Awards being returned, and of such acts planned and simply announced by the returnees on the national news media, reminds me of the Ramana Mahirshi-inspired Paul Brunton’s writing about artists and writers and their make-believe world: “It is a common mistake among artists and writers to regard inflammation as inspiration, and to take inflamed feelings for inspired revealing”.
Of course, he meant something different in a different context, but his observation seems pertinent and on the spot in this matter of the “award-wapsi” self-induced fever.
This march to the podium and to the microphones is not the result of serious-minded folks truly worried about the future of India but a product of calculated campaigns and plots to undermine a democratically elected government, on the verge of the Bihar assembly elections. (Update: The BJP has suffered a rout in the Bihar elections.)
These artists, writers, scientists, activists, and their hangers-on know that a lot of their loot and privileges are going to shrink if Mr. Modi continues as Prime Minister. Thus, this calculated campaign has its indigenous plotters and schemers and their foreign supporters, abettors, and funders.
In many ways, it is déjà vu all over again, for those of us who observed the political dynamics and the media coverage of India between 1998 and 2004. And as some others have already noted, the sights now are turned on Modi as they were turned on Vajpayee during the past NDA regime.
Vajpayee was a harder target because he had served in the Lok Sabha for long, was a Cabinet Minister before he became Prime Minister, and his was a coalition government that had to rely on an unruly gaggle of parties whose connections to the Congress were not completely sundered. Also, he had earned his political chops in a different era and time.
Whereas Modi, who has been in their gun-sights since 2002, is feared for his independence, his determination, and his charisma, and because he represents a completely different India: an aspirational India keen on development, and whose young, large, slightly unwashed masses want a new status for themselves and for their country in the world.
Since Modi could not be hung with the “casteist” label, they sought to sling Godhra round his neck, and burn him, but he rode that gauntlet for over a decade, emerged the winner last year, and has shown them he is his own master, that he has some aces up his sleeve, and if not, he is going to take the fight to them in his Gujarati-accented halting English, and his roaring exhortations in Hindi.
But we also know that his enemies are hardened, experienced, deep-pocketed plotters, and they have ruled the Delhi ramparts for long. And it is therefore important to read and understand the machinations over the past two months to derail the BJP’s chances of a win in Bihar–which has happened–and now it remains to be seen how they use this loss to defang Modi.
For this privileged if not corrupt gang of elitists to whom their own interests matter most, and for whom nationalism is a dirty word, Modi represents all that they have shunned and distanced from — the reality of India with its Hindu beginnings and its Hindu appurtenances.
The idea of Bharat does not jell with their idea of India. For them, India is an ahistorical, splintered, patchwork quilt of desperate people and disparate cultures at odds with one another, but held together by the will and wisdom of its elite, whose Western/Anglophone/Socialist tilt has to be protected at all costs.
The plotters and campaigners in India are well-connected in the West. Thus, if The New York Times highlights the “award wapasi” tamasha to scare readers in “progressive” households, and if the uninformed correspondent of The Washington Post writes a juvenile commentary on Modi’s Silicon Valley foray, we simply have to acknowledge how entrenched the Indian elite is in Western capitals and power establishments, including in the media and higher education. Prior to the 2014 general election, the coverage of India, the BJP, and Narendra Modi was full of dire predictions, and The New York Times even gave space to known ideologues to air their false narratives, and to propose their dangerous, divisive agendas.
Almost without exception, the mainstream American media, which report world news in some depth, were skeptical and suspicious if not downright mocking and derisive of the BJP as a political party, and Mr. Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate.
The major television networks – ABC, CBS, NBC – rarely presented anything of substance and at any length, whereas the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and the National Public Radio (NPR) sought to provide some balanced coverage, but always inviting and interviewing a predictable set of India “experts” from academe, who have for long acted as the media’s translators of “Indianese” .
The New York Times, especially, carried on its long-running campaign against the “Hindu Nationalist Party” with mocking op-ed pieces by their “India hands” (One commentary begins: “If all goes according to plan in a city that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is building, human excrement will travel faster than most Indian trains.”), dire warnings in their editorials, and skewed reporting by their previous “India Correspondent,” Gardiner Harris (who returned home recently complaining bitterly about how much sacrifice he had to make staying in and reporting from India).
These “frontline” correspondents, supported by the carefully chosen, left-leaning and dwindling staff of the now defunct India Ink – the India-focused online blog of the paper – did their darnedest best to muddy the Indian waters for their American and international readers.
Gardiner Harris had the gumption to tell some of us in an email about his coverage of caste matters in India, saying he had “grown up in the South” (of the US) and knew all about racism!
Conflating caste with racism is high on the liberal ideologue’s agenda, and there was Gardiner Harris in India to save it from itself.
The ideological bent of these men and women, who are sent abroad to report about others, shows us that it does not matter whether the Western journalist has a liberal or conservative bent because much of the reporting is skewed and racist, and sometimes simply ignorant and uninformed: and feeding them both are the “native informants” who have their own agendas, but who are all committed to taking the “Bharata” out of “India”, and the “Hindu” out of “secularism”.
For example, there was not only scant coverage of World Yoga Day (with a few exceptions) but we found that the coverage was also slanted. The NYT delivered a backhanded compliment by headlining one of its reports “Modi’s Yoga Day Grips India, and ‘Om’ Meets ‘Ouch!’ in which their correspondent Ellen Barry sought to mix as much skepticism about yoga and its practitioners as one might expect in a report on quacks in medieval Europe. It was indeed deeply disturbing to many that yoga had to be shorn of its Hindu foundations, antecedents and contexts – spiritual and historical – to make it palatable to other religionists in India itself and their adherents around the world.
The small number of noise-makers in India and their well-heeled supporters and instigators in the West, ensured that Mr. Modi and his government would be pushed into a corner on this matter – seeking to divide Indians on the basis of religion and forcing him and his team to wrap yoga in the spandex of secular body-bending.
Finally, we will have to understand how these Indian liberal elite are tied to their Western counterparts, and where their blind-spots are. Take the case of Mr. Narayana Murthy of Infosys going on national TV and expressing his concerns about Indian minorities under threat. He is absolutely right that everyone in a country should feel safe, and everyone should have the opportunity to prosper, and that majorities can turn tyrannical.
Mr. Murthy is simply echoing old clichés and concerns (some two hundred odd years after John Adams talked about the tyranny of the majority), but in a context where the majority has been sliced, diced, and pushed into a corner, and where the majority are deprived of rights and privileges that the minorities have been offered on a platter. Mr. Murthy, as some have speculated, may simply have been irked that the new government has taken his son off the top education advisory board.
But there are some little tid-bits in the news reports on Mr. Murthy’s expression of his concerns that give an inkling into his thinking. He told his interviewers that “…I get lots of emails, I get a lot of people talking to me even though I stay at home….” Mr. Murthy and his son, as some know, are behind the “Murty Classical Library of India” project in which they have generously showered five million dollars on Prof. Sheldon Pollock and his team to translate the great classical works of India. It is a fine, laudable project, but we do know that Prof. Pollock has already expressed his concerns about, if not the contempt for Hindutva and Hindutva’s proponents.
Indian students who have studied in the West, and have imbibed their guides’ spirit and worldviews, are part of the Murty Library project, and these are the more virulently opposed to Mr. Modi and the BJP. One of them has thrown down the gauntlet, proclaiming: “Sanskrit must be taken back from the clutches of Hindu supremacists, bigots, believers in brahmin exclusivity, misogynists, Islamophobes and a variety of other wrong-headed characters on the right, whose colossal ambition to control India’s vast intellectual legacy is only matched by their abysmal ignorance of what it means and how it works,” and then asserting, “Scholarship like that of Sheldon Pollock and his colleagues helps us to understand the history, the power, the circulation and the importance of Sanskrit knowledge systems in the pre-modern world, not just in India but across Asia.” We begin to understand how the twain meets.
Mr. Murthy surely must have been receiving not only emails from Prof. Pollock and his tribe but must have also been on the phone discussing these matters. He wants to ensure that his project does not get delayed or derailed, and he wants to make sure that he weighs in to assuage the partisan angst of his editors and translators. We can speculate here, without any direct knowledge, and our speculation would not be off the mark, simply because we know how these liberal ties bind and who are bound in and by them.
But as others have noted, there is nothing, absolutely nothing to this manufactured dissent and this campaign for “freedom of expression”. When there has been no news blackout, and when every artist, scientist, journalist, and activist has had the opportunity to go in front of the microphones, where is the threat to freedom of expression?
And why is it that events in a Congress Party-ruled state like Karnataka, or a Samajwadi Party-ruled state like Uttar Pradesh become the evidence for the threats to freedom of expression in India? Why are the state governments not targeted? And, why is it that Mr. Modi the focus of these campaigns? Tavleen Singh, like a few others, argues:
“So totally have the protesting intellectuals occupied the public square in recent weeks that not even General Pervez Musharraf admitting that Hafiz Saeed and Osama bin Laden were Pakistani heroes got the attention it should have. They will continue to dominate the public square till the elections in Bihar are over in the forlorn hope of changing the mind of voters. Then they will disappear into obscurity till the next important election happens when they will undoubtedly find some new issue to make a racket about”.
The tragedy and the worry is that good men like Mr. Murthy are now compromised by their ties to these India-baiters whose access to privilege and power can be denied by Mr. Modi and his government.
Just as the wily Musharraf’s confessions have been relegated to the back pages, so has the matter of Prof. Thapar’s belated support of a uniform civil code for India. There has been no follow up on the story, none of the political parties have commented on it, and all those rushing to return their awards have not bothered to comment on it. Romila Thapar’s support of a uniform civil code has come with caveats and conflations, late in the day, but let us let them be.
That the US or Western media would pay heed to matters like the uniform civil code when it is yet to gain traction in India itself is to expect too much from a media establishment that mostly operates within a provincial context and a nationalist mindset.
Only when their India-based abettors raise the heat on certain matters to a level where there could be riots or mayhem will the American media rush to respond, blaming it all on a “Hindu Nationalist Party” that sought to disturb the status quo.
As long as the English-speaking Indian elite, which claims to be secular and progressive, but which is merely a self-serving cabal of reward seekers, can manipulate Indian and Western media, we can expect only one kind of narrative about India.
As long as these men and women, who are seeking and gaining publicity, continue with their daily, macabre walk up to the microphones and cameras to announce that they are returning an award they got (about which most Indians knew little), there is little hope for meaningful change in Indian politics and society, and little traction on matters of development, of equality, and of the celebration of the great and good in Bharata that has been twisted and pigeon-holed as an “idea” that is India.
The author is Professor of Communication Studies, Department of Communication, Columbus State University, Columbus, GA. He has published widely over the past three decades, and his latest book is titled, “The Election that Shaped Gujarat & Narendra Modi’s Rise to National Stardom”.