens protest, it becomes an ‘anti-national’ act.

Mishra’s inspiration comes from the highest places. President Trump, who many scholars credit with having ushered in an era of laissez-faire racism, cheered when armed Americans stormed out to protest the lockdown, but responded to the outpouring of rage against the Floyd murder by announcing: “You’ve got to arrest people… put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again.”

The language that classifies some protests as ‘illegitimate’ while sanctioning others echoes the same structural injustices that trigger the protests in the first place. This muddying is commonplace, but most of us are happily unaware of it because we’re unwilling to look behind populist narratives. Not so long ago, in Uttar Pradesh, a row of Dalit homes was burnt down by an upper-caste mob. The enraged Dalits, in a rare show of strength, went on a rampage. How did it end? Several Dalits were arrested on charges of rioting but the torched homes were never mentioned again. Within days, the protest had become the crime while the reason for the protest had been erased.

Like Floyd, the millions rendered jobless by the lockdown who’ve been trudging India’s streets, cashless and hapless, have often been thrashed, arrested and criminalised. But officialese and TV-speak lightly recasts these victims of government neglect as wretched ingrates.

When Indians came out in millions to oppose the blatantly communal Citizenship Amendment Act, what sleight of linguistic magic made it possible for so many people to believe that the gathering in public places was the crime while ignoring the anguish that drove people to the streets? If it’s really possible that so many of us can be so blissfully blind to the myriad ways in which the scales are weighed against certain minorities, castes or genders, then indeed, as writer James Baldwin said, “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime”.

From beneath this mantle of criminal innocence, the burning of a bus becomes more monstrous than the killing of a man. From a 2BHK balcony, the view of “law and order” is excellent — it keeps you safe while squashing the disenfranchised, the disappointed, the disconnected and the disappeared. Yet, that 2BHK was made possible because not so long ago, many Indians went on long, hard, sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent protests against colonial rule. They were lathi -charged, jailed or hanged by a regime that treated them not as ‘protestors’ but as ‘law-breakers’.

Today, as conversations around injustice and the systems that sustain injustice are reignited by Floyd’s murder, one hopes they will provide a lens for the comfortable classes here that refracts for them a sharper image of their own cracked society. And steers their censorious glance away from the protestors and on to the system they are protesting.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

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