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Film-makers Adoor Gopalakrishnan (left) and Aparna Sen Image Credit:

Recently, an amorphous but ubiquitous bunch, ‘Eminent Indians’, wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The group, always at the forefront of all the good things in life, included film directors Aparna Sen, Mani Ratnam, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Anurag Kashyap, historian Ramachandra Guha and 44 other personalities. Eminent Indians is a fluid tag. The constituent members may change. But they all remain eminent.

The letter said that the Modi government had a responsibility to put a stop to lynchings — mostly of dalits [so-called untouchables] and Muslims — by Hindus: “Dear Prime Minister … The lynching of Muslims, Dalits and other minorities must be stopped immediately. We were shocked to learn from the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) reports that there have been no less than 840 instances of atrocities against dalits in the year 2016, and a definite decline in the percentage of convictions …. You have criticised such lynchings in parliament Mr Prime Minister, but that is not enough … We strongly feel that such an offence should be declared non-bailable …” the letter said.

Ojha is Patna’s answer to Strachey

The liberal social media naturally took it upon itself to align with the Eminences. A good cause is like sauce. You can’t have enough of it. Except, comes along a serial litigant Sudhir Ojha, a lawyer by profession, but really a kind of limited, local variant of, shall we say, Lytton Strachey. I believe Ojha is Patna’s answer to Strachey. He is out to take down the Indian Eminences.

Strachey in the second decade of the 20th century was already an eccentric iconoclast in the Bloomsbury literary circle before he wrote the Eminent Victorians, a tear-down of British vanity. He was prowling around for long for a bunch of Eminences to vent his high venom. His final list included Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale Thomas Arnold, and General Gordon, all greatly admired by the affluent and virtuous London grandees. In Eminent Victorians, Strachey makes short work of their puffery in blistering phrases and richly ironic insights.

Ojha is not quite in the same literary mould. He just lays into you if you are eminent. He has in recent years filed some 730 Public Interest Litigation (PIL) cases mostly in the courts of Bihar, not a region famous for probity. Literature, or law: so long as the hook does the work.

The Eminences could have tried to meet Modi and hand over the letter, instead of releasing it to the media which would have naturally put the government’s back up. The do-gooders in social media only serve to exacerbate matters.

- C.P. Surendran, senior Indian journalist

Ojha has taken to court big stars like Hrithik Roshan and Amitabh Bachchan, and the former prime minister Manmohan Singh, a Victorian from Punjab. According to media reports, in 2007, Ojha filed a PIL against the makers and actors of a cacophonous movie, Dhoom 2, accusing them of promoting obscenity by filming a kissing scene. According to Ojha, the case was dropped after the lawyers of the film-makers and actors declared they would not keep kissing scenes in future films. There have been kisses in Indian cinema since. Never mind, we in India now know on the rare occasions we kiss that Ojha is watching.

The same (historic) year, he filed a case against politician Lalu Prasad for allegedly getting his helicopter to land on National Highway-28 “to attend the call of nature”. The case was dismissed, but Ojha is currently pursuing it in the Patna High Court. We see how the Indian legal system is overworked. The thing with Ojha is that he derives pleasure from attaching very little value to his or others’ time. It is perhaps a deeply philosophical position.

The complaint regarding the ‘49 Eminences’ that Ojha filed in a local court in Bihar in July met with success last week. The court has given him sanction to proceed to file a First Information Report, having found substance in the charge that the 49 Eminent Indians were seditious in their intent, as their letter against mob lynchings (hundreds have happened in the last few years) was not just meant to draw the attention of the prime minister as they claimed, but was released to the media, which means their intent was suspect.

Sedition-happy Modi dispensation

The letter itself is innocuous. So innocuous in fact, it is hard to see a point to it. If Modi’s government could be influenced by letters from Eminences, it would not be Modi government. This is what makes the Eminences as elementally Quixotic as their detractor, Ojha. In a strange way, there is a convergence of interests between the two parties: virtue-signalling as self-validation.

The Modi dispensation, generally considered sedition-happy, (last month the flavour was Shehla Rashid, who faces sedition charges in the context of her Kashmir comments; nothing will come off it, I hasten to add) has little to do with it.

The Eminences could have tried to meet Modi and hand over the letter, instead of releasing it to the media which would have naturally put the government’s back up. The do-gooders in social media only serve to exacerbate matters. Their frenzy pre-empts common ground. The role of social media psychosis could not be overstated in the formation of a kind of political discourse in which one-upmanship is everything. The sorry fact is that the space for a reasoned consensus on vital issues in India is shrinking. It is not a solution one is looking for; it is an opportunity for performance. Exhibitionism by other means. The Ojhas of India are just one tiny symptom of the problem. The Eminences are the real thing. They can’t but stop playing to the public.

— C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India