Deconstructing idioms

BY ANAND VARDHAN| IN Media Practice | 24/09/2014
Secular liberals in the media don't realise that what seems "communal" to them - imagery, vocabulary, symbols - are merely the everyday idiolect of millions of Indians.
This, says ANAND VARDHAN, is why reporting is slanted against Modi.

It’s not every day that a foreign visit by an Indian Prime Minister produces two different news reports on the same day, with one serving as a diagnosis and the other symptomatic of a disease plaguing the self-styled liberal media.

First, the diagnosis, by the Prime Minister himself. On September 2, after gifting the Bhagvad Gita to Japanese Emperor Akihito in Tokyo, Narendra Modi said something that correctly exposed how gate-keeping by secular fundamentalists  in the media has demonised the use of religious texts, symbolism and the vocabulary of the vast majority in a country which is predominantly religious in its outlook.

A PTI report carried by all the major dailies in India quoted Modi ‘taking a dig at his secular friends’ by saying: “For gifting, I brought a Gita. I do not know what will happen in India after this. There may be a TV debate on this. Our secular friends will create 'toofan' (storm), that what does Modi think of himself? He has taken a Gita with him that means he has made this one also communal. Today I went to the maharaja of Japan, I have given one to him because I don't think that I have anything more to give and the world also does not have anything more to get than this.”

The proof that Modi wasn’t off-mark came the same day. A report (‘Modi waxes eloquent on women and goddesses’, The Hindu, September 2) filed by Amit Baruah was typical of the way the more-secular-than-thou section of the English media deals with religious symbolism, particularly its Hindu variant.

Unaware that such religious metaphors are part of everyday conversation for millions of Indians, Baruah thought it was newsy enough to begin his report with Modi’s use of such vocabulary.

“If the Hindu female pantheon was likened with a ministry, then education was with goddess Saraswati, money with Lakshmi, security with Mahakali and food security with the goddess Annapurna. Making this point while addressing women students of the Sacred Heart University on Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India was the only country in the world where god was conceptualised in the female form,” wrote Baruah.

Baruah’s report gives you a hint as to why some people respond the way they do when a government thinks of renaming Teacher’s Day as ‘Guru Utsav’.

The tone of such reporting exposes the failure to understand that ideas in India are often expressed in religious idioms and with reference to traditional systems of thought. The evident fundamentalism in the secular elite has been discrediting the religious texture of everyday life and, in the process, imposing the protocol of non-believers on a country teeming with believers.

In more ways than one, Narendra Modi has been an unsettling and defiant figure for this ‘liberal’ consensus. This defiance has been part of Modi’s appeal for many Indians who had been feeling de-legitimized by the secular thought-police.  

In one of the most perceptive pieces written after Modi’s resounding victory (How Modi defeated liberals like me, May 26, 2014) social scientist Shiv Vishwanathan analysed this aspect of Modi’s charisma. In a more recent piece in Open magazine, (From chaos to control, August 28), Vishwanathan provided further insights:

“To understand the Modi regime, one has to accept that Modi was therapeutic for a generation that felt that elite modernisation was a hypocritical affair conducted by groups which used words like ‘secular’ to dismiss the thought processes of a middle class more rooted in religion. This new middle class wanted to feel at home in its home-cooked religiosity and its extension, nationalism. By articulating such anxieties, Modi soothed their wounded subconscious. And this ‘wounded class’, tired of pseudo secularism, elite cronyism and majoritarian hypocrisy, voted him to power.”

Having pre-judged the new regime as “majoritarian”, the liberal media has followed the usual script, ignoring Modi’s Independence Day call for a ten year moratorium on divisive issues and for everyone to dedicate themselves to making development a national movement.

The evidence for the media’s majoritarian hypothesis has come instead from certain vocal elements within the ruling party who tried to express some of the anxieties of the Hindu majority with the issue of ‘love jihad’. The standard response has been either to dismiss this anxiety as trivial or ridicule it as hate propaganda.

Instead of rigorously scrutinising the subject from the perspective of both Hindu and Muslim, it was dismissed in three ways.

First, through opinion-mongering on the edit pages or TV discussions by bleeding heart liberals whose idea of Hindu-Muslim romance is limited to Bollywood courtships and the cocoon of selective academic studies.

A classic example was Sagarika Ghose in her piece ( Ishq, Ishq, Ishq, The Times of India, September 7) and Mukul Kesavan’s article pretending there is no other side to the story (The BJP and Hindu-Muslim Romance,, September 12). Or Charu Gupta with her ready conclusions as though she knows other aspects of the issue could be inconvenient (The Myth of Love Jihad, The Indian Express, August 28).

Second, the major English dailies published a series of reports debunking the concern about ‘love jihad’ as alarmist and even a hoax. The same energy was not put into talking to a lot of people in western UP, Jharkhand and Kerala who think that it’s a genuine concern.

Having talked to some people from these regions, I can say that giving space to such voices - which are neither political nor associated with any fringe religious outfit - would puncture the pet assumptions and selective reporting on which many stories have been based. 

Third, there have been attempts at academic obfuscation by framing the issue of ‘love jihad’ in terms of feminist discourse, making it a question of patriarchal control over choice (as does a recent piece by Jyoti Punwani on this website).

These attempts are escapist in that by pitching it as question of gender freedom, they tend to create a hierarchy of group grievances in which one set of anxieties should have precedence of other equally valid sets of grievances.

Moreover, this obfuscation is selective because ‘patriarchal control’ is somehow not a problem when the controlling male hands are of a different religion and because gender freedom morphs into a question of protecting the ‘cultural freedom’ of the minorities.

Liberals pointedly ask why such concerns are being highlighted now that the BJP has taken office. In doing so, they fail to understand that perhaps these concerns were merely awaiting a chance to find legitimate articulation and might have found it under the new dispensation.

Presumably, giving legitimate expression to grievances is a function of a democracy. Sweeping the anxieties of a community under the carpet is not.  

Another example of this skewed approach was evident in the way the results of the recent by-polls were interpreted by almost all the major English dailies as a vote against ‘communal polarisation’ and the triumph of ‘secular’ India   (Hindutva  Smackdown, The Times of India, September 17. A Note of Caution, The Hindu, September 17, Bypolls Message for BJP, The Hindustan Times, September 17).

This interpretation ignores the strong possibility that the 'communal consolidation of votes' might have worked the other way this time but somehow, this other way (the consolidation of Muslim votes) isn't 'communal’ for the ivory tower guardians of secular India.

They continue to sell the myth that identity politics is unnatural to Indian society when in fact it is natural in all complex societies. Moreover, by reading too much into these results and making them a binary contest of pro-secular or anti-secular forces, the analysts have ignored the simple fact that any election result is a combination of many factors. Some are local and some are organisational, for example, factionalism within the competing parties.

In a country where the vocabulary of public life has stretched political correctness to political prudishness, it’s important for liberal opinion in the media houses to show a better understanding of everyday India.

This would help to address their disconnect with the average Indian psyche. It would help them understand what grievances the average Indian can legitimately articulate as a group. And it would help them realise that he tends to express his ideas with religious imagery that is harmless and purely a matter of habit.

While it would be too much to hope that the self-appointed secular guardians will remember Narendra Modi’s words about patriotic Indian Muslims in his recent interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, let us hope at least that he can conduct his Navratra fasting for nine days without being asked why he doesn’t fast during Ramadan.

(Anand Vardhan is a freelance writer who writes on a wide range of issues and themes, including media. can be reached at, you can also visit his blog at

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