Dear Prof. Janmohamed,
I was deeply touched by your moving article in The Wire, Why Shashi Tharoor’s ‘Move On’ Comment on 2002 Riots Is Particularly Disappointing, and the sincerity with which you expressed your disappointment. I hope you will allow me to respond in the same spirit.
Let me say upfront that I’m sorry. In particular, I’m sorry for the use of the phrase “move on”, which caused so much grief to people whose respect I value. When the interview began, I was already politically conscious — perhaps too much so — that the only ones gaining from the raging controversy in the Indian political space were the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BBC film had not said anything that Indians on the ground had not already said, and had added little to the reporting at the time, to the testimony of anguished civil society activists like my classmate and friend Harsh Mander, or to the books of Siddharth Varadarajan, Rana Ayyub and Manoj Mitta.
This allowed BJP apologists to argue that it was just colonialism to privilege the assessment of obscure British diplomats from two decades ago over the conclusions arrived at by India’s own Supreme Court.
Barkha Dutt even began the interview by asking that very question: as someone with anti-colonial credentials, how did I react to the documentary? As a politician, I saw it as my responsibility to downplay the documentary so as to avoid giving the BJP the opportunity to stoke public support on those grounds. On reflection, I can see why that approach, which seemed to be necessary politically, would have seemed misdirected to you and others.
Perhaps, as one whose stand on the Gujarat killings has been unambiguous and consistent for more than two decades, I took my own virtue for granted, and assumed that no one would question my good faith. If I was just a private citizen having a conversation in a friend’s living room, I might have expressed pleasure that such a film was available for viewing, even if it broke no real new ground. But as a politician engaging in public discourse, I had a public political purpose in mind: to attempt to deny those in power the opportunity to use the BBC film for their own propaganda purposes – painting themselves as victims of foreigners who did not respect Indian institutions, and of leftist and “anti-national” Indians who used a foreign TV channel’s bias to serve anti-government ends.
Indeed, the controversy over the BBC film had already allowed the BJP and its spokespersons to fulminate; for the BJP, the “revenge for Godhra” narrative has helped them to consolidate Hindu votes, and did so again as recently as last year’s Gujarat Assembly elections, when their claim that in 2002 the BJP had “taught them a lesson” helped them sweep the state. This is what I sought to defuse by arguing that the government’s stand was a thin-skinned overreaction and that the BBC documentary should have been ignored rather than banned.
All this may have come through better in my next interview, to Rajdeep Sardesai, by which time I had been widely excoriated for what I had said to Barkha Dutt. I accept, to my chagrin, that the “move on” phrase – which I had just read in an op-ed by a Muslim author in the Indian Express and so was in my mind when the Barkha Dutt interview began – was particularly unfortunate, and again, I wish I could withdraw it.
I certainly do not presume to tell sufferers when they can stop suffering, and I agree it is never too late to demand an accounting for atrocities, as I have done and will continue to do in both my private and public life. I have met with family members of Ehsan Jafri in New York not long after the tragedy, and condemned the recent injustice to Bilkis Bano, so I am not someone who believes that the wounds of 2002 have healed or ever can, for many of the survivors.
My only objective in saying what I did in the interview was to stanch the flow of public sympathy to the BJP and the government side on the issue. I could and should have found a better way to do so.
Thank you for taking the trouble to express your feelings and concerns at such length. I am most grateful.
Zahir Janmohamed’s response
Dear Honorable Dr. Tharoor,
It is an honor to hear from you and to know that you read my piece in the Wire.
In the decade or so that I worked in politics in Washington DC, including two years in the US Congress, I can’t ever recall an occasion in which an elected official has 1) read a critique with such an open mind, 2) reached out to the writer and written such a thoughtful response and 3) apologized so directly.
So, thank you for your letter. It really means a lot. Truly.
I have admired your work for so long. The first time I learned about you was on March 6 2002, when you wrote that terrific piece in the NYT. I was working in the camps in Gujarat and one of my NGO colleagues printed it out and passed it around, translating into Gujarati and Hindi for those who had been displaced. It gave us all so much hope then. It still does.
And thank you for adding this much needed context about why you stated those things to Barkha Dutt. I hadn’t considered the angle about how the BJP would weaponize the BBC documentary, and your insight helps me understand why you said those things to Dutt.
What I love about writing and reading is the chance to deepen and to complicate another person’s outlook and I thank you for doing that. And I thank you for your years of service not just to your fellow humans, but also to us, your fellow readers.
I wish you and all your loved ones my very best.
In solidarity and respect,
Note: We have taken permission from both the writers to run these very personal letters, not at first intended for publication, as we feel it would have some impact on the state of public debate in India which is not very healthy at the moment. The way the two writers have communicated on such a fraught issue, in the opinion of The Wire, also highlights the need for mature and empathetic engagement on volatile matters.