Mumbai IAS officer transferred after tweet on Mahatma Gandhi: Media's cynical outrage cycles, politicians' biases fanned controversy

तुम कहोगे वो व्यंग्य का तंज ना समझ पाए
काव्य का रस क्या समझेंगे ।
फिर तुम्हारी कविता के एक एक अक्षर की होगी चीरफाड़
और फिर से तुम पर सब बरसेंगे ।

(You’ll say, they didn’t even get the taunt of sarcasm
What will they get of the essence of poetry.
Again each letter of your poem will be torn apart
And they’ll rain down on you again.)

Nidhi Choudhari — IAS officer, self-published poet, author, and gold medallist in three masters' degrees — wrote the above as part of a 112 line poem on Facebook on 4 June. The previous day she had been transferred out due to political pressure and Twitter outrage over her 17 May tweet, where she wrote over an image of Mohandas Gandhi on his deathbed:

 Mumbai IAS officer transferred after tweet on Mahatma Gandhi: Medias cynical outrage cycles, politicians biases fanned controversy

Choudhari had tweeted this sarcastically the day after Sadhvi Pragya Thakur, during her successful election campaign for the Lok Sabha, called Mahatma Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse a "desh bhakt". Unfortunately for Choudhari, many on Twitter didn’t get the irony of her tweet and condemned her for such ‘venomous’ thoughts about the Father of the Nation. The tweet got so much negative response that she was forced to delete it and issue an explanation on 31 May.

Never mind that if you'd browsed Choudhari’s full thread of her original tweet, you’d have seen that from the very first day she had been clarifying that she was actually lamenting the desecration of Gandhi’s memory, and condemning the recent valorisation of Godse, especially in Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary year.

nidhi 2-min

In fact, at last count Choudhari has tweeted half a dozen times more explaining her long-held devotion for Gandhi’s teachings, how she was misinterpreted, as well as, evidence of her much older tweets quoting Gandhi, thanking him for his work or taking pictures of herself with Gandhi’s photos and statues. “Gandhi Ji inspires me daily and I keep posting his quotes very regularly… His tweets are needed more today than any other time,” she wrote back in April this year.

However, by now the media had caught wind of the brewing controversy online and decided to jump in. Most headlines about the affair led with counter-factual and sensational claims of Choudhari’s 'anti-Gandhi', 'derogatory' tweet that 'hailed Godse'. The reports usually either never mentioned Choudhari’s real sarcastic intent and didn’t report her multiple clarifications, or at best buried them as an afterthought at the bottom. And some decided to report Choudhari’s version but damn her nevertheless with an outright misrepresentation of facts: Mumbai IAS officer thanks Nathuram Godse for killing Mahatma Gandhi. Deletes tweet after backlash.

Much of the mainstream media is engaged in daily catchup with the latest trending outrage on social media, and their news cycle often ends up exaggerating and prolonging such tepid indignations.

Unfortunately for IAS officer Nidhi Choudhari, many on Twitter didn’t get the irony of her tweet and condemned her for such ‘venomous’ thoughts about the Father of the Nation.

Unfortunately for IAS officer Nidhi Choudhari, many on Twitter didn’t get the irony of her tweet and condemned her for such ‘venomous’ thoughts about the Father of the Nation.

The ensuing row widened with politicians condemning Choudhari as well, once again conveniently ignoring her public explanations of sarcasm. Jitendra Awhad of the National Congress Party (NCP) called for her immediate suspension, while party chief Sharad Pawar wrote to the Maharashtra chief minister asking for “exemplary action” against her. Maharashtra Congress chief Ashok Chavan demanded her suspension and a case to be lodged against her for disrespecting Gandhi. Delhi's deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia and Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala also condemned her.

Apparently, the NCP also carried out a protest against Choudhari at Mumbai’s Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) headquarters.

As a result, the 2012 batch IAS officer was issued a show cause notice as well as given transfer orders from being the BMC deputy municipal commissioner to deputy secretary at the Water Supply and Sanitation Department. She will now reportedly be “a cog in the wheel” whereas she was an administrative in charge in the last two postings.

One former BMC colleague has called her 'sensitive and outspoken', adding that he believed her version of events and was surprised at how non-BJP politicians had gone after her: "She was deeply hurt by Malegaon blast accused Pragya Thakur’s candidature and her remarks on slain IPS officer Hemant Karkare and later Godse…I was worried about her (Choudhari). I thought hardcore BJP karyakartas may target her. But, it turned out to be entirely the opposite."

Retired IAS officer V Ramani came to Choudhari's defence, and tweeted: “From my IAS cadre...if you see her TL, it is clear that this was intended sarcastically. From what I have seen of her SM postings, she is well-intentioned. Time to forget and move on..”

Prominent Twitterati has bemoaned this sequence of events as evidence of how contemporary Indians don't get sarcasm, but actually, it's much worse than that.

This is about the cynical outrage cycles of the media and the equally cynical point-making by politicians, all of whom must have surely seen and ignored Choudhari's explicit clarifications on May 31st – well before the outrage started. It is also about the same politicians' utter cowardice in taking on, or even just talking about, the real Gandhi haters in our midst like the newly elected terror-accused MP Pragya Thakur. Which of these same politicians are willing to publicly take up cudgels against Thakur and her followers?

To his credit, Mahatma Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi defended Choudhuri, her freedom to speech, and condemned the “uncalled for” controversy as well as her transfer. In fact, he went further to say that “Bapu's picture should be removed from notes and postage stamps. The institutions, roads named after him should be renamed because Babu [sic] does not live there, he lives in the hearts of his followers and even in the hearts of his haters.”

Choudhari’s poem of 4 June expresses pain at being so stubbornly ‘misunderstood’, mourns how we’ve forgotten Gandhi’s lessons and takes a defiant stand to not stay silent like the hypocritical politicians.

तुम कहोगे चुप रहना होता बेहतर
चुप्पी ही तो सबने पहनी है ।

(You’ll say it’d be better to stay silent
After all, silence is what everyone is wearing.)

Even in the midst of explaining herself, Choudhari has continued to reaffirm her belief in irony. On 1 June, before launching into the evidence of her past adherence to Gandhi, she first tweeted yet another sharply sarcastic missive:

“Well, I am still awaiting my Gold Medal from University for securing 1st rank in English Literature but it seems studying literary technique wasn't that great an idea.

Should have read Pass Books instead of spending time in library reading reference books”

जब तक ना वो समझेंगे तब तक लिखूँगी
क्यूँकि लिखना हक़ है मेरा ।

(I’ll keep writing even as they keep not understanding
Because writing is my right.)

Choudhari has been true to her word. She penned a second poem on the matter on 5 June, again with the hashtag #WriteBeforeYouAreWrittenOff, this time taking up the matter with a metaphor of Sita’s plight and defiance.

And on 6 June, she said in an interview that she continued to stand by her original tweet: "I deleted the tweet so that more people wouldn’t misread into it, not because it was in bad taste or wrongly worded. I stand for every word of the tweet, which was written in deep anguish over the continued vilification of Gandhiji on social media… Civil servants do not have any less right than others to express their views."

In another interview, she said, “People who do not understand Gandhi are vilifying him on social media. It was a sarcastic take on them. I love writing and have been doing so since childhood. I won’t give up on it unless the government brings out a policy prohibiting it. It is my right to expression.”

So, who's going to publish Nidhi Choudhari’s poems, and hopefully convince her to run for elected office?

Gaurav Jain is the co-founder of The Ladies Finger (TLF), India’s leading online feminist magazine.

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Updated Date: Jun 06, 2019 17:40:54 IST