The Selective Politics of Outrage: A Response to Barkha Dutt

Posted by sanyasi on November 19, 2012 · 7 mins read

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:


Riddhi | November 19, 2012

In this age of yellow journalism and shameless corruption, common man is far from getting any answers. I was a big fan of Dutt once upon a time but my ideology changed when I saw her shamelessly, mercilessly endangering the lives of our soldiers in Kargil and disregarding the people's agony during the Mumbai terrorist attacks as she shoved the mike in front of the grieving people..she may be renowned and world famous...but she has no conscience and she is a disgrace to the field of journalism...I would love to see them having that show...I want to see how Amitabh Bachchan and the likes answer.. I am glad I came across your blog...Apparently, you need courage even to post something on Fb or blogs considering Sena might be just around the corner to arrest you or Harass you...

Advaita Waikar | November 19, 2012

Being politically correct has quite a different meaning in this context. Sad to see so many adhere to this irrespective of what they truly believe.

Anjie | November 19, 2012

Haha I'd like to see what she has to say about this article! Rohit, if only more people with some social eminence had the courage to ask questions like you and say it as it is. I've seen people talk about how Thackeray must be celebrated because of his "in your face" attitude and the courage that that exemplifies. I think it's very easy to do that when you have a mob of people waiting to beat up anyone who responds with a similar courage. You, Rohit, are a true hero. My faith in India has been steadily dwindling every day but I can honestly say that people like you have the power of bringing that back and you have. There is hope, yet. For those of you who will believe that someone paid me to write this, I can only say that you'll have to take my word as an Indian that I am not even the type of person to be overly verbose in praising someone. And that says a lot about what Rohit symbolizes for my faith in India. P.S. Who is protecting you?

Qalandar | November 19, 2012

Sanyasi: I really liked your original piece, but I must say, where there are so many obvious targets (by which I mean journalists who shamed themselves) I don't think one needs to stretch to bring Barkha Dutt into the picture -- i.e. you can certainly bring her into the dock for not asking the hard questions, but that's a somewhat different argument; because I saw your original as being in no small measure about those who were brazenly whitewashing his legacy (e.g. Lata Mangeshkar, saying that Bal Thackeray made Bombay a great city), or letting their awe of the man's “power” and all those crowds overwhelm any glimmer of critical thought. I don't mean to suggest that it is an unimportant argument, merely that it isn't the same one, and I think Barkha Dutt is justified in saying that you left a misleading impression (that she is in the second camp as opposed to the first one) with lines like: “The list of those participating in what can only be called a soft-pedaling of Bal Thackeray's legacy ... is a veritable who's who of contemporary Indian political, social, and cultural life. The President and Prime Minister of India; politicians across parties; Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh and other cricketers; any number of Bollywood actors, directors, and producers who queued up to meet him as he lay on his deathbed; and reputed journalists like Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, and Vir Sanghvi.” As the quotes in your two pieces themselves establish, Barkha Dutt's comments cannot be equated with Rajdeep Sardesai's. [For her part, as, arguably, India's most prominent journalist, Barkha Dutt can't evade the issue by not being part of the second group -- more is asked of her.]

Peter Vas | November 19, 2012

while i am sorry to see the two girls arrested for a facebook post, it is exciting to see the younger generation speak their minds without fear, holding their heads high... into that heaven of freedom, my father, let my country awake - rabindranath tagore kapil sibal spoke with histrionic and contrived "sadness" at the "abuse" of an IT law that he himself fathered, which was used to book the erring facebookers. i feel his pain. i recommend he take two aakash tablets and call me in the morning. very few voices of dissent, of which the one that stood out was katju's: the chairman of the press council of india, justice markandey katju's views were refreshing. at a time when media personalities paid obsequious obeisance to a divisive politician who passed away, katju made us realize the difference between the print and visual media: the print media prides itself on introspection and how it thinks and feels about an event. what's good in the long run and what's left behind as a noteworthy legacy. a glaring error in print, can be read by all and re-read for accuracy or lack thereof. the visual media, on the other hand, has icons it has crowned. it tends to only promote those with solid sound bites and those who *think* they look good to the audience. it's the visual arts. it's the "talking heads", whose chatter is as luscious but as non-nutritious as a creme filled twinkie, say. bdutt, sanghvi and sardesai lined up at the hospital where thakerey was being treated. sardesai wanted us to *visualize* him with the tiger, nursing his warm stein of beer. who cares what was discussed! did he have a cigar too? the visual is everything. the proximity and nexus to power is compelling. it grants legitimacy to the nonsense being spewed out. i apologize to those who work tirelessly to make visual media a better channel, but this is what was on display the other day and though it *looked* good, it was obviously rancid. the massive turn out was impressive. our TV anchors decided they would simply "go with the flow", regardless of which nala it was all draining to. thanks katju for pointing out that the flow was actually a receding tide of an ill-begotten legacy.

Qalandar | November 20, 2012

Re: "who cares what was discussed! did he have a cigar too? the visual is everything." This hasn't changed since Mussolini, the inventor of fascist chic for his own and for all times. The visual is everything indeed, making fascism the "right" mode for a cinematic age -- at least where the cinema itself turns on the gesture, the look, and the gaze...and politicians cottoned on to the implications of cinema earlier than most. Thackeray's own fascination for Bollywood, and the latter's own flirtation with it, must be seen through this prism: it was his mode (and, conversely, the Bollywood bigwigs for the most part don't have many intellectual resources against one who is, in a manner of speaking, one of themselves; this isn't just fear, this is also the attraction of being close to someone who authentically has the power the actors simply play at. But Thackeray also clung to them, because no politician can ever master the gesturality of power, of power as such, the way the masala hero can)...

deependra kamle | November 20, 2012

reading and watching NDTV CNNIBN after thakeray era my personal feeling is that these people are communist by nature and never miss any opportunity to praise communisum. they never understand to love some cause dosent mean to hate the other cause.i heard thakeray live in amravati during one election rally in late 80's and seen his charisma the same atalji was having pin drop silence in his 20 mins speech he was true mass leader. asks hindus to unite and vote he talked of love jhiad at that time which we were unable to understand at that time lately he was also sufferer of the same "tinka tinka jod kar ghosla banaya he" no imported idealogy like of congress or communist in which if you praise muslims and abuse hindus then & only then you are ture secular if you talk about your land,your people then you are fascist.thakeray was fascist for them they are paid to make a image of thakeray anti national and unfoutunately they were suceeded in their prapoganda but he did what he believed in he was hero otherwise 2 million people were not gathered in a disiplined way to pay last respect to thakerayji brakha dutt and her so called intalectual team will never understand the true love and affection of people towards thakerayji. SHER SHER HOTA HE JO KISI KUTTE KE BHOKNE SE APNI CHAL NAHI BADALTA

mgk | November 20, 2012

Barkha Dhutt cannot hold absence as an alibi. Had she been present to 'cover' the event would she have gone against the adulatory trend and tone of all the media? Her past history makes it unlikely, being an expert in cohorting with the powers while posing as a prosecutor. She is really the master at running with the rabbits and hunting with the hounds. The convergence of media, entertainment, business, sports and politics at the very top is starkly evidenced during such times.

Anil | November 20, 2012

It takes a special kind of a courage and a sense of determination to counter this kind of an all pervasive fear that possesses us all. It is almost as if we are all fearful of the tantrum that might follow, and so, we pussyfoot around as if walking on egg shells, scared out of our wits of even remotely offending self anointed representatives of the Hindu faith. One time these forces were cornered was when there was the mass outpouring for the late leader's rants against the Shah Rukh movie, "My Name is Khan". But, despite being the recipient of such broad support, the actor left us in the lurch when he chickened out during the IPL auctions following the 26/11 attacks and fell in line with the same fascist forces' demand for proscribing the Pakistani cricketers. Now, that the leader has departed and times are a different, one hopes for a new dawn.

neha | November 20, 2012

thank you thank you chapati mystery!

Qalandar | November 20, 2012

MGK: a recent New Yorker piece on the Jains (of Times of India) was great on the devolution of the media, but alas it is only available to subscribers online. Re: "Had she been present to 'cover' the event would she have gone against the adulatory trend and tone of all the media? Her past history makes it unlikely, being an expert in cohorting with the powers while posing as a prosecutor." To be fair, I thought Dutt's coverage of Gujarat 2002 was a lot better than that of many others; in general, I think NDTV and (among the wide-circulation print magazines) Outlook were more solid than most.

Qalandar | November 20, 2012

Re: "Now, that the leader has departed and times are a different, one hopes for a new dawn." I'm not too sanguine: the leader (and others like him) have paved the way for a new generation. The lesson -- that if you are non-violent you might be ignored, but if you are violent you will be taken seriously (indeed, you can yourself create the violence that will be used to justify book bans, be it of James Laine's book or Taslima Nasreen's or Rushdie's); that if your ugliness is popular enough the liberal intelligentsia will often blink, cowed as it so easily is by the proverbial jackboot -- has been learnt by many (for instance, it was a NCP-affiliated group that attacked the Bhandarkar institute in connection with the Laine affair).

Rajit Ojha | November 20, 2012

While I am normally loathe to use ad hominem attacks to dismiss someone's POV, let me take the liberty to introduce some extraneous points about BDutt, much as a lawyer would as it "speaks to the accused's character." 1. BDutt has little credibility as a journalist after Radiagate, Kargilgate, and that one blogger NDTV and she hounded into hell after he made some critical comments about her. 2. She works for NDTV - a large but loss-making media organization that cannot be independent. Independent, fair voices unfortunately end up working for the Chapati Mysteries of this world and this can be said of any profession where you want to be truly independent. 3. There exists a strange Stockholm Syndrome variation in media people where they become attached to the subjects they are covering and lose objectivity, especially when it ties into some grandiose self-delusion that they have. In BDutt's case it is Indo-Pak peace and it is most starkly observed in her cloying interviews of people like Imran Khan and Musharraf - two pathologically duplicitous people if there were ever any. So, do you really expect her to do a mea culpa? That ship has sailed long long ago for BDutt.

jyoti | November 21, 2012

@rohit/sepoy/sanyasi as much as i enjoyed your original essay, i do not agree with this rejoinder - i think you are being too harsh and trying to read too much into what is unsaid in the tweets, to justify her inclusion! I would actually give her credit for not following the multitude and hordes of the media/film personalities - all the others you included. On another note, your essay although highlighting what has been paining a lot of us - on this orgy of who's who in media/films in the post BT demise, doesn't clearly answer or explain the motive. e.g. what do Lata Mangeshkar and AB have to gain by so vociferously eulogizing. surely it can't be out of that the so called Tiger has gone! if anything, they could be non-committal and not say anything. whats prompting them to come out and sing peans now! its been puzzling me since the start. your article provided some relief but am still restless :! if you do see this comment, feel free to connect with seem to be a neighbor..would love to get together and dissect (if not solve) this and other such conundrums of life :) lastly, you and the readers, if you haven't already, please do read this brilliant in-depth article!

jyoti | November 21, 2012

agree with Qalandar - exactly my sentiments.. very much liked your original article. but this is a bit too stretched

Qalandar | November 21, 2012

Aparajita Datta | November 22, 2012

I totally agreed with your original article..but this response is a bit unfair. Leaving aside what she would have said or how she would have covered it, had she been around ..the fact is that NDTV's coverage of this whole tamasha was a wee bit more sane/balanced. They had people questioning this deification - including very strongly by Shoma Chaudhury of Tehelka. And they spoke of other news..and it wasn't a 24 hr blow-by-blow account of every minute of the funeral (although they still devoted much more time to it than needed). But I guess they followed what all other channels were doing...And Sreenivasan Jain covered it very differently than the totally ridiculous coverage by Arnab Goswami of Times Now - it was simply unbelievable to watch & hear him. Holding forth and mouthing inanities with a bunch of 8 people..Insane, ridiculous, ludicrous, hilarious, pathetic - I can go on about it. CNN-IBN was also close, but nothing to compare with Times Now. the article in kafila sums up well the ludicrousness of Arnab Goswami & Times Now's coverage..

Uma | November 29, 2012

A good article followed by an apt reply to Dutt. How can one deny responsibility for the action taken by a department when one is in charge of it? She should have and could have intervened if she really did not agree with what was being aired--not that any of the other channels were any better. Woe us the people with such journalists! They are no better than Doordarshan.