The ‘M’ Conundrum- In defense of Chetan Bhagat
Chetan Bhagat, in one of his Sunday columns for The Times of India on Jun 14, while explaining how Modi can win 2014, said this: “However, this doesn’t mean there should be nothing Hindu about the campaign. If the Congress will target Muslims, BJP may have little choice but to target Hindus”. Simple and straight, without mincing any words.
Most columnists, in trying to understand the electoral arithmetic that can drive a potential Modi victory in 2014, would say the same but what Bhagat says in two sentences they would say in three paragraphs, dress it up in ‘acceptable Op Ed Lexicon’, use all vocabulary available to them and yet not make the same impact as Bhagat. This is the strength of Chetan Bhagat, Columnist and best-selling author whose books sell more than any Indian writer writing in English.
Chetan Bhagat, the author is popular, darling of young India, unconventional (an IIT and IIM graduate who gave up his job to become a full time writer), humorous and quietly provocative in his works of fiction. He tells entertaining stories, is rarely didactic, derives from his own experiences and writes simple English prose that even first generation learners who graduate from ordinary schools understand and identify with. The New York Times has called him the ‘the biggest selling English language novelist in India’s history.’ Time magazine has named him in the ‘100 Most Influential People in the world’. Chetan Bhagat, to put it simply, is quite a phenomenon in literary circuit. His books sell like hot cakes, his publishers covet him and his peers envy him.
Bhagat’s popularity was accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the cocktail circuit of movers and shakers of India. There was no way they could reach his popularity or sell one tenth of the books he sold. They would criticize his writing skills but they could hardly ignore him. Then something unthinkable happened. Chetan Bhagat started displaying his political leanings. Horror of horrors, he seemed not too keen to be part of left liberal glitterati of fashionable India. That was the breaking point. No more would Bhagat be criticized in hushed tones in living rooms of big and famous over wine and cheese. He was ridiculed openly; his books began to be criticized viciously, his literary talent dismissed and his politics made fun of. All this by a small coterie of ‘networked and connected’ and Page 3 regulars who probably pay each other to get their books and columns read or reviewed and pay newspapers to publish their pictures.
Chetan Bhagat however marches on. His latest novel Revolution 2020 was a bestseller, his columns for various newspapers are popular and he is a sought after motivational speaker. His weekly columns, primarily aimed at young India continue to be mildly provocative, entertaining and informal. He refuses to adhere to accepted Op Ed language (whatever that may be) and continues to be direct and crisp.
All this background was essential to understand the storm in the teacup that Bhagat’s latest column in the Times of India titled ‘Letter from an Indian Muslim youth’ unleashed. Bhagat wrote in first person and wrote on behalf of an ordinary Muslim youth. He wrote about jobs, houses, security, dignity and education that a Muslim youth demands from a political system. He wrote about being part of aspirational India and not being yoked to clichés and stereotypes. He demanded level playing field, opportunities and warned against using Muslims as vote banks.
As a young Muslim writing the letter he rejected victimhood narrative and sought to be part of mainstream narrative. This is nothing new. Few writers while dealing with Muslim conundrum have often said that Muslims, because of being the largest minority group in India, have often been manipulated for vote banks. Sham of secularism that plays in our country ensures that Muslims are wooed around elections and promptly dumped afterwards. Bhagat’s column seems a continuation of the same thought. Unfortunately columns in our country are assessed not by WHAT is written in them but WHO has written them.
Given Bhagat’s political persuasion, the fact that he chose to write about young Muslims and also assumed to be one while writing, horrified the chattering class. Had the same column in the same tone and narrative technique been written by somebody of left liberal persuasion he would have been heralded for ‘reaching out’, ‘starting a dialogue’ ‘acting as a bridge’ and ‘narrowing the chasm between two communities’. Bhagat however was accused of just the opposite.
Words like ‘patronizing’, ‘condescending’ ‘majoritarian agenda’ were bandied about liberally. I checked many twitter timelines to discover that those frothing the most had not even bothered to read the column. Just the name Chetan Bhagat was enough for them to criticize for no reason or rhyme. Bhagat is hated for his guts to stand against the tide and when he writes about Muslim conundrum (sole prerogative of so called secular crowd) he could just not be forgiven.
Everyone agrees that not all Muslims have been able to become part of mainstream narrative just like not all Dalits and Tribals have become part of Emerging India story yet. Education and Development needs to reach everyone including Muslims. There is a lacuna in Muslim leadership. Those representing Muslims are not necessarily their best representatives. On one hand we have Owaisi brothers who are rabid Islamists or we have people like Salmaan Khurshid who will say one thing in Lutyen’s Delhi and say something completely different in Farrukhabad in UP.
These are not just problems of Muslims. These are problem for all of us. I found it completely ridiculous that people were furious with Bhagat for appropriating the voice of a young Muslim. Week after Week after Week, this chattering class claims to speak on behalf of all Indians when they write stuff like ‘Modi is a divisive figure’, ‘BJP is a party of upper class bigots’ or ‘Muslims will never vote for BJP’. Such sweeping statements are thrown at us casually but Bhagat is viciously criticized for speaking on behalf of Muslims.
Bhagat was criticized because he suddenly occupied the spot, that vocal bunch who call themselves secularists and believe only they have the best interest of Muslims in their mind, have been occupying for years. It is they who have been speaking on behalf of Muslims. Ordinary Muslims have welcomed the column as was evident from the responses Bhagat received on Twitter.
No wonder the vocal, chattering class felt threatened because for years they have been selling victim hood narrative and encouraging the divisiveness in the name of secularism. Here comes an upstart who threatens to puncture that narrative, who tells Muslims that they have a right to demand equality, they should be seeking no handouts but opportunities, no reservations but enough jobs for all to compete, security and dignity that is guaranteed to them by our constitution.
A young and educated 21 year old Muslim boy in a remote village of UP, who saves couple of rupees to buy Sunday edition of The Times of India will read this in a Chetan Bhagat column and agree because as Bhagat says Indian Muslim has evolved. It is time chattering class did too.