Through the Looking-Glass

The Readers’ Editor writes: Letters column shows Scroll is not shy of publishing criticism of itself

A common thread in the Letters to the Editor is to make angry assertions about history, the minorities or on religion/identity.

The Letters to the Editor columns can sometimes be one of the more interesting sections of a publication. Given respect and adequate space, it is in these columns that readers can come into their own. They point out errors, they add to facts, they give a sense of what the larger community of readers is feeling at the time, and, yes, they can vent their spleen as well.

However, over time, all print publications have been giving less space to readers’ voices. This happened well before the abuse in the “Comments” features online more or less obliterated all meaningful conversations. There are exceptions like Outlook magazine that still give considerable space to letters from readers.

Online, frowns (rightly in my view) on the Comments feature and instead, publishes a large volume of readers’ views in its Letters to the Editor pages three times a week.

I have looked at the letters over a 15-day period from September 20 to October 2, and the content and pattern are interesting – and troubling.

There have been letters on contemporary events (such as on the Goods and Services Tax, the student protests in Banaras Hindu University, and former Union minister Yashwant Sinha’s critique of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s handling of the economy). These are often comments on wire stories compiled by the staff.

There have also been letters, as on September 20, correcting an international report on Asian glaciers (“Global warming”), another commenting on organ transplant (“Organ donation”) and a third appreciating Bangladesh’s welcome to Rohingya refugees from Myanmar (“Helping out”).

At times, readers have rightly gone full tilt at egregious actions by public officials, such as the storm of caustic opinion (“Lessons unlearnt”) on September 22 about an internet clip showing a minister in the Uttarakhand government making foolish errors while correcting (and then reprimanding) a school teacher in front of her students.

The range of opinion and comment in the letters that publishes shows readers’ engagement with the publication.

The angry ones

What is troubling though is the large volume of letters that regularly (and not just in the past fortnight) follow a certain pattern. Reflecting the poison in public discourse, a common thread is to make angry assertions (and of only one kind) about history, or the minorities or religion/identity. They often endorse some level of hate, see the world in either “anti-Hindu” or “pro-Hindu” terms and indulge in a good amount of whataboutery.

The angriest lot of letters (“Like no other”, September 17) in the past fortnight has been on Girish Shahane’s commentary on Swami Vivekananda. Ramachandra Guha’s piece (reproduced from The Telegraph) on the current environment of anti-intellectualism, too, got brickbats (“Under attack”, September 20). Why, even Premchand has not been spared (“Communal colours”, October 1).

Letters to the Editor are not meant to be eulogistic. But criticism that either endorses the rewriting of history from a narrow perspective or espouses bigotry is only the transfer of the ugliness of social media to the Letters columns in a slightly more polite manner (perhaps because many of them are edited).

An unwillingness to take criticism of icons is another aspect of the current mood of belligerence. This was in full display in the flood of response, which continued over an entire fortnight, to the Vivekananda piece. Readers accused the writer of not understanding Vivekananda properly, of ignorance and of selective citation. They also spoke of “bias and hatred”, of projecting a dislike of Narendra Modi on to Swami Vivekananda and of wanting to please the “pseudo-seculars”.

Shahane’s piece was admittedly provocative, the focus being on tracing present-day sectarianism to the Swami’s utterances and writings. This was a red flag for many. But one should surely be able to criticise historical figures, even if that goes against the dominant mood?

The only standard for criticism should be that there is no deliberate misrepresentation or factual inaccuracy, and I did not see that in Shahane’s article.

Valid criticism

Yet, there is some validity in some of the readers’ criticism, such as the one by Narendra Rautela (September 17) who argues, rightly in my view, that people evolve over time and one should not make a larger assessment based on what an individual may have said here and there at various points of time. On that count, as Rautela himself points out, Gandhi can be shown to be a racist (as some have tried to).

One should also ask if given the large body of work of a historical and complex personality such as Swami Vivekananda, one can in a brief article of 1,500-2,000 words take on his claims (as reported by the writer) that “Hinduism was the originary faith; that it was uniquely tolerant; that it led to a nation that was uniquely committed to peace; and that it was congruent with science”, and that India’s engagement with Islam was one of “servility and slavery”.

These are all sweeping arguments and if made by Vivekananda, they should be closely scrutinised, as indeed they already have been in scholarly work as such as in this book by Jyotirmaya Sharma. But can you make such a range of criticisms in a brief commentary? I do feel Shahane violated the basic principle of an op-ed article, especially where complex personalities or issues are involved: stick to a single argument.

Provocative critiques must be built on solid defences and that requires sticking to one or two points and massing evidence in one’s favour. You cannot take on everything and anything.

Humour and nostalgia

I would be wrong in painting all the letters from readers in the same brush. It is a relief to know we can take criticism and some times with humour too.

For instance, there were these responses (“Satire shot”) on September 27 to a humorous piece on Durga Puja in Delhi’s Bengali-dominated locality of Chittaranjan Park. In nine cases out of 10, “sentiments would be offended”, but not here. A handful of Letters from Bengalis (going by their names) all laughed with the author (also a Bengali going by his name). But as if to correct ourselves, these letters had to be followed immediately by another bunch taking themselves very seriously and arguing about some arcane matters relating to the community of Palghat Iyers in Kerala.

Nothing sells like nostalgia. The article by Archana Nathan on the Doordarshan news readers of the 1970s and 1980s brought a wave of fond remembrances from readers, catalysed no doubt, as some did remind us, by the pleasant memory of a time when news was news and it was read out; it was not opinion that the host and panellists screamed at each other.

Nostalgia is a funny thing; it is by its nature selective. None of the readers who wrote in appreciation of the television news readers of decades ago could recall that while the news was indeed not shouted out during the era of All India Radio/Doordarshan, it was also “official” news that sometimes bordered on propaganda – those were the days of complete government control of the air waves.

The original article too made only fleeting mention of this kind of bias through the words of Niti Ravindran, one of the newsreaders, who remembered that they were not allowed to announce the news immediately when Indira Gandhi lost her parliamentary seat in 1977 and also when she was assassinated in 1984. One should mention here that there were news readers who also took a brave stand. Tejeshwar Singh, an early newscaster on television, refused to read the news during the Emergency.

Editorial responsibility

In the end, when it comes to Letters to the Editor, what should matter for readers who want to express their views is the fact that gives them a huge amount of space and that it does not fight shy of publishing trenchant criticism of the articles it has put out.

At the same time, I do not think needs to publish insensitive and justificatory letters like this one by Ashok Kambi, written in response to the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh (which I reproduce in full to show its offensive content):

“Freedom of speech presumably does not mean the license to hurt, deride or condemn others in the name of dissent (“Gauri Lankesh (1962-2017): Journalist who raged like a fire as she championed just causes”). Everyone, including the so-called dissenters, should introspect why they are taking a certain position. If you want to bring change in society, it should be inclusive and not antagonistic to the majority.” has the editorial right, indeed the editorial responsibility, to say no to such letters that warn people not to question the dominant creed and come close to justifying murder.

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