Investigative journalist Rana Ayyub is the story and the storyteller of Modi’s new India.
ABHIJIT IYER-MITRA 8 December, 2019
What is it with gullible White people and brown women in distress? Every few years, the Western world seeks out, creates and builds bard of brown world’s pain. First it was Arundhati Roy, now it is Rana Ayyub. The recent New Yorker article titled Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi’s India is proof that Rana Ayyub is the new articulator of Indian pain – and the White Western world is listening and taking notes.
For the New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins, Rana Ayyub’s life is the story of new India. In fact, she is both the story and the storyteller.
“As a Muslim from Mumbai, she has lived on the country’s sectarian divide her whole life,” Filkins writes. From her ‘infectious warmth’ to her ‘disorienting speed’, he sees Kashmir in the article entirely through the eyes of Rana Ayyub in a carefully curated trip.
Until recently, this mantle was worn by Arundhati Roy, who spoke for the marginalised and the process of dispossession. She was the interpreter of Indian maladies and spoke against the nuclear test, mining mafia, large dams and the Hindutva raj. And the West feted her with articles, op-eds and awards.
Fodder for the West’s White saviour
But why do Western chroniclers need regional heroes from the developing world for their stories of injustice? Latent White supremacy? Or something more benign like what Rudyard Kipling called “White man’s burden”? Or something deeper perhaps – the need to make one’s otherwise unremarkable life meaningful. But at the centre of it all, it is the saviour complex.
Some of us go to the movies and watch Avatar, where a retired injured marine called Jake Sully finds meaning in life by helping Neytiri and her forest-dwelling, hunting-gathering, ‘native savages’ liberate their planet from evil miners. Others write similar stuff for the New Yorker.
We have a long list of such powerful and exceptional women in the subcontinent, women who have been able to flatter the White saviour mindset and made them useful – a Malala Yousafzai, who condemns everything except human rights abuses by the Pakistani state; an Arundhati Roy whose knowledge of anthropology is about the same as a Big Boss contestant’s; a Phoolan Devi – the “Robin Hood of India”.
They are South Asia’s La Malinche as Doña Marina – Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés’ interpreter – was called. And the White saviour – a writer, a filmmaker or gatekeeper of global human rights discourse – is always the explorer of the new worlds shining light on dark corners of abuse across the planet.
Ayyub makes things happen in Kashmir
For Dexter Filkins, the India story began with the Mumbai riots in 1993. As did Rana Ayyub’s.
“The Ayyubs, accustomed to a middle-class existence, found their lives transformed… Mumbai had been transformed, too. When she enrolled in a predominantly Hindu school nearby, her classmates called her landya, an anti-Muslim slur. “That is the first time I ever really thought about my identity,” she said. “Our entire neighborhood — our friends — were going to kill us.””
But it was Gujarat 2002 riots that “made me realize that what happened in Mumbai was not an aberration,” Ayyub tells Filkins.
In Kashmir, Ayyub very easily helps Filkins duck the security’s watchful eye at the airport as she “hustled me past” the desk called “Registration for Foreigners” and “making sure I kept my head down”. This was just two weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had on 5 August ended the special status that the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed under Article 370. This was when the airport and the Kashmir Valley were teeming with police, paramilitary and intelligence officers. A little hard to believe, but Rana Ayyub can make things happen, apparently.
The White disdain for local governments is apparent in the very first paragraph of the New Yorker article. “The change in Kashmir upended more than half a century of careful politics,” writes Dexter Filkins. That this “careful” politics led to the insurgency, ethnic cleansing, waves of terrorism and rise of violent mobs seems lost on him.
He writes: “Modi and his allies have squeezed, bullied, and smothered the press into endorsing what they call the “New India.”” Yes, you see, brown native savages are all cowards and it needs the White saviour to save them from their oppressors. Of course, Indian journalists who have been covering Kashmir for more than 40 years are all wrong; it requires a White hero to parachute in for a week and bring out the real picture.
Some of the claims made in the article – like the assertion of “thirty gunshot victims” in the hospital – is never substantiated through pictures, despite Ayyub and Filkins having a photographer (Avani Rai) travelling with them. More importantly, these 30 victims are not mentioned as having been seen by the protagonists. Given Rana Ayyub’s record of never substantiating anything, this is of course par for the course.
Her unchecked, meteoric rise
Rana Ayyub is a curious facilitator for Dexter Filkin’s idea of Kashmir. Her self-published Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up was a huge bestseller. But nobody has heard the audio tapes it is based on. It hasn’t been put out in public domain or submitted for legal scrutiny – on the ground that the government agencies or investigators have to ask for it first.
Rana Ayyub’s sudden, meteoric rise in the eyes of the West over the past two-three years is mysterious. As far as Arundhati Roy is concerned, she was a fiction-writer who didn’t need recordings or photos. She used her talent as a rhetorician to turn herself into a public intellectual.
In Kashmir, Dexter Filkins’ sutradhar (host, narrator) Rana Ayyub is a feisty journalist with a heart of gold and a deadly premonition.
He writes: “Ayyub said goodbye to Fehmeeda, promising to return with medicine for her kidneys. (A few weeks later, she did.) We were both gripped by a sense of foreboding, that we were witnessing the start of something that would last many years. “I feel this as a Muslim,” Ayyub said. “It’s happening everywhere in India.”
“We rode in silence for a while. I suggested that maybe it was time for her to leave India — that Muslims didn’t have a future there. But Ayyub was going through a notebook. “I’m not leaving,” she said. “I have to stay. I’m going to write all this down and tell everyone what happened.””
The West is listening. Let’s hope it starts asking for some proof, too – for a change.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.