If you read the Letters to the Editor space this week on this platform, you will see that Scroll.in has generated a serious controversy over religion. Many readers have written in expressing their anger and feelings of hurt about the analogy used by columnist Girish Shahane in his latest piece titled: “Why seek proof of IAF strike damage? If a virgin birth can be taken on faith, why not virgin deaths?”
Shahane has a regular column in Scroll.in and many of his articles are interesting, often taking a radically different position from the dominant narrative on current issues. He generally backs his opinion with facts and research. Even if readers disagree, they feel compelled to read what he has written for the argument.
This time, in my view, he has misfired. Most of his column is well argued, raising questions that need to be asked about the Balakot air strikes by the Indian Air Force on February 26 and the narrative built around that by the Narendra Modi government. But where I think he went wrong is in trying to illustrate his point that “nationalism takes a form akin to religious fervour”, a valid comparison, by choosing one particular set of beliefs, that of the Christian faith.
While discussing the contradictory and unconvincing arguments put forward by the government about the number of people who were killed in the attack, and the unquestioning acceptance by most people of the government’s figures, Shahane comments sarcastically, “After all, if a virgin birth can be taken on faith, why not virgin deaths.” If some people have found this offensive, the uproar against Shahane’s opening paragraph, where in his own words he tries to explain the Christian belief in the virgin birth, is even bigger. I must admit that I was taken aback reading that paragraph and seriously question its relevance to the main substance of the column.
What I find interesting about the letters that Scroll.in has published is that they are not all from Christians and several make a reasoned argument against parts of Shahane’s article.
For instance, Cephas Everard asks, “Why bring religious beliefs into a discussion about a country’s military strategy? Every religion is based on faith. Such analogy is simply inappropriate and can hurt the religious sentiments of others.”
Another reader, Roweena, writes, “The information in this article is fine but the analogy – repeated twice – is inappropriate. It is shocking that a respectable and supposedly secular news source has indulged in an unnecessary, provocative, disconnected comparison. This is just baiting.”
And this from Chinappa V, “It appears this is a Hindutva element news portal,” would certainly have disturbed the Scroll.in team that has worked hard to produce a balanced and secular news portal.
It is entirely possible that Shahane did not set off to offend anyone and possibly thought the analogy of comparing belief in something like the virgin birth with the unquestioning acceptance of a government’s narrative was a clever way to make a point. In my view, he ought to have paused to consider how this would be read by Christians, a small minority in this country.
Questioning the government
Religion is not everyone’s cup of tea. At the same time, everyone who believes in god, or subscribes to a religion and follows rituals, is not a fanatic or an adherent of “blind belief”, even if that is how rationalists see it. I believe there is no hierarchy between rationalists and believers in any particular religion. Ultimately, both are believers of their own respective set of beliefs.
Of course, responses like this are not unexpected. N Shankar Naryananan concludes that what has appeared in the column is not journalism and the writer has “shown that he is anti India and particularly anti Modi by writing all this supporting Pakistan”. He concludes that Shahane can be “a fiction writer, not a journalist”.
Here the complaint is not about religion but about the central argument in the article. The response is typical of the backlash on social media against anyone who questioned the government after the Balakot strikes. Questioning the Modi government is constantly equated with being pro-Pakistan, and also against the Indian armed forces.
Shahane, or any other Indian citizen, has every right to ask difficult questions and to expect the government to give a straightforward answer instead of obfuscating the way it has in the last month.
Free hand to columnists
To come back to the main complaint against Shahane, that he offended Christians, and to the demands by some readers that the article should be taken down, here is what I have to say. On the former, as I have argued earlier, my view is that the writer was insensitive but went too far. He ought to have considered more seriously using the analogy of the virgin birth in the context of his column. But I also think he did not set out to offend Christians, but did so inadvertently. He should consider a response to the objections raised in his next column.
As for the demand that the article be removed, that is clearly untenable. The writer did not violate any law, not did he defame anyone or state an outright untruth. The charge against him is that he was insensitive and offensive. And Scroll.in has given space for the airing of the views of those who feel this.
Should the editors of Scroll.in have looked at this copy more closely before publishing it? I checked with the Editor and was told that they have had “a quite laissez faire policy with columnists: they are edited for style and factual accuracy but not their line of argument”. Most publications follow such a policy and signed opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the policy of the publication. In fact, the opinion pages can reflect contrary and contrarian views.
Still, I would suggest that there is no harm in the editors having a conversation with their columnists if they feel the content is skirting the edges of offending people’s personal beliefs.
You can write to the Readers’ Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.