So Tova O’Brien was looking for a click-bait opportunity to draw in listeners to her podcast and she found the migrant activist and Green Party politician Dr. Sapna Samant to pick on.
In a gotcha moment, Tova shared with the Green Party co-leader James Shaw a series of posts made by Dr. Samant on whiteness, Hindutva, and multiculturalism, asking him if the tweets were OK.
We don’t understand from listening to O’Brien’s podcast if her research team actively researched Dr. Sapna Samant’s social media posts, or whether these selective screen captures of Dr. Samant’s tweets were sent to her by someone wanting to target Samant. The thoroughly unresearched piece is poor journalism, reflective of the mediocrity that is perpetuated by whiteness, the hegemonic values of the dominant white culture in settler colonies.
If indeed her research team had discovered the tweets, it’s worth interrogating why the social media posts of a migrant woman activist on whiteness are of interest to O’Brien’s podcast.
It is further worth interrogating critically the assumptions that O’Brien makes in asking whether the tweets are OK. Note in the assumptions the normative ideas of civility that have historically been used by whiteness to silence the voices of Māori, Black, and ethnically diverse migrant communities. How do the underlying assumptions around what is acceptable speech reflect whiteness?
The screenshot of the de-contextualized tweets shared by Tova points to Dr. Samant’s engagement with the questions of whiteness, multiculturalism, and Hindutva. For the progressive South Asian community, Dr. Samant is a vitally important anti-racist activist, who has consistently raised her voice against the violence of caste in the diaspora and the far-right forces of Hindutva, the almost fascist ideology, at work here in Aotearoa. For doing this work, she has been targeted, threatened, and marked as a subject of violence, driven by Hindutva.
From the early days of inception of Hindutva and its organising under the umbrella of various Hindutva-linked organisations, Sapna has critically interrogated the whiteness of superficial multiculturalism that actually enables Hindutva, gives it fodder, and legitimizes it.
She has courageously questioned politicians, including former Prime Minister Helen Clark on her appearance on a platform linked with Hindutva. She has questioned the Minister of Ethnic Communities Priyanca Radhakrishnan on her stance on Hindutva-linked organisations and community leaders in Aotearoa.
Here, I will note that South Asian activists have pointed out to me that Minister Radhakrishnan is seen hanging out with community leaders who espouse the Hindutva ideology. For instance, when I was targeted by the disinformation campaign launched by Hindutva, the community leader Ilango Krishnamoorthy was seen sharing disinformation promoted by Roy Kaunds, a Hindutva proponent who has in the past appeared on the far-right platform Counterspin Media and collaborated with Counterspin. I also note here that Krishnamoorthy is seen on multiple occasions with Minister Radhakrishnan.
The critiques of Minister Radhakrishnan shared by Dr. Samant have also been offered by other progressive Indian activists in the diaspora. Of particular concern among these activists is the Minister’s platforming of Hindutva-linked organisations and individuals.
Sapna’s critique of whiteness and multiculturalism are incisive and very much informed by the theoretical analysis of whiteness.
Critical analyses of whiteness interrogate the ways in which the dominant values of white culture shape the normative assumptions regarding interpersonal interactions, formation of community, formation of institutional norms, and democratic participation.
In the context of multiculturalism in settler colonies, the dominant values of white culture shape the ways in which ethnic communities are organised and approached through community engagement. In a white paper that I wrote with the activist Tina Ngata, whiteness as a framework for engaging multiculturalism is a practice in upholding deep-seated racist practices.
Specifically in the context of Hindutva, Dr. Samant’s analysis is very much on point when she notes that the whiteness of superficial multiculturalism that upholds cultural essentialism perpetuates toxic ideologies such as Hindutva, unable to critically engage with such ideologies. For instance, when I had posted about the agreement signed by local councils in the US with a fake country put up by a Hindutva ideologue (who is on the run because of allegations of sexual abuse) and connected the signing of the agreement with the mediocrity of whiteness and its approach to multiculturalism, Dr. Samant retweeted my tweet, noting powerfully the ways in which superficial white liberalism enables Hindutva.
Dr. Samant’s critique is a vitally important one and critically necessary, given the threat of Hindutva to social cohesion, multiculturalism, and democratic processes across the West. Much closer home in Australia, Hindutva organising has resulted in threats directed to Indian Muslims and Sikhs, and violence directed at Sikhs.
An extensive body of research notes that Hindutva is a far-right almost-Fascist ideology that has been linked historically with the Nazi ideology. Moreover, the far-right ideology of Hindutva is classified as identity-motivated violent extremism (IMVE) here in Aotearoa, with the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (SIS) noting the presence of Hindutva here.
A number of news articles have documented the presence of Hindutva in Aotearoa, including a news story appearing on the very same platform where Ms. O’Brien hosts her podcast. Muslim community members, particularly Muslim women activists such as Anjum Rahman have expressed their concerns about the Islamophobic extremism of Hindutva. The analysis offered by Byron Clark in his book “Fear” documents the threat posed by Hindutva in Aotearoa, including noting the Hindutva links of the New Zealand First politician Mahesh Bindra. Personally, I have experienced violent attacks that have been mobilised by Hindutva.
That O’Brien frames Dr. Samant’s consistent and systemic critique of Hindutva as conspiratorial and dismisses the concerns expressed by Samant speak of how poorly researched and superficial O’Brien’s journalism is. In fact, one would argue that the poorly researched journalism on show here is reflective of the mediocrity of whiteness that Dr. Samant critiques in her tweets. Moreover, in framing the critique of Hindutva as conspiracy, O’Brien walks straight into the Hindutva conspiracy web (the evidence on this later).
Speaking to the whiteness of the journalistic practice at work here, I note the way in which O’Brien infantilizes a migrant woman politician and activist. After selectively picking some of Dr. Samant’s tweets to be outraged at, O’Brien chooses to ask the Green party co-leader James Shaw if he would go and have a conversation with Dr. Samant. Note here the removal of agency from Dr. Samant, turning her into a subject to be talked to (by a white male co-leader). It is worth asking, Did Ms. O’Brien reach out to Dr. Samant to ask her about the contexts of her tweets?
Here I note that in an earlier podcast, O”Brien gives the New Zealand First candidate Rob Ballantyne an entire episode to explain how his comments on Māori were taken out of context. Why does O’Brien give a politician making anti-Māori comments the opportunity to explain the context (where he differentiates between mainstream Māori and his construction of “disingenuous,” “elite,” “separatist,” Māori) but the same courtesy is not afforded to a migrant woman of colour politician and activist who is one of the consistent voices raising concerns about the far-right ideology of Hindutva in Aotearoa.
I also note that the targeting of Samant is carried out in the podcast episode that comes right after the Ballantyne episode. This comes across as a shallow attempt at balancing both sides, somehow equating Dr. Samant’s critique of whiteness and Hindutva to Ballantyne’s anti- Māori racism and conspiracy theories. This superficial attempt at equivalence runs O’Brien into repeating Hindutva conspiracies. Moreover, it appears that migrant women of colour politicians are not deserving of the same balance that O’Brien seems to afford to white male politicians accused of anti- Māori racism. In all of this one wonders, where is the voice of Dr. Samant?
O’Brien’s episode turns Dr. Samant into the target of white supremacists and Hindutva conspiracists. The white supremacists would like to deport her, and the Hindutva propagandists who have been targeting her violently use the episode to further pick up their hate campaign.
These hate responses evidence precisely the concerns raised by Dr. Samant. Ms. O’Brien’s podcast, both uninformed and poorly researched, further reproduces the disinformation networks of Hindutva. However, Ms. O’Brien certainly seems to have driven eyeballs to a podcast that is struggling with audience numbers.
I observe that the opening of the story on Stuff based on the podcast is written as:
“White people are stupid” and “can be fooled easily” according to a Green Party candidate who also labelled her opponent, Labour Minister Priyanca Radhakrishnan, “****ing useless” and an “incompetent” minister.”
This opening is misleading, suggesting (ambiguously, which itself is a strategy, with plausible deniability) that Samant’s labelling of Radhakrishnan as incompetent and useless is made as a Green Party candidate against her opponent. The fact is that the comments made by Samant were prior to her nomination as a Green Party MP and therefore, prior to her knowledge that she would be selected to stand in the same electorate as Radhakrishnan. O’Brien doesn’t really make this timeline clear and explicit in the podcast, which is either strategic to mislead or reflective of shoddy journalism.
Moreover, O’Brien reproduces Dr. Samant’s tweets without context. That O’Brien decides to be triggered by Dr. Samant’s critique of whiteness on her tweets speaks of white fragility, what the scholar Robin DiAngelo describes as “white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.”
It would do O’Brien good to use this opportunity to reflect on the ways in which white privilege enables her to platform poorly researched stories. As O’Brien writes superficially from her privilege, over fifty journalists and a news portal critiquing Hindutva in India are targeted by the state with the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The editor and the administrator of the portal critiquing the Hindutva regime are arrested. Under the Hindutva regime, press freedom it as its all-time low (ranking in the bottom 20 countries), with the instruments of the state deployed to spin conspiracy theories and then work on the basis of these conspiracy theories to silence journalists. To learn all this would actually require Ms. O’Brien to step out of the protective cocoon of parochial whiteness and actually care about journalism, press freedom and democracy in the Global South.
Even as O’Brien conveniently and casually dismisses concerns about Hindutva as conspiratorial (inserting “I think” in the mix), Muslim women journalists such as Rana Ayub are hunted by Hindutva disinformation and hate groups, threatened with rape and murder. Muslim women journalists are targeted by Hindutva hate and auctioned for sale on apps created by Hindutva adherents.
At the time of finalising this opinion piece, the Stuff website is updated with a story titled “Yuck… history will not judge this campaign kindly .” This makes evident the strategy behind the targeting of Samant by O’Brien, all to set up the narrative that all political parties are crafting misinformation, a false attempt at equivalence that is reflective of whiteness. Writes O’Brien:
“Abuse, vandalism, lies, misinformation, race rows, conspiracies and, on top of all that – a total lack of clarity around what we’re actually voting for when it comes to the potential coalitions, what policies might survive and whether the policies being promised will make life better or worse… Or if they even add up in the first place.”
The article goes on to note:
“Hellish and totally unacceptable what that young Te Pāti Māori candidate says she’s gone through… That is not a New Zealand any of us should be proud of…
But the allegation of burglary is bad enough, there’s no need for further dramatisation.”
Note here the condescending tone to play out the false equivalence. O’Brien wants to tell us that all political parties are engaging in a yucky campaign, and Dr. Samant is an easy pawn in that narrative project. In a powerful example of irony, O’Brien drives a conspiracy theory based Hindutva hate-campaign directed at Samant and those of us researching and writing on Hindutva.
Perhaps, she could begin by learning the key organising principles of whiteness and the ways in which these principles shape media reporting. That would go a long way toward ensuring she doesn’t reproduce racist tropes that target ethnic migrant women of color activists, and worse, embolden hate groups that thrive on the spread of disinformation and particularly target the voices of women activists with misogyny.