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When freedoms are under assault, Aakar Patel won’t look away and ask ‘what’s for lunch?’

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?

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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.

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.

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.”

Also read: Bengaluru cop files FIR against journalist Aakar Patel for ‘trying to incite’ US-like protests

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.

Also read: Modi govt treating human rights organisations like criminal enterprises: Amnesty International

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.

Also read: Modi faces no political costs for suffering he causes. He’s just like Iran’s Ali Khamenei

Critics’ puzzle

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.

It also rattled BJP leaders and supporters.

“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.

Also read: One thing was distinctly rotten about 2002 Gujarat riots: use of rape as a form of terror

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.

Also read: This is no Emergency. Modi and Shah are using democracy to subvert democracy

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.

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.”

Views are personal.

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  1. As Fareed Zakaria said on CNN a couple of years ago, liberals are the most illiberal. They think that their view is the only morally correct one. Shri Patel is a living proof of it.

  2. Advocating US Like Protests Akar Incites/Supports Looting And Destruction Of Public Property.Then He Is Fit To Be Handed Over To UP Chief.

  3. What a fawning piece of hagiography. One cannot write a balanced piece if ur already in awe of the subject and would like to be invited to his house for lunch.


  4. This journalist or hack has stopped just short of asking Patel, “what’s for lunch”, after getting herself an invite to his house. What a fawning piece of hagiography!

  5. Aakar Patel is a nobody …….. that must really hurt!!!
    Fade away you insignificant twit.

  6. More power to Fiza Jha. More power to Aakar Patel.
    It Is always easy to side with Power. It took immense courage to be a Aakar Patel.
    We, as a country becomes a country of Robots, a Robots which lacks it’s own brain and mind. , no doubt we, need Messiah, all the time, who can take care of us, but in actuality Messiah do tend to destroy the fabric .of society, a nation.
    In such challenging time, Aakar Petel’s existence matters a lot.
    His knowledge and wisdom, his courage and composure , is what it’s makes him different.

  7. Its the Indian seculars who are responsible for the retreat of Indian secularism. Today, these seculars are totally out of sync with rest of society. Blinded by western norms of secularirm, rootless & devoid of Indian cultural ethos, they have exploited secularism for hollow appeasement of a particular minority in India. In turn this minority has been deliberately kept economically & educationally insulated & backward from rest of the Indian society. In fact. minorities have not at all benefited by such western type of secularism. Traditionally Indian society was always secular but these so called official seculars in their hurry to impose western type of secularism on Indian tradition driven secularism have created total chaos and hard feelings in all communities-majority as well as minorities. To stay relevant, these western influenced seculars have to now seriously introspect & drive secularism based on Indian cultural ethos as we are in the midst of socio-cultural churning in India.

    • WELL SAID!

  8. I didn’t know this chap.
    However, would love him to go to China and say the same about the CCP.
    It is very easy to say these things in India about India and Indians. After all, that’s democracy, right?

  9. Intellectual my foot.. just because he is suave and speaks proper English doesn’t take away the fact that he is biased consumed with vendetta and outright dangerous. His rightful place is in a prison

  10. The Black Lives Movement did not happen overnight. It took decades of police brutality, fighting against the establishment, awakening and reaching critical mass for this moment.

    India too will one day have a movement and people like Akaar Patel will be the ones to take this to a level where emancipation will be a possibility…

  11. He is a poor loser wants his his 15.minutes of fame. And the best way is to abuse Modi in the vilest term and be in the news where his colleagues with similar leanings will report how fearless Aakar is. This is what is considered journalism today. Who knew Aakar Patel before he started abusing Modi day in and day out. Since 2002 many low calibre people have pedalled themselves as credible journos just by hitting out at Modi day in and day out. And what is the credibility of Amnesty which he headed. It has remained silent on the killings of Sikhs in Delhi and the killing of so many Hindus in Kerala and Bengal and even in UP. Akar and Amnesty teamed up because their goal was common, bash Modi. He is not even a ordinary writer worth his salt. Sitting in front of a bookself during TV interviews doesnt make one intelligent or a scholar. And icing on the terrible cake is The Print giving space for this supari journo.

  12. Journalists have lost all sense of shame. In journalistic circles, this article is called “you-scratch-my-back, I-scratch-yours”. One journo writes positively about another, and then quid pro quo. Shame!!!

  13. Indian society is no different from other societies. We too have a long history and tradition that continues till today of actively oppressing certain sections of our society. Protesting against this is the right of every citizen. Being critical of a political party or even the state is not anti-national. Free speech cannot be fettered by ideology. I was delighted to read this article and welcome Aakar Patel’s view.

  14. Don’t waste our time by writing such long PR article for this scum. His double standards are out in the open. Go do something else.

  15. One of the few writers daring to stand up to an increasingly authoritarian regime. You may agree or disagree with his views, but to spew vitriol rather than take him on intellectually doesn’t say much for his detractors. Who defines hinduism,? The ones who see it as a philosophy that encompasses all thoughts or a transient sect bent on perpetuating superstitions.
    China needs to be dealt with firmly but is the government up to it? Or does another round of pot beating their answer?

    • looks like you are in quarantine and your thoughts far from reality….people like you are India’s real problem… not china…


  16. akar patel will now say that since our enemy is bjp, we must join china and defeat bjp. or has he already implied that?
    real shame on such people.

  17. don;t take the man seriously. he hates modi so much that he has lost his credibility.
    the moment a journalist has an suspicious agenda, he becomes a has been.
    only somebody like mr.shekar gupta, who never let his personal leanings reflect on his articles (most of the time.!) can have credibility.

  18. Some people have very liberal view of their democratic rights to them . If you are rabid Modi haters, you have license to write any thing against India, against hindus, against Indian army — all in the name of freedom of speech. What ever is written by rabid Modi haters is divine sermon . No individual need to be hurt by such utterances. Hurt sentiments is reserved for their darling minorities. .
    To them China is not enemy even if want to push her southern borders to any point it likes. Any body opposing Chinese incursions is internal enemy as stated by this worthy ideologue , for which article is written . what a brilliant idea being promoted by Hate-Modi brigade ! Congress -supporting media platforms are happy to offer space to these anti-Indian ideologues’.
    Shame is virtue mile away from these writers.

    • This is when India ranks 142 out of 180 in Global Press Freedom Index. So, just imagine what type of freedom journalist enjoys in countries in rank 1 to 10. This only shows that your idea of India and freedom is limited to your upper caste north Indian hindi speaking male caucus. If we are so democratic why dont we score 1 on press freedom. Ask yourself?


  19. Crisis of credibility for the present human rights activists and the inaudibility syndrome which they face on account of their double-faced public dealing. Is he not the same Aakar Patel who translated Narendra Modi memoirs about his colleagues/comrades/ senior leaders in English which were published in the First Post site.

  20. This is what they call “Human Intrest” story. A consequence of math teacher syndrome. The double standards and hypocrisy of Amnesty is open for everyone to see. Stop eulogizing this scum. You can write many good pieces on common people who are actually doing great things across the country. You just have to get out of the bubble. Plz don’t write this filth. I may have to rethink when I pay nextime for the print

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