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What a flip-flop

We must not support the shoe-throwing incident. At the same time, politicians must ensure speedy justice, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2009 22:43 IST

Are we in danger of romanticising the man who hurled a shoe at India’s Home Minister? And if so, what part of our collective consciousness is he speaking to? Did it take a shoe-thrower to change the mind of the Congress on 1984? How absurd is that?

Ever since the otherwise soft-spoken Jarnail Singh stumped his colleagues (and perhaps even himself) by flying into an emotional rage and lobbing a shoe at a press conference scheduled to discuss terrorism, the bewildering questions are just stacking up.

Have you noticed how public opinion has subtly but perceptibly shifted from first damning the journalist to now “appreciating his sentiment.” Even the Home Minister who was the target of Jarnail’s ire has spoken of the underlying pain in the Sikh community, while generously dismissing the act as a “momentary lapse of judgement.”

But what about the Congress’s own lack of judgement and bizarre misreading of the political barometer? Here’s the inescapable fact. If a journalist had not betrayed the code of his own profession — if he had not hurled that shoe — Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar would have still been candidates from Delhi. The shoe-throwing journalist emerged as the most unlikely catalyst for change, evoking solidarity and triggering mass protests across Punjab and Delhi.

Since then, we in the media, we have all had a field day playing with puns. So Tytler has been ‘booted’ out; the shoe has ‘pinched’ the Congress; the Home Minister has been ‘shoe-d out’ and debates have been constructed around what we would have done had we been “in his shoes.”

But in a sense, this embrace of vigilante justice is an extremely dangerous trend. We have subconsciously framed the debate within the template of “people power”. We have all effectively given up on the due process of law.

Theoretically, we all agree that lynch mobs and media campaigns cannot and must not determine the guilt and innocence of individuals, no matter how controversial they may be. Tytler has even raised some legitimate doubts. He has questioned the authenticity of two affidavits. He asks why no one made a fuss in 1999 when an internal Central Bureau of Investigation report during the NDA government also gave him a not-guilty certificate? Yet, there is virtually no one who is interested in listening to him, far less sympathise with him.

It’s because it doesn’t really matter that the Prime Minister apologised for 1984 in Parliament, as did Sonia Gandhi at the Golden Temple, if there is no sign of visible justice after 25 years. It doesn’t help the Congress to now put out reports that Manmohan Singh was always against fielding both Tytler and Kumar. If he is genuinely opposed, why were they given? And if the party persisted with backing winnability over morality, why didn’t the PM assert himself more strongly, as he had over the nuclear-deal? The top leadership of the party — Sonia Gandhi and the PM included — can’t distance themselves from the first decision to endorse the candidatures. Of course, any party is allowed to change political course midway- and thank god, the Congress has — but they can’t hide behind obfuscations and spin. It was poor judgement, to begin with.

The BJP and the Akalis have seized the political moment. Their statements on 1984 per se are unquestionable. The problem begins when 2002 is rationalised as “different” instead of the mirror image of 1984 that it is. The BJP will argue that the pace of convictions in the Gujarat riots has been much quicker than anything has moved in the anti-Sikh carnage. The Congress will hit back and say that no one in the BJP has ever bothered to apologise for the anti-Muslim pogrom. The rhetoric widens the existing polarisations, and as journalist Harinder Baweja said on a TV show — don’t be surprised if two decades from now somebody flings a shoe at Narendra Modi. The Delhi unit of the Akali Dal has announced a reward for Jarnail Singh for hurling the shoe, ignoring his own protestations. What sort of precedent will that set?

In the meantime, the shoe has become the showstopper of the spring collection. Naveen Jindal was targeted with one; this time the shooter was a retired school principal. A Supreme Court judge was recently made a shoe-target by a frustrated litigant, who then had to serve three months in jail. And of course, there was the Iraqi journalist who began it all by throwing a full swing at President Bush. Indians love quoting that example, even though there is absolutely no parallel at all with our own socio-political context. It may all seem funny and the stuff of satire.

But the truth is that if a civilised society needs to depend on this sort of protests to move the system, we are in real jeopardy. Today, these may be issues you and I empathise with. Tomorrow, hooligans or hate-mongers will use the same mode or “protest” to run riot. Shoe-throwing — no matter how many jokes it spawns — cannot and must not have our approval. But the political class also needs to pay attention. If they do not deliver, democracy can lapse into anarchy. And then, no one is safe.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV