By Aakar Patel
I was going through The New York Times (NYT) on 18 October, and there it was on the front page: “Indian writers spurn awards as violence flares”. A long report, with a photograph, on recent happenings in India, accompanied by a second item profiling the writers and their work. It was reported in detail and unambiguously specified where the blame lay.
Within a few hours, as may have been anticipated, there was finally some action. Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah was reported as having summoned or telephoned a few of the more passionate Hindutvawadis—Uttar Pradesh leaders Sangeet Som and Sakshi Maharaj, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar and Union culture minister Mahesh Sharma—and told them to cool off on the beef issue.
None of this was officially announced, of course, though it should have been clearly articulated and communicated. It was only party gossip that was leaked to the news agencies. We do not even know what subject Shah spoke to them about and if indeed it was on the beef matter, then whether it was an order to cease and desist or whether it was only to hit pause.
But it was something. What caused the government to stir? That report in the NYT. I have absolutely no doubt about it and the moment I noticed the report, I knew the prime minister would act. It is the damage to this fine dispensation’s international reputation that roused it to action. The NYT again reported on the issue the next day, mentioning the Shah action but summarizing all the events and the violence in a way that was not flattering.
The question is: Is it a bad thing for the outside world to criticize our doings? There are two ways to look at this. The first is to invoke sovereignty and claim we are capable of managing our affairs. For a moment, ignore that claim because our history shows that of course we are totally incapable of managing our affairs and those Indians who are harmed in civic and political violence almost never get justice. But the first bit, that of sovereignty and the attendant stuff (national pride and all that), is felt strongly by sufficient numbers of people to make it a valid argument.
The second way is to set honour aside and ask if there is any benefit sometimes in listening to the outside world.
Here’s an example: It was the International Monetary Fund, the Americans and the outside world that thrust economic reforms on to a reluctant Congress. No party in that Parliament wanted reforms if I remember it right. The Indian media was focused on the Bofors scandal and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Was the outside world wrong then or were we?
If we were wrong then, despite our convictions, we should be open to listening to them at other times and accept that we, like all nations, can make mistakes sometimes. If this is accepted, then it does not become a matter of national shame that our blemishes are reported in the foreign press.
The same day that Shah was spurred to action, Union urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu spoke on the subject at a function. He offered the second angle to the issue of the NYT report: that the writers’ actions were bringing “disgrace to the country” and such protest would damage India’s interest.
We could debate here if it is patriotism to provoke violence and if it is treachery to display your anguish. But let us not, because it is not worth the argument.
The interesting thing is that The Times Of India reported Naidu’s speech right next to the headlines: “In this town, Muslims barred from Ramlila roles” and “Hindu group performs ‘brain cleanse’ for authors”.
It is remarkable that we have such people as ministers who do not understand or cannot understand causality.
Anyway, Naidu insisted that stray incidents of violence were being generalized: “We see a new trend in the country nowadays. They say tolerance in this country is coming down. India is the only country in this world where tolerance is observed, if not 100%, at least 99%.” It is good that some people in the government are concerned enough about the levels of tolerance to be measuring it with such precision.
I know that for some time now Union finance minister Arun Jaitley has been cautioning people in the party (and, more surprisingly, also telling many outside the party) that communal mischief is detracting from the economic agenda. That the media’s narrative is episodic and the cameras will instantly swing towards instances of theatre and drama and violence.
His concern is that each time this happens, the focus will shift to the disadvantage of reform. This is true of course. But whose fault is that?
I saw a clever line in one of these American television series on politics some years ago. “If you don’t want it reported in The Washington Post,” one character tells another whose scandal has made the front page, “then don’t do it.”
In our parts, the Hindutvawadis want to do it. They just don’t want it reported in The Washington Post.
Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal.