Bengal violence to farm protests: How liberal privilege shapes the way we think about what matters

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For decades, Indian liberals have controlled the levers of power. They have conditioned everyone to think in a certain way about who is important and who is not. While they have had to yield the levers of power, the mental conditioning is harder to get out of our heads

As of now, very little is moving in the state of Maharashtra. For nearly a month, public buses have been off the streets due to an ongoing strike by workers of the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC). Even as the workers refuse to relent, the state government has come down heavily upon them, suspending and sacking hundreds of workers every day. So far, nearly 3,000 workers have been suspended.

Did you know about this? Probably not. Can you imagine if this were happening instead in a state ruled by the BJP?

And consider this. The other day, the Maharashtra government decided to reduce by 50 percent the taxes on imported whisky. Last week, West Bengal also reduced taxes on liquor, making it cheaper by almost 20 percent in the state. And yet both states have not reduced fuel taxes by a single paisa to help the common citizen. Imagine the optics of this. And yet, you know that the media won’t make a fuss about it. But why?

If you are sympathetic to the BJP, the explanation is simple. This is due to liberal bias, which happens because the media is run by liberals. That is why the media looks the other way on the political violence in West Bengal, for instance. Or makes a big deal about striking farmer unions from Punjab, while ignoring the striking workers in Maharashtra.

But wait. Is the media really liberal? Since 2014, there has been a noticeable shift in the Indian media landscape. A number of news channels, in fact the most popular ones, now generally lean towards the ruling BJP on most issues.

To understand this apparent paradox, think about a Test match between India and Australia to be played at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. We all know that Australia starts with an advantage. Because they got to prepare the pitch. They know the conditions better. Even though both sides will have the same number of players and the umpires are unbiased, the system favours the home team. This systemic advantage is called privilege. You don’t need anyone to cheat for one side to have a systemic advantage.

The same goes for the media. The problem is not liberal bias, at least not any longer. The problem is liberal privilege. After 2014, the ruling BJP gets enough opportunities to put forward its view on the issues. The question is who picks what the issues are. Who gets to prepare the pitch that both sides are batting on?

It is easy to confuse bias with privilege. A simple distinction is this. While bias can usually be spotted at an individual level, privilege can be observed only at a systemic level.

Consider, for instance, the two dozen or so countries that make up the European Union. These are some of the world’s richest and most advanced societies, with high levels of gender equality. And yet, how many of these countries are led by women? Nowhere close to 50 percent. These leaders are all democratically elected and women make up 50 percent of the voters.

At an individual level, each of these leaders deserved to win, and have worked hard to be where they are. But there was an unseen hand somewhere, which still managed to push only the men into positions of power. It must have happened very subtly. In schools, in workplaces and in offices, at some level, women were given the impression that they do not belong at the top. That’s male privilege.

Privilege is that unseen hand. It is what makes people scroll past a headline such as “BJP worker found hanging in Bengal.” And then get all riled up about a story such as “Human rights activist booked under UAPA in Uttar Pradesh.” Also, observe how the media frames these things. One side is always activists or poets. We get to know their names, their age and their background: 21-year-old activist, 80-year-old poet, headmaster’s son, etc. We are also given endearing details about their personal lives: Soft spoken, cricket fan, dog lover and so on. On the other hand, it’s always a “BJP worker.”

Name not important, background even less so. Perhaps the murdered BJP worker was also soft spoken or a dog lover. Does anyone know?

Does this mean that we should not be concerned if someone is unfairly booked under UAPA in a state ruled by the BJP? Does this mean that two wrongs should make a right?

No, and no. Just because a certain group has privilege does not mean that they deserve to be treated unfairly. The rich, for instance, have a certain kind of privilege. Does it mean that rich people should be treated more harshly under the law? Of course not. But we tend to talk about things only when rich people suffer. Poor people who have it much worse are often forgotten.

The same way, an “activist” getting booked under UAPA in Uttar Pradesh is news. Because the activist probably has liberal privilege. A BJP worker who gets murdered in Bengal is missing that all important liberal privilege. And so, their life just seems to matter less to everyone. And I mean everyone. Yes, even BJP workers have learned to see themselves as not that important.

That’s the most curious thing about privilege. It is a superstition that gets inside everyone’s head, even those of the less privileged. The underclass picks up on societal cues and subtly accepts its own second-class status. In The Warmth of Other Suns, her epoch-making book on race relations in America, Isabel Wilkerson records the irony of a black doctor in the 1960s facing mistrust from his black patients.

His black patients often assumed that the white doctors were somehow more qualified. This is shocking, but this is how long years of subjugation messes up the way we think.

Even today, America is grappling with the spectre of white privilege. It is not enough for everyone to have equal rights under the law. You must also fight against a system that conditions police to think that a black man, whether armed or not, is inherently dangerous. Just because America had a black president does not mean that systemic racism is over.

It works the same way with liberal privilege. Just because the BJP has won an absolute majority and has found a voice in the media for the first time ever does not mean that there is no liberal privilege any more. For decades, Indian liberals have controlled the levers of power. They have conditioned everyone to think in a certain way about who is important and who is not. While they have had to yield the levers of power, the mental conditioning is harder to get out of our heads.

Once you look at it from this point of view, the behaviour of the media and the rest of society is easily explained. Why do BJP governments get so much media scrutiny and others do not? Because of the mental conditioning that says the BJP does not really belong in power. The media landscape that we see today has been shaped by liberal privilege.

The day this changes, more people will find out that 18-year-old Trilochan Mahato was hanged from a tree in Bengal as “punishment” for being a BJP worker. And they will learn not to ignore him.

Abhishek Banerjee is a columnist and author. Views expressed are personal.

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