I spent the first half of April 2017 in the United States, speaking at universities on the East and West Coasts. At each place, I had been preceded by identical mails from the working president (external) of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, warning my hosts about the kind of Indian they had invited. "Based on my experience in reading him, and also viewing some of his talks," wrote this VHP man about me, "he has nearly no empathy for the country that has educated him, as well as provides him with the necessary means of living."
"Given the background of Mr Guha," the gentleman from the VHP continued, "I would like to suggest that he is an incompetent interlocutor as far as India is concerned." As evidence of my utter lack of competence, the VHP man adduced comments on a particular tweet of mine, "nearly all of them negative" (that these came from his own end of the political spectrum, and were very likely orchestrated as such attacks are now known to be, was left unstated).
I knew this particular gentleman well, for he had written many anxious mails to me in the past. Despairing of converting me from my anti- Hindutva views, he now sought to warn Western universities against being poisoned by my noxious misrepresentations of the Motherland. He wanted to offer these universities an alternative and authentic point of view, so as to keep them "informed about what is really happening in India".
This VHP leader was naïve, in thinking that a great modern university would endorse his view that abusive tweets were enough to negate the books and research papers that a scholar had published. However, while he was merely chastising me with words, his fellow VHP activists were lynching an innocent man in Alwar, the latest in a series of attacks by the armies of gau gundas that have gathered strength in the past weeks and months. Reading the news from home, I was horrified by the attack, and even more so by the way it had been legitimized by the ruling parivar in Rajasthan and beyond. The home minister of Rajasthan suggested that those who lynched Pehlu Khan had the right ideas but perhaps not the right methods. The chief minister of Rajasthan, having stayed silent on such lynchings in her neighbourhood and under her watch for a long time, tweeted sympathies for the victim of a terror attack in distant Stockholm. A so-called sadhvi of the Rashtriya Mahila Gau Rakshak Dal called ostentatiously on one of the murderers and compared him to a modern-day Bhagat Singh.
The lynching was truly awful. Following the commentary on social media, what struck me was how the Hindutvawadis who dominate this sphere were outraged not by the act or its apologists, but by the New York Times having reported the incident under the sober, factual, headline: "Hindu Cow Vigilantes in Rajasthan, India, beat Muslim to death". The report itself contained this sober, factual, paragraph: "Cow protection groups, known as gau rakshaks, have proliferated in recent years, since the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. These vigilante groups have carried out violent attacks on Muslims and, more rarely, low-caste Hindus suspected of slaughtering cows."
The headline and the report led to a storm of outrage on Twitter. There was a particular complaint - that the newspaper should not have mentioned the religious identity of the perpetrators or of the victim. And there was a general complaint - that the New York Times itself was run by known leftist malcontents with a long history of denigrating India, and this latest report was part of an old and continuing campaign to deny our Great Nation its rightful place at the Centre of World History. It was strange, as well as deeply saddening, to see my fellow Indians become so outraged about a factual piece of reporting, on the grounds that it 'defamed' the country. Where was their humanity, their sense of proportion? Why did they feel so much more strongly about an American newspaper report than about the lynching of a fellow Indian?
The patriotism on display in India nowadays has a peculiarly paranoid side to it. Mother India is apparently too fragile to take criticism from Indians in India, Indians abroad, or foreigners. The clumsy attempts by the VHP leader to warn US universities against this writer, and the shrieks of outrage against the New York Times on Indian social media, are both manifestations of this paranoid patriotism. That these were not isolated incidents, but part of a general pattern, was clear when, a week after the tragic murder by gau gundas of Pehlu Khan, the Press Trust of India reported that Prasar Bharati intended to set up a "high-tech digital platform" to "challenge the 'anti-India' narrative in foreign media and to report events from the country's perspective to global audiences".
The rationale for this new media platform was outlined by Prasar Bharati's chairman, A. Surya Prakash. "India is the fastest growing economy and there have been extraordinary steps taken in the area of governance," said Surya Prakash: "These can act as a template for many governments. But the western media portrays a picture as if it is a conflict zone which is absolutely bogus. We need to set it right."
According to the PTI report, this sarkari media platform would originally be in English, but would soon add Spanish and Chinese streams too. It aimed to have as many as 100 million viewers by the fifth year of operation. Apart from news and reports, the platform would feature quizzes and talent shows. The annual operating costs were estimated at Rs 75 crore. The details of the new scheme were impressive - every aspect of this new, proudly swadeshi, platform had been thought of, except the name. Why not All Modi Media, for did we not, in a previous age of paranoid patriotism, have our own All Indi[r]a Radio?
Patriotism is a noble idea, that needs to be rescued from the vindictive bigots of the VHP and the sarkari apologists of Prasar Bharati. A self-aware, self-conscious and self-confident patriot would take just pride in the achievements this country has made in nurturing a democratic ethos and in reducing mass poverty, while being fully aware of the defects that still mar our republic, such as the corruption and corrosion of public institutions, the continuing attacks on Dalits and women, and the persistence of sectarian violence. That is the open-minded, reflective, self-critical patriotism that Tagore and Gandhi bequeathed us.
Surya Prakash of Prasar Bharati tells us that to see India as a conflict zone is "absolutely bogus". One morning's paper, printed in Bengaluru not New York, tells me that there is continuing violence in Kashmir, that 25 CRPF soldiers have been killed by Naxalites in Chhattisgarh, and that there have been fresh incidents of the lynching of innocent Indians by gau gundas in Delhi and in Jammu (where the victims included a nine-year-old girl).
To be sure, large parts of India are at peace; but other parts remain prone to violence and conflict. There is progress in some parts of the republic, as when girls previously withdrawn from school at puberty now go to college; and regression in other parts of the republic, as when a mere 7 per cent turn out to vote in a part of India that Indians insist is wholly part of the nation. The job of the scholar and reporter is to write and speak about both the progress and the regression. The job of the patriot is to heal the wounds within, not to deny that they exist at all.