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In defence of Sam Pitroda: Is calling someone look like African, black racist?

By Rajiv Shah 

Sam Pitroda, known as the father of Indian telecom revolution, has been in the midst of a major controversy for a remark on how Indians across the regions look different. While one can understand Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking it up for his electoral gain, suggesting it showed the racist Congress mindset, what was unpalatable to me was Congress leaders – particularly Jairam Ramesh, known for his deep intellectual understand – distancing themselves from what Pitroda had said.
While I personally don’t see anything wrong in what Pitroda had said, I felt his was a rather rugged – perhaps a crude common person's – way of describing national unity. Be that as it may, my interactions with him -- among them one-to-one several decades ago, another as part of a civil society group in Ahmedabad -- suggest he is insightful only when he comments on information and communication technology (ICT). 
The year was late 1989 or early 1990, I don’t exactly recall. At that time VP Singh was India’s Prime Minister. I was in Moscow, representing the semi-Left daily “Patriot” and weekly “Link” since early 1986. Living in my three bedroom apartment on Ulitsa Chkalova, a street named after Russian test pilot Valery Chkalov (renamed Ulitsa Zimlyanoi Val after the overthrow of Mikhail Gorbachev), not far from the Kremlin, I suddenly got a phone call from Sam Pitroda, whom I knew only as father of India’s telecom revolution.
“I have been given your reference by your editor RK Mishra. Can you come down and see me in my hotel? We can chat”, he asked. I said, happily, “Sure, it will take me about 40 minutes”. I packed myself up with winter clothes, and rushed to see him taking a metro, about 10-15 minutes walk from my residence. Situated in the outskirts next to a metro station, I don’t remember which hotel it was, but it wasn’t difficult for me to locate the spot.
I had vaguely read about Pitroda, a close associate of Rajiv Gandhi, for being inquired into by the VP Singh government for a telecom scam. He welcomed me in the hotel, and offered me a drink, which I reluctantly accepted. Though I don’t have anything against booze, I don’t like its taste, one reason I don’t take it, unless I am pressed. I was more interested in the Bofors scandal, which is said to be the main reason for the defeat of the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership in 1989.
While defending Rajiv Gandhi, known to be close to him, Pitroda seemed to impress upon me why he was not involved in the telecom scam for which he was being investigated. The allegations were regarding financial irregularities, for using the Centre for the Development of Telematics (C-DoT) to enhance his business interests in US, even as making arbitrary recruitments of favourites to crucial posts and giving “false” progress reports about C-DoT.
We sat for about one-and-a-half, may be two, hours, talking over not just about the scams around Rajiv Gandhi and him, but also politics in the former Soviet Union and India. However, I couldn’t figure out why was he in Moscow. Has he run away from investigation? I wondered. As he was referred to me by RK Mishra, and I thought he must be very close to my editor, I seemed reluctant to ask him this question. Call it my weakness.
The next time I met him was during the inaugural ceremony of Infocity in Gandhinagar, Gujarat’s capital when Keshubhai Patel, Narendra Modi’s bete noire, was the chief minister (1998-2001). I then represented the Times of India in Gandhinagar to cover the Gujarat government. Inaugurated on October 21, 2000, spread across in 150 acres of land, Infocity was set up amidst the big talk that Gujarat had already missed the information technology (IT) bus, on one hand, and Gujarat tycoons openly stating, "We don't need IT", on the other.
Among those present at the event included Mukesh Ambani, whom I was introduced following the ceremony. I was, however, more interested in having an interaction with Pitroda, whom I had met almost a decade ago. I went up to him, introduced myself, recalled my meeting with him, about which – surprisingly – he feigned ignorance, and that was the end of it! He looked looked the other way, and I started my journey back to my office.
All that I recall about the event today is, Keshubhai Patel during his speech called H1B visa HIV visa, and there were giggles all around! Be that as it may, credit for setting up Infocity goes to late JS Rana, then state IT secretary, who would enthusiastically brief me what Gujarat should do to catch up with Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, which had already gone far, far ahead in IT. 
A decade later, in January 2011, while covering Modi’s high profile biannual Vibrant Gujarat global business meet, I heard Pitroda had come to address one of the sessions. I rushed to the spot in the still incomplete Mahatma Mandir complex in Gandhinagar. He came late by about 15 minutes, and was immediately given the floor, known as he was as telecom czar. 
Regretting why was he late, he complained, all the way from airport to Gandhinagar there were “lack of directions”, and that even on reaching the Mahatma Mandir, nobody seemed to recognise him and take him to the session, and that he had to find his own way to the session.
At that point of time, the now famous Gujarat International Finance Tec (GIFT) City was already in news for Modi’s all-out effort to promote it as the most important financial hub in India. It’s quite another thing that by then a top scholar (Prof Samir Barua, former director, Indian Institute of Management-Ahmedabad), and even its feasibility study by McKinsey & Company had already doubted its viability – something about which I had written in my True Lies column, in the blogging platform of the Times of India.
Pitroda, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's advisor for public information infrastructure and innovations, didn’t stop at that. He continued, and let me quote from what I reported on January 13, 2011 (as also others), that an international financial city (IFC) “cannot exist" without information and communication technology (ICT), insisting, "You do not need big banks for soft infrastructure. GIFT in isolation cannot exist. It needs broadband support of hundreds of gigabytes".
Underlining that "speed, ICT and connectivity are the main thing”, that “if you don't pay attention to it, nothing would work", and that "you need to have right IT for it", he hoped GIFT didn’t turn into a real estate hub, pointing out, "There is a huge population which needs money, yet the banks do not recognise them. People have mobiles, but are not connected with banks. Banks are meant for the rich alone. There is therefore a need for inclusive growth, which is what GIFT should aim at."
I retired from the Times of India in January 2013, and started working with human rights NGOs Centre for Social Justice and Janvikas in Ahmedabad, handling the now-defunct blog, counterview.org, even though my news blog, counterview.net, not supported by anyone, continues. In 2017, ahead of the Gujarat state assembly elections, Pitroda decided to interact with different sections in Gujarat in order to come up with a Congress poll manifesto. At one of the sessions, at an interaction with NGOs, I was also called.
Interestingly, while interacting at Ellisbridge Gymkhana in Ahmedabad, I again recalled our meeting in Moscow in late 1989-early 1990, something about which he had feigned ignorance in 2000, and he immediately remembered our long talk in a Moscow hotel! Those attending the meeting included well-known consultant-intellectual Sunil Parikh and top builder Pavan Bakeri, who is said to have interests in NGO work, apart from civil society leaders Gagan Sethi and Martin Macwan.
Pitroda wanted to know the situation in Gujarat, about which he was extensively briefed. On my turn, I told him that there was a need for alternative media in the state, something neither the Congress nor the NGOs seemed ready -- and he appeared to agree. He extensively quoted Mahatma Gandhi to tell us the that his contribution needs to be studied for communal harmony. He offered me his card and said, “Keen in touch, you have made an important point”. Parikh told Pitroda, in Gujarat I was one of the few who was doing the alternative media job. I was amused. However, thereafter I haven’t cared to contact with him. Call it my inertia or whatever.
Now about the controversy around Pitroda, now 82, for being called racist for his remark. I first read the news on the website of the top TV news channel, NDTV, now owned by India’s powerful business house, Adanis. The headline read, “South Indians Look Like Africans...: Sam Pitroda Embarrasses Congress Again”, as if looking like Africans (black) is something bad. I thought this headline, and not Pitroda’s remark, was patently racist.
NDTV quoted Pitroda thus: “In an exclusive interview with The Statesman, Mr Pitroda described India as a ‘... diverse country... where people on East look like Chinese, people on West look like Arab, people on North look like maybe White and people in South look like Africa’.” This was sought to be called “racist” by BJP leaders, not excluding Modi.
A crude way of saying something, maybe, but this is how he described India’s unity in diversity. NDTV itself quotes Pitroda as saying, “Our founding fathers fought the British Raj not for a Hindu nation but for a secular nation. Pakistan decided to make a nation based on religion... you can see how that is going. We are a shining example of democracy in the world. We have survived 70-75 years in a very happy environment, leaving aside a few fights here and there."
He added, "... we are all brothers and sisters, we respect different languages, religions, customs, and food. As a Gujarati, I love dosa. So, if I go to Tamil Nadu and speak the local language, it is ok. I am still at home... that is my India, rooted in democracy, freedom, liberty, and fraternity." So what's wrong here?, I wonder. 
 Objections  to calling South Indians looking like “Africans” and East Indians like “Chinese” seem to me catering to the mindset of sections of middle classes, especially in the so-called cow belt, which favour "goras" as neighbours, as wife, as daughter-in-law, as children. Blacks and Chinese (Mongoloid-looking) are seen as “aliens”, often looked down upon, even by NRIs in US. 
I don't want to go far: Attempts have been made among my near and dear ones to feed pregnant women with such food which would "ensure" the child born is a gora male, not black. An NRI whose son and daughter-in-law live in US, took umbrage to their infant child being put in a creche having African-origin women staff! "This is just unpalatable", I was told. And a student commented, "You know why are these Africans so black? Because thy eat crocodile meat."
If Jairam Ramesh was quick to object to Pitroda’s statement, saying Congress dissociates itself from his remark, former finance minister P Chidambaram criticised Modi for bringing skin colour in the election debate. However, none appeared to suggest why looking like black Africans is not only not patently bad but is against India’s great tradition and culture. Even Pitroda does not seem to be comfortable with pointing this out.
There has been little or no effort to point out that Lord Krishna’s different forms (swaroops), one of them Shrinathjee, who in different mudras adorns most Gujarati homes, not to talk of a large number of temples, are all in black. In fact, Krishna itself means black. Lord Vishnu "iconography shows him with dark blue, blue-grey or black coloured skin, and as a well-dressed jewelled man", to quote an expert. Several of Hindu Goddesses too appear as black – one of them being Goddess Kali or Mahakaali.
Those interested may read Geeta Pandey's article and or Vaishnavi Siripurapu's here

Comments

Dr Maya Valecha said…
This is exactly I thought. Racist are those who think looking like African is bad.
Ex-editor, TOI said…
OBC guju like ( you know Who)
Anthropology has a tradition of studying races and cultures. Races and Culture of Gujarat is a famous book. Anthropology also says that race is okay, but racism is non-scientific. Pitroda spoke about racial features, not about racism.
Racial difference has nothing to do with IQ or development.
The real tragedy is that the role of an intellectual is to make contradictions apparent, whereas the role of a politician is to manage contradictions. This being so intellectuals are less likely to succeed in politics.
HC said…
What he said,
Those terms are used by even villagers.
PG Ramrakhiani said…
Sam Pitroda should stick to his core excellence . And he should read a lot more books on sociology and anthropology which have recently been published on the origins of Indians . We are quite a mixture . Saurashtra for instance has many types of castes originating from different parts of the neighbouring regions even within districts . Kathis Rajputs of various hues , Kolis and even the blacksmith variety Pitroda comes from illustrate .
No doubt , Eastern India has a strong Mongoloid migration and their surnames like Baraman reveal their origin .
Pitroda having lived in the States for decades would be sensitive to how cautiously the Americans treat the issue of race !
Disappointing that he’s given a handle to the BJP to attack the Congress !
He should stick to guiding and mentoring Rahul Gandhi . Now Rahul has at last come of age.
Khursheed Latif said…
Yes the problem was how can he say we( people from certain area) look like Africans/ Black if he would have said most Indians look like Goras then no problem.
Madhu Menon said…
I liked your viewpoint, why one should be embarrassed if called African like? You said it correctly that it is a middle class tentancy to identify people with names like gora kaala chinki etc. As you said it was a casual reference by Pitroda, using a common man's language. The problem is that he is not a common man and unfortunately it is election time ..Modi and BJP got one more stick. PS: I remember Gujaratis calling all South Indians Madrasi. And Keralites always took it as an offence
I had a brief association with Pitroda and travelled with him to his native and planned a series of documentaries titled "Re Discovery of India"... but eventually it did not work out.

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