Making sense of PM Modi’s caste, Aakar Patel’s tweets and defamation

Aakar Patel, former India head of Amnesty International and well-known columnist has been accused of promoting enmity between people and insult a class of people. What’s the fuss all about?

Making sense of PM Modi’s caste, Aakar Patel’s tweets and defamation

Uttam Sengupta

Defamation cases are generally settled in court. But when the police decide to take cognizance of defamation that allegedly involves the Prime Minister of India, his caste and alleged attempts to disturb peace and harmony, it gets a little more sinister. And when Gujarat Police demands that electronic devices be surrendered by the accused for forensic examination, the only conclusion one can draw is that they are under instruction to find something more damning than defamation.

Those familiar with his writing know that Patel is incapable of abusing anyone, not even the Prime Minister or the Home Minister, both of whom are deemed by him to be dimwits. But the empire has clearly decided to strike back. The ball was set rolling when he was summoned this week to appear before Surat Police (from Bangalore where he is based, it is a 22-hour road journey over 1,248 kilometres).

Aakar Patel being Aakar Patel could not resist a dig at the PM. On his return from Surat, he tweeted, “If Bullet Train was there, could fly from BLR to Bom and then take train to Surat for ritual harassment, instead of flying from BLR to Surat. Pl expedite @PMO”. He is no stranger to harassment though and Amnesty India, which he headed, is apparently at the receiving end of as many as eight inquiries by ED, Income Tax and the Home Ministry.

But the seemingly innocuous complaint against him by one Purnesh Modi in Surat may well turn out to be the most sinister of them all.

There are three questions, answers to which are crucial to determine the guilt of the columnist.

1. Is he a critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

2. Did he tweet and say that the PM belonged to the Ghanchi community?

3. Did his tweets mentioned in the FIR against him defame the Prime Minister and the community?

It does not require the Crime Branch of Surat Police (wasn’t it served in the past by Rakesh Asthana, IPS, who now heads the Narcotics Control Bureau and who was a controversial Special Director at the CBI believed to be close to the Union Home Minister Amit Shah?) or, for that matter a forensic examination of Aakar Patel’s phone, to answer the first question.

A plain reading of his Twitter handle shows that Patel does not think much of the Prime Minister. Patel, himself a Surti, has known Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. He had also teamed up with former Times of India Editor Dileep Padgaonkar and former HT and Indian Express editor B.G. Verghese to write the Editors’ Guild report on the Gujarat riots.

The following tweets by Patel, dripping with satire, show what he thinks of PM Modi. But is that a crime that calls for police investigation? Let us look at his tweets on September 25.

  • Having delivered on Kashmir, unemployment, black money, China, GDP growth and Covid, Modi has turned to agriculture.
  • “Modi said each year, elders complain in winter that the chill is more than the previous year. "Actually the chill is not more. Due to their age, their tolerance has become less. That is why they feel more cold," he said.
  • Modi transformed manufacturing (from 15% of GDP before Make in India, it is now 14% and probably 13%. Merchandise exports lower today than in Manmohan era). But farmer still not letting him transform agriculture. Sad.
  • Not only Modiji is better than all previous PMs, he is better than his first term and also improving at exponential rate.
  • Underhand bowling is like ANI Modi interview.

There is also no dispute about the three tweets from June this year for which he was summoned by the police in Surat. They were fairly straight forward and did say that the Prime Minister belonged to the Ghanchi community, that the community was actually well off and Muslim ‘Ghanchis’ were said to be responsible for setting railway coaches on fire at Godhra in 2002, triggering the riots. No investigation is needed to establish that Patel did tweet them.

The record shows that Muslim Ghanchis were included in the OBC list in 1993, Telis in 1999 but Modh Ghanchis were included in 2000. (An earlier report had erroneously mentioned that Patel had made a mistake in tweeting that Ghanchis were included in the list during the tenure of Vajpayee. The error is regretted.)

It is, however, instructive to see what the Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself had said about Ghanchis and OBCs. During his prime ministerial campaign in 2014, writes retired bureaucrat P.S. Krishnan, “Modi had declared that the coming decade will be the decade of Dalits, Adivasis and the Picchade Varg (Socially and Educationally Backward Classes). He had also said that in the six decades after independence, the SCs, STs and SEdBCs had not got their due and it was for him to fulfil the task.”

Krishnan also noted, “Modi had, in his speeches of 2014, outlined what he would do for weavers (who are Muslim SEdBCs in Varanasi and most of north India, Hindu SEdBCs in the south, SCs in the west and north-west, Hindu and Muslim SEdBCs in the east and STs in the northeast) and fisher-folk (Hindu, Christian and Muslim SEdBCs in the south and SCs in the east and north east).”

Clearly, naming Backward Castes or OBC communities, referring to their backwardness etc., is not a caste slur. So, how did Aakar Patel’s tweets defame the Prime Minister or the community? Media reports do provide a clue and suggest that the complainant is blaming Patel for linking the Hindu Ghanchis and the Prime Minister by implication with the Godhra train burning incident when he tweeted that Muslim Ghanchis were said to be behind the arson? The complainant points out that Hindu Ghanchis had nothing to do with Muslim Ghanchis but by association it has been implied that Modi, then the Gujarat CM, was behind the burning of the train. Makes any sense? It clearly does to Surat Police.

Surat Police did take cognizance and Patel did have to fly from Bangalore to Surat, obtain anticipatory bail and spent the better part of a day in the company of the Crime Branch.

Patel had got anticipatory bail from the Surat Sessions court on in the case registered under IPC Sections 153 (A) (promoting enmity between different groups), 295 (A) (intent to insult a class of people), 505(1), (b), (c) (public statement intent to cause fear among public) and 499 and 500 (defamation) following a complaint filed by Purnesh Modi.

Surat Police is learnt to have asked him to submit the device (Smart Phone or his laptop) used for sending out his tweets, for forensic examination. It is safe to assume that he is unlikely to get them back in the near future. And if he is arrested and the Surat Police in its wisdom decide to pursue the case, the device or devices could be confiscated and kept as exhibits till the trial gets over. And never mind common sense or principles of natural justice, the case can certainly continue for very long; and the investigation can throw up startling evidence.

Who knows, Patel may even be implicated in the Delhi Riots case and accused of being in touch with anti-CAA protestors (he is after all the former India Head of Amnesty International and has consistently raised issues of Human Rights violation).

It will be an outrage. But if Delhi Police can implicate the likes of Salman Khurshid, Prashant Bhushan, Harsh Mander and Apoorvanand, Umar Khalid and students of Jamia and JNU in the Delhi riots, it should not be beyond Surat Police to implicate Aakar Patel. Keep fingers crossed.

(Being republished at 11.32 AM after carrying out the correction related to the inclusion of Ghanchis in the OBC list. The factual position is that Modh Ghanchis were included in the OBC list of both the state and the Centre in 2000 when AB Vajpayee was PM)

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Published: 26 Sep 2020, 10:17 AM