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'Swapan Dasgupta is not untouchable for me'

July 10, 2015 17:38 IST

Swapan Dasgupta receives the Padma Bhushan from President Pranab Mukherjee. Photograph: Rashtrapati Bhavan/Facebook

'I have no problem with people from the right wing who speak with a certain integrity of position,' journalist Hartosh Singh Bal tells Syed Firdaus Ashraf/

After the Narendra Modi government came to power in May 2014, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its principal political rival, the Congress party, have jousted with even greater vigour over the Nehruvian legacy.

That discord may be seeping into the world of authors and columnists as well. When journalist-author Hartosh Singh Bal was told that the well-known columnist Swapan Dasgupta was one of the speakers at the launch of the book Nehru's India, being put together by Jawaharlal Nehru's niece Nayantara Sahgal and which included a chapter by Bal, he wrote a mail to the publisher, stating it was unacceptable to him and opted out of the event.

Apart from Bal, the book has contributions from Sahgal, former diplomat and Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar, novelist Kiran Nagarkar, Amnesty India chief Aakar Patel and journalist Kumar Ketkar.

Bal's letter to the publisher stated: 'I have no problem with an opposing view or for that matter Swapan airing any view at any other forum, but I do not believe Swapan has the intellectual wherewithal or the personal integrity to be part of this discussion.'

The letter was leaked to the media, following which the twitterati got involved in the sort-of fracas.

Contacted for his views, Swapan Dasgupta told "Why do you expect me to comment on everything that is written on Twitter?"

In an interview to Syed Firdaus Ashraf/, Bal, image, left, political editor at Caravan magazine and author of the book Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along The Narmada, explains his stand.

Your objection to Swapan Dasgupta's presence at the book launch and the spat thereafter has gone viral. Did you expect that?

I don't think it is a spat. It is my objection to Swapan being part of the book launch, that is all.

It went viral because I wrote a mail to the publisher which someone leaked to Mumbai Mirror and after that it has gone viral. It is not my concern why it happened. This is not what I was expecting.

Is Swapan an untouchable for you?

Untouchable, no, I debate him anyway. What I am saying is that I am a part of this book where I have written something, I don't want the book to be marketed or promoted with somebody like him.

Apart from that, sure, I am ready to debate him wherever, in any forum that he so desires, but my work is a different matter.

I don't want to be part of a promotional activity which involves somebody like him who I don't respect intellectually and whose integrity I have very little regard for. It is as simple as that.

Is it because of his politics, being on Prime Minister Modi's side of the fence, etc?

I don't think so. Look, I have no problem with people from the right wing who speak with a certain integrity of position. I think you have the full right to defend and define positions.

But I think when you are made director of L&T by this government, you have been actively involved in the Modi campaign, you have been practically participating and receiving favours from the ruling dispensation, then look, for me, I will not be debating with somebody who has arrived at a point of view.

I am debating somebody who is a spokesperson for a certain type of authority that they have benefited from, that to me is a problem.

But critics of your stand could say that you are being intolerant of another, contrary, viewpoint.

I have debated him several times, anywhere. However you want to spin it or however anybody will want to spin it, is really not my concern.

My position is clear. Whether it is interpreted, misinterpreted, something people like or not, that is entirely up to them. I can only speak my position. Apart from that, how people process it is entirely up to them.

But you don't question a publisher's right to invite anyone they want to promote the book, right?

Am I objecting? I will not be a party to it. I have that choice, na?

Columnist Ashok Malik's intervention on Swapan's behalf seems to have added fuel to the fire.

Both friends, both beneficiaries of the government in similar fashion, if they speak for each other, that is an echo chamber, and more the merrier.

Will you continue to appear on television shows with those whose worldview you don't share?

Any forum, anywhere. All I am saying is that please don't use them to promote my writing, that's all. That is my choice.

If you can debate them in TV studios, why not at a book launch?

A book launch is a promotional activity for a book, it is not a telecast on television. It is a format arrived at by the publisher without any consultation with any of the contributors to the book.

I am just saying I have certain ideas of my book, on how my writing has to be promoted. Tomorrow, if I am writing a book on 1984 (the anti-Sikh riots) and if somebody picks a Congress leader (many Congressmen were alleged to have fanned the riots) to launch that book or be part of the launch, obviously I will object.

If they invited Jagdish Tytler (the Congress leader accused of involvement in the riots), it has to be over my dead body. But if Tytler is in a Times Now debate over the 1984 massacre I will, of course, debate it.

There is a difference between promotional activity and an independent forum.

What about other contributors in the book, like Kumar Ketkar and Aakar Patel, did you speak to them about your stand?

I have no idea. You can talk to them separately, I have had no discussion with any of them.

What is Nehru's India about?

I have written one of the essays in the book.

About the book itself, you should ask Nayantara Sahgal, who is the person who put it together. The entire content of the book, I am not aware of.

What was the reason you agreed to contribute to it?

They asked me to write on my view of Nehru. I was interested in writing about it and I wrote it.

What is your personal view on Nehru?

Look, I can talk to you about my essay when it comes out in the book, then we can discuss it. To go into a larger sort of elaborate discussion on Nehru as prime minister, that requires time and space.

Probably we will require another interview on what Nehru was and what Nehru meant to India. I think he is the central figure for modern India. I don't think we would have been the kind of country we are -- sometimes largely for the better, sometimes for worse also -- but for Nehru.

And your take on Nehru's India being slowly dismantled by the present dispensation?

Modi is the anti-thesis, but he is also a symptom of some of the changes that India has undergone.

The very fact that the systems of this country are resisting, people are standing up and criticising, that democracy is functioning in a way that does not let Modi and the BJP with its majority override all dissent is in part also a testament to the legacy Nehru has left behind.

Image: Swapan Dasgupta, the well-known columnist, receives the Padma Bhushan from President Pranab Mukherjee. Photograph: Rashtrapati Bhavan/Facebook

Syed Firdaus Ashraf / in Mumbai