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Was Atul Kochhar unfairly targeted?

Is it important what a chef’s political views are?

Why are they the business of anyone other than the chef himself? And, to cut to the chase: was Atul Kochhar unfairly targeted?


Here’s a brief summary of what happened.


   A couple of weeks ago, Quantico, the US TV show starring Priyanka Chopra as an FBI/CIA  agent broadcast an episode with a plot line involving a nuclear threat. Though, the obvious suspects were Islamist terrorists, the intrepid Alex Parrish (the character played by Priyanka), found evidence (a rudraksh mala) which proved that the threat came from Hindu extremists who were trying to pin the blame on Islamists.


   I haven’t seen the episode but everyone I know who has seen it says that plot is absurd and illogical. However, the phrase “absurd and illogical” could be applied to the whole of Quantico so this should not come as a big surprise.


   Indians were offended that Priyanka should have been party to a show that suggested that there were Hindu terrorists and an outcry followed. (Arabs and Pakistanis have been offended by the way they are portrayed on American TV for decades; but that’s another story.) The network and Priyanka apologised and the uproar appeared to have died down.


   It turned out that one of the outraged Hindus who had watched Quantico was Atul Kochhar, the famous London Indian chef who was at Tamarind when it won a Michelin star and then, after he left, was the chef at Benares which also won a Michelin star. (Which, like Tamarind, it has retained over the years.)


   Kochhar runs (is a partner in or is a consultant to) many restaurants around the world, one of which is (now was) Rang Mahal at the Marriott Marquis hotel in Dubai. He once had two restaurants in Mumbai but both seem to have closed down.


   Clearly, Kochhar was not behind the stove when that episode of Quantico was aired because he tweeted to Priyanka Chopra: “It is sad to see that you have not respected the sentiments of Hindus who have been terrorised by Islam for 2000 years. Shame on you!”


   The tweet itself was no different from the kind of abuse directed at Chopra from Hindutva-aligned handles and control rooms. But because a famous chef was involved, it drew attention. Many people pointed out that Hindus could not have been terrorised by Islam for 2000 years because, well, Islam had not been around for 2000 years.


   But was the tweet bigoted as Kochchar’s critics went on to claim? There is no doubt that Muslim rulers did invade India. And there is also no doubt that some of them behaved with great brutality towards Hindus.


   There are some standard tests to judge whether a statement is fair comment or whether it expresses a bigoted view. Did the tweet refer to specific instances? Or did it set out to attack an entire religion or a whole community? Did it seek to use the injustices of the past to colour relations between communities in the present day?


   Judged on all those standards, there were clear problems with the tweet. Kochhar singled out an entire religion (Islam), not specific Islamic rulers or even Islamic rulers of India in general. To characterise an entire religion as having “terrorised” people is clearly bigoted.


   Secondly Kochhar was attempting to link the past and the present. His tweet was a response to a TV show set in the present. Yet, his objections to it dated back 2000 years. Even if Muslim rulers had terrorised Hindus in the past, how was this relevant in a comment on a current TV show?


   Today’s Muslims are not the ones who may have ‘terrorised Hindus’ centuries ago. And why bring up the past anyway when it has no relevance to a US TV show’s present-day plot-line?


   Wisely, Kochhar did not attempt to defend the tweet. He deleted it once the uproar broke and posted an apology. When that first apology (he said sorry for not knowing that Islam was not a 2000-year-old religion) was considered not effective enough, he sent out a second apology in which he conceded that what he had said was wrong.


   That should have enough. But it wasn’t. Kochhar’s supporters kept up a social media barrage and asked: didn’t he have the right to say what he believed? Why was he being forced to apologise for his Freedom of Expression?


   His critics on social media said that the tweet was clearly bigoted. And if Kochhar had bigoted views on Muslims, then why should he run a restaurant in a Muslim country? Many people complained to the Marriott Marquis in Dubai which, announced that it would terminate Kochhar’s association with Rang Mahal. (The restaurant survives; Kochhar is no longer a consultant.)


   This led to a huge uproar on Indian Twitter, fanned mainly by the Hindu right. Once you got past the abuse of Muslims, the tweets all said the same things. Liberals were too scared to face up to the truth. Muslims had oppressed or “terrorised” Hindus. Why should Kochhar be penalised for speaking the truth? An honest Hindu had lost his livelihood because of Muslims who did not want to face the truth, and their Indian liberal lackeys.


   I am not sure how many favours the Hindu right did Kochhar by taking this position. As far as I can tell, he is trying hard to portray himself as a moderate, liberal, secular figure who made one mistake.


"Kochhar has freedom of expression. But just as he can attack Islam in a tweet, liberals can also attack him for his bigotry."

   Becoming a hero of hatred does not exactly fit in with this image. Nor, I imagine, would he want to be associated with the hateful anti-Muslim things that some of his supporters have posted on Twitter.


   But the Hindu Right’s position on Kochhar is that it does not matter that he has disowned his tweet or that he has denied that it accurately characterised his views. The only reason Kochhar apologised, said people on Twitter, was because he wanted to save his livelihood. The poor man was forced to disown the truth only because he needed to make a living.


   There are several problems with this defence. One: it amounts to saying that Kochhar is an insincere liar whose apologies are worthless. There is no evidence this is true.


   Most of the tweets saying that he did not mean what he said in his apology have come, not only from people who know very little about Kochhar, but from those who had probably never even heard of him before this controversy broke.


   Two: Rang Mahal is not his livelihood. He has many restaurants and his reputation is based on London’s Benares, not on a consultancy at an Indian restaurant in a hotel tower in Dubai, His children will not starve because of the end of the Rang Mahal contract.


   To suggest that Kochchar is prepared to lie and grovel insincerely only to save his Rang Mahal deal is to do him a great disservice.


   That leaves the liberal positions. Were liberals right to complain?


   Yes, I think they were. Kochhar has freedom of expression. But just as he can attack Islam in a tweet, liberals can also attack him for his bigotry.


   What about the Marriott? Well, frankly, I was pretty sure that they would terminate the arrangement with Kochhar once the tweets came to public attention. A few months ago I interviewed Arnie Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott, who talked about the company’s commitment to fighting bigotry and encouraging diversity. Sorenson has come out publicly against President Trump’s Muslim ban so I didn’t think it would take him very long to end Marriott’s association with a man who posted a bigoted tweet.


   There have been suggestions that Kochhar could be prosecuted for his remarks under Dubai’s laws. (Not that he lives in Dubai.) Should that happen, all liberals must bitterly oppose any prosecution of the chef and fight for his right to free speech.


   Yes, I know. Kochhar went to Dubai willingly. He chose to open a restaurant in a country that is not celebrated for its commitment to free speech.


   But it does not follow that therefore he should be prosecuted. Free speech is a universal value and we should stand up for it even if it means defending things we disagree with.


   And what about the rest of us? Should Kochhar’s remarks make any difference to how we respond to him?


   Well, I think that is largely academic. Kochhar no longer has any restaurants in India and I doubt if very many people who are familiar with Indian food will go to Benares anyway. (Though, to be fair, he has a Michelin star and a formidable reputation among Brits.)


   So all talk of a boycott is silly. What will we boycott?


   And in any case, I don’t believe in organising boycotts against people for their views. I will cheerfully boycott a restaurant that discriminates between people on the basis of religion, caste, race, or ethnicity. But Kochhar has never done any of these things as far as I know. In fact, his Hindu right wing apologists may have been shocked to learn how much beef is on his menus or to discover that he organised Iftar dinners in Dubai.


   As far as I am concerned, Kochhar sent out a bigoted tweet. He has apologised and we should move on.


   I have never met the man myself. But people who know him say he is a nice enough chap and are surprised by the views he expressed in that tweet. It may be that he tweets first and thinks later. As the controversy has raged, people have dug up all kinds of damaging old tweets about Rohingyas and about how India needs Hitler. In that sense, Kochhar may be a little like Donald Trump: his friends should stop him from tweeting without thinking.


   As to whether I personally would ever eat at his restaurant again, that is an individual choice. And everyone else should make their own decisions, based on their own moral values.


   There must be no prosecutions and no persecution. And Kochhar should be very worried about becoming the pin-up boy for social media haters and bigots, which, alas, is the situation he now finds himself in.




  • Omang Parab 18 Jun 2018

    How did you manage to avoid sounding all sanctimonious, preach and, sermonising>
    like the dowager says in D Abbey
    "does it get very cold in the moral high ground?'

Posted On: 17 Jun 2018 11:45 AM
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