Elections

Decoding Sam Pitroda’s Remark: Misinterpretation Of Intent And Context

Sam Pitroda's remarks may have been informed by his experiences navigating the complexities of Indian society, where diversity is not just a reality but a foundational aspect of national identity

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Former Indian Overseas Congress Chairperson, inventor, telecommunication engineer and entrepreneur Satyanarayan Gangaram Pitroda (Sam Pitroda) attends a conference at the Brussels Press Club on September 8, 2023 in Brussels, Belgium. Photo: Getty Images
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My exceptionally intelligent and insightful friend Juliet, whom we affectionately call Jules, shared her perspective on the current controversy surrounding Sam Pitroda’s remark. “Those amplifying this outcry over the statement could arguably be deemed as harbouring racist attitudes, given that they perceive any association with Africans as inherently negative due to the colour of their skin,” she said. I could not agree with her more.

The recent uproar stems from a misinterpretation of Pitroda’s words. The reactions were faster than the understanding of the context and intent behind the statement. Intent is crucial because it shapes the meaning and interpretation of actions or statements. When we assess someone’s words or deeds, understanding their intent allows us to grasp the underlying motivation behind their behaviour. I watched with rapt attention, the interview that sparked the uproar. I noticed many things and also came away with a few thoughts that might not necessarily resonate with the current opinion of the majority.

The so-called congress">statement was lifted very conveniently from an interview he gave wherein he shared his thoughts on democracy in India. Pitroda said, "Over the past 75 years, we have thrived in a harmonious environment where people have coexisted, despite occasional disputes. We’ve managed to unite a nation as diverse as India, where individuals in the east resemble those from China, in the west, like Arabs, in the north, like Europeans, and perhaps in the south, like Africans." And, he went on to say, "It doesn’t matter. We are all brothers and sisters." "We all respect different languages, different religions, customs, and food." Somewhere, he also says: "That’s the India that I believe in, where everybody has a place and everybody compromises a little bit."

I took note of the body language, which is crucial as it conveys subtle cues and emotions that words alone may not express. In the case of Sam Pitroda, his body language during the interview reflected pride and not an iota of disdain for his fellowmen as was made out to be. It stemmed from a composed mind, meticulously considering the precision of his words, recognising India’s diversity as a fundamental aspect of its identity. To those who took the time to listen to the entire interview, it becomes apparent (even if not openly acknowledged) that Pitroda’s intention behind his contentious statement was a sincere effort to highlight India’s unity. 

He laid the foundation of his argument on the premise that India, being a land of diversity, shares numerous commonalities with cultures beyond its borders. His message extends far beyond physical appearances, delving into deeper implications of cultural affinity and shared humanity. It was also deeper than the skin tone and shade as people who misinterpreted his remarks made it out to be. 

Given the paucity of time in interviews, he understandably did not go on to flesh out the affinities, for which he faced the nation’s fury. For instance, Northeast India, as a region, shares several cultural similarities with China, primarily influenced by historical interactions and geographical proximity. Ethnic groups share linguistic and cultural ties to East and Southeast Asia, including communities like the Ahom’s, who migrated from what is now southern China to the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam centuries ago.

Additionally, the common thread that runs through both regions is the rich tradition of tea cultivation and consumption. Tea plays a significant role in social customs and trade. Moreover, the cuisine of Northeast India often features ingredients and cooking techniques similar to those found in Chinese cuisine, reflecting cross-cultural culinary exchanges over time. These cultural affinities highlight the multifaceted connections between Northeast India and China, shaped by historical, religious, economic, and social interactions.

In that vein, West India, encompassing states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Goa, has deep-rooted historical and cultural ties with the Arab world, forged over centuries of maritime trade along the Arabian Sea coast. Trade hubs, exchange of goods, ideas, and cultural influences between India and the Arabian Peninsula have indeed existed. This extensive trade network not only facilitated the movement of commodities like spices and textiles but also led to the interchange of languages, architecture, and religious beliefs. Moreover, West Indian culinary traditions bear the imprint of Arab influences, with dishes like biryani and kebabs showcasing a fusion of Indian and West Asian flavours. 

These historical and cultural affinities highlight the enduring connections between West India and the Arab world, shaping the region’s rich heritage and identity. Despite the geographical distance between South India and Africa, there are several historical, cultural, and linguistic affinities that the two regions share. Historically, South India had extensive maritime trade connections with various regions, including Africa. And to think that all indignation is over a remark on resemblance to Africans and Chinese, and no one seemed to object to being told North Indians looked like Europeans, in itself reeks of racial double standards. 

In reality, North India exhibits a diverse range of physical features and genetic backgrounds influenced by centuries of migration, intermixing, and cultural exchange. In that light, Pitroda’s statement was devoid of racial innuendo. 

As another wise friend offered, "He could have worded his statement differently." But then, it must also be given that Pitroda isn’t a “politician” and certainly not what my North Indian friends term a “Meethi Churi” (sweet knife) to describe someone who appears harmless or sweet on the surface but may actually be deceptive or manipulative. Those who know Pitroda would agree.

Considering the context in which Pitroda made his statement is paramount to understanding its true meaning and intent. Pitroda’s background as a technocrat and political figure in India provides an important context. As someone deeply engaged in development initiatives and technology-driven projects, Pitroda certainly holds a broad perspective on issues related to governance, democracy, and societal progress. His remarks may have been informed by his experiences navigating the complexities of Indian society, where diversity is not just a reality but a foundational aspect of national identity. Even if we consider G20’s theme of ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future,’ which is drawn from the ancient Sanskrit text of the Maha Upanishad, it confirms India’s endorsement and belief in an interconnected world.

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It would also be worthwhile to zoom in on Pitroda’s own personal history as an Indian immigrant who has lived and worked in various parts of the world. This experience may have certainly shaped his understanding of diversity and multiculturalism. His experiences of engaging with people from diverse backgrounds could have influenced his belief in the capacity of nations like India to foster unity amidst diversity. In another interview, Sam Pitroda, who stepped down as the chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress, following this episode, objected to the use of the terms “naukar" and “naukarani” (servant) as he believed they were demeaning. He advocated for doing away with such terms, emphasising that individuals working in household roles are human beings and should be referred to simply as house helps. Would a person as sensitive and empathetic have intended to demean the rest of his countrymen?

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As for me, someone from the Northeast, I have first-hand experience with racial slurs. I know by now and discern with wit what constitutes and what does not constitute racial slur. Racism takes various forms and manifestations, including overt racism, which is explicit and easily recognisable. A tragic example is the death of an Arunachali youth Nido Tania in 2014, solely because of his appearance. Moreover, during the COVID-19 pandemic, racism against Northeast Indians had intensified, with numerous reported cases of derogatory terms like “corona,” verbal abuse, physical assaults, and discriminatory treatment in urban areas. A racial slur is also when people tend to judge women from the Northeast as “loose” or “easy.”

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Additionally, there’s covert racism, known as systemic or institutional racism, which operates more subtly within societal structures and norms. This form perpetuates racial inequality and disadvantages certain racial or ethnic groups, often without explicit intent. Hate speech loosely floating around is also some kind of institutional racism. But then again, it also boils down to who is the one speaking or delivering those speeches.

Whilst, Pitroda’s statement was not intended to be racist, it’s also the socio-political climate at the time of his statement that truly made it stand out. The controversy surrounding Pitroda’s statement stems from many assumptions. While the intent was completely missed, there appeared to have been a strong desire to use it as an opportunity to tarnish the party he belongs to and to deliberately misinterpret his words. As a result, Pitroda faced backlash from various quarters, including his own party, who should have stood by him, knowing fully well that the thinking man never had the slightest intention of demeaning his own country. In the end, as my friend Juls says, “They are making a big thing out of it because of the election.” Perhaps, that’s what it is.

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(Views expressed are personal)

Hoihnu Hauzel is an independent journalist. She is the founder of www.northeastodyssey.com  and www.thenestories.com

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