Prayaag Akbar and the Curse of Touch-Me-Not Minorityism
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Going by his output (which a Google search suggests is yet far from substantial), Prayaag Akbar seems a fine journalist in the making. Although the subjects he has chosen, so far, to write on, will undoubtedly warm the cockles of every Left-liberal’s heart, he displays a certain diligence which is rare among journalists of his vintage.

There are 101 kinds of privileges. There is the apex-of-the-pyramid privilege of being a Nehru-Gandhi or being married to one; the privilege of being the nephew of the Railway minister; the privilege of being an editor, corporate honcho, or top ranking bureaucrat’s offspring, for it opens up the doors to Fulbright scholarships, assorted American think tank fellowships, jobs in Wall Street investment banks, blue chip consulting companies and more. Akbar too is privileged. That he merited more than a mere mention in Vinod Mehta’s memoirs Lucknow Boy for his good looks suggests he has a lot going for him.

Despite his blessed birth, he seems to wear the identity of being an Indian Muslim in the brooding manner of an Ivan Lendl holding the runners up trophy at Wimbledon. Akbar’s rebuttal of Chetan Bhagat’s innocuous and, admittedly, coarsely written (but that’s his USP) letter in the Times of India where he assumed a young Indian Muslim’s voice, reveals his overcooked touchiness about the issue of Muslim identity. I do not know if Akbar is a man of cheerful disposition. My guess is, a bit of delousing will help his writing immeasurably.

Akbar wrote in Mint (why he chose the business daily when he himself heads the features supplement of The Sunday Guardian founded by his father MJ Akbar is mildly mystifying) that Bhagat’s piece “is predictably disappointing in its understanding of the Muslim experience in India…” That is precisely the line of argument used by the thekedaars of minorityism in India starting from Muhammad Ali Jinnah. By questioning Bhagat’s locus standi, Akbar validates Jinnah’s position. While Jinnah claimed to be the “sole spokesperson” for Indian Muslims, Akbar doesn’t go that far but clearly seems to be on a track if driven down, would lead to separate communal electorates. He is dismissive of non-Muslims speaking for Muslims. This is an important chapter in the textbook of minorityism. I wonder if the same logic applies to non-Dalits such as Kancha Illaiah, Gail Omvedt and S Anand who have positioned themselves not just as the community’s spokespersons but also arbiters and impresarios in that space.

Akbar is the product of a modern Indian mixed marriage (one of his many privileges). It is entirely possible his engagement with his mother’s side of heritage extends beyond a plate of beef curry. However, it will be interesting to know how and why he homed in on Islam ahead of the Syrian Chatholic Church when it comes to the question of identity.

Akbar, goes on the argue that Bhagat putting on a plinth the achievements of Indian Muslims such as Shah Rukh Khan, Zaheer Khan and APJ Abdul Kalam as an act of neurotic celebration of Muslim achievement when it is in fact a stick to beat them with. It is Akbar and his ilk of touch-me-not Muslims who suffer from neurosis.

Then we come to the minor matter of all the freshly brewed derision directed at Chetan Bhagat’s writing skills of lack thereof. It was quite funny to see the Delhi-based couple who double up as the comptroller and auditor generals of the publishing business in India, cheerleading Akbar’s “victory” in this quasi epistolary duel with Bhagat. Without wishing to go into the merits and demerits of Bhagat’s writing (suffice to say he’s not to my taste) it can be argued that he has contributed more than the CAGs in keeping the publishing world hale and hearty.

The monetary success of Bhagat’s books, and the genre he has spawned, underwrites not just the wine and cheese at publishers’ parties but also the “high-minded works of literature” the CAGs celebrate. I will stick my neck out on this one. Aleph Book Company, a new imprint, that claims to focus on publishing books of “enduring literary quality” may not have happened if its parent Rupa Publications’ coffers hadn’t been swollen by Bhagat’s bestsellers. Biting the hand that feeds you is a pretty bad idea.