Aakar Patel has courted trouble for a long time. The temporary suspension of his Twitter account was only the latest. Through all his identities as reporter, editor, podcaster, Gujarati, Amnesty International’s India chief, Patel has always been a mischief maker. While his latest tweets, saying that Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis should stage their own form of Black Lives Matter protest in India, have left many angry and entertained, the Indian State is not amused.
We need protests like these. From Dalits and Muslims and Adivasis. And the poor. And women.
World will notice. Protest is a craft. https://t.co/6btWiMtbOX
— Aakar Patel (@Aakar__Patel) May 31, 2020
What’s going on with Aakar Patel appears to be a frequent question among India’s commentariat. Has he just been reduced to a Modi-Shah baiter today?
On closer inspection, Aakar Patel is like any other writer, thinker, journalist, or activist who refuses to turn a blind eye to the State’s excesses, and does not mince his words. Some of his critique, be it of the Narendra Modi government at the Centre or of other governments in states, has been through his writing, or through reports he oversaw while helming human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
“I need to engage with my country. I can’t read news about 1,000 people being locked up in Assam after being told they’re not Indian citizens anymore, and then ask, what’s for lunch?” he told me during a phone conversation.
Of late, Patel has been speaking up through his Twitter account, which at first glance appears to be a verbal stream of consciousness of a hyperactive individual. “It’s too much fun,” he says, calling Twitter a “beautiful medium” that he had for long resisted.
Hindu Rashtra will bring ₹15 lakh per person? Is it true?
— Aakar Patel (@Aakar__Patel) July 3, 2020
Friends, LAC defence is being fortified by Quad.
Oz is sending two fast bowlers and a case of mid strength beer, Japan contributing hot tempura and warm sake and Trump is immediately deploying strategic tweets.
— Aakar Patel (@Aakar__Patel) July 1, 2020
But unlike most of his peers, Aakar Patel doesn’t look at the micro-blogging site as a space to promote himself, or engage in winding discourse. “You don’t have to write a thesis about what you can write in 30-50 characters.”
In constant eye of storm
In the past month, two FIRs have been filed against Patel for his tweets. A Bengaluru police officer in early June alleged Patel was seeking to incite “US-like protests” in India with his tweet supporting the Black Lives Matter protest, and filed an FIR for causing “fear or alarm” that may induce a person to commit an offence against the State and “provocation with intent to cause riot”.
A few days ago, a BJP MLA from Surat filed an FIR against him for the same tweet, alleging the journalist was “promoting enmity between different groups”.
You would think there is nothing wrong about a tweet calling for protest against police brutality in India, a country that routinely suffers from the scourge — the latest being Jayaraj and Benik’s alleged custodial killing in Tamil Nadu.
But Patel is no stranger to controversy. Being a human rights activist is anyway a dangerous job in India. But when you attach yourself to a foreign name like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch (HRW), you become immediately suspect and vulnerable to ‘anti-India’ labels.
During his almost five-year stint at Amnesty, a report published by the organisation about human rights violations by security personnel in Jammu and Kashmir caught the ire of the RSS’ student arm Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP). What followed was harassment, police raids, FIRs, accounts frozen — most of which were overcome through litigation in court, until other government organisations such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the Home Ministry and the Enforcement Directorate came knocking.
Patel doesn’t wilt under pressure
Unlike the Twitter block, which Patel laughs off as the State using old methods to fight off new ways of dissent — “I’ll just make a new account” — the pressure on Amnesty was rough. “I know exactly what it is that Siddhartha was referring to even though our circumstances are different,” he wrote last year, referring to the alleged harassment that Cafe Coffee Day mogul V.G. Siddhartha faced at the hands of Income Tax officials, before he died by suicide.
But former Amnesty South Asia Director Biraj Patnaik, who was among the first to approach Patel for the Amnesty role six years ago, recalls how Patel did not “wilt under pressure” during the tough time. It was exactly the kind of temperament that Amnesty had hoped for in Patel, explains Patnaik, who says that the most important thing for a human rights activist is fearlessness. “And Patel had that. He had an ability to speak truth to power.”
For Aakar Patel, the wrath of the Modi government was unsurprising. He maintains that even during the UPA government, it was common for authorities to go after activists. “Organisations and individuals can be manhandled… and are left to heal themselves while the officials move on to the next target,” Patel wrote of the experience.
What really seems to puzzle Patel’s critics is two things. First, he is a Savarna Hindu man who brazenly critiques the current government. “Our (India’s) real enemy is the BJP. China… isn’t trying to destroy us internally. BJP is,” he tweeted recently, sending Right-leaning outlets such as OpIndia and Times Now into a tizzy.
— TIMES NOW (@TimesNow) June 19, 2020
It also rattled BJP leaders and supporters.
Intellectuals & their hate for India is unbelievable!
People under Chinese payroll are busy covering the treacherous attack of #Chinese on our soldiers across the LAC.
These venomous snakes within country are equally dangerous as much as those inciting at the border. pic.twitter.com/sAeTHWTQq4
— Shobha Karandlaje (@ShobhaBJP) June 19, 2020
“How can anyone deny people like Aakar Patel their political preference? It’s a democracy, I understand. But when your hatred, your dislike and your anger towards a political party reaches such extremes, that you would rather say the ruling party is the enemy as compared to a foreign invader, then something is seriously wrong. Patel has never been a journalist, he is a political activist. People like Patel, and Amnesty, lose credibility because they hold different standards for everyone and only take up issues that suit them,” says Sushant Sareen, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.
Second, Patel was born and raised in Narendra Modi’s home state, Gujarat. His identity is so hard to digest that there are rumours his full name is Aakar Ahmed Patel, a claim he refuses to dignify with a clarification. “What’s wrong with being Muslim?” he asks.
A slow shift in perspective
Things, however, were not always so black-and-white for him. Patel grew up in a highly conservative society that revered the socio-religious status quo. When he told his family about his Muslim girlfriend, his mother was so aghast that she threatened to hang herself.
And yet, Patel was not always quite the contrarian that he is today. When Babri Masjid was demolished by Hindutva groups in 1992, Patel, 22 years old and “not a child”, admits he was largely “unaffected”.
But when he went back to Gujarat, as part of a fact-finding mission commissioned by the Editors Guild to look into media biases in the Godhra riots coverage, he saw things in a completely new light. “2002 was a dividing moment, when I saw what the State was and what it had done,” he says before a long pause. “I was shattered. It was a moment where you had to relook at your country and culture.”
Some of this shift in perspective first began when he moved from Surat to Mumbai in search of a job, and had a woman as his first boss. He also suddenly realised that his surname and caste held little value in a city like Mumbai, whereas it was a significant marker in Surat.
Years later, Patel returned to his native state for a short stint as group editor-in-chief of Gujarati newspaper Divya Bhasker, bringing with him a “new hawa”, a fresh take on news. According to former colleague and senior journalist Urvish Kothari, Patel and his penchant for tabloid narrative introduced the concept of op-eds in Gujarati newspapers. But he was weak at office politics, which was dominated by traditionalists who viewed him as an outsider. “Had he stayed longer, he would have changed the face of Gujarati media,” Kothari says.
Journalist to activist
The lack of one’s own marginalisation or oppression should not be a barrier to empathise with, or speak up for, others, and Patel is a testament to that. In his 2015 Mint Lounge article, “What is it like to be an Indian Muslim,” he tries to put Gujarat’s Hardik Patel-led Patidar quota uprising in perspective. “What if a Muslim had gathered 500,000 Muslims and made as angry and as provocative a speech as Patel had? We would have totally lost it as a nation…But that it took me all these years to realize that shames me.”
It was perhaps Aakar Patel’s work as a columnist that gave him the most visibility and appreciation, and also established him as a controversial voice. He has never held back from expressing his views about Modi. “Modi sits on top of an anti-Muslim consensus. His popularity flows from this,” he wrote in 2012. The internet is filled with rebuttals to his articles, some by those who engage with his arguments, some who dismiss them, and others who just choose to troll him.
Our real enemy is Aakar Patel & his entire gang of pimps who pimp for our enemy countries like China & Pakistan & make money.
These members of the sleeper cell who are out there to destroy India should be interrogated and put behind bars. #IndiaStandWithArmyAndModi https://t.co/mnpThJPLuC
— Ashoke Pandit (@ashokepandit) June 19, 2020
Besides facing a barrage of litigation and ‘urban Naxal’ accusations, Aakar Patel has also had many of his columns dropped by the major publications he once wrote for. But he takes it with a pinch of salt, and says that he is thankful for the run he had. In a video conversation with senior journalist Saba Naqvi, Patel says that incidents like Twitter blocking his account actually offer “hope” to him that his words are still relevant enough to be stifled, and that you don’t need mainstream media’s patronage to be heard.
Patel, however, is more than content, and wants to return to the life he had for four years before joining Amnesty, when he had “retired” to Bangalore to diligently read and write. Why Bangalore? “It’s the only state with Hindustani and Carnatic music. I like that.” It was during that period that he got a chance to take on projects such as translating Saadat Hasan Manto’s non-fiction work.
He explains his daily routine — “I wake up every morning, do yoga, and then sit down to write,” emphasising the importance of time and space in doing something valuable, be it cooking or working on his upcoming novel. He enjoys this “nothing to do” state of affairs, and hopes it continues for the next 10-15 years, or maybe even the rest of his life.
But just because Patel has found his slice of paradise doesn’t mean he is no longer addicted to the news. Just weeks ago, he wrote a scathing take on Modi as a “messianic leader”, unable to produce the miracles he promised in his six years as the prime minister — “His diagnosis was wrong, and his cures have been proved to be worse than the disease.”
Aakar Patel is committed to seeing the bigger picture, and feels that at a time when fundamental rights and freedoms of expression are being routinely attacked, Indian citizens need to take a cue from the women of Shaheen Bagh, or Black Lives Matter protests, to find novel ways to engage the State and fight against injustice.
For him, the journalist side of his work today is irrelevant when Indians are blindly accepting what is going on. He prefers, then, to don his activist hat instead.
“Activism is the duty of the citizen. We have to hold the State to account and demand our rights and stand for others whose rights are being violated.”
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