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Main secular hoon

Pravin Togadia said something the other day that made me question myself. He had just arrived for one of our shows and it happened as I stepped out to greet him. Perhaps he was provoked by the manner of my welcome.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2003 17:04 IST

Pravin Togadia said something the other day that made me question myself. It was his opening remark. He had just arrived for one of our shows and it happened as I stepped out to greet him. Perhaps he was provoked by the manner of my welcome. I tend to be fulsome.

“Nahin, nahin,” he replied. “Mein aap ka abhari hoon.”

I smiled. As you know, my Hindi is less than fluent and I wasn’t sure I fully understood his meaning, leave aside his tone.

“Aap jaise logon ne to mujhe banaya hei,” he continued, not waiting for me to say anything. “Agar secularist media mere peeche na parti to mujhe kaun jaanta? Jitna aap meri alochana karte hein utna aap mera naam badhate hein. Isliye mein kehta hoon ki mein aap ka abhari hoon. Aap ke karan mein aaj Hindu samaj ka neta hoon.”

It took me aback. Not only was the man giving the media credit for creating him but he was almost blaming us for doing so. Moreover his behaviour suggested he was looking forward to another boost to his ratings. This confused me but his self-satisfied smile and Zoltan Karpathy manner brought back memories of an earlier conversation. The night before, when I told my sister Premila that Togadia was to be a guest on our show, she reacted almost identically.

“Christ why?” she said, her voice reaching a falsetto. “You lot seem to do nothing but build him up. Just let him be and he’ll disappear.”

Odd, isn’t it, but Togadia thought so too! So, as I escorted him to our studio, far from looking forward to cross-examining the man, my head was awhirl with doubts. Was I, albeit unwittingly, providing him with the oxygen of publicity?

Was I, unknowingly perhaps, helping to build him up? Was I – or, rather the media as a whole – at fault and Togadia our creation, our Frankenstein?

I think not. At the time, however, I was less certain. Such questions tend to throw you, particularly when they are posed by the man himself. But reflecting on them, I realised it was the duty of the media to question men like Togadia. In the short run, it might add to his glamour. Yet eventually, hopefully, it would show him up for what he actually is. But because people like Premila have doubts and because Togadia himself – no doubt mischievously – uses them to taunt the media, I want to explain why.

Despite the fact you may not warm to his personality or that many are put off by the way he conducts himself, it’s Togadia’s views that are truly hateful. And he doesn’t shy away from propagating them. Regardless of whether newspapers and television report what he says or question and expose him, Togadia is out on the hustings, or in his rath, loudspeaker in hand, speaking, shouting, even scolding. He and the VHP make every effort to communicate his message. It reaches those areas where newspapers are not read and television is unseen.

The media, then, is not his vehicle. He doesn’t need it. But it’s the prime, perhaps the only, challenge he faces. May be many who pause to listen to him, in villages, urban maidans or on the roadside each time his rath stops, are also questioning him. But it’s equally possible that they are swayed by his eloquence, captivated by the emotion he rouses and even carried away by the fervour he generates. The truth is, we simply don’t know. After Gujarat, however, I have my suspicions.

Yet the next day if the same people see the papers or are told what television had to say, seeds of doubt might be sown. Perhaps many will dismiss them but those who don’t, the few who start to question, may be even worry, will have been won back for sanity. It’s a slow, uncertain, even painful process. And it will always be a struggle. Togadia appeals to our most vile emotions, our insecurities, our fears whilst the media can only counter by being rational, objective, high-minded. Initially it’s not and cannot be an equal battle.

This is why it seems journalism is building-up, glamourising, promoting Togadia. But it’s not. That’s only an illusion. It’s only a temporary outcome. After all, one cannot criticise without also attracting attention. And by making him controversial you are bound to make him infamous. But remember the dying fire often glows brightest. Once the criticism starts to bite the attention will fade.
Alas, so far that hasn’t happened. Yet I feel sure it will. I don’t know when but I have faith in my country, its people and their judgment. Till then I can only say – as I did to Dr Togadia – mein garv se kehta hoon main secular hoon.

First Published: Feb 21, 2003 12:43 IST