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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009
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Acid Dreams On Dharma Nights

Arun Shourie was once a shining sabre in defence of democracy. As he invites the RSS to take over the BJP, SHOMA CHAUDHURY tracks how far he has moved

A COUPLE OF weeks ago, in the middle of its extremely public meltdown and equally public family drama, the BJP suddenly sacked Jaswant Singh for reevaluating Jinnah. It was a desperate measure cut for desperate times and came wrapped with many wishful intentions: the desire for a distraction; the desire to declare renewed certitudes; the desire for a simple show of strength. And, briefly, despite the loud criticism in the media, it did look as if the BJP had closed ranks.


But just when Singh was starting to look particularly forlorn, Rajya Sabha member and party elder, Arun Shourie came out with his devastating interview to Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta. He criticised LK Advani, Rajnath Singh, Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley — some of them friends more than merely political associates — and defended Jasw - ant Singh’s right to have contrarian views and write a book. He lashed out at the “great pygmyisation” of leadership. And his scathing metaphor of the BJP as a “kati patang” (an adrift kite) and its leaders as “Alice in Blunderland” and wannabe Tarzans is bound to sizzle in popular memory for a while. This seemed vintage Arun Shourie: the fearless crusader exhilaratingly speaking truth to power, defending liberal values, daring the party to sack him for it.

The Gospel Shourie, in emphatic mid-argument

Yet, in the same interview, Shourie invited the RSS to seize overt control of the party and casually, almost indifferently, flicked away the butchery of Muslims in Gujarat 2002. He spoke at great length about Prime Minister Vajpayee’s anguish and dilemma over Gujarat and concluded, “Frankly, I must say, I was more affected by Atalji’s pain than by what had happened in Gujarat. Maybe this is my inhumanity or something. I can’t claim that I was that great liberal…” No matter which end of the political divide you stand on, it would be difficult to find a more chilling reaction to one of the most savage events in India’s recent history. This is not just defence or denial or prevarication, it is dismissal. Cool, indifferent, unapologetic. And completely self-assured.

It would have been easy to dismiss Arun Shourie in turn — coolly, unapologetically — if he was merely an extreme right ideologue, a sort of Praveen Togadia sophisticate. But Shourie occupies a much more complicated space in middle-class imagination. He is the editor par excellence of the 70s and 80s, the shining sabre who stood up to the Emergency, exposed Bofors and famously had chief minister Antulay sacked. He is the legendary defender of human rights who campaigned for 40,000 undertrials languishing in jail. And he is a man of unquestionable financial honesty. When he adopts the high moral ground --- or his preferred voice of white heat outrage --- people tend to listen. Even the fractious BJP was checkmated by his interview. It’s not just Shourie’s deft timing or evocation of the RSS that protected him; his public reputation was a shield too. Sacking him, the BJP knew, would be a colossal PR disaster; they understand the immunities of the holy cow.


This adumbral position between liberal knight, self-righteous crusader and unselfconscious fascist makes Arun Shourie a very ambiguous, even sinister, presence in India’s public life. As Prabhas Joshi, Jansatta editor and a peer, says, “His suggestion to the RSS betrays the quintessential Shou rie. He wants a democratic political party like the BJP to be chained lock, stock and barrel by an organisation that calls itself “cultural” and does not believe in parliamentary democracy or the Indian Constitution. And he wants this democratic party to be taken over by jhatka (sudden death)! Who would want such a thing? Only an autocratic, dictatorial mind. Arun Shourie is a timeserver and climber who wants to dictate whatever he considers intellectually superior into the democratic polity of this country. Any man who does not believe in democracy and is in politics is a very dangerous animal. Be very afraid of him.”

In his interview, Shourie had bracketed his invitation to the RSS with a caveat. To paraphrase, he said, “I have asked them to ‘bomb the headquarters’ and be ethical guardians of the party but stay away from policy.” Even to the most novice citizen, this would seem, at best, a naïve hope, at worst, a cynical smokescreen. The smart parry of a tactician, not a considered intellectual position. Later at his residence, Shourie says, “Don’t believe a word of what Mohan Bhagwat (RSS chief) said at his press conference. Even at this moment, they are deciding who will go and who will stay and who will head the party. You will see the impact of all this in a few months.”

Such schisms in Shourie’s public positions go back a long way, but what makes it particularly fascinating is the combination of utter transparency and unassailable certitude that go with the schisms. The address of a website that compiles his writings contains the phrase “the voice of dharma.” It’s an accurate self-description: that is how Shourie sees himself. As an old associate puts it, “He wants to clean up the system, that’s the platform he works on, but he doesn’t want to clean up himself. He doesn’t believe in looking within. He started his political career as a Maoist, became a Gandhian during the Emergency, then briefly, a non-Gandhian Congress supporter and then joined the BJP. Yet he is authentic in every incarnation. He thinks there is no contradiction within him.”

In a line, Shourie is that disquieting being: a public intellectual who is completely anti-introspective.


An impostor at the pulpit.

A RUN SHOURIE, now 69, had an almost cinematic entry into the public eye. It was 1977; the Emergency was at its height. Shourie had written a series of courageous articles, among them, one called ‘The Symptoms of Fascism’. Though Seminar could not publish that edition, the article was doing the rounds in secret. Shourie had a PhD in Economics from Syracuse University and was just back from the World Bank. The buzz around the article and a series of “happy accidents”, as he likes to call it, brought him in touch with the feisty newspaper proprietor Ramnath Goenka.

Adversaries Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, who Shourie fought relentlessly
Photo: AP

He joined the Indian Express as Executive Editor in January 1979 and over four blistering years of journalism, passed into media legend. Shourie rarely did the groundwork himself; his gift lay in creating moral frameworks and meticulous backgrounds – building stories into campaigns. The infamous Bhagalpur blinding case; the advocacy for the rights of undertrials; the buying of Kamala; the Antulay cement scam; the infamous Gundu Rao interview; the defeat of the Defamation Bill; and finally, the Kuo Oil scam. The Congress had come to symbolise corruption and anti-democratic practices: The Indian Express — and its most public face, the Goenka- Shourie duo — became the epitome of the fight against these mutilations. In 1982, with hundreds of cases against the paper, and allegedly under severe pressure from Mrs Gandhi, Goenka suddenly sacked Shourie. In 1987, with all his old warhorses gone or fading, he suddenly wanted him back and used Suman Dubey, Shourie’s brother-in-law, then editor of the paper and a friend of Rajiv Gandhi, to woo him back. A few months later, the Bofors scandal broke. More actinic years of journalism followed: the Bofors campaign and the campaign against Dhirubhai Ambani’s corruptions being the most high-profile. In 1990, Shourie was sacked again – unceremoniously, via teleprinter. There were cascading reasons: disagreements on reservations, the Mandal Commission, VP Singh’s handling of the Ayodhya movement and Goenka’s sense that Shourie was no longer in his control.

At any rate, Shourie’s years as an editor shone with inspiration: he was a lighthouse in a dark time. As his Magasaysay Award citation says, “He used his pen as an effective adversary of corruption, inequality and injustice.” He fought for civil liberties and the rule of law; he had an appetite for the big battles. Yet, even at the height of his defence of liberal values in public life, disappointingly, Shourie’s professional peers and juniors say that in person, he was an intolerant, abusive and dictatorial man, incapable of democratic dialogue. The archetypal god with clay feet. Stories — unfortunately all of them off-the-record — abound: how he fought and slighted co-editors, S Mulgaonkar, BG Verghese, Nihal Singh, Kuldip Nayar; how he ousted Suman Dubey; how he ravaged juniors. The ill-will is disconcerting. Yet, urged to come on record, all his detractors refuse: “He’s dynamite”; “He’s vicious”; “He’s paranoid.” These allegations can perhaps be discounted – temperamental shortcomings that pale before the staggering body of work. Personal animosities that cannot be substantiated.


But there is a more universal and damaging charge Shourie faces: intellectual dishonesty. His political peers in the BJP sneer at his high moral posture. It is not elevated concern for Jaswant Singh’s right to write that triggered his outburst, they allege, it is pique against Advani for picking Arun Jaitley over him as Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha and Narendra Modi for denying him a ticket for his next Rajya Sabha term: petty motives behind the lofty stance. Yet others mock his certitudes. Why doesn’t he enter the trenches, get his hands dirty, and win an election before he lectures us all on probity? Why invite the RSS to takeover the party, say others, when he, protective of his brand value, has always been careful to distance himself officially from them, no matter how congruent their views? (Lalit Vachani’s 1992 documentary Boy in a Branch has a cameo of Shourie raising a saffron flag and speaking at an RSS gathering. He thanks them for inviting him to such a “pure place” and asserts they must achieve the aims of the Ayodhya movement.)

There are other stickier instances. On July 7, 2003, at the first Dhirubhai Ambani Memorial Lecture — an event addressed by President Kalam and attended by everyone ranging from Manmohan Singh to Narendra Modi — Shourie confessed to a “180 degree turn” on Ambani. For five years, as Indian Express editor, he and S Gurumurthy, an accountantturned- Goenka-confidante and an RSS man, had scorched Ambani for his corruptions. It wasn’t merely that Dhirubhai Ambani had imported an entire textile plant without paying customs, or that he was producing more than his permit, they tracked how the government was favouring him; how he owned shell companies; how he had both banks and politicians in his pocket; how, in short; he was subverting society.

Storming History Hindu rage, Shourie says, is inevitable if the State appeases minorities
Photo: AP

At the lecture though, Shourie sloughed off all those years of platinum outrage with cynical ease. As Disinvestment Minister in the Vajpayee government, he had already sold controlling shares of the giant government-controlled petrochemical company, IPCL to the Ambanis — creating a massive private monopoly. (Journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta argues that this itself was an intellectual dishonesty, coming from a man who had championed fair and free markets all his life.) Now at the lecture, taking refuge in economist Frederick Hayek’s argument that when rules ossify and become outdated, society starts violating those rules until conditions evolve where new rules come into play, Shourie claimed he had come to revise his view of the Ambanis.

“Most would say today that those restrictions and conditions should not have been there in the first place,” he told the glittering audience, “that they are what held the country back. And that the Dhirubhais are to be thanked, not once but twice over: they set up world-class companies and facilities in spite of those regulations, and thus laid the foundations for the growth all of us claim credit for today...


“Second,” said he, “by exceeding the limits in which those restrictions sought to impound them, they helped create the case for scrapping those regulations, they helped make the case for reforms.”

It is true everyone has the right to revise their views and Dhirubhai’s entrepreneurship dazzled even greater men, but challenge Shourie about the other and continuing Ambani corruptions he had documented at the Express, and he says, “I was merely the editor, it’s Gurumurthy who wrote those stories. I did think they were brilliant and excavatory then.”

(In an uncharacteristic and revealing moment of self-irony though, he confesses his friend Gurumurthy had once challenged him: “If Hayek is right, everyone can become a violator and say they are breaking laws for a better future. Who will judge which laws should be broken?” Shourie says only half-laughingly, “I told him, I’ll be the judge of that.”)

Congress politician and Shourie’s college mate in St. Stephen’s, Mani Shankar Aiyar remembers a different Shourie. A hockey player, a teachers’ pet, an animated young man who fought fierce arguments in defence of Nehru and cooperatives. “Where has that Arun Shourie of Rudra Court (a St. Stephen’s residence) gone? It is a great loss to our national life,” says he, “that instead of a great Nehruvian flowering, this intelligent man transmogrified into a fanatic Hindu right-winger. I think the leavening of a liberal education at Stephen’s was undermined by his four years at the fourth-rate Syracuse University during the worst years of the Cold War. This is what first moved him towards the Right, and from there to the usual positions of nationhood and Hindutva. Today, Shourie is just a 1920s Arya Samaji disguised as a BJP MP of the 21st century.”

Many before Shourie have made political and intellectual journeys a pendulum away from where they began. That, in itself, cannot be an indictment. Rather, what makes Shourie especially disturbing is the comet’s tail: the incandescent zeal and certitude he carries around like a transferrable ticket for whichever new station he’s headed. As historian Ramachandra Guha puts it, “Much of the time Shourie writes or acts as if there is a singular truth, with him as its only repository and guarantor.”

In another sticky instance of intellectual dishonesty, after the Mumbai 26/11 attack Shourie spoke with messianic passion in Parliament for a harder, more unforgiving State. Gone was the sensitive constitutionalist. Gone was the foundermember of Jayaprakash Nar ayan’s human rights group, the PUCL. Gone was the man who had crusaded for victims of false encounters and the blinded undertrials of Bhagalpur. (He had written then, “If the criminal justice system breaks down, your eyes and mine are not safe.”) Shourie had already, long years earlier, moved away from his commitment to human rights to an endorsement of TADA, POTA and the use of unquestioned State force to quell internal insurgencies: the KPS Gill position. Now, in Parliament, he argued with even greater fervour for dismantling the human rights movement and “unnecessary” legalism around terror suspects (never mind if innocents suffered in the process). As for Pakistan, nobody, he said, had ever won a war with minimal force. India’s response to Pakistan should be, “Not an eye for an eye. For an eye, both eyes. Not a tooth for a tooth. For a tooth, the whole jaw.” And for good measure, stoke some trouble in Balochistan.


Curiously, even as he has moved away with greater and greater scorn from liberal positions, Shourie has consistently sustained his fascination for liberal institutions: Democracy, Parliament, Judiciary, Constitution. Yet, propelled by a sense of his own infallible integrity, beneath this regard for the State and its institutions, a deeper more dangerous self-image seems to run through Shourie’s public conduct: the idea of Christ whipping the usurers; Mohammad urging righteous war; Krishna urging Arjuna into the fatricidal fields of Kurukshetra.

The voice of Dharma. Justified violence. Coupled with a burning sense of samaj seva.

Reprisal The savagery of Gujarat 2002 left Shourie unmoved. He supported Modi

WHEN YOU first meet Shourie, it is difficult to square with the discordant orchestral sound that surrounds his public life. He is mild and affable and surprisingly open to conversation. There is also a kind of silence in his spacious Westend home. There is the famous low, whispering voice, the bushy brows, the intelligent eyes, the sophisticated manner. But there is also a tight, fragile, held-in quality — a sense of him constantly steeling himself against the onslaught of life. Shourie’s wife Anita (a great love and another “happy accident” in his life) suffers from Parkinson’s; their son Vikramaditya, now 37, was born prematurely, is severely paraplegic and has had multiple disabilities from birth. Shourie’s parents died within months of each other; his mother suffered immensely before she passed away. Shourie nursed them all, yet bears this unkind history with extraordinary compassion. Minutes into the conversation, his son is wheeled in. Shourie leaps up and kisses him with unaffected tenderness. “This is our son Adit,” he says with moving pride.

Shourie has written several scathing books on religion, most notoriously on Islam and Christianity, but what is lesser known, also on Hindusim. He once told philosopher Martha Nussbaum that these books were “a scream against the explanations given for suffering” in the Hindu scriptures, Koran and Old and New Testaments. He says now, “Our son’s suffering was the newspeg for my pre-occupation with religion. But everything I found was soporific, so I finally gravitated towards Buddha who said there is no explanation for suffering, but as the nature of our response compounds our suffering, he could help deal with the response.” Since then, Shourie has maintained a strict regimen of yoga and meditation, and in weaker moments, sessions with astrology. Friends say he never makes a show of his duty and is unfailingly solicitous of his wife and son. (It is difficult to fathom, but perhaps the vicissitudes of his private life have unconsciously played some part in his growing and callous impatience with public grief.)

But Buddha is only one part of the complex cocktail of inspirations in Shourie’s life. There was his father HD Shourie, a magistrate in pre-partition Lahore, and later the editor of Common Cause, a pioneering consumer issues journal and litigant that fought many landmark cases for people’s rights, most famously, old people’s pension. There is Gandhi, Nehru and JP — none of whose vision Shourie now shares, but men he still considers giants because they “had no price”, were constantly dialogic and lived with immense personal integrity, an attribute he values highly in himself. At the other end of the spectrum — and part of the contradictions within him that he is blind to — there is Hindu thinker Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel, men Shourie calls “deep and courageous thinkers”, who were highly critical of Islam and Christianity.


Swarup, in fact, seems to have been a big catalyst. In 1984, when Shourie was deeply shaken by the anti-Sikh riots, Swarup told him, “If the State neglects its primary duties and fails to act firmly, there is bound to be a reaction in society. The violence against the Sikhs was induced by the Congress; but because of their suppressed grievances, the Hindus appropriated that violence.”

Shourie says the Congress’ handling of Shah Bano and Bhindranwale set him on his journey towards rightwing political positions. But it is Swarup who seems to have set him on the hackneyed track of Hindutva justifications: the logic of grievance and victimhood as explanations for retaliatory violence. So, today, Shourie might condemn the vandalism at the Mangalore pub; but the murder of Swami Laxmanananda explains the arson in Kandhamal; and the burning of the Sabarmati, the pogrom in Gujarat. Why not insist doggedly that the State punish the guilty? Why condone collateral violence? “That is how society reacts,” he shrugs. (So what if his idol Gandhi called off the Non-Cooperation Movement because 22 policemen were killed in Chauri Chaura? Shourie has shifting definitions of personal integrity.)

Ask him how he can be unmoved by what happened in Gujarat, and he answers, “I am moved by what happens to individuals, what happens to my son. I don’t care if hundreds of people die somewhere. They die in earthquakes as well.” Shocked, I ask, “Why react so strongly to terror attacks then? “Because that is an assault on the State,” he replies, without a moment’s hesitation. (Set aside obvious humanist values. One could argue that killing hundreds of innocent citizens — be they Muslim, Christian or Hindu — is an assault on the State too, when the State has promised the Right to Life to all citizens. But you sense that for Shourie, it’s a closed argument.)

To Ashes Christians outside their burnt down church in Orissa’s Kandhamal district

Ask him why he abandoned the PUCL—and the whole raft of human rights concerns — and he has an equally self-assured reply. “I broke with the PUCL when it began to raise human rights issues in Punjab and for the Naxals. If a State is open and democratic like ours, the monopoly for violence can only lie with the State,” says he. “You can fight its misuse but the fight must be unarmed. There can be no justification for armed insurrection in a democracy. Only a dictatorship justifies armed rebellions.” A vast sea of grey laps before his arguments, but Shourie is a man who only sees the world in hard grids of black and white.

WHAT COMPLICATES simple denunciations of Arun Shourie, however, is that, unlike many contemporary writers and intellectuals, he has dared to leave the ivory tower and take on the big questions of our time, bare-knuckled. He has put himself in the firing line and been willing to be skewered for his views in public. What also complicates the denunciations is not just his intelligence or the sterling journalistic career; it is his massive body of work as a writer.

Shourie has written 21 books. Their style may be tedious and prolix, but they are still erudite and staggeringly meticulous. What’s more, many of them are lightning rods that prise open difficult and new areas of thought, areas earlier generations have papered over. Yet, they stop short of shedding new light because Shourie merely marshals facts with a sort of rising and hysterical indignation. He is not exploratory; like some zealous lawyer, he fits evidence to a preconceived thesis. He seems incapable of interpretation – the key attribute of a thinker. And when he does think, the arguments are narrow and bigoted. (Except his arguments for an alternative affirmative action in place of reservations and a truly secular nation where all citizens will be identified merely as individuals and have equal access to the State.)

Shourie’s book on Ambedkar, Worshipping False Gods for instance, documents Ambedkar’s visceral opposition to Gandhi. It is important we recognise this animosity between two giants, but instead of presenting the complex and competing concerns of dalits and upper-caste Hindu nationalists, Shourie merely rants at Ambedkar for hating Gandhi and supporting the British. (Never mind that the RSS did much the same, or that Gandhi himself praised Ambedkar and recognised his legitimate political compulsions.) Similarly, Shourie’s books on Islam and Christianity document how closed the Judaic religions are to reform, but instead of framing that as an invitation or challenge for cultural dialogue, contrary to evidence, he constructs it as a danger to Indian nationhood. Ditto for his work on the destruction of temples in medieval India. Or for his demolition job on Left historians. It is true that Left historians cornered State patronage and wrote histories that suited their theses. But if Shourie objected to the ICHR being colonised by the Left, why didn’t he speak out against it being captured by the Right under the BJP?

Momentarily cornered, he laughs wickedly, “Where is the question of the Right wing dominating history writing. The Left has had a headstart of 50 years. But if you really want a justification for that, I’ll have to quote Chairman Mao: ‘Sometimes, to correct a great wrong you have to cross proper limits.’ Besides, all call to reform is a kind of incitement.”

Perhaps the real key to Shourie’s complex character then — his high sense of personal integrity, his austere dislike for high living, his capacity for unexamined bigotry, his driving sense of simple Good and Evil, and his zeal for public service and reform — lies in his Arya Samaji background. It would explain both the reflexive distrust of Islam and Christianity and the simultaneous imitation of everything that is disliked in those religions. It would explain the passion for a muscular State, latched closely with the selfarrogated voice of dharma.

“We live in an oceanic society,” Shourie says, as a kind of epilogue to our conversation. The irony is that when he could have been one its most consummate cartographers, he has increasingly insisted on swimming in its shallowest pools. Yet, the truth is, no one can easily dismiss Arun Shourie, because for 30-odd years, he has sought answers to all the big public riddles of governance, efficiency, probity, equality, and cultural coexistence. The tragedy of his dwarfed intellectual positions then is a sort of tragedy of contemporary Indian public life. Unlike the founding fathers who clung to the altar of complex arguments and public discourse, faced with the enormousness and bewildering amplitude of Indian dilemmas, public intellectuals today inevitably reach for the quick-gun answers on either side of the Left-Right divide. At other times, they merely capitulate.

In the days to come, the real implication of Shourie’s interview to Shekhar Gupta could play itself out in two different ways. On the one hand, it could expose itself merely as yet another cynical political game. On the other, in its intrepid defence of the freedom of expression, it could start to redeem some of the promise he showed in the 70s. The pity is, one hopes for the latter but is more likely to bet on the former.

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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 36, Dated September 12, 2009

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