The 'godi' media's cheap attack on Mahua Moitra
To reiterate the basic story first. At the start of the parliamentary session in June, the Trinamul Congress MP, Mahua Moitra, gives her maiden speech in the Lok Sabha. The speech is in clear, simple English, avoiding too many difficult words or any convoluted, over-decorative phrases. The speech lasts for about 10 minutes, and is hard-hitting and direct. It works — explosively so — because of its palpably genuine passion and outrage, and because content and delivery combine to pack a punch.
Moitra begins the speech by quoting Maulana Azad: “It is India’s historic destiny that many human races and cultures should flow to her, finding a home in her hospitable soil, that many a caravan should find rest here...” Moitra then states that this idea is built into our Constitution and that the idea and the entire Constitution are now under serious threat. She then makes the point that the ruling party may imagine that the sun will never set on the Indian Empire this government is trying to build but this is delusional. If Azad is quoted, this too is a direct reference to the British Empire on which the sun was never supposed to set. Moitra then begins to list the signs of fascism, starting with the narrow, xenophobic, divisive nationalism that is being foisted upon the country. In a telling blow, she points out that people who’ve lived in India for many decades are now being expected to show a paper to prove their citizenship when ministers in the government can’t even provide evidence of their college degrees.
Moitra continues, undeterred by squalls of Treasury bench barracking, and goes through the points one by one: the government’s disdain for human rights; the control of and quasi-monopoly in the ownership of mass media; the constant putting out of fake news and misinformation, of which she accuses not just the Bharatiya Janata Party but the Congress as well; the burying of any real information — “If Congress has put up 36 dynasts since 1999 then the BJP has put out 31”; the obsession with national security and the false construction of an enemy; the co-opting of the military’s missions — “The achievements of the army are being usurped in the name of one man. Is this correct?”; the dangerous and unacceptable intertwining of religion and government — “Members of parliament today are more interested in the fate of 2.77 acres of land than in the 812 million acres of the rest of India”; the disdain for intellectuals, the suppression of dissent, the moving away, in the opposite direction, from the scientific temperament the Constitution urges us to develop; and, finally, the erosion of the independence of our electoral system.
Watching the video, you can see Mahua Moitra, voice fraying to hoarseness, holding her own under the barrage of shouting from the Treasury MPs whom she dubs “professional hecklers”. At around 9 minutes 15 seconds of her speech, Moitra clearly brings up the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and the poster put up in its lobby in 2017. This poster, she says, listed the early signs of fascism and each of the signs she has mentioned is included on the list. “Do we want to be upholders of this Constitution or do we want to be its pall-bearers?” she asks, before ending with a quote from the poet, Rahat Indori, “Sabhi ka khoon hai shamil yahan ki mitti mein/ Kisi ke baap ka Hindustan thodi hi hai (Everyone’s blood is mixed into this land/ It’s not that anyone’s father owns Hindustan.)”
As with many speeches in Parliament and outside, the MP uses quotes and references; in Moitra’s case, each quote is flagged clearly: Maulana Azad, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Rahat Indori. The speech quickly makes news and goes viral because it hits the bullseye, succinctly and acerbically laying out the government’s shameful agenda and the disasters it has led to and can further take us towards. It’s clear from the reactions and the fumbling that the Narendra Modi government was not expecting to be pared open by a young, first-time MP from West Bengal speaking in accessible (read non-Tharoor, non-Aiyar, non-O’Brien) English. Unlike Rahul Gandhi’s famous speech in the last Lok Sabha, this was not a joke, there was no self-satisfied smarmy wink at the end; this was a straight punch in the eye from somebody who had previously flipped Arnab Goswami an unambiguous middle digit on TV; this was not a warning shot, it was a first salvo from a pocket battleship that had hit the preening BJP-RSS amidships and caused damage in terms of the all-important ‘optics’.
The response from the godi-media, the government’s captive propaganda channels, was hilarious: Mahua Moitra was, horror of horrors, ‘unoriginal’! She had ‘plagiarized’ the speech! By implication she was, therefore, shady, dishonest and not to be trusted. As a ‘source’, the Orangiste fake-news lie factories picked up an article by an American journalist called Martin Longman. Longman had written the piece in 2017, based on a photo posted on Twitter by a woman named Sarah Rose. The photo was of the poster list of ‘Early warning signs of Fascism’ put up at the US Holocaust Museum. Longman had taken off from the list and collated the listed signs to trends that were already apparent at the start of Donald Trump’s dirty swamp of a presidency. In his recent piece, Longman says he received what looked like an innocent query on Twitter: “Did you write this?” He replied that he had and that he needed to update the link. Before he could do that though, he found the link to his piece being spread around in India. After he saw the video of Moitra’s speech and understood that his article was being misused by the TV anchor, Sudhir Chaudhary, and others for exactly the opposite ends of what he intended — to besmirch someone who was on the same ideological side as himself — Longman’s response was blunt: “... I am quite familiar with this kind of cheap-shot boot-licking masquerade for journalism. I also realized that my honor was being needlessly defended in India by scoundrels...” On Twitter, Longman was even more pithy: “I’m internet famous in India because a politician is being falsely accused of plagiarizing me. It’s kind of funny, but right-wing [a**h****] seem to be similar in every country.”
Now, there are several lessons to be learnt from this whole business. First, what Mahua Moitra was pointing out in Parliament was nothing different from what many of us have been saying about the BJP-RSS’s hard-wiring being religious-majoritarian. Two, even if Moitra, in the interest of brevity and getting her points across in the face of heckling and shouting from the Treasury benches, had chosen not to mention her source for the early fascism points, she had every right to do so; the power and meat of her speech come not from the points on the holocaust poster but her substantiation of those points in the context of Indian politics today. Mahua Moitra was making a political speech in Parliament, not writing an article or an academic paper.
Three, if there is an assumption that the current regime consists of different layers of the educated, of people with varying sabhyata and vivek, all trying to get along with each other in what they believe is the best interest of the country, let’s get rid of that silly idea without delay. The clumsy and ill-conceived attack on Moitra came from a cabal of crude, regime-paaltu anchors working hand in glove with Westernized, sophisticated, English-fluent tenants of the Lutyens bungalows that lie in close proximity to 7, Race Course Road, people who know fully well the difference between attributed quotes and plagiarism. It was a cheap attack, a lie based on a lie, to defend a whole house of cards of toxic lies.
At times like these, it’s good to remember one’s history. In 1945, out of the Germany devastated by Hitler’s crimes and his humiliating defeat, when the guilty crawled out of the rubble, they consisted equally of murderous street thugs and aesthetes of delicate constitution, equally of colourless middle-level mass-murderer-bureaucrats, who used nothing more lethal than their fountain pens, and scholars of Nordic culture, Sanskrit and Greek. And aside from the genocide and brutality, the one intellectual crime they were all guilty of was unoriginality — under their Führerji, the master plagiarist, they had all gone along with the shoddy purloining and borrowing of every hollow, shallow race and class supremacist notion history could offer.