Rupa Subramanya says the space for independent voices such as hers, who refuse to take partisan sides, is vanishing.
At 1 pm, 10 June 2018, Indian-born British celebrity chef Atul Kochhar sent out a tweet criticising Priyanka Chopra and her American television show Quantico for a plot featuring would-be Hindu terrorists. Kochhar’s tweet pointed to the claim that Hindus had been terrorised by Islam for over 2000 years. His chronology was clearly wrong but his sentiment struck a chord with many in the Hindu right-wing.
Within minutes of his tweet there was a flurry of criticism across social media including by people in the United Arab Emirates, the significance being that Kochhar had owned a restaurant at Dubai’s JW Marriott Marquis hotel. Shortly thereafter, no doubt sensing his strategic blunder, Kochhar deleted his original tweet and put out an apology.
So far, so good. But this is where we enter the twilight zone of the Indian discourse space when I tweeted about Kochhar’s original tweet at 4 pm, 11 June, 2018.
Probably not going to go down well with authorities in the UAE where @atulkochhar does business ( @JWDubaiMarquis ) or his Muslim patrons around the world. But on the other hand he’ll be popular on the Indian Right. 😬 pic.twitter.com/aK9Oo9WUnw
— Rupa Subramanya (@rupasubramanya) June 11, 2018
In other words, more than 24 hours had elapsed between Kochhar’s original tweet and mine. In between had come Kocchar’s deletion of his tweet, his apology, and an online boycott of his brand, all of which predated my tweet and which had nothing to do with me.
An apology from @atulkochhar .At the end of the day for most folks, their bottom line more important than their supposed sentiments. No matter, a new star is born on the Indian Right. “RW” ecosystem should be reaching out to him forthwith. pic.twitter.com/5dwgAU7hpp
— Rupa Subramanya (@rupasubramanya) June 11, 2018
But not according to the Hindu right, many in close proximity to the current dispensation, who bizarrely laid Kochhar’s woes at my doorstep. What followed were several days of vilification, defamation, and outright abuse and threats by powerful and influential voices towards me. Indeed, the signal had gone out from the generals to their foot soldiers to come after me.
For the record, my tweet did not even criticise Kochhar’s sentiment, much less call for a boycott, but rather pointed to the fact that authorities in the UAE and his Muslim patrons would no doubt be displeased by his tweet whereas the Hindu right would be sure to love it.
According to these powerful voices of the Hindu right, my cardinal sin was to tag the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai— ludicrous because this hotel is host to one of Michelin-starred Kochhar’s most prominent restaurants in the world.
The deliberate obfuscation was to portray Kochhar as an innocent employee who risked being fired by the hotel because I had tagged them. This is even more ludicrous since Kochhar, a celebrity chef of high calibre, owns his own brand and business and is no one’s employee. Like almost all restaurants associated with celebrity chefs anywhere in the world, his Dubai restaurant operated through a contractual arrangement between him and the hotel.
Indeed, the hotel in the aftermath of the controversy sparked by Kochhar’s tweet terminated his contract as one would fully expect given the low level of tolerance in the UAE for any views criticising Islam. But if these claims made against me are not bizarre enough, the Hindu right floated the notion that because of my tweets, a day after the controversy had broken, I had put Kochhar’s life in jeopardy.
Lost in the scuffle, was anyone actually asking me what I thought of Kochhar’s original tweet and his views? For the record, Kochhar’s tweet can certainly be read as critical of Islam, but I think it’s a stretch to call his views bigoted.
Having said that, Kochhar has expressed rather more unsavoury views in the past. In one particularly odious tweet, he said that India needs a Hitler, a view held by some extremists in the Hindu right but which can only be described as unconscionable.
While I fully expected to be attacked, even I was taken aback by its extent and nature. An entire ecosystem came after me, including mass reporting me to Twitter in an attempt to suspend my account and literally shut out my voice. These are people who have little or no tolerance for dissenting voices, even a voice such as mine, which has defended the current government and its ecosystem on numerous occasions when they have been wrongly attacked.
It is rather obvious the Hindu right just used Kochhar as a convenient peg to attack me. Rather than turning their ire against the UAE and its illiberal laws, which is the real source of Kochhar’s troubles, the Hindu right chose to vilify and defame me. Had they been sincere in their concern for him, a #BoycottDubai campaign would have been their logical step, not a #BoycottRupa campaign.
So, what is going on? It is evident that there is an active and concerted campaign to denigrate me by powerful and well-organised forces in the Hindu right, politically connected to the current government. Indeed, some friends within that ecosystem told me privately that I should fully expect to be a target given that I had the temerity to make some remarks perceived as critical of the ruling party.
This brings me to the next, frequently repeated charge by voices on both the left and right that I’ve made a ‘turn’, apparently having been a Modi cheerleader and now a critic. A little more than four years since Modi and the BJP took power, the reality is that it’s not I who has changed, but the governance template and the ecosystem surrounding it that have morphed beyond recognition.
Further, the idea that someone can be independent of any political party or movement, doesn’t harbour a pathological hate for Modi or the BJP, unlike the traditional left and primarily concerned with ideas coming from a centre right perspective, is lost in an increasingly polarised discourse in India.
Like many, I was hopeful that Narendra Modi with his huge mandate in 2014, having campaigned on development and governance and not principally on the BJP’s traditional Hindutva agenda, would start to deliver on the promises he made. Today, more than a year after the BJP’s landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh and in the lead up to the next general election, talk of development, and sensible economic policies have all but vanished. What you have today is a far cry from what Modi promised in 2014.
What is more, the powerful ecosystem surrounding Modi and the BJP have shifted gears from making a positive case for change as they did in 2014 to a negative and disturbing rationalisation of problematic views bordering sometimes on bigotry and hatred, so long as they appear to serve a useful political purpose. Several prominent ministers, including the Prime Minister follow some unsavoury Twitter handles and thereby lend them credibility and legitimacy.
The climate now is toxic. The ecosystem which once used to call out fake news now routinely peddles it.
Some respected members of this ecosystem, whose ideology and politics are beyond reproach, are afraid to speak out in the context of such a lynch mob mentality — and have privately told me so. The moderates have been sidelined by the extremists, who’re no longer fringe but have taken centre stage.
Although narrow, the space for independent voices such as mine, who refuse to take partisan sides, is vanishing. The recent attacks on me are ample evidence of this and the worrying state of Indian discourse today.
Rupa Subramanya is an economist and independent analyst based in Mumbai. Follow @rupasubramanya