Atul Kochhar Has Learned the Hard Way That Bigotry Has Real Life Consequences

Bigots won't let go of what they have held on to their entire lives but even if they become more careful about public utterances, some good may yet come out of our master chef's unpalatable confection.

Even accounting for the nasty level of trolling that happens on social media, especially Twitter, celebrity chef Atul Kochhar’s attack on actor Priyanka Chopra was in startlingly poor taste. Referring to the American show ‘Quantico’, in which investigators bust a terror plot by ‘Indian nationalists’, as indicated by the discovery of rudraksha prayer beads, the chef waded in with a tweet:

“It’s sad to see that you have not respected the sentiments of Hindus who have been terrorized by Islam over 2000 years. Shame on You.”

Clearly, he was not only objecting to her participation in the show – as a fellow Hindu, one presumes – but also standing up for Hindus at large against the barbarism and terror supposedly inflicted on them for 2,000 years. The show – or more likely the 10-second excerpt that set off an online frenzy – had stung him to the quick and he felt he had to respond. At the same time, it was not enough for him to berate her – implying that as an Indian representing her country, she ought to have known better – he also got his deep-rooted anger against Muslims off his chest.

It is obvious that there is much that is wrong with this tweet apart from the counting error he graciously acknowledged in his subsequent apology – that Islam is 1,400 and not 2,000 years old. For one, the assumption that India and Hindu are synonymous. The villains in the Quantico episode were ‘Indian nationalists’ and not Hindus. Second, that we are dealing with a work of fiction. Third, that Indian public figures must stand up against a Hindu being shown as a villain in a work of fiction. If an entire community is demonised in real life or in fiction, any right thinking person should object. But to assume ‘Indian’ equals ‘Hindu’ is a narrative that Hindutva types have long wanted to reinforce in the country. While many people – and it appears Kochhar is one of them – may buy into this, it is patently wrong.

Most significant is his bilious outburst against Muslims. There is no ‘Muslim’ connection to this Quantico plot. Islamist terrorists have shown up not just in Quantico but in hundreds if not thousands of Western television shows and films. Hindi films have moved away from the stereotype of the kindly Muslim to now portraying another clichéd image, the terrorist Muslim. But the discovery of rudraksha beads, suggesting that a Hindu could be involved in a terrorist conspiracy, has little or no connection with Muslims and certainly not with the centuries-old alleged subjugation of Hindus.

All of this is of little consequence to the Kochhars of this world. In his mind, all these things must have been mixed up and, combined with resentment and prejudice, it all bubbled over. It was out before he could hold himself back – the only problem was that instead of expressing himself orally, among friends or likeminded people, he put it up on social media. And that unfortunately has real life consequences, as he has now found out.

Kochhar apologised, but the damage was done. His first apology was somewhat mealy mouthed – he seemed to be saying sorry for having got his facts about when Islam originated wrong. Social media can be very unforgiving and if it latches on to something, it doesn’t let go. The criticism against him turned into a tsunami and it didn’t help that he was running a successful, high-profile restaurant in Dubai, the vast majority of whose citizens follow the same religion that Kochhar said was “terrorising Hindus” – an irony that was pointed out swiftly by those whom he had offended. The hotel first issued a statement distancing itself from him and then, when the public pressure continued to build up, announced it was severing ties with him. What other option did it have, if it wanted to operate in Dubai?

Kochhar then announced he was apologising unreservedly to his “Muslim friends, the Islamic community and everyone I have offended”. He also asked for their forgiveness. He sounds contrite enough but this indiscretion (if it can be called that), will continue to haunt him for a long time.

This episode will die down once the news cycle changes, but the bigger question will remain. Why did Kochhar say what he did? His tweet reflected not just a sudden thought but a deeply held conviction, or rather, prejudice. Chopra’s decision to apologise for the Quantico episode is but the trigger – for Kochhar, Islam is the religion that has subjugated Hindus for centuries. He believes that with all his heart and he has apologised for saying, not thinking, it. This view could have been imbibed at home, from friends, from his reading or indeed from the constant refrain about the cruelties of Islam, especially on Hindus in India, that we hear all around us nowadays.

After all, Kochhar must have been operating in a cosmopolitan environment in London and Dubai and may have met scores of Muslims (and others) who are perfectly sane, decent and normal people. Did he look at them – his customers, friends and colleagues – and think about what a cruel and evil bunch of people they were and how they tortured Hindus? If so, did he not feel like a hypocrite taking their dime?

Communal sentiment has always existed in India but there was a time when it was impolite to express it openly. An openly stated anti-minority position still had the capacity to shock ordinary Hindus. No longer. It would be wrong to assume that only immature bigots – delighted at the freedom (and anonymity) that social media, especially Twitter, offers – say the most outrageous things. There are many who feel empowered, in some way, to use vile language against, say, a brutalised child or an innocent, lynched man.

While there are enough people to counter that kind of despicable hate-mongering, how does one deal with the Kochhars of this world? The blowback against him was compounded by real consequences – a potential boycott of his restaurant, the cancelling of his contract by his employers – but what if he had been only based in Delhi and not Dubai? He may have still apologised, but the matter would have died down. Even the most powerful hotel chain would not have wanted to push the issue beyond a point. People have got away with much, much more here.

It’s heartening to see that there are many, in India and elsewhere, who will not countenance such blatant communalism and intolerance, but will that really make a difference? Already, the right wing is trying to present the Kochhar affair as an attack on the ‘freedom of expression’, forgetting that others have the freedom of association as well – and they may choose to boycott someone who uses his freedom of speech to spread hate against a group or community.

Will Kochhar change his fundamental views and realise that what he said was wrong and untruthful or will his learning be restricted to being more circumspect about what he utters in public? Will he – and others like him – understand that such stereotyping is wrong? Or will they carry on letting off steam in more private gatherings, while being all politically correct when they visit Dubai? It would be too much to imagine that such people will let go of what they have held on to their entire lives, but even if they become more careful about their public utterances, some good may yet come out of our master chef’s unpalatable confection.

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