Aakar Patel on why ‘secular’ is a bad word in Gujarat and ‘justice’, ‘equality’ or ‘tolerance’ plain annoying
Gujarat’s attack on the Ford Foundation

Teesta Setalvad in 2012. Photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP
One of my quibbles with the Bharat Ratna business is that we chose not to give it to Norman Borlaug, whose name I first learnt and mispronounced in high school. He developed in Mexico the strains of dwarf wheat, whose success was replicated in India under a process called the Green Revolution. Borlaug saved India and Pakistan from starvation. His contribution cannot be described more precisely. If we cannot honour such a human being, whom should we honour? Sachin Tendulkar and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, long may their footprints remain on the sands of time.
Borlaug could not have done his work in India without the help and cash of the Ford Foundation, which was then an enthusiastic supporter of high-yield agriculture. It no longer may be, but then we are no longer starving.
The Green Revolution (references to which are always part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifestos) is only one of many things that the Ford Foundation helped with in India. It has spent over half a billion dollars on Indians, on programmes that are too many to recount here, in that selfless spirit of philanthropy which billionaires for the most part lack in our country.
The Gujarat government has accused the Ford Foundation now of “direct interference…in the internal affairs of the country and also of abetting communal disharmony in India”. This is a serious charge.
It is made light by the language used by the state home department, which accuses the foundation of advocating “a religion specific and Muslim supportive criminal code and also keep the 2002 riots incident alive”, according to a report in The Times Of India. Why cannot the Gujarati compose a coherent paragraph of English? It is an abiding and puzzling mystery. Anyway, the report adds that “the Gujarat government has also accused the Ford Foundation of ‘blatantly supporting one religion (Islam) with a strange argument that it helps secular democracy’” and that the “Ford Foundation has supported an institution in India to be operating on the premise of stoking religious tensions with their social prejudice”. And here we arrive at the primary offence which is, of course, support to Sabrang, the organization run by Teesta Setalvad. She of the secular brigade.
Secular has become a bad word in Gujarat. No, really. Many Gujaratis will say “bahu secular nahi ban (don’t act too secular)” when someone refers to justice, equality, tolerance or related subjects. These are things that always irritate and often infuriate them.
But the truth is that without Setalvad Gujaratis would not have got justice, and could not have shown their face to the world when they travel. There would have been no convictions in the 2002 riots without Setalvad. And her contribution cannot be described more precisely.
It is her doggedness, her stubbornness and her willingness to accept humiliation, abuse and ostracization from large parts of her own Gujarati community that produced the results. Indeed, what is most hated about her is that she has delivered results. Without Sabrang’s work, the Supreme Court would not have sent court cases out of Gujarat, or had them reopened. Without her we would not have convicted Maya Kodnani for her awful crimes, forcing the former minister to appeal against the verdict. Setalvad has produced real achievement. In another place, in a civilized nation, she would have been given a Padma Bhushan.
But instead she is, as I said, hated by Gujaratis and this is fine. I understand the motive, which is an impotent seething that comes on seeing such heroic defiance. A refusal to accept the consensus and the injustice.
My point is: Should we be this casual about allegations against the Ford Foundation, on whose board of trustees sit Infosys founder N.R. Narayana Murthy and inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee?
It goes further. PTI reported Gujarat’s minister of state for home, Rajanikant Somabhai Patel, as saying: “We wrote to the government of India last month seeking probe of this NGO’s role and necessary action against it… they (the Centre) can take action such as cancelling its grants or de-listing the NGO”.
The Times Of India reported Patel’s ministry as saying: “By allowing (Sabrang) to declare that serving and retired naval and army officers are engaged in terror generation, Ford Foundation allowed defamation of Indian military.
“By allowing through its grant visit of Pakistani human rights activist to India, foundation exceeded its brief in India and blatantly broadcasted an exaggerated point of view on communal situation in the country.”
It is amazing to me that a Gujarati man, stewed for centuries in a culture of pragmatism and self-interest, would spew such unpragmatic nonsense. But then I have become aware of a turning of the Gujarati mind since 1990.
Is this government so reckless that it will harm and damage an institution that has selflessly helped Indians for decades because it funds riots victims?
The Ford Foundation website says that “In India, we support organizations that:
• Promote livelihood opportunities among the poorest populations
• Advocate for economic and social rights
• Make the government’s development efforts transparent and accountable
• Work to create more sustainable agricultural policies
• Enable women and girls to address their sexual and reproductive health and rights
• Broaden the participation of marginalized groups through public service media.”
What sort of government is threatened by this agenda? The sort of government that assumes, rightly, that it can stuff any lie wrapped in “national interest” down the throat of a mostly pliant media and mostly moribund population.
It is a fact that Indians will tolerate the slandering of Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation by our government because looking at the issues is too much effort. We would rather accept the reduction, preferably portrayed in “for us/against us” terms.
The harassment of the Ford Foundation is an instance of the Hindi adage “apne pair pe kulhadi marna (bringing the axe down on your own foot)”. Damaging ourselves in the most serious way possible, harming our friends and in the long term, ourselves.