“Anger and intolerance,” observed the greatest of Indians, Mohandas Gandhi, “are the enemies of correct understanding”.
So what would the Mahatma say if he were alive today, in modern India, with his own Twitter account and Facebook page? What would he make of the anger and intolerance of the country’s right-wing internet trolls, long ago dubbed the “bhakts”, and condemned by the former Indian intelligence official B. Raman for their “abuse, vituperation, disinformation [and] character assassination”?
To witness from afar the angry antics of the bhakt army — or the Modi toadies to quote Salman Rushdie — is one thing; to be on the receiving end of their relentless hate and bile is another. Over the past three years, on my show, Head to Head, on Al Jazeera English, I have interviewed more than 30 high-profile guests from around the world, ranging from Israeli settler leader Dani Dayan to “New Atheist” scientist Richard Dawkins to the former Pakistani ISI chief Asad Durrani.
Yet never have I experienced the sort of backlash that I have had to endure online over the past few days, in the wake of my headline-grabbing interview with Ram Madhav, national general secretary of the BJP and former spokesperson for the RSS. Not from Nigerians, Israelis, Egyptians, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Americans or Britons.
Hell, it seems, has no fury like a Hindu nationalist scorned. I have been denounced and defamed as a “closet Islamist”, a “funder of ISIS”, and — perhaps the most damning appellation of all in The Bumper Book of Bhakt Political Insults — a “Pakistani”.
For the record, I have no ties to Pakistan whatsoever. I am, you might say, a child of India: Born and raised in the UK but to parents born and raised in India. I spent most of my summer holidays as a child in Hyderabad and even got married there.
Yet in today’s Narendra Modi-led India, those Muslims who dare speak out are told to go to Pakistan; those liberals or leftists who dare condemn the BJP for creating a “climate of intolerance” are accused of trying to “defame the government and in turn… defame the image of India”, to quote Madhav on my show, thereby conflating the ruling BJP with the nation of India.
As for the laughable charge of “Islamism”, I happen to be the author of a piece headlined, “There is nothing Islamic about a state”. My 2014 Head to Head interview with Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan was titled, “Has Political Islam failed?” (Yes, almost a decade ago, I gave a speech in which I regrettably and foolishly quoted a verse from the Quran that refers, metaphorically, to unthinking non-Muslims as “cattle” but — and here’s what the bhakts conveniently overlook — I also quoted a verse from the Quran that refers to unthinking Muslims as “cattle”, too.)
But why focus on the message when you can shoot the messenger? Let’s be clear: There was no conspiracy against Madhav or the BJP. First, it was pure coincidence that my interview, recorded in Oxford on December 7, was aired on December 25, the day the Indian prime minister arrived in Lahore to meet with his Pakistani counterpart. Believe it or not, Prime Minister Modi did not share in advance with Al Jazeera his secret plans to wish Nawaz Sharif a happy birthday in person.
Second, prior to appearing on Head to Head, Madhav was personally briefed by my producers about the “gladiatorial” format of the show and claimed to have enjoyed watching my earlier confrontation with General Durrani. (Perhaps he and his supporters only enjoy interviews in which I pose tough questions to Pakistanis.)
Third, the title of the show, “Is India flirting with fascism?”, is no more biased or provocative than the title of my 2014 Head to Head with feminist Mona Eltahawy, “Do Arab men hate women?”, or of my 2013 clash with author Irshad Manji, “What is wrong with Islam today?”
The inconvenient truth for the bhakts is that a senior BJP official not only pointed at his Muslim interviewer and said “your ISIS” but also admitted to supporting the RSS vision of “Akhand Bharat”, in which Pakistan and Bangladesh are re-united with India. The BJP has been forced to disown Madhav’s comments, which undermined Modi’s visit to Pakistan and gave the opposition plenty of anti-Hindutva ammunition.
Madhav’s latest claim that his “Akhand Bharat” remarks were in relation to a “cultural idea” is disingenuous, to say the least. Speaking to me on Head to Head, the BJP national general secretary referred explicitly to political, not cultural, unification: “If two Germanies can come together, if two Vietnams can come together, what makes you to think… that Pakistan and India cannot come together?”
This important admission came at a personal cost: The bhakt army continues to hound me on social media. So, do I regret interviewing Ram Madhav? Not at all. As the old adage goes, the job of a journalist is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. It is a principle that has underpinned every single one of my interviews, whether with the former prime minister of Israel or the current foreign minister of Qatar.
Now, whether Madhav regrets appearing on Head to Head, however, is another matter. On the issue of “Akhand Bharat”, after all, the former RSS spin doctor has a lot more spinning to do.
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