Sunday, October 25, 2015

Media has dropped the mask of neutrality

By Swapan Dasgupta

There are a lot of people—or so I gather from a casual perusal of the social media—that believe General V.K. Singh was quite unfairly pilloried for his unfortunate ‘dog’ analogy. They are right, but only half right. 

The past two years—dating back to the time Narendra Modi was announced as its prime ministerial candidate by the BJP back in September 2013—has seen a determined section of the media launch a crusade against the so-called ‘Hindu Right’. Initially, the campaign was centred—as the Supreme Court judgment in the Sanjeev Bhatt case has pointed out—on an attempt to target Modi on the 2002 riots, using the services of disgruntled officers, Congress functionaries and politicised NGOs. As the campaign progressed, the media switched tack and began a perception war to show that while Modi would help the BJP better its 2009 performance, he would never win. The leading lights of this campaign were media stalwarts—in fact the very people who are most active today in fuelling the culture wars. 

I need hardly elaborate on the media’s conduct since May 2014. No stone has been left unturned to attack the government and tarnish Modi’s image. Initially it was done surreptitiously, under the cover of professionalism. However, now that the opposition has reached a critical mass—with the induction of writers, intellectuals, socialites, NGOs and, above all, the discovery of a new leader in the form of Nitish Kumar—even the pretence of neutrality has been discarded. The secularist bush telegraph having proclaimed a Mahagathbandan victory in Bihar—with Lalu Prasad Yadav under wraps—the cloak of professionalism has been discarded. It is now open season on the BJP—a process that will continue unabated till the general election of 2019. What Finance Minister Arun Jaitley described as “politics by other means” now involves making governance impossible for Modi, shifting focus from development and economic growth to old-style identity politics, and triggering a backlash of unfulfilled expectations. 

As a strategy it is clever—possibly as clever as the CIA-inspired political backlash against the left-wing government of Salvador Allende in Chile in the early-1970s. Anyone studying the phenomenon in its totality will realise what the game plan of the emerging anti-Modi coalition is, and the paramount importance of the media in the entire operation. Certainly, as a former military man who has been trained in anticipating the enemy, General Singh should have known about it. 

And yet, beginning from Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma and Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar to General Singh, BJP functionaries have basically competed with each other to provide ammunition to the party’s opponents, particularly the media. The reasons for their apparent boo-boos are multiple. First, speaking to the media involves skill sets that many politicians, accustomed to speaking with fellow politicians and ‘normal’ people, just don’t possess. Secondly, many politicians—like many in the media—live in echo chambers and are seemingly impervious to how their matter-of-fact utterances are likely to be interpreted, misinterpreted or even distorted in translation. Thirdly, there is still insufficient awareness, on the government side at least, that the media’s courtship of them isn’t necessarily a reflection of their importance in the political ecosystem. In recent times, the media chases ministers and MPs not because they feel obliged to understand what important functionaries feel or believe. Rushing after political functionaries with a camera or tape recorder has become akin to throwing a banana skin in their path and hoping they will slip. Politicians may feel that they are telling the people, through the media, about their good works. But they are in no position to determine the nature of the final product. 

Recently, to take a random example, the Haryana Chief Minister gave a few interviews on the occasion of his first year in office. He must have spoken about his development works and other challenges facing the state. But what grabbed the media space were the questions on beef, where a contested translation made headlines. The victims of distortion—where they occur—might well engage in subsequent damage limitation, as Khattar did. But it is important to remember that the media does not believe in apologies or admissions of error. The tiny corrections in small print—or, in extreme cases, taking the offending article off the web editions or YouTube—doesn’t contain the damage because the controversy, by then, has reached every corner of the political world. 

There are politicians who feel that the sins of the mainstream media, while worrying, are overwhelmed by the direct communication that social media enables. This is partly true. There is no doubt that the monopoly of the mainstream media over information and analysis has diminished, and is diminishing as Indians are more and more exposed to better net connectivity. However, there are two shortcomings of the social media. Firstly, the so-called opinion leaders and opinion makers still take their cue from the mainstream media. The influence of the mainstream media also follows a demographic curve: it is more marked among older people than the young. Secondly, for all its other attributes, social media suffers from its inability to establish a hierarchy of information. It fails to distinguish what is very important and what is less so. This matters in an age where there is a veritable information overload of what is happening internationally, nationally and locally. The hierarchy of news is still determined by the mainstream media: a reason why it still exercises considerable influence. 

Some of the campaigning hyper-activity that is visible in the media today is almost entirely determined by the Bihar election. After November 8, the intensity of the campaign will depend on the outcome: a BJP defeat may propel the media to go for the kill and make the government dysfunctional. On its part, the government will have to evolve more effective communication strategies to focus popular attention on issues that really matter for India. 

Sunday Pioneer, October 25, 2015

Friday, October 23, 2015

Feeling Superior: India's dietary brinkmanship

By Swapan Dasgupta

In its October 15 edition, The Telegraph accorded extraordinary prominence to a lecturer of my alma mater, St Stephen’s College in Delhi, who invited a group of friends to an eating joint in Majnu ka Tilla—which, in my university days, was a Tibetan colony that served a potent home-brewed rice beer—for a pork-heavy meal. The lecturer, nominally a Muslim who gave the pork dishes a miss, had a definite objective in mind: to demonstrate that we can and should be accommodative about other people’s food preferences, even when it doesn’t correspond to our own. 

One of the guests, another lecturer at St Stephen’s, is quoted by this paper as having posted a Facebook message that went a step further: “We had among us Hindus, Muslims, Christians and a Sikh! We ate beef, pork, lamb, chicken and vegetables but we did it together and all the while respecting each other’s choices of what to eat and what not to eat! We share concern, anguish and frustration over the fascism that is taking over this beautiful land of ours.” 

Apart from the over-use of the exclamation mark, the Facebook message was revealing. This was no ordinary meal of a group of friends: with the attendant publicity, it was a political protest—somewhat akin to the inter-caste dining that used to be favoured by reformist bodies in the past, but sans a common fare for all. The larger libertarian message was unmistakable: in India, everything goes or, rather, should go. And particularly in the battle against ‘fascism.’ 

Maybe the horrible killing in a Dadri village called for an exceptional protest—what Lenin used to call “bending the stick” in the other direction. On Twitter, a vocal Congress supporter called for a beef-eating protest in front of the Prime Minister’s residence. But it is not surprising that this public grandstanding failed to gather any worthwhile support and was quietly dropped. Nor did the videographed killing of a cow by a pro-Pakistan Islamist leader in the Kashmir Valley—the footage was mischievously distributed through WhatsApp—prompt emulation by her co-religionists. 

Indeed, there was a very mixed message that emanated from the Dadri killing and its aftermath. While there was all-round condemnation of vigilantes who take matters into their own hands and enforce lynch-mob justice, most sensible people felt that diet was too sensitive a subject to be exposed to the whims of either a stubborn religious orthodoxy or insolent libertarians. 

In the course of their private lives, particularly during travels overseas, most middle class Indians have deviated from inherited dietary practices. I know many individuals from shuddh vegetarian households who are not averse to eating meat or fish in restaurants—but rarely permit it to be cooked at home. I know beef eating Hindus and pork eating Muslims. What binds most of these dietary ‘deviants’ aren’t their rebelliousness but an over-weaning desire to keep their experiments with the forbidden as discreet as possible. 

When it comes to food, most Indians have willingly accommodated the sensitivities of others. The joint family structure that set social norms has always deemed that individual preferences should always be subordinated to the prevailing consensus. Few people gratuitously serve pork if there is going to be Muslim guests. Likewise, exceptional care is taken to separate the vegetarian dishes from the meat preparations, in the event that one of the guests is vegetarian. Indian airline companies, apart from separating the vegetarian and non-vegetarian meals, never have either pork or beef on the menu. In the political gatherings of Delhi, the default food—unless expressly stated otherwise—is invariably vegetarian. True, there are exceptions—the Christmas lunches at the clubs of Kolkata come to mind—but in the main, Indians have over the centuries learnt the virtues of taking exceptional care to not needlessly offend others. 

It is certainly true that there is a large element of hypocrisy in India’s dietary brinkmanship. But pretence has always been regarded as preferable to offence. 

The alternative approach has invariably had unhappy consequences. The breaking of caste and religious taboos, for example, was a feature of the Young Bengal rebellion in the early-19th century. Intoxicated by an overdose of western rationalism, young Bengalis—mainly from the upper castes—chose to break down the barriers of what they regarded as superstition and mindless orthodoxy by throwing pieces of beef at unsuspecting Hindus or ‘defiling’ their houses in a similar way. The argument was that the resulting ostracism would force ‘mindless’ Hindus into seeing the light of the true faith. Unfortunately, the young rebels were literally chased out of society by the resulting backlash. 

In his Letters on Hinduism, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee was unsparingly scathing about those ‘liberated’ Hindus who tried to impress others with their version of shock and awe. “And what shall I say”, he wrote, “of that weakest of human beings, the half-educated anglicised and brutalised Bengali babu, who congratulates himself on his capacity to dine off a plate of beef as if this act of gluttony constituted in itself unimpeachable evidence of a perfectly cultivated intellect?” 

Bankim babu penned his distaste for the poseurs some 130 years ago, at a time when the terms of upward social mobility were often set with a westward gaze. However, it is remarkable to see the same attitudes replicated in today’s India under the cover of cosmopolitanism and enlightenment. 

Last week, a leading publication devoted to economics and business warned that India’s pitch for foreign investment would suffer grievously if multinational corporations discovered that would not be able to serve to their expat executives. It would have been understandable if the publication had warned of the vitiated atmosphere resulting from anti-beef vigilantism but to suggest that red meat deprivation is an investment hazard seems far-fetched. The lunch room and staff canteens of the corporate group that brings out the publication, for example, has been unwaveringly vegetarian ever since its previous British owners sold out and departed in the late-1940s. This practice has neither affected its market reputation nor jeopardised its business strategies. It has been accepted for what it is: a symbol of one community’s cultural ethos. 

I once asked the manager of the iconic, Michelin star restaurant Waterside Inn, about the eating habits of his corporate clients. He showed me the menu for a dinner hosted by a prominent Marwari businessmen for his European associates: the fare was entirely vegetarian, albeit cooked French style. This Indian businessman too wasn’t squeamish about his socio-cultural moorings.

Whether or not Hindus ate beef in Vedic times is an interesting historical debate. But regardless of the answer, the fact is that beef has been considered a big no-no for as long as we can remember. To not eat beef—or in the case of Jews and Muslims, shun pork—doesn’t automatically rule them out of the cosmopolitanism league. On the contrary, those uber liberals who champion the wearing of T-shirts proclaiming ‘I am a beef eater’ (in French, presumably) betray an inferiority complex. 

The St Stephen’s lecturer was arguing that faith and food shouldn’t go hand in hand. The sub-text of his demonstrative protest was that, maybe, we should be more like either Christians or Communists—whose food preferences are determined by individual tastes alone. But the fact is Indians have their own values and eating beef isn’t a obligatory attribute of Indian-ness. Making a fetish of it offends common decencies. There are more wholesome ways of conducting a protest against a vegetarian Prime Minister who unfailingly observes the Navratra fast, regardless of where he is. However, if you want to show you are different and superior… 

The Telegraph, October 23, 2015

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Culture wars: It's more a clash of lifestyles than a battle of ideas

By Swapan Dasgupta

In 1961, in a monograph woefully difficult to locate today, the Chicago sociologist Edward Shils studied the predicament of the Indian intellectual in the high noon of the Nehruvian era. His approach was sympathetic but his larger conclusions were not terribly flattering to a community that saw itself as the vanguard of India’s journey to modernity. 


Despite its near-uninterrupted Brahmanical tradition of scholarship and sustained exposure to the West, India, Shils felt, “has not yet developed the traditions which are essential to intellectual life.” Despite possessing a significant intelligentsia, the orientation of the Indian intellectual, he felt, was “provincial.” Part of this was due to the drudgery of economic survival, the depressing environment of the universities and media, the prevailing anti-business ethos and the diversion of talent into the bureaucracy. But at the heart of the “insulted and injured” self-image of the Indian intellectual was the confusion over where he stood in relation to India. At one level, he observed, nearly “all of what certain Indian intellectuals refer to as ‘modern thought’ comes to them through England and the medium of English.” At the same time, there was the reality of life in a traditional—and largely—Hindu milieu. “It would not be an outlandish exaggeration to say that it is impossible for a Indian of Hindu descent to cease to be a Hindu.” 


To Shils, this mirrored Jawaharlal Nehru’s amission in his Autobiography: “I have become a queer mixture of the East and West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere… (In) my own country… I have an exile’s feeling.” 


Shils penned his observations 54 years ago. Since then, India has undergone a massive transformation: the economic plight of the middle classes isn’t so dire; England has been replaced by USA as the new modernist Mecca; business is no longer an object of disdain; and the “Hinduistic traditionalist revival” that Shils so feared would occur after Nehru has become a reality. At the same time, in sheer numbers, the Indian intelligentsia has grown exponentially—with some intellectuals having acquired the prefix “public.” It has benefitted from more centres of learning, the growth of media and publishing, and, most important, to unhindered access to global currents. The Indian rendered inadequate by the shortage economy has evolved into a self-confident, if slightly cocky, citizen of a country that looks expectantly to a glorious Asian future. 


Yet, Shils’ study isn’t entirely dated: the intellectual neurosis that he detected is still visible but it has acquired new and interesting—but not always palatable—dimensions. 


In his study, Shils elaborated on the Indian intellectuals’ sense of disconnect from the wider environment and his attempt to overcome it through identification with an association with the broad Left. However, he also encountered an “excellent young historian, trained at Oxford, productive as a scholar… and himself head of a division in an important Ministry.” The gentleman told him: “I don’t feel out of touch with the people, they might feel out of touch with me but that is their concern, not mine.” 


The identity of the historian is very thinly veiled. But what is interesting is that what seemed like the outburst of a poseur in 1961 has persisted and become a fashion statement in 2015. Five decades ago, and despite the fond England-gazing, intellectuals were mindful of the larger society in which they lived. Their intellectual individualism was invariably circumscribed by the prevailing ethos of the joint family or the community whose ethos demanded an exceptional measure of self-restraint. True, there were the odd group of bohemians (like the 19th century Young Bengal movement) for whom creativity and self-indulgence were happy partners but, by and large, these were exceptions. Most intellectuals respected society, even when they were inclined towards the avant garde


The desire to break out of provinciality and embrace cosmopolitanism has, today, led to intellectual freedom being equated with iconoclasm, disregard for existing social mores and a show of intellectual insolence—bordering on snobbery—directed at those unable to appreciate the delights of permissiveness. Nothing is sacred—and certainly not the cow.


There is a culture war raging in India today. Alas, it is only nominally a clash of ideas and more about conflicting lifestyles. 

Sunday Times of India, October 18, 2015

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Vitality in another guise

By Swapan Dasgupta


In an extract of his most recent book How I Stopped Being A Jew, published in the Guardian last week, Israeli historian Shlomo Sand expressed the hope “that the cultural distance between my great-grandson and me will be as greater or greater than that separating me from my own great-grandfather.” His wish stemmed from a sense of exasperation with fellow citizens of Israel. “I have the misfortune”, he wrote, “of living now among too many people who believe their descendants will resemble them in all respects, because for them peoples are eternal—a fortiori a race-people such as the Jews.”


Sand’s anger can be understood within the context of some of the debates centred on the over-Jewishness of Israel but it has a larger validity too. In the United States, there is concern—well articulated in Samuel Huntington’s Who Are We? –at the steady erosion of the country’s Judaeo-Christian underpinnings caused by widespread immigration from non-European societies. All over Europe people discomfited by the changing cultural landscape resulting from population movements are voicing similar concerns. A nationalist backlash centred on opposition to immigration—and, by association, the multinational European Union—is visible in France, Hungary, Austria and even some Scandinavian countries. Deft economic and political management has prevented the problem from becoming a force multiplier in Germany and Britain. 


Ever since the division of the united country in 1947, India has faced the economic and social challenges posed by population transfers. However, there is a significant difference: the movement of peoples have taken place within South Asia. There has been no significant grafting of peoples and communities from lands where the civilizational ethos is markedly different. The rising cosmopolitanism of Mumbai may have provoked a measure of resentment from the Marathi manoos and triggered a bout of political nativism. However, the growing numbers of Gujaratis, Tamilians or, for that matter, Hindi-speakers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar haven’t amounted to any worthwhile cultural dislocation. Their languages, cultural practices and, in some case, religious faith may differ but the over-arching reach of a common civilisation covers them all. 


In India, unlike in the Israel Sand sees around him, there is no desperate desire to ensure that the future will not be terribly dissimilar from the past. Despite rhetorical flourishes celebrating the continuity of India’s antique civilisation, few, apart from those seeking a return to self-sufficient village communities, are wary of change. On the contrary, ‘change’ has become the new buzzword of Indian politics, resonating with politicians across the political spectrum. 


This isn’t difficult to understand. Since the second half of the 20th century and, particularly since the deregulation of the economy in 1991, the pace of India’s transformation has been far greater than the previous 150 years. Three generations of Indians from the proverbial ‘midnight’s children’ have witnessed a greater transformation of India in their lifetime than the preceding six generations taken together. And judging from the wave of (sometimes unreal) expectations that have accompanied Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s achche din promise, it would seem that India’s appetite for change—often used synonymously with betterment and aspiration—is never-unending. Even economists, otherwise accustomed to dealing with cold statistics, have observed the human energy that is driving India forward. 


Apart from a discernible improvement in the living standards of most—but by no means all—Indians, the most visible change is the emergence of a political community spanning the whole country. This is not to imply that this community is undifferentiated and thinks alike: like in the US, there is a desi variant of the Blue-Red faultline. What constitutes the community is a broad acceptance of democratic, constitutional politics, the proverbial rules of the game. While the political process itself is fractious and argumentative, the evolution of a political community has contributed to an acceptance of common citizenship. In short, while the ‘idea of India’ is bitterly contested, the reality of India enjoys acceptability much greater than was the case prior to 1947. What, however, requires strengthening are the official and non-official institutions of nationhood, some of which remain either fragile or notoriously ineffective


Yet, while the popular legitimacy of the state is widespread and the yearning for progress and change adds to India’s dynamism, there is a curious loose end. What Sand about the Jewish belief that its culture is (or should be) unchanging because “for them peoples are eternal” can also be said to be a Hindu belief. It was subliminal in the first few decades after Independence because it lacked both political articulation and space—and was, therefore, confined to a shrinking band of social conservatives. Since the late-1980s, however, the belief that India must safeguard its precious religious and cultural inheritance in the face of globalised modernity has struck a responsive chord. 


In a little known monograph The Intellectual in India published in 1967, Nirad Chaudhury had quite accurately anticipated the trend. Then a resident of Old Delhi and a witness to the language stir and the anti-cow slaughter agitation that unsettled northern India in the run-up to the 4thGeneral Election, he observed that the intellectual ferment which began with Raja Rammohun Roy had “created a social class whose outlooks, ideas, behaviour, and social role are utterly different from those of the traditional and numerically stronger part of the middle class.” As democracy struck deeper roots, he foresaw a clash between the “new intelligentsia” and the “traditional Hindu middle class” that could only be resolved by the “complete subordination of the one to the other.”


Arguably, the notion of “complete subordination” was an overstatement. Yet, particularly after the election of the Modi government in May 2014, India has been witnessing a culture war that, in part at least, has its origins in the diminishing importance of the erstwhile “new intelligentsia” (also often referred to as the ‘Nehruvians’) and the ascendancy of a new group whose social assumptions are visibly different. This may explain the vicious (as yet largely verbal) wars that have erupted over issues such as Sanskrit, beef and the supposed truncation of artistic space. 


It is interesting that the rise of a new, even assertive, Hindu identity in India hasn’t happened in an environment of economic decline but has followed the trajectory of India’s rising economic graph. The growing commitment to a nebulously defined Hindu way of life and the implicit dilution of ‘Nehruvian’ social assumptions has been combined with a near-fanatical commitment to global outreach, technology and managerial efficiency. Modi’s biggest fan following is not among old-style Brahmin pundits committed to the shastras but among restless and fiercely aspirational youth from non-privileged families. Their enthusiasm for a modernist future marked by smart cities and bullet trains is matched by aggressive nationalism and distaste for the effete and corrupt ways of the old, Congress-inclined elite. It is no accident that in his new avatar as an opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi is feverishly attempting to woo the same constituency by painting Modi as a man who has succumbed to the lure of the ‘suit-boot.’ 


The historian in Sand has got it wrong. The neighbours he so abhors don’t want their descendants to resemble them in “all respects” culturally. Israel is among the world’s most energetic start-up nations where technology and entrepreneurship have coalesced with spirited nationalism and a commitment to the Jewish inheritance. This implies great change, similar to what is happening in India. It is the hallmark of New Conservatism (or, if you so prefer, the New Right) against which is arrayed the champions of secular, post-national, cosmopolitanism. 

The Telegraph, October 15, 2015



Sunday, October 11, 2015

The flawed logic of the award-returnees

By Swapan Dasgupta


Let me state at the outset that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for writer Nayantara Sahgal who I have had the privilege of knowing for the past 37 years. I have also had very convivial conversations with Ashok Vajpeyi, poet and culture apparatchik, during various literary festivals over the years. I may not have shared all their political likes and dislikes—and Sahgal has occasionally teased me about my “wrong politics”—but there is more to life than common voting intentions, or so I hope. 


Therefore, when Sahgal takes it upon herself to publicly disavow her Sahitya Akademi award, a gesture that Vajpeyi and some others have emulated, the least I can do is to seriously examine the rationale of their protest. Regardless of whether they were right or were guilty of over-reaction bordering on grandstanding, it is unworthy to attach base motives to their symbolic assault on the Narendra Modi government. 


I will, therefore, desist from echoing the charge in the social media that Sahgal is guilty of selective indignation: she received her award barely two years after the massacre of Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s assassination. As a public-spirited writer, Sahgal has been known to take stands. She had the courage to publicly oppose the Emergency imposed by her cousin at a time when other ‘liberals’ either willingly acquiesced or went into hibernation. Whatever else Sahgal may or may not be, she has a mind of her own. 


Nor will I insult Vajpeyi’s undeniable credentials as a Hindi poet by alluding to his close association with the late Arjun Singh or pointing to the fact that all the public offices he has held—Chairman of Bharat Bhavan (Bhopal), trustee Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, member ICCR and Chairman Lalit Kala Akademi—have been courtesy Congress governments. 


Frankly, the political inclinations of individuals are irrelevant—unless, of course, they choose to make it relevant. 


Returning a state award—to be distinguished from those who refuse the award in the first place—is not a casual gesture. Rabindranath Tagore returned his Knighthood after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 and a further clutch of notables returned honours conferred on them during the Non Cooperation movement and Civil Disobedience movements launched by Mahatma Gandhi. In more recent times, the writer Khushwant Singh returned his Padma Bhushan in 1984, protesting against Operation Bluestar, but accepted a Padma Vibhushan in 2007. Apart from Singh’s understandable emotional outburst at the storming of the Golden Temple, the other protests, not even Tagore’s, weren’t necessarily centred on an event, although that may have been a trigger. In returning the honour conferred on them by the British Raj, they were questioning and challenging the legitimacy of the state that had honoured them. They were suggesting that British rule in India was illegitimate—a symbolic act of rebellion. 


SahgalVajpeyi and the others who returned their awards in the wake of the murder of two ‘rationalists’ and the beef lynching in Dadri were entirely right to be outraged. It is a sad day for India if individuals are targeted for their views, their faith or lifestyle. But the grim reality is that these things happens, and often despite the best efforts of the state. Last week, in an incident that was reminiscent of the Taliban attack on MalalaYusafzai Maoists in Chhattisgarh killed a teenage girl for daring to attend school; in Delhi, an extremely brutal rape brought forth street protests; and in West Bengal, political murders have become routine since the mid-1960s. These incidents can be multiplied and they bring no credit to the country. 


However, if we were to react to each ugly incident by questioning the legitimacy of the state, India would descend into a state of emotional civil war. To protest against wrong is legitimate; but to extend that outrage into challenging the legitimacy of a state is to carry things a bit too far. There is a fundamental difference between the Indian state and the government of the day. We can oppose a government and even campaign to ensure it is voted out in due course. Sadly, we can’t build and rebuild an entire state apparatus because of seasonal shifts in the mood. 


Sahgal and the others hate Narendra Modi, and in likelihood hated him ever since the day he entered public life. The reason may well be aesthetic. In the words of one of their intemperate advocates: “As our Prime Minister we have a man who can’t even be dignified by being called ‘uncultured’, but an ignorant egomaniac who has deliberately made a successful political career of being an enemy of culture wherever and whenever he suspects he may have found it.


In normal circumstances, such vitriol would never have passed editorial muster in a mainstream newspaper. But these are exceptional times. So intense is the hatred of ModiSahgal called him a ‘fascist’—that the government’s alleged sins of omission have been merged into a disavowal of the Union of India. 


In 1961, in protest against India’s takeover of Portugese-held Goa, a gifted poet by the name of Dom Moraes, then living in London, tore up his Indian passport before a TV camera. It was an act of puerile bravado characteristic of a man with an inflated sense of self-importance. But India forgave him and he flourished as a pickled socialite in Mumbai for the rest of his life. 


I think, maybe quite unwittingly and in a fit of rage that comes naturally to writers and poets, there is a tendency to emulate MoraesModi may not be everyone’s cup of tea but he is an elected Prime Minister. Under him, there has been no institutional shift in democratic function—as Sahgal must have realised when she denounced Modi quite spiritedly at a function in Teen Murti House last August. Had India become ‘fascist’ under Modi, Sahgal would have met the fate that Nehru’s daughter reserved for her political opponents during the Emergency. 


It is known that some people believe that protest is the dharma of the writer and poet. They may be right but that also makes these rarefied protests seem a matter of habit, cloaked in intemperate language. 

Sunday Pioneer, October 11, 2015

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