Selective Outrage

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A plate of French Fries

Please note: Views expressed are strictly personal.


An argument has, amongst other things, a background on which it is based. And a response that it elicits.

A recent book that I read – it was either Romilla Thapar’s “Public Intellectual in India” or Prof. Amartya Sen’s “Country of First Boys”; can’t recall which, and I’m too far away from my bookshelf to check – argued that outrage should not seek historical legitimacy.

An admirable sentiment, and one which I (normally) swear by.

What it means, in a crude, easy-to-digest form, is that “you did not protest *X*; hence you protesting *Y* is wrong”, or “you did not protest at time *T1*; hence you protesting at at time *T2* is wrong”.

One of the chief rules of argumentation – a fine craft that is sadly lost in the street brawls that make up today’s “discourse” – is that an argument should be judged on its own merit. Facts and arguments in its vicinity (and specifically, the identity of the person making that argument) should not be used to test its validity. And ergo, the response to such an argument would also be limited to the context of the argument.

What I mean by this is that whether or not I had a healthy meal yesterday cannot provide a justification for me having an unhealthy meal today. Think of your school teacher screaming at you – “Don’t tell me you did something because s/he did it. If s/he jumped into a river, would you jump in too?”.

But then, at one point, we stop and wonder and say to ourselves, “Fine, you are protesting *X* without having protested *Y*. But why did you not protest at *Y* as well, when you just as easily could have?”.

And therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rump.

The Example

(And this is where the plate of fries makes sense)

Consider this – I go to a restaurant “A” and order a plate of french fries. The fries look wonderful – crisp, golden, sizzling hot. But they are overtly salty. Not only is the excessive salt bad to taste, it also adversely affects my health. I object, and send it back, and write a bad review for that restaurant. Nothing wrong in this, right? All perfectly a-okay.

But then it so emerges that I had, a few days back, gone to a different restaurant “B” where I had again ordered a plate of fries. And this time too, the fries had been excessively salted. But this time, I did not object.

I am not even talking about a presumed “conflict of interest” – the manager did not give me a discount or a refund or a gift voucher. There was no “consideration” transferred which would make me want to not object.

I simply chose to not object.

The question, then, is this – am I objecting to excessively salted fries (which are undeniably bad for both taste and health), or am I actually objecting to restaurant “A”? Or, to rephrase this question, am I using my opposition to unhealthy food as a proxy excuse to actually oppose restaurant A?

The Problem

But, is there something fundamentally wrong in objecting to restaurant A? I dislike the place, I think it is bad for the health of me and my family, and therefore I chose to object to it. I like restaurant B and therefore I chose to not object to it.

Nothing essentially wrong with this, right?

The problem lies at a lower stage of abstraction. Masquerading my opposition to A under the false proxy of disliking unhealthy food is a fundamentally wrong thing to do.

One – not restoring to such “theatricality and deception – both of which are powerful agents” is an important part of intellectual honesty. We all know why we are so dishonest, of course. Far too often we find it necessary to sugarcoat frank aspirations by marketing them under the guise of higher ideals, ideals that only a handful believe in to begin off with.

Two – using such a smoke-and-mirrors to deceive is essential crooked and cowardly.

Three – sooner or later, is going to cook up a healthy dish and sooner or later, B is going to cook up a dish that is unhealthy; such is dictated by the all-powerful, inevitable hand of probability. It is far better to be honestly wedded to the higher cause of healthy food, rather than being short-sightedly committed to a restaurant.

The Rump

All of this discussion about right and wrong, honest and dishonety, lies on the presumption that we, as a society, are capable of moral and nuanced behavior. If we agree that such ethically sound behaviour – of people saying what they mean and being honest – is far too lofty and utopian a goal, then the entire argument I pleaded above crumbles into pointlessness.

Sadly, in today’s age it is impossible to expect such mentally disciplined and honest behaviour – it would be an interesting exercise to figure out if such behavior was always impossible.

What I have said before, I repeat again. These are my personal views, and are mentioned in abstraction. This framework can be adopted and enforced onto any practical example, and its efficacy can be evaluated.

I look forward to hearing views and counterviews on this subject.

I am also fully aware that because I have spoken out on the issue of “selective outrage”, I shall be prescribed certain ideological sympathies, if not inclinations. While I assure you that what I right is strictly apolitical and devoid of any “cult-biases”, I could not care less about the conclusions you (voluntarily) wish to draw regarding my alleged biases.

The Kohinoor Quandary

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William Dalyrymple is a person whose writing I adore. He has a knack for portraying history with a Tolkein-esque flair. “The Last Mughal“, “City of Djinns“, “The Age of Kali“, “Nine Lives” and – most favorite of all – “The Return of a King“. I loved all of them, and believe Dalyrmple to be one of the foremost writers of our generation.

I recently came across this video posted by him –

Source: http://indianexpress.com/videos/news-video/british-took-kohinoor-by-force-but-so-did-the-indians-william-dalrymple/

And I am in disagreement with him.

The diamond was mined in India. Some accounts say that it was mine in the Kollur mines of Guntur, Andhra Pradesh, possible as far back as 3000 BCE. The sources are hazy, but it is definitely known that Alauddin Khalji’s general, Malik Kafur, acquired the diamond during his campaigns of South India (when he went as far South as Madurai and looted the Meenakshi Temple). It finds specific mention in the “Baburnama”, where the Mongoloid warlord Babur writes that Ibrahim Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi, gifted it to him. Nadir Shah, during his plunder of Delhi in 1738 took it to Persia.

This was the first time the diamond went out of India.

It was reclaimed by Maharaja Ranjit Singh – as Dalrymple points out – by force.

In the first half of the 19th Century, following the fall of the Marathas in the 3rd Anglo-Maratha War (1818), and the defeat of Mysore in the 4th Anglo-Mysore War (1799), it was only Maharaja Ranjit Singh who could provide a challenge to the East India Company. It was said that the Company’s army was second only to Ranjit Singh’s in the whole of Asia.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh had willed it to the temple of Jagannath Puri on his death, but this will was not executed by the Company.

It was acquired by the then Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, who treated it as a spoil of war. Writing to his friend Sir George Cooper in the August of 1849, he stated:

…it was more for the honour of the Queen that the Koh-i-noor should be surrendered directly from the hand of the conquered prince into the hands of the sovereign who was his conqueror, than it should be presented to her as a gift—which is always a favour—by any joint-stock company among her subjects…

Dalhousie arranged that the diamond should be presented by Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s young successor, Duleep Singh (aged 13) to Queen Victoria in 1850, who travelled to the United Kingdom to present the jewel.

This much is historical fact, and is undisputed.

The Flaw in Dalrymple’s Argument

William Dalrymple argues that India’s claim is rendered illegitimate by the use of force. It is no one’s contention that neither Maharaja Ranjit Singh, nor the Company (nor any of the previous owners of the jewel) used anything but force in the acquisition of the Kohinoor Diamond.

But the Company’s acquisition hints at something more sinister.

Prof. A. Srivathsan of CEPT University, Ahmedabad, writes that in 1815 European powers agreed that the plundering of national art was “immoral and illegal”. However, this agreement was limited to European countries, while the colonies were merrily plundered.

As is evident by Dalhousie’s letter above, the Company acquiring the diamond wasn’t mere commerce. It was also a product of the colonial sense of superiority, the White Man’s burden being physically instantiated. European powers – while respecting each other’s national heritage – believed that the Colonies were “fair game” in being looted, and there was nothing wrong with the “superior” English man acquiring something of value from the “native”.

Therefore, it cannot be equated with previous instances of the diamond being acquired by force.

And that is why India must reclaim the Kohinoor Diamond. The monetary value of the jewel is immaterial. But there must be a account presented of the heritage looted by colonial powers from India. The British “Empire” must accept it’s own horrific colonial past – and there are far, far worse events that besmirch the *spotless cricket whites of Eton*; the Great Bengal famine of 1943 being one example – and repent.  Returning the Kohinoor Diamond is one tiny step in that direction.

Incidentally, the same argument holds true for Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj’s Bhavani Talvaar.