Aditya Sinha: The era of unfriending in India

When old friends send vicious mails, or people threaten to behead you for not chanting slogans, you know the politics of hate is here to stay

My first chief reporter, Yogendra Bali, passed away on Thursday. Bali Saheb headed our city team at the Times of India in Delhi in the mid-to-late 1980s, surrounded by cigarette smoke and tall tales. He winked compulsively, and it was so bad that not just sentences but also subordinate clauses were punctuated with a knowing wink. But he had a large Punjabi heart. When I started, he had me acquaint myself with Delhi by reporting in a series on its communities; on President Zail Singh’s last day at Rashtrapati Bhawan he sent me there to watch-and-write; and one Sunday I woke up and saw Bali Saheb hovering over me. (We happened to live in the same South Delhi apartment complex.) “Go cover a terrorist attack in Punjab,” he said, launching me on an arc that defined my career.

Police and CRPF personnel have been deployed at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, after students clashed over India’s recent T20 World Cup defeat. The issue was quickly politicised. Pic/PTI
Police and CRPF personnel have been deployed at the National Institute of Technology, Srinagar, after students clashed over India’s recent T20 World Cup defeat. The issue was quickly politicised. Pic/PTI 

Uncannily, I remembered Bali Saheb just three days before he died, when the Indian Express published exposés based on the Panama Papers. mid-day asked if I would write on it, but the stories were more sensationalism than prima facie illegality, and mind-numbingly so. They were a reminder of how complicated and unfair taxation laws are, and how the rich and powerful routinely game the system. So ridiculous is this system that Mukesh Ambani hardly ever figures among the top income tax payers. In fact, Nitin Gadkari had, before the 2014 election, studied the feasibility of abolishing income tax. That reminded me of Bali Saheb: once I had grumbled about the tax on my princely salary of Rs 1500, so he said Nani Palkhivala wanted to finish off income tax and replace it with an expenditure tax. (And then he winked.)

I occasionally bumped into Bali Saheb during his morning or after-dinner walk. He never embarrassed me and reciprocated my wishes with a nod and smile. And he would be wearing either a Himachali cap or a skull cap. Back then, people did that without self-consciousness or fear of attack. Nowadays, people see a skull cap and whisper “ISIS”. Despite his birth in what is now Pakistan, Bali Saheb did not suffer a refugee complex. Instead, he was a connoisseur of Hindustani culture, and received the Urdu Academy’s lifetime achievement award.

I was close friends with another in Bali’s team, Anirudhya M, who joined TOI the same day as I. He, his wife and I spent much time together. On Diwali we went to old Delhi to buy raw material to make our fireworks; and on Holi we dragged other reporters out of their houses and had wild bashes. We were like brothers. In the early 1990s he came to Mumbai and produced a TV serial that was the Indian Baywatch, minus the babes. After a stint in Bollywood he moved abroad, and we lost touch, only to pick up the thread again when I moved to Mumbai in 2011.

I recently found four messages from Anirudhya in my Facebook inbox. They comprised a lecture about my columns: that I preached a personal agenda; that I should reflect on why so few people “liked” my writing; that my animus towards Narendra Modi was personal; that I was a “know-all” journalist out of sync with the general reader. It was aggressive, insulting, hurtful, but most of all, it was out of the blue. I’m still in the dark about what brought this on. I could have said many things (“the personal IS political”; I dislike all parties equally; fb ‘likes’ don’t equal readership; my job is to engage and debate; etc) but I said nothing. Instead, I “unfriended” him.

Depressingly, this type of attack has become commonplace. Be it the threat of beheading those who don’t say Bharat Mata ki Jai; the politicisation of another campus, at ground zero in Srinagar, with a wink to elections; or the lynching of a 12-year-old cattle herder: the country has changed. It is like what Atlantic magazine recently said about Donald Trump: that even if his bid to become US president fails, Trumpism has already come to stay. It now serves as a war-cry against non-whites.

Former Home Secretary Madhav Godbole’s lecture on secularism that has been cancelled by a nervous state government was published by EPW, and it’s worth a read. It seeks political and legislative, besides social and intellectual, commitment to keeping religion and politics separate; the opposite of what is currently happening. Godbole himself points out that the Indian polity, especially the Congress, has only paid lip service to secularism; so even if the NDA loses power in 2019, there may be no turning back. Hatred has become fixed in our lexicon; Trumpism has trumped India. In this milieu, the image of the late Bali Saheb, with his skull cap and a knowing wink, seems like an impossible memory from Once Upon a Time.

Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India, to be published in May. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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