I braved ‘Bharat Bodh’ and lived to tell the tale

Muslim-baiters, rape-deniers, livelihood-destroyers, apologists of religious violence — the Opindia and My Nation event had’em all.

WrittenBy:Ayush Tiwari
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On February 12, the Constitution Club hosted a gathering that would have made the father of the Constitution, Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar, cringe. This is no exaggeration. Let me tell you why.

Last Wednesday, the sonu and monu of online misinformation, OpIndia and My Nation, jointly organised an event at Delhi’s Constitution Club titled “Bharat Bodh”. The esteemed house had Twitter influencers, authors, columnists and Madhu Kishwar as panellists.

“Is India being pushed towards Khilafat 2.0?” was the question to be urgently contemplated. The blurb: “Riots, anti-Hindu imagery, Jinnah wali azadi and more — dissent or foundation for Khilafat 2.0?”

The poster for the event had an Indian map in saffron couched in a burning sun. The background depicted women, one of them Muslim, resisting the police. Rajeev Chandrashekhar — media tycoon, Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament and member of the Bharatiya Janata Party — was chief guest at the occasion.

Spanning over eight excruciating hours, the event comprised three discussions: is the Citizenship Amendment Act anti-Muslim and should India have a law of return like Israel; is the media providing oxygen to “jihadis”; and is the country is heading towards Khilafat 2.0. Basically if a “Hindu-Khatre-mein-hain” type four-word tweet was adapted into a day-long performance, this was it.

Rahul Roushan, the OpIndia CEO, kickstarted the proceedings. He said the event was named after graffiti of “Khilafat 2.0” at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “The way we are taught about the Khilafat movement in our textbooks is very different,” Roushan claimed. The graffiti seemed to have spooked OpIndians because they, as the CEO stated, believe the original Khilafat movement had “morphed” into the Pakistan movement.

Roushan did not delve into what part of textbook history he took issue with. But here’s what most students are taught about the Khilafat movement: that it began almost a century ago in British India. Its aim was to secure the Turkish institution of Khalifa (or the Caliph) which had been challenged after the defeat of the Ottoman empire in the First World War. While the movement was primarily born out of the anxieties of Indian Muslims, MK Gandhi had rallied Hindus behind the cause to consolidate Hindu-Muslim unity in the subcontinent in opposition to the British Raj.

After talking about cultural Marxism, “our idea of India”, and the media, Roushan handed over the dias to Chandrashekhar. The bearded and bespectacled tycoon spoke predictably about the CAA and the proposed National Register of Citizens (“absolutely legitimate legit issues”).

“If you’re Hindu, Sikh, Christian in these Islamic countries [Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh], you’re not living a comfortable life,” he said, adding that the narrative against the two policies was being built deliberately and that the protests against it were “a larger political move”.

Chandrashekhar claimed that the NRC was an “economic issue” that would improve the lives of the poor. It is, after all, not the rich or the middle classes that are impacted by illegal immigration, he said, but the poor.

The first 20 minutes of the event were remarkable: not because of what had happened, but because of what had not. That Chandrasekhar could stand in a room at the Constitution Club and lecture an audience about the NRC and the welfare of the poor — and not get mobbed by conscientious rejoinders — was surprising.

Let’s take a step back: Chandrashekhar is the owner of a Kannada news channel called Suvarna News. In mid-January this year, his channel had broadcast a programme based on “sting operations” with the residents of a Bengaluru slum. In one of the stings, a 16-year-old had claimed that all residents living in the locality were Bangladeshis.

Suvarna ran the programme with much bombast, complete with special effects. Two days later, the slum was demolished without authorisation. Over 1,000 people were rendered homeless. It later turned out that most of the slum residents were from different parts of India. Poor people, of course.

So, Chandrashekhar talking compassion for the poor was akin to the KKK preaching #BlackLivesMatter or, for that matter, Rahul Roushan enlightening us about Indian history. Here was Roushan, a man who could not be trusted with the present, scamming his audience about the past. Only a day before, OpIndia had published fake news that the protesters at Shaheen Bagh “seem to have vacated the protest site”. In the run up to the Delhi elections, both OpIndia and My Nation had unabashedly echoed fake news circulated by the BJP’s Amit Malviya — and they always have (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

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Roushan and Chandrashekhar had shaken my response spectrum. I had been curious when the event began, but I had now oscillated to cringe. There were seven-and-a-half hours of this ahead of me: upper-caste Hindus going after Muslims and Islam, whining about how their children dislike the BJP, whimpering about the state of their “ecosystem”, calling the Indian media “jihadis” and “naxals” and never discussing the topic at hand.

In the first panel, Madhu Kishwar brooded about how her book on Gujarat did not sell as much as Rana Ayyub’s and how “her children called the BJP communal”. She said Shaheen Bagh was a “mini-Pakistan”.

The first panel discussion.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, curiously introduced as a “defense analyst” and not Inspector Clouseau from Twitter, blamed the BJP for nurturing the Shaheen Bagh protest — “a liberated zone”, “Pakistan”, “an independent country in the heart of Delhi” — instead of “crushing the enemy”. He added that a shame list of all ministers who attend events by leftist media outlets must be prepared.

Ashish Dhar, a right-wing commentator, went so far to ask why Hindus at Shaheen Bagh did not beat up the Muslims there when the latter came out to protest. I pinched myself to check if I was dreaming.

I wasn’t.

An interesting character in the middle of all this was Abhinav Khare, the group CEO of Chandrashekhar-owned Asianet News. Fidgety and verbose, Khare gives a good impression as long as he is either absent or quiet. As he simpered through his sentences, one could hear a lot of talk about “ecosystem”, “expose” and “oppressed ancestors”. He said “mob lynching” as a term was conceptually invalid because it came from the Christian West, that the Bajrang Dal is a force for good in India (persuade this Hyderabad restaurant’s manager of this), that he was responsible for “drowning” Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Shikara, and that Shri Ram was the father of the nation.

Lest you dismiss Khare as an innocent fool, I should break it to you that at the event, he proudly advertised the fact that his channels had the Bengaluru slums demolished.

Moreover, in 2018, he was found guilty of sexual harassment at workplace by an internal committee at Chandrashekhar-run Namma Bengaluru Foundation. The Bengaluru police dismissed the case citing lack of evidence, with the victim accusing it of hostility and inaction.

The second panel at the event had Republic TV editor Major Gaurav Arya, Twitter personalities Vikas Pandey and Ankur Singh, and OpIndia editor Nupur Sharma. This was a Congress of Vienna of professional Hindutva misinformers. Ankur Singh runs a handle called Political Kida on Twitter, which edits and spins fake angles on videos to target journalists, students and the Opposition. Pandey does the same. Sharma, as pointed above, is the editor of OpIndia. Arya piggybacks on the armed forces and spreads falsehood online.

The ideological fidelity among those who gathered at the second floor of the Constitution Club soared beyond its third floor and defied gravity, morality and sanity.

The second panel discussion on media and jihad.

Multiple speakers expressed doubts — directly or indirectly — about the 2018 abduction, rape and murder of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Jammu’s Kathua.

Ashish Dhar, who was part of the first panel, referred to the incident as a “so-called rape case”. Sandhya Jain, who is described as a “political analyst” on the internet, claimed there was no rape involved in the case according to some report (she also claimed that politician Shah Faesal is likely funded by Pakistan’s ISI and that there is no oppression in Kashmir). Madhu Kishwar, of course, has already told us what she thinks about the case.

The final session of the event actually came close to discussing Khilafat 2.0. It had Roushan, Jain, Priyanka Deo (founder of New India Junction), activist and writer Koenraad Elst, and author, scientist and Twitter influencer Anand Ranganathan. The gathering was eager to hear Ranganathan, a suave star of the online Hindu Right, but Jain took to the podium first.

Over the next 15 minutes, she pieced together an eccentric theory on how there was a plan to have Indian politicians arrested in Turkey last year. Roushan, a genius, found it eye-opening and saw historical parallels with the Khilafat movement. The audience clapped and guffawed.

After similar burblings from Elst and others, it was Ranganathan’s turn. He made the argument that there is no such thing as being a “radical Muslim” — that the Quran sets out terms against the unbelievers and every “good Muslim” is expected to follow it. Those who choose to be “liberal Muslim” and do not concern themselves with scriptural precepts are, ergo, “bad Muslims”.

The third panel discussion on "Khilafat 2.0".

He quoted Gandhi at length to show how he condoned the assault perpetrated on Hindus by Mapilla Muslims during the Moplah massacres in 1921. He claimed that Ambedkar had opposed Gandhi on this (he did, in a book written two decades later, that relied chiefly on material published by the British) and had described the massacres as a “jihad” (he did not use that word).

Historians who have studied the Moplah massacres have argued that the Mapilla Muslims in the Malabar had insurrected against the British government and their Hindu landlords because of reasons that were both economic and religious. Like a mirror image of the “velcro historians” Ranganathan has traditionally scowled at, he conveniently dwelt only on the religious aspect of this historical event.

This came in handy for the rest of speech, when he ludicrously compared the ongoing anti-CAA protests to the Khilafat movement. It was a bewildering abandonment of reason.

Ranganathan, with the countenance of a mime artist and the outrage of a demagogue, argued that the protests like Shaheen Bagh are converting “bad Muslims” into “good Muslims”. The mobilisation against the Modi regime and its policies — this on a day when the NRC data in Assam was reported to have been lost — was a medium to turn Muslims into Islamic fundamentalists.

Since Ranganathan was entertaining an audience that reads OpIndia, jeered MK Gandhi as “Maulana Gandhi” and asked why India can’t deal with Muslims the way China does, he had to be hideously selective in what he could offer. He told his audience that Ambedkar thought Islam was incompatible with democracy, but did not state that Ambedkar thought nothing better of Hinduism, whose theocratic establishment Ranganathan applauds online. In fact, contrary to Ambedkar, Ranganathan has maintained that the Hindu religion — with its stain of caste atrocities — is more open and tolerant than others.

Ranganathan used Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism as an example to argue that apostasy in Hinduism is not as bad as in Islam — sidestepping the fact that Ambedkar faced death threats for renouncing Hinduism. Orthodox Hindus, in fact, did not care much about Ambedkar leaving the Hindu fold — not because they were tolerant, but because they resisted the reforms he advocated. Nor did Ambedkar believe that Dalits were viewed as Hindus by the upper-castes. “I am not a part of the whole at all, I am a part apart,” he once told a Congress politician.

The Sangh Parivar prefers active hostility when it comes to conversions. In 2018, a Dalit man was assaulted by the Bajrang Dal — the darling of OpIndians — for converting to Islam. In 2015, BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj had suggested death sentences for Hindus who would convert to Islam and Christianity. Christians in Orissa were once told that they’ll be killed if they don’t convert to Hinduism by militants associated with the Vishva Hindu Parishad (the Bajrang Dal’s parent organisation). There are also cases like this, this and this.

Anand Ranganathan speaks at Bharat Bodh on February 12.

At one point during the panel, when Ranganathan took an admirable position against blasphemy laws and in support of free speech, Roushan talked him down with a dim-witted counter.

The blasphemy law would be used by Hindus to fight back Muslims who use it against them, argued the OpIndia CEO. Ranganathan, who often lauds Opindia while condemning selectivity and misinformation caved immediately, throwing arguments to the wind. It was a poor show, but the audience only giggled. Their favourite star, who occasionally stands up for “liberandus” and “jihadis” and their right to free speech on Twitter, crumbled like a cookie when he had to do it in real life. Liberal weakling.

This is the group that Ranganathan and those like him seem to cater to. If he were to be honest and recite everything Ambedkar said about Hinduism and its “openness” in a room full of Muslim-baiters, rape-deniers, livelihood destroyers, apologists of religious violence, pseudo-intellectuals and peddlers of misinformation — most of them Hindu chauvinists — then he would have discovered the actual dynamics of the “ecosystem”. Or perhaps he discovered it long ago, but doubled down before Roushan, the distinguished thinker.

“The Hindus criticise the Mahomedans for having spread their religion by the use of the sword,” Ambedkar wrote in a particularly dark passage in The Annihilation of Caste. “But really speaking, who is better and more worthy of our respect — the Mahomedans and Christians who attempted to thrust down the throats of unwilling persons what they regarded as necessary for their salvation, or the Hindu who would not spread the light, who would endeavour to keep others in darkness, who would not consent to share his intellectual and social inheritance with those who are ready and willing to make it a part of their own make-up? I have no hesitation in saying that if the Mahomedan has been cruel, the Hindu has been mean; and meanness is worse than cruelty.”

Ranganathan and his upper-caste ilk at the Constitution Club are a specimen of Ambedkar’s diagnosis: sarkari suck-ups who distill people to scripture and endeavour to keep them in darkness by fanning hatred and enabling and promoting misinformation.

As I left the event that evening, with hours of “non-Left” perfidy behind me, I was more assured than troubled. If social media could prop up these ninjas who claim to fight the establishment, it will also erect those who will one day bury the ninjas themselves. Those who swim and have been buoyed by the hateful online bile will also be washed up in the same current as several before them have discovered.


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