Hyderabad: A Gujarati liberal man. It might sound like an oxymoron, but that conflicting nomenclature is the impression one gets after meeting journalist and editor Aakar Patel, who is the Chair for Amnesty International India.
With India’s media landscape becoming more and more shrill, and polity normalising hate-speech, Aakar Patel today has emerged as a voice of reason. Having published back-to-back books in the last two years (Our Hindu Rashtra, Price Of The Modi years) on Hindutva and the Indian economy under Narendra Modi, Patel has his finger on the nation’s pulse.
And if you are active on Twitter, then chances are that you’ve mostly come across one of his many satirical tweets on the Indian government, or Modi. Siasat.com sat down for an interview with the man, who has been the editor of different newspapers (including the regional Divya Bhaskar in Gujarat years ago), to talk about his second book, the media and the overall situation of Indian society today. Excerpts:
Q. In your latest book ’Price Of The Modi Years’, you talk about the ‘godi media’, or the mainstream media. Post COVID-19 and digital news websites coming in, what do you think will happen next?
Patel: In the last 20 years, advertising revenue has become split between digital websites and TV. Forty years ago, the only option you had was the newspaper. (for ads). And in the last five years, the share of newsprint, be it papers or magazines, has shrunk compared to digital or TV. TV has remained the same, digital has taken the money from print.
We will start seeing major newspapers shutting down, and we are already seeing that happen. Take the example of Mumbai Mirror, which was shut due to lack of advertising to support it.
And how does affect the quality of journalism or the industry in general? What will be its impact?
Patel: In my last job, I worked for Divya Bhaskar (Gujarat) which had 300 beat reporters. They were highly specialised in what they did. We had a reporter in Bombay who looked at communities. That is not there in TV. You lose the citizens’ connect with what is going on in the government.
The absence of these beat reporters which affect the media in the way that we will not have information the way we did 20 years ago. Most digital advertising money go to Facebook and Google, because they know who the reader is. A website’s owner doesn’t know that.
As a journalist and editor, you were on a three-member team from the Editor’s Guild of India which went to Gujarat after the 2002 riots to put out a fact-finding report. You met Narender Modi then. How was his demeanour then?
Patel: I think I was chosen because I was the only Gujarati speaking editor. Though I was based in Bombay, I suspect I was chosen because I was Gujarati. Modi (then Gujarat chief minister) was eager in fact to meet us and show he had done a good job. In one meeting, he called all secretaries of the state government, who were sitting like a bunch of students in the classroom. Any question he (Modi) could not answer, he would ask them.
Did you meet Modi even after 2002? Was he open to meeting journalists back then? Unlike what we have seen ever since he became the PM in 2014.
Patel: I went to interview him again in 2004. He was quite fond of me, but I think that may have changed in the recent past. I don’t think he will (want to meet me) anymore, as he no longer needs journalism as he did in 2004. He wanted to build a reputation as an image of someone who was modern. He had a fancy for English newspapers, which he felt would communicate his image. He felt he was provincial.
But Modi personally underestimated his own popularity on the side of bigotry, because he thought of could become a big hero due to the nasty person he was until he entered the national stage. Maybe he still has notions that he could transform the polity into a forward looking economy. He felt he had it.
How was Gujarat say a few decades earlier? Was society there the same back then too? Is today’s hate-ridden society similar to what some say is like the Gujarat model of Hindutva that developed under Modi as chief minister earlier?
Patel: Most Hindus, even if well meaning, do not understand their privilege even if they are well-meaning. If you are urban and upper class, in a space that is quite rarified, you don’t know what Muslims are feeling. I was part of that set. I might not have been prejudiced against a community, but I did not have too much insight or empathy for what was going on around me. I think that is true of most Indians who are liberal.
How was your experience working as the editor of Divya Bhaskar? How did you, as an urban, privileged journalist, fit in the space of a massive regional paper? And what were your expectations? And do you think such papers will manage to survive in the future?
Patel: Editing a newspaper is a job where your impact has to come in terms of number of copies sold. You are marginally concerned with what readers feel. To say that I am going to change what my readers feel, even through text, is not what you are hired for.
The owners were quite forward looking and modern. We never came to a discussion about what it meant, whether it was design, or anything else. The thing is that Gujaratis are quite conservative and the transition out of print will be slower there, but it will happen. Papers will be delivered but will not be read.
The thing with mass market newspapers is that they have no idea as to who the reader is. Online advertising is quite targeted. For example, a newspaper will not know online what a reader likes or prefers. Most money in digital advertising goes to Facebook and Google because those can deliver ad messages. No media can compare with that kind of knowledge.
You were not at Divya Bhaskar for too long. What was your expectation as an editor at DIvya Bhaskar?
Patel: I was and remain quite fond of the owners, who are from Madhya Pradesh. But I found it difficult to live in Gujarat, particularly in Ahmedabad. Having lived in Bombay and then Surat, I was unused to this level of segregation. I don’t think it will change any time soon. I thought it was a really provincial state.
The romance of journalism ends when you leave large cities. For the most part, or even 99% of journalists working in Gujarat, job security is priority. The nature of their work is completely secondary. The idea of a journalist as a person of independent mind producing material that society should look at is bogus when it comes to most or perhaps all newspapers in India.
Amnesty International India was raided by both the Enforcement Directorate and the CBI while you were heading it earlier as well. It had to stop operations due to that, on allegations that certain laws were violated. As its Chair in India, what will be your next step?
Patel: My term at Amnesty here ended at the end of November 2019. In 2018 we had a raid – what is called a search and seizure – by the ED under the accusation that we were violating the FCRA Act. After that we had out accounts frozen, and I was kept in the office till 11 pm. We moved the Karnataka High Court and got relief very soon as the govt had not followed the law.
The raid was in October and the month that my term ended (November), the office was raided by the CBI. I rejoined them last year (as Chair) and we hope to resume operations in India very soon.
Why do you think the Indian government went after Amnesty here? What does it mean for a country’s reputation on a global level when something like this happens?
Patel: India’s international reputation has been battered under modi on two-three fronts. One is on the front of indices. So if you look at the global indices like rule of law, democracy, hunger etc, India has fallen. The government has so far ignored all of this.
India has been very careful over the decades to reassure the world that it is a secular, democratic, pluralist space; the same as western democracies. When India engages with the EU or the US, we don’t say we are a hindutva state which stops young women from going to school because they have scarves over their head. The problem is that this hypocrisy produces a problem for the government of India.
It is exposed as something it does not say that it is. I think one of the things civil society should focus on is to ensure that the professional wings of the state should be pressurised to do the right thing. The BJP does not care how it is seen abroad. Whether it is seen as Muslim-hating party. It is not concerned about the reputation of India.
The BJP is concerned with the reputation of the BJP, because it gets nastier the more it operates in a polarised system. What does it mean? The best way of doing that is the 80/20 system, where you say that 20% of the population(Muslims in this case) is the enemy. How long that works for? I don’t know.
Even as a political strategy, long do you think this hate campaign will be sustainable for?
Patel: There are two issues with this. In what is the universal experience of mankind with bigoted democratic politics, it is not that long (politics of polarisation). Second part is to what extent the competence, or lack of, of Modi’s govt attributes this to the electoral success of the BJP. Today, five crore fewer Indians have jobs. So will I always vote for something that happened 500 years ago?
To my mind, modernity has a way of bringing society to the right track. And its record is very good. Fact is that on Issues of slavery, racism, rights of women over their own bodies, etc., what we call liberals, have always won. Every battle has been won by left, the right has only ceded space. So (even in India), It might take some time.
I think in the long term, the future is bright for all of us. Mankind as a species moves towards progress. It is the medium term, about 10-15 years, what we have to fight for. At some point, the Hindu voter should consider the data the government itself is putting out. Data shows that GDP had come down to almost zero before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. We were already on a declining pathway for about two years.
Where does the media fit into all of this?
Patel: We assume that in liberal democracies like India the media is independent, but it is not. It has two anchors it is weighed down by. One is popularity of the hate content, and second that it has to please the government.
You live in Bangalore, which is supposedly a liberal city. But not far away in the state, right-wing Hindu goons chopped up a Muslim man recently. Now we are seeing Muslim girls in schools not being allowed in for wearing the hijab. A pattern seems to be emerging in the state…
Patel: The first part of violence is hate-speech, where you need to mobilise people to make them okay with violence. Hate-speech is the primary enemy. We have to connect a murderous attempt on Asaduddin Owaisi to what is said about him. We need to press legally, and to ask the world to tell India to behave. We are in a space where the government is not mature enough or does not care.
These young women in Karnataka are not simply fighting to wear the hijab, they are saying ’don’t discriminate against me because I am a Muslim’. That is why they will win. More and more women will say ’I will wear it’. The point here is not about religious identity as the state sees it. It is about individual right. We will not stop a Sikh from wearing a turban, so why stop a Muslim woman from wearing a scarf?
After the CAA-NRC was brought up, a sense of fear had crept up among Muslims all across India, given that the community felt their existence in India was threatened. What has changed since then?
Patel: I think the women of Shaheen Bagh, and not just in Delhi, but in all these places where there were 24/7 sit in protests, it killed-off CAA. It made sense only if there is the NRC. to follow The problem is that the BJP did not expect a pushback, which brought it in two groups. One is the much smaller group of liberal Hindus, like academics, students, etc which was in turn able to pull in political parties.
It also applied external pressure. The EU had a resolution passed against it, and the government was not able to handle it, because it is a very ‘bechara’ government. Amit Shah said “You take it for granted that CAA is the prelude to the NRC”. But he has run away. His words were on record. It was delayed because of resistance.
The govt has learnt something the hard way: That if you provoke Muslims or farmers beyond a point, you will lose. The thing is that when you have messianic forms of leadership, you think what you are doing is right. When you have absolute powers like Modi does, the thought is that resistance will not make any difference to what he wnts to implement.
You should have the humility to know that this country is diveerse, and that just because some people are a minority, they are not that small for you to just bulldoze through. If they stand up unified, your votebank is not going to come protest. Musims were standing up for their lives.
Is there a scenario post Narendra Modi in the BJP, in the future?
Patel: I think there is. He has injected a confident Hindutva in the national polity where we don’t have a problem saying that Muslims are ‘gaddar’ (traitors) or where we can say that Muslims should not be allowed to pray in govt allotted spaces.