Aakar Patel Makes Dissent Look EasyBloombergQuintOpinion
“Dissent is like cooking or carpentry,” says Aakar Patel, sitting in the study of his leafy East Bangalore apartment, adjacent to an army base. “It’s something you need to do to learn. I had read a lot but I didn’t know anything about dissent until I actually went to my first protest, after the murder of Gauri Lankesh. I hadn’t been an activist at all.”
Like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah—the two most powerful politicians in India and the duo who often feature in his tweets—Patel, a former editor, a veteran at withstanding government harassment and, now, the subject of a police case—is also from the state of Gujarat. On paper, his history of puncturing Gujarati Pride is longer than the number of years the present government has run the country.
He closely tracked the rise of Modi in the years leading up to May 2014, when the three-time chief minister of Gujarat was appointed prime minister. Patel wrote on everything from Modi’s “pettiness” to his “pedestrian poetry”. When I was editor at Mint Lounge, he was the weekend newspaper’s most popular columnist.
Thankfully for those he critiques, Patel only really discovered Twitter in January 2020 though he signed up five years earlier. His account was largely restricted to sharing updates from Amnesty International India, which he headed for four and a half years from 2015.
During his term, Amnesty was raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Home Ministry and the Enforcement Directorate. Its accounts were frozen and the rights organisation successfully fought a sedition case filed by a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, an affiliate of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
That experience probably equipped him to handle the latest round of state interest in his opinion. Last week, six months after he went no-filter on Twitter, the police station in his neighbourhood filed an FIR against a tweet that they saw as “instigation of violence”. Shortly after the FIR, Twitter informed Patel that his account had been “withheld in India in response to a legal demand”. Two days later it was reinstated though you still can’t see all his tweets in one place if you go to his profile.
India has changed since the time Patel first started writing about Modi. Its secular democracy was rapidly eroded as the state attempted to muscle through unequal citizenship laws, quashed dissent, censored the media, and jailed students.
“If you protest you’re seen as the enemy, that’s what makes our democracy unusual,” says Patel. “That dissent is an act of treason, that we should march in lockstep and that if we (India) are going to put a large number of people in jail they damn well deserve it and the rest of us should just shut up,” he says.
Most media houses that once welcomed Patel’s ability to rile or win over readers now decline to publish him; in the last year, he has lost columns in The Times of India and Mumbai Mirror. It doesn’t matter, he devotes his mornings sitting on a backless bench in his large balcony surrounded by trees, writing 2,000 words a day, mainly for his forthcoming book on Hindutva politics which has the makings of a bestseller.
In this milieu, Patel’s tweets stand out for their irreverent sense of humour and the ease with which he laughs at the missteps of the state.
His use of ‘birday’ instead of birthday and other similar linguistic blunders is deliberate. “My character is that of a tabloid journalist, my pretence is that of an activist,” he says jokingly. “At heart, I’m somebody who looks at five words and says, ‘What can I do with them?’ I like the use of Indian English especially the way it’s used in Bombay by people like (the late) Behram Contractor, where you tend to rephrase things just a bit or maybe you use a bit of incorrect grammar deliberately that adds a slight flavour to the line that wouldn’t exactly come out otherwise.”
We’re meeting a day after Twitter reinstated Patel’s account and caused him to reevaluate the power of slacktivism, the practice of online activism criticised for lack of effort or commitment. “I was struck by how offended people were by the fact that I was blocked,” says the commentator who has taught himself to read and write Urdu and whose idea of fun is to read the translated texts of Greek and Rome chronologically, beginning with Homer. “People that I didn’t know and who didn’t know me were lobbying on my behalf. I think the action you take in the online space matters, the reason I was blocked is probably because it matters.”
“When the diplomat defends India’s bigotry abroad, she still says we are a secular state. She doesn’t say we are a Hindutva state. The vocabulary is still Nehruvian. When your actions are completely the opposite of what you say you are, it’s easier to bring about pressure to bear,” he says, citing the example of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom that recommended last month in its 2020 annual report that India be designated as a “country of particular concern”.
When protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act gathered momentum on Dec. 15, 2019, Patel’s 50th birthday, something changed for him. “I was fairly animated by what was happening in Delhi around the end of December. I visited Shaheen Bagh and realised that a lot of the action was happening not so much in the newspaper or television space but on social media.”
He downloaded the app on his phone and began tweeting about the protests led mainly by Muslim women and students and tracked them closely until March, when a national lockdown due to the Coronavirus shut them down. “The protests showed us what a civil rights victory would look like,” says Patel. “The reason why we don’t think the women won a clean victory is because the opponent ran away from that battle, he didn’t stand and fight.”
This past year he’s observed the way citizens have participated and innovated in anti-government protests across the world. These days he can’t take his eyes away from the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States.
His favourite sign from a BLM protest was one that urged people to treat racism like Covid-19: “Assume you have it, talk to an expert, do not spread it…” Comparing this to the flood of creative signs we saw during the CAA protests Patel says, “Hindu hoon ch***** nahi is one of the greatest lines that I can think of in a protest.” That’s a line that Patel could easily use in his defence.
Priya Ramani is a Bangalore-based journalist and is on the editorial board of article-14.com
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.