The Selective Politics of Outrage: A Response to Barkha Dutt

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Barkha Dutt has expressed incredulity on Twitter at being included in my essay “Bal Thackeray’s Poisonous Legacies” as an example of those in the worlds of media, celebrity, and politics who were soft-pedaling Bal Thackeray’s legacy. Dutt’s argument, expressed here and here, is that (a) it was sloppy and careless to include her in this list, since (b) she did not report on Thackeray’s death, and that (c) she had tweeted about the generally ritualistic nature of media coverage of death in India.

I am writing in response to these accusations of sloppiness.I welcome critiques of my writing and am happy to engage in a debate with Dutt. But the suggestions of lack of rigor and untenable interpretation in my analysis are unfounded.

My essay addressed the reaction of Indian elites in media, politics, and the domain of celebrityhood (regardless of where they happened to be located at the time) to Thackeray’s death. My essay was not limited to the reactions of those in the media industry who happened to be covering it while based in Bombay on the day. In the era of the internet and satellite television, the fact of Barkha Dutt not having been physically present in Bombay on the day is a non-issue. Indian journalists did not let the limitations of geography preclude them from commenting on the recently-held US election.

Dutt’s reaction, sparing as it may have been, to Thackeray’s death confirmed my broader argument, warranting her inclusion in my essay.  I had described as “bizarre” Rajdeep Sardesai’s suggestion that Mumbai might be shut the day after Thackeray’s death because of “respect” for Thackeray as much as it might have been shut out of fear. My point was that there weren’t two sides to this issue and that this bogus debate erected on false premises obscured the culture of terror that was the Shiv Sena’s preferred strategy for ensuring compliance with its diktats.

In one of her two tweets on the subject of Thackeray’s death, Dutt expresses a similar sentiment.

In her tweet of 4:07 pm, 17 November, Dutt writes:

Does the shutdown of a city post Thakeray, signify grief or fear or an odd mix of the two in a city transformed forever by Sena politics? [sic]

This is another example of the “fair and balanced” approach I critiqued in my essay. Grief, whether expressed in private or collectively, does not involve shutting down a city, causing people to lose their livelihood and daily wages, inconveniencing those who may need to visit a hospital or loved one, or simply prohibiting others from exercising their right to live, walk, shop, and enjoy public space freely. The name for such an action is intimidation or terror. As Anant Rangaswami writes in First Post, it was out of a fear of violence, shared by citizens, police, businesses, and other groups, that Bombay shut down. A free media in a democracy needs to ask hard questions about the legal, ethical and political implications of actions such as these which are rooted in a culture of terror. These questions, equally importantly, need to be asked immediately and not just after the fact.

Dutt’s other tweet on the issue, issued two minutes later, stated the following:

We’re all complicit as Media but news coverage of Death in India remains mostly ritualistic.

The philosophical import of ruminations on the ritualistic nature of Indian media coverage of death notwithstanding, Dutt—whether she was based in Bombay at the time or not–was by no means a hapless spectator watching the Indian media cover Bal Thackeray’s death. As the Group Editor of NDTV, and a highly feted, superbly qualified, and globally renowned journalist, she, arguably, would have had some say in shaping the tenor of that coverage. Or, surely, she could have had some say in shaping the nature of NDTV’s coverage of the event.

This, again, exemplifies my broader point about the Indian media refusing to ask difficult but obvious questions raised by Thackeray’s role in the 1992-1993 riots about justice, rights, accountability, and rule of law, about tolerance, coexistence, and our responsibility to our fellow citizens.

My essay, in significant measure, was about the politics of elite responses (including but not limited to media coverage) to urgent social, political, and ethical issues, the kinds of questions raised by Bal Thackeray’s politics, career, and legacy. We need–and have the right–to ask and critique elites, including media professionals, about silences, omissions, and possible acts of self-censorship in their responses to these issues, about the issues that remain unspoken even when they beg to be asked. Mediapersons like Barkha Dutt make their living holding political and public figures and ordinary citizens to this standard. They need, themselves, to be held accountable to the same standard.

Again, I am happy to discuss all of this at length in a debate.

I hope that when Barkha Dutt is back in India she organizes a show in which the family members and friends of those who died in the 1992-1993 riots in Bombay are asked what they feel about Bal Thackeray’s deification by the Indian media, political authorities, and celebrities. I hope she will invite Sachin Tendulkar, Amitabh Bachchan, Lata Mangeshkar, Sharad Pawar, Manmohan Singh, and Pranab Mukherjee to the show and question them about their views on Thackeray’s legal, moral, and political accountability for his role in the deaths of those killed in the 1992-1993 riots. We the people would like some answers.

update: Burkha Dutt responded on twitter to this, as follows:

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