Arguing online

The Charlie Hebdo attacks have inevitably turned into a sickular-bhakt drama

How long before nuance disappears from India?

When you’re having a decade-old debate that is, almost by its nature, inconclusive, you need to keep looking for new points that can help buttress your argument. As a result everything that’s happening in the news is immediately appropriated and spun, usually by both sides.

Take the grand Indian sickular-bhakt debate.

More incidents of firing along the Line of Control? Bhakts, as Modi supporters are known online, can prove that the new government is being tough on Pakistan. Coast Guard intercepts alleged “terror boat”? Sickulars, as progressive have come to be labelled, argue that the authorities are trying to oversell a small smuggling bust. Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament says every Hindu woman should have four children? Bhakts insist the sickular media is trying to distract from the development agenda of the new government.

Muslim terrorists open fire in the newsroom of a French magazine known for provocative satire? Proof that Islam is an intolerant religion and that the world must do something about it (Bhakt). Or, further evidence that those who display intolerance when it comes to free speech are encouraging further violence. (Sickular).

Bhakt: The OpIndia staff for example gleefully collected the responses of “Indian liberals” to point out how they are sticking to script. “Indian ‘liberals’ are as predictable as religious bigots. As soon as Islamic terrorists barged into the office of Charlie Hebdo...  one thought they would shed their predictable behavior of being apologist for Islamic terrorists,” the libertarian website wrote. “But one was expecting too much.”

Sickular: The liberal brigade, meanwhile, inevitably tried to connect the French terror attacks to events in India, whether they were the recent protests about the controversial film PK or the intolerance of the Bhakt army on twitter.


Now this happens internationally as well. The Charlie Hebdo attacks have brought up a broader debate about how to condemn terror attacks like the ones in Paris while also making a point that the content which provoked it was racist. That debate mostly presumes you have to fall on one side or the other: either you condemn the attacks and implicitly endorse the content or criticise the cartoons and thereby applaud the terror. So there’s nothing new about this sort of binary thinking.

What is more troubling is the ease with this George W Bush-stamped narrative ‒ you’re either with us or against us ‒ has begun to spread. It’s exacerbated by social media, of course. When the armies, Bhakt or Sickular, decide to take you on, it’s almost impossible to insist on a nuanced point of view.

Again, this isn’t a problem for, say, the discerning Twitter user who curates her timeline carefully. But, as more and more journalists, policy-makers and politicians start to spend time on social networks, they have begun to tailor their approaches to the kinds of discourse that is common on there.

To give you an idea of where this might lead, take a look at this story about how divided the United States has become over the last few decades.

Michael Tesler/Monkey Cage 

America is so polarised that the Conservative-Liberal divide, their version of Bhakt-Sickular, even extends to which movies ought to be winning Oscars or how murder trials should have ended or who gets to own basketball teams. There is no crossing-the-aisle, you’re either on one side or another to such an extent that those on either side have begun to self-select.

Liberals and conservatives don’t just disagree with each other in America. They also have begun to view each other as a threat to the country, have become much less likely to compromise and have even stopped living next to each other.

Despite the views of some, particularly in the aftermath of Narendra Modi ascending to the prime ministership, India is not even close to being there yet. You can still find people who will eat beef and yet be annoyed by PK or others who joined in with Swach Bharat but think Ghar Wapsi is a dangerous phenomenon.

But America once had plenty of people who would identify with opinions on either side as well. How long before nuance disappears from India?

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