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Barkha Dutta and dehati aurat

By Ashok Chowgule
Date: October 10, 2013

No, no, no.  I am not calling Barkha Dutt a dehati aurat (which, when used colloquially, means a village hag in English, and is generally considered to be derogatory).  I think she may well feel insulted, and the purpose of this note is not to insult her.  It is about how the media has, once again, tied itself up in knots.

To begin with, let me list out some facts as are known and not disputed.  On September 28, Nawaz Sharif, prime minister of Pakistan, had a breakfast meeting in New York with at least a couple of journalists, Hamid Mir of GEO TV of Pakistan, and Dutt of NDTV of India, besides his staff.  It was supposed to be a sort of off-the-record meeting prior to Sharif’s discussion with Manmohan Singh, prime minister of India.  In a report to his TV channel in Pakistan, Mir quotes Sharif as saying: “Aisa lag raha tha ki Manmohan Singh India ke PM tarah nahin, lekin koi dehati aurat ki tarah Obama se meri shikayat lagane gaye the!” (It would seem that when Manmohan Singh went to meet Obama, he did not go as prime minister of India but as a dehati aurat complaining about me.) Mir also said that Dutt was present in the meeting.

The video, where Mir’s report can be heard is at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qZ3OO5-yCU
It is 3mins 36secs long.  I do not know exactly when the programme was broadcast, but it would seem to be prior to the end of the day of September 28, since there was already some chatter on the social media by that time.

The Mir report has been mentioned by the Internet Hindus on the social media not later than midnight between 28th and 29th September, 2013, that is twelve hours before Modi’s speech.  (All the times indicated in this article refer to the Indian Standard Time. Also, some grammatical editing of the tweets has been done, for easy reading.)

The reaction on the social media to the slur did come to the notice of Dutt about three hours before the Modi speech.  At 8:33am on 29th September, one Sachin Dixit retweeted a message by one Javeed Nusraat as follows: “Nawaz Sharif told Hamid Mir and Barkha Dutt that Manmohan Singh behaved like a village woman while complaining against Pak to Obama.”  To this, at 8:42am, Dutt says: “Not said to me.  My interview will be on air at nine. Check.”

Dixit did not seem to be satisfied with this response.  He asked why Mir should lie about her being present at the breakfast meeting.  Dutt persisted with her statement that there was no slur during her interview.  Furthermore, she does not acknowledge that there was a breakfast meeting.

In the BJP rally in Delhi on September 29, around noon, its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, said that in using the term ‘dehati aurat’, Sharif had insulted a prime minister of India.  He also said that while the BJP will oppose the prime minister on issues, they will not tolerate such slurs. Modi also said that the Indian journalist at the breakfast meeting should have objected to the slur, and walked out of the meeting.

The reference about an Indian journalist seems to have worked up Dutt.  After the Modi speech, at 1:48pm, she tweeted: “To Modi, I want to say: there was no pejorative word used for PM in my presence.  And surely I am not THE story, Mr Modi?!”  (Emphasis in the original.) 

It is Dutt’s contention that Nawaz Sharif never specifically used the term ‘dehati aurat’ to refer to Manmohan Singh, at least not while she was present.  It seems that she had left the meeting for a few minutes to arrange for the cameramen to record an interview of Sharif.  She also contends that in using the Mir report, and ignoring her clarification that she has issued, and Mir’s retraction, Modi was not being fair.

The important point, therefore, is when was it known to the people at large, including Modi, that what Mir had reported on his TV channel was not factually correct.  There is strong indication that the process of retraction started AFTER Modi spoke at the rally.

Now, it can well be granted to Dutt that she would not have known all that was happening on the social media for the twelve hours before Modi spoke.  During this time, she makes no mention of a breakfast meeting, and so there can be no question of any denial or clarification by Mir.  She only talks about her own interview.  It is only after the Modi speech that she acknowledges that there was breakfast meeting where she was present.

At the same time, we can safely assume that Modi (or someone in his team) does not have the power to read the mind of Dutt, or anyone else, about what exactly transpired at the Sharif breakfast meeting.  Modi would be going only on the basis of the information that is available in the public domain.

There have been some media colleagues of Dutt who have tweeted that it is strange that Modi believes a journalist from Pakistan, but not one from India.  This also assumes that Modi should have known, prior to his speech, that Dutt would be making clarifications that she did at 1:48pm, and subsequently.  This assumption is absurd to say the least.  And the nationalities of the journalists are really irrelevant.

What is, however, clear is that after the Modi speech, Dutt seems to have gone in an overdrive and tried to get various parties to make statements in support of her post-speech contentions.  In a tweet at 3:03pm on the 29th, seventy-five minutes after her first post-speech tweet, she retweets two Mir tweets, in which he says there was no slur against Manmoha, and that Dutt was not present all the time.

But, at 3:00pm, there is also a Mir tweet on the subject, which goes as follows: “PM Nawaz Sharif shared a joke with us on breakfast table about Manmohanji. It is very long.  I cannot mention.”  Dutt has not retweeted this message.

But there are some interesting tweets by Dutt on the supposed joke, prior to the Mir’s 3:00pm tweet.  She says that Sharif was upset that Manmohan Singh complained about Pakistan to Obama, and that Sharif told an ‘allegorical tale’ about how disputes should be solved between two parties, one of whom is a woman, without going to a third party.  So, indeed there is an indication of what the joke (or allegorical tale) was.

The dictionary definition of ‘allegory’, which is as follows: “A story, poem, or picture which can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.”

Would it not be correct that in the joke (or allegorical tale) the woman referred to by Dutt was called ‘dehati aurat’ by Sharif?  Although, there may well not have been a direct reference, surely the hidden meaning is what Mir reported to his TV channel.

Dutt, however, was not fully satisfied with Mir’s tweets.  She talked to Mir who told her that there was no slur and that he has emailed to the Indian and Pakistani media clarifying his remarks on the TV.  Additionally, she wrote to Mir saying that there was no slur in her presence.

This flurry of effort on part of Dutt has been commented on Twitter by some Internet Hindus.  They, like me, are puzzled by it, and we wonder if the good lady does not protest too much!

She wrote on the website of her own channel, NDTV, an article on the subject, which is available at:
http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/the-phrase-dehati-aurat-was-never-used-for-pm-manmohan-singh-in-my-presence-barkha-dutt-s-account-425317?curl=1380534648

And she got The Broadcast Editors Association to condemn Modi for not having the ability (or having someone in his team) to read her mind almost on the other side of the world.  The statement is available at: 
http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/narendra-modi-s-statement-against-indian-media-objectionable-broadcast-editors-association-425372

She tweeted at 6:50pm on 29th September referring to the association statement.  It is indeed commendable that the members of the association are so alert that they will get to work on a Sunday afternoon, and come out with a statement within four hours of a complaint by one of its members.  The association is not known to show such commendable efficiency, even remotely close, when it comes to complaints by any viewer AGAINST one of its members.

Incidentally, the statement of the association says that it ‘is disturbed at the attempt to project Indian media team visiting the UN in a poor light’.  Modi talked about the one person who was at the breakfast meeting, and, unless the ‘media team’ consisted of only Dutt, the statement goes really overboard!

One would have thought that Dutt would have felt that the admonition from The Broadcast Editors Association would be enough.  But no, the enterprising lady wasn’t finished.  At 10:23pm, twenty hour after her first tweet, she discovers that there was another Pakistani journalist, Absar Alam, at the breakfast meeting who says that the slur was never used. And that now actually ‘many apologies owed to’ her.

Then at 10:30pm she asks Modi the following question: “Was it fair to question me based on an online story by a Pakistani journalist who has since withdrawn it?!”  A valid question, if Modi had a mind reader in his team.

To further reinforce her contention that there was no slur on the prime minister, there were three tweets, starting at 10:36pm, which says that the Pakistan’s foreign secretary goes on record to say that no slur was uttered.  In subsequent two tweets, she says that Salman Khurshid, India’s Minister for External Affairs, contends that Modi is disconnected from reality, that the slur was not uttered, and even if it was, ‘what’s wrong with the term’.

Some Indian journalists also found nothing wrong with the prime minster being called ‘dehati aurat’.  Smita Barooha, at:
http://centreright.in/2013/09/the-selective-feminist-outrage-of-indias-journalist/#.UkuS_BAhbEg
writes on the subject, where she mentions three Indian journalists, who feigned puzzlement as to why ‘dehati aurat’ should be treated as a slur.

To Modi, Sagarikha Ghose, deputy editor at CCN-IBN, says Sharif may have slurred, but why should he accept it is abusive.  ‘You should say we Indian are proud of dehati aurat, she is Mother India!’  Harinder Baweja, journalist with Hindustan Times, contends that it is ‘terrible snobbery’ to say that ‘dehatu aurat’ is a slur.  Salil Tripahti, who contributes to some Indian publications, says that it reveals biases about urbanity and gender of those who think that it is an abusive term.

Ghose has also elaborated that ‘only highly patriarchal and feudal mindsets’ would use ‘dehati aurat’ publicly as a slur, and that there is a ‘need to change mindsets’.

In an editorial in The Indian Express (October 1, 2013), we have the following gem: “But where is the insult in ‘dehaati aurat’? Taking exception to the word dehaati, or rustic, reflects an innate snobbery — the same kind of citified disdain that buys into the stereotypes of ‘cattle class’ and ‘anpadh gawaar’. Taking exception to ‘aurat’ only reveals the many shades of misogyny that still colour our politics.” 

A question to the editor:  The words ‘cattle’ and ‘class’ have innocent meanings.  But does not the innocence get lost when used together?

Then there is another angle that can be discerned in an exchange of tweets between Sambuddha M Mustafi (a Fulbright scholar who did journalism at Columbia university, and writes for The Economic Times, The New York Times, and some such) and Minhaz Merchant (biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla, and editor of a media group, and blogs for The Times of India).  The full exchange, which took place in the evening of 29th September, is reproduced below, and it is worth a read because I think it puts in a nutshell about how the media makes a desperate attempt to tie itself in knots.

Mustafi’s contention is that Mir deliberately leaked out what was supposed to be an off-the-record conversation with a very devious agenda.  He wanted to trap Modi in using the slur and then deny that it was said by Nawaz, which would mean there is egg in the face of Modi.  Mustafi contends that this is a standard operating procedure in diplomacy.  If correct, then diplomacy has become a game of perversion where truth is highly discounted.  And for Mustafi to rationalise this perversion shows to what low depths the media in India has sunk itself. 

Let us also look at two separate (and slightly overlapping) conversation between Ashok Malik, a journalist based in New Delhi and one who is a critical supporter of Modi, and Dutt, that took place in the evening after the Modi speech.

Malik: Modi is within his rights in making Nawaz's alleged remarks a political issue.
Dutt: But to base his remarks entirely on the account of a Pakistani journalist who is since dithering his account?
Malik: He has a right to react to media report, not his fault if the report is flawed.
Intervention by Mihir Sharma: Either Modi can't keep up with the news, or he doesn't care about accuracy.  Neither is good, is it?
Malik: My point remains there is no categorical denial of the remark before Modi's public meaning. 'Dithering' is not denial.

Malik: Report of remark being made not categorically denied, at least not before Modi's public meeting.
Dutt: But where was it categorically confirmed except as a phono (sic) on a Pakistani channel?
Malik: Politicians (or the media) respond only to foolproof, voice-attested recording and notarised affidavits?

To this question, Dutt replies nine hours later as follows: “No, but they are expected to check facts before launching personal diatribes…. Especially given the fact that Mir now says the language under attack was his own and not Sharif's…. I think huge mistake made by Modi - immature in fact to make this a central point in his speech based on TWITTER. “

Clearly Dutt is not addressing the central point of Malik, whether the ‘retraction’ of the slur was made before or after the meeting.  If it was after the meeting, the whole edifice that Dutt (and many of her supporters) is trying to make falls like a pack of cards.  She has to come out with a statement that she (or anyone else) has made, giving a verifiable timeline that the denial was in public domain prior to the speech of Modi.   After all, there is a time gap off at least twelve hours between the time of the Mir report on his television channel and Modi’s speech.  Why was Dutt silent all this time?

And to top it all, she says that Modi made a huge mistake in using the statement, and exhibits immaturity to use the slur as a ‘central point in his speech’.  To say that it is a huge mistake, shows the high level of arrogance on her part.  And to say that the slur was a central point in the more than an hour long speech, she thinks that the rest of the world has a low level of intelligence.

It Instead of rushing headlong in defending the indefensible, it would have been proper for Dutt to pause and take a deep breath.  Then she should have found a place where she could sit in a comfortable lotus position, and spent a few minutes doing pranayam.  This would have cleared her mind, and calm herself, so as to properly chart out a credible story.

Such a strategy is a standard practice in many instances.  What is needed is that this be done as a well thought out process, and not something on the run.  One has to work out what would be a reaction to the elements in the story, so that the non-plausible ones are weeded out.  If done properly, there is a solid story that will have few holes, if any. 

If done on the run, the response to a reaction is also made on the run.  This substantially increases the chance of creating even more holes than what existed in the beginning, or the holes becoming bigger and bigger, making it nearly impossible to crawl out of them.

The end result is a huge loss of credibility.

There is one more matter, and that is whether Mir actually denied that what he reported on his Pakistani channel is correct or not.  When questioned by Malik, Dutt in one of her tweets said that Mir was ‘dithering’ in what he reported.  Malik rightly pointed out that dithering is the same as denial.  The two tweets of Mir that Dutt retweeted at the very beginning, and the one she did not, quoted above, do indicate dithering and not denial.

On 1st October at 5:30pm, Mir tweet:, “Dehati aurat sey itnit nafrat kion? bechari bohat mazloom hoti hey kam bhi karti hey gali bhi khati hey.  I support dehati aurat.” (Why is there so much hatred against a ‘dehati aurat’? The poor lady is a delicate one, works hard, and takes abuse.  I support ‘dehati aurat’.) To which an Internet Hindu responded by saying: “Does that mean the word dehati aurat was indeed used?  Dutt, looks like Mir wants to retract his earlier retraction.”

The biggest sufferer in the whole episode is the one person who is most likely to have spoken the truth that the Pakistani prime minster had slurred the Indian prime minister, namely Hamid Mir.  In many of her tweets, Dutt is being quite uncomplimentary about him, and she expects that he swallows her insults meekly.

But it is not only Dutt.  Chidanand Rajghatta, the Times of India’s USA correspondent, calls Mir hyperventilated.  He speculates the reason for Mir’s actions as follows: “Apparently, Hamid Mir was promised an interview with Manmohan Singh in return for Sharif's interview with an Indian channel — a ‘deal’ which Indian officials denied. Pique at being denied the interview after travelling all the way to New York could have caused the reporting mishap, according to one account.”

Others, in support of Dutt, said that her word, because she is an Indian, should have more value than that of Mir, because he is a Pakistani!  Many of these supporters, would otherwise be writing in glowing terms about their interactions with Pakistanis, and that they are not the devils as the ‘right wingers’ make them out to be.

On October 3, at 6:50pm, Dutt tweets: “Am still waiting for someone in Pakistan to explain: Was Mir set up to sabotage talks or...?”  So, while Rajgahata speculates that Mir acted in pique, Dutt thinks he was set up.  She seems to be making special effort to demolish the credibility of the poor person.  One has to wonder why.

But, why should Mir tolerate this humiliation, particularly if he feels he has done nothing wrong?  Just to make Nawaz Sharif look good?  And that too because Dutt wants it as such?  Perhaps his October 1 tweet is out of exasperation to the unfair treatment that has been meted out to him.

Let me end with making a suggestion to Dutt.  She chose aggression with very little thought to plan out an effective strategy.  The second option available to her was to step back for a few minutes and do a pranayam, so that she came out with a credible story.  Perhaps, the pranayam could have opened to her a third possibility, and make the following statement: “I now realise that in comparing Manmohan Singh with a dehati aurat,  Nawaz Sharif had slurred our prime minister.  I also now realise that my countrymen and countrywomen would have expected me to strongly protest, and even walk out of the meeting.  Looking back, I realise I made a mistake in not doing so, and I hope it will be a lesson for me, and also for my other colleagues in journalism, of how to react in the future.  I would like to apologise to Manmohanji for not taking the desired honourable action.  I hope he will forgive me.”

If Dutt reads this, I leave it to her to decide which of the three options was the right one to have followed.  In any case, the reader can also decide for themselves.

 

(Ashok Chowgule is the Working President (External) of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, India.)

 

------------------------------------

Annexure: Conversation between Sambuddha M Mustafi (@some_buddha) and Minhaz Merchant (@minhazmerchant)

 

S: If Sharif's statement was publicly available, yes.  Mir is known for fictional journalism.  Election reason.  So anything goes?

M: And because of his brilliant reputation, Mir is one of the two journalists invited to a breakfast chat with Sharif. Rich.

S: Mir leaked an off-the-rec with an agenda.  Modi fell or bought into that agenda.  Wrong either way.

M: Disagree.  Mir quoted Sharif's offensive remark on live TV. (Gutless) Congress should have been first to slam him.

S: Then Sharif+Mir would just deny.  We would be egg-faced? Diplomacy can't work on off-the-rec leaks.  Modi fell for Pakistani agenda.

M: Wrong again.  Those watching quote on live TV had no way of knowing it was off-rec.

S: Would Sharif ever say that on-rec? Every story I read had it off-rec.  Modi's people should have been smarter on this one.

M: Even if Sharif said it off-rec, it became on record as soon as Mir reported it on TV.  Would have been stupid not to use it.

S: Now with Mir's denial, Modi looks silly.  Massive embarassment if he was in government. *reactionary diplomacy*.

M: With Mir's denial of his own recorded TV statement, it's Mir & his apologists who look silly.

S: But Mmir (+maybe Sharif) laid the trap and Modi walked right in.  They are probably having a chuckle now.

M: Quite the contrary.  Neither Sharif nor Mir can think beyond their respective noses.  Was just a typical Pak cock-up.

S: Assumes mir leaked without agenda.  Difficult to believe.  Also Modi's attack on Indian journalists was preposterous.

M: Far less preposterous than the slurs Modi has been subjected to by agenda-driven journalists.

S: Thought that was our job.  I have written against all politicians including Modi, Rahul.  Were we supposed to be their lapdogs?

M: I have writtern all too and excoriated media lapdogs.  Like termites they spread far & wide.

S: Look forward to anti-modi piece soon then.  Just a mild rebuke will do :-)  Take it easy, sir.

M: If you trawl through pieces on my TOI pg, you will find rebukes, including where I ask him to apologise for 2002.

M: Since Mir has denied Nawaz remark, journalistic proprietary requires he retracts his recorded TV report asserting it.

S: And should Mr Modi retract too then, his foreign policy on hearsay?  And his targeting of Indian journalists?

M: Not hearsay.  On record.

S: Come on Merchant saab.  You've have been a journalist.  You know what off-the-rec is like.  And Hamid Mir is not Ahmed Rashid.

M: I've been an editor long enough to know you don't quote off the record remarks on live TV. Mir did.

S: For Modi to use that statement, when Mir/Sharif has deniability, is silly no?

M: If it was hearsay, yes.  If it was recorded on TV & publicly available, no. The latter's the case, so the answer's obvious.

S: Sad that people of your stature, who I respect, would let this pass. Leads to much greater evils later.

M: The evil's with us now.  I won't let *that* pass.

S: Agree..but..frying pan -> fire.

M: Disagree again.  Fire -> frying pan.

S: Haha.  I agree to disagree on that one.



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