When Muntader al-Zaidi hurled one shoe then another at George Bush in Baghdad last year, he couldn’t have foreseen the fallout. Doubtless inspired by the Iraqi journalist, Jarnail Singh, a veteran Delhi reporter, tossed his shoe — a solid Reebok trainer — at Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram. Jarnail works for the Hindi newspaper, dainik jagran (The Daily Awakening). For the Home Minister, it was a rude awakening. Jarnail Singh was miffed with the Congress Party for fielding two tainted candidates from parliamentary constituencies in Delhi in our ongoing national elections.
The two, Jagdish Tytler and Sajjan Kumar, are tainted by allegations of having participated in the anti-Sikh violence that followed the assassination of Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1984. That violence remains one of the ugliest chapters in independent India’s history. As many as 3,000 people were slaughtered in a few days, with some being burnt alive by mobs who also looted Sikh properties and homes of billions of rupees. I was in Delhi at the time and have never forgotten the barbarity on the streets. Many of us reporters on those streets had covered violence before, but this was of a level and of a kind that we had never run into and it scorched us forever.
The legal process, as always in India, has been so tardy that very few of those involved have been brought to book — and certainly no one of any significance. In short, some very important people have escaped. With the cases and inquiries dragging on for 25 years, even some of the witnesses are dead, have migrated or just decided to clam up for their own safety.
So when the news came that the two high-profile Congressmen were to be fielded as candidates for election to the nation’s parliament, there was obvious dismay, not just among Sikhs, but across diverse sections of society. The Congress seemed to be living up to the old adage: When there’s nothing left to do, be sure a fool will do it.
Jarnail Singh is a reporter of considerable experience and generally, his colleagues say, very mild-mannered. He certainly chose a good place to put his foot down and his shoe up. This was a press conference with the nation’s home minister, bursting with TV cameras. Jarnail Singh has since made it clear that he bore no personal animus towards the minister. He was just registering his anguish — and that of his community. He even wants to meet the home minister and make that clear. After all, only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches. At the press conference, though, it was hell for leather.
Very much like Muntader, Jarnail Singh says he was overcome by emotion (and perhaps live TV coverage) at that stage and felt he had to make his point. Like Muntader, it proved effective. At least in that it grabbed the headlines, prime time — and has forced the Congress to reflect, even rethink the wisdom of putting up those two gentlemen for election. As yet, though, they have not been withdrawn from the poll fray. Like Muntader, Jarnail missed his target (though seated right up front in the first row). It might one day be said of both journalists: their aims were noble, their aim was not. [To be fair to Muntader, his target had to duck. Eds.]
But unlike Muntader, Jarnail has not been brutalised or tortured after the event. He’s been much interviewed on television, though, which I suppose is the dominant form of torture in our times. The embarrassment he caused was also his insurance, in a way. The thought of so much adverse publicity, among other things, saw the Home Minister forgive him immediately. And the media are full of fun headlines:
Minister gets the boot over clean chit to Tytler.
Sikh shoe misses Chidu, hits Congress, Tytler, though.
Of course, there are the inevitably prosy edits over how what Jarnail Singh did was ill-advised. The Times of India even went on to ask why do this when “a journalist is free to express his views through his writing” A line that comes as a stunning revelation to the countless journalists working for the Times who lust for even a speck of such freedom. From Baghdad to New Delhi, all this is giving ‘shoe-leather journalism’ a whole new meaning. In fact, even The Times acknowledged this new school as ‘Jarnailism.’
On the whole, the writing here has been far more fun than the crud I saw in the mainstream US media after Bush was shooed out of Baghdad. The line I most vividly recall from the US media at the time was: “The hurling of a shoe at an adversary is a major insult in middle eastern culture.” As though it would have been a show of warm affection and bonding in the United States or Europe? But let me strike a blow here for our proud civilization over the Mesopotamian. Shoes have another significance in India. They are related to the obscene practice of untouchability. (The cobbler or shoe maker is normally a dalit belonging to one or the other scheduled caste. These groups have faced indescribable discrimination for centuries. Footwear makers have that status in the caste system because they deal with the carcasses of the sacred cow.)
The adorning of a hated one’s portrait with a garland of shoes and chappals often happens in India. It’s happening right now with the protestors who have come out onto the streets inspired by Jarnail. Portraits of Tytler and Sajjan Kumar are also slapped with chappals and stomped on with heavy shoes by protestors digging their heels into the faces on those pictures.
There have also been incidents involving politicians and shoes in the past. One event I attended in Mumbai in the early 1980s was a Youth Congress seminar. The major speaker was a Congress minister and a rising star in the state of Maharashtra. As was mandatory with the Youth Congress, two warring factions quickly attacked each other at their own seminar. Knees were fractured, arms were broken, chairs were freely used as weapons. The subject of the day, of course, was Peace & Disarmament. Perhaps disarmament was taken in too literal and physical a sense.
In the melee, as they say, the minister’s footwear was lost — stolen (it was, like Jarnail’s, an expensive type) or just used as missiles in the heated debate on disarmament. He was joshed by reporters about the loss of his shoes after the event. To which the minister responded with some asperity that it was of no consequence since he owned some 42 pairs of footwear. I did ask him whether he had collected all those at one meeting from an angry audience with good throwing skills, but the crack didn’t go down too well.
Jarnail Singh was on television last night. Most gentle, peaceful, and introspective. He had very early pointed out that while the issue was deep in the hearts of Sikhs, it was also a larger national issue. (On which he is absolutely right.) There was barely a word he said on television that anyone could grudge. He did not want others to do the same, he said, adding that his method had been wrong, but his reasons were real and painful. He asserted that he had no intention of humiliating the minister, but it suddenly came upon him that he just had to protest. So he unburdened his sole and that was that.
P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. A regular contributor to CounterPunch, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.