Does Professor Jagdish Bhagwati have a black friend?

Substitute black with Christian/Muslim/Parsi and that’s pretty much what the renowned economist tried to prove using almost half a column in Mint this week.

The topic Bhagwati wanted to bring a little “sanity” to (as he told Barkha Dutt on NDTV) was the Christians-under-threat narrative he’s been seeing out there in the media.

But in order to establish his “credentials” to do this the eminent Dr. Bhagwati decided to pull out a Brahmastra – his family album.

This is what he learned about Dr. Bhagwati even before we learned anything about the “false alarm” of Christian persecution.

His wife Padma Desai converted to Christianity.

Screengrab of  Jagdish BhagwatiScreengrab of  Jagdish Bhagwati

File photo of Jagdish Bhagwati. Agencies.

Two nephews have married Christians. And not just ordinary run-of-the-mill Christians. One is a “multiple award-winning psychiatrist practicing in London and presently in Mumbai”. The other is merely a Syrian Christian, presumably non-award-winning.

His daughter’s significant other for years was a Christian.

One niece is married to a Parsi.

His two closest friends are a Muslim reformer and a Sikh former prime minister.

And if that’s not enough, here’s the grand revelation that seals the deal and conclusively establishes Professor Bhagwati’s credentials – one niece “almost married” a Muslim young man.

Mind you Professor Bhagwati also has data and arguments that both sides can debate but he spends some 300 words on his family laundry list before he can actually get to them. It’s as if this world-famous economist feels compelled to offer up an “almost marriage” certificate before he can offer up an actual argument to prove the point he wants to make.

Surely the Columbia University professor knows that “I have a black friend” or “I have a gay friend” is about the lamest argument you can offer to prop up any case.

Number one it’s simply lazy. It sounds like you are not convinced of the strength of your data and arguments and need to fall back on the family crutch. The personal anecdote adds colour but rarely advances the argument.

Bhagwati is hardly the only offender. His column is partly in response to former top cop Julio Ribeiro’s emotional “stranger in my own country” lament in Indian Express. Ribeiro feels not welcome in India anymore in a country where an RSS chief has an “outburst” against Mother Teresa and churches are vandalized.

But then he offers up two personal examples, even though he resists plucking them from the family tree, to show that he is not painting all Hindus with the same brush. A Brahmin couple take a selfie with him in Lonavla. And a group of middle-aged Maharashtrians recognizes him and stops to greet him and talk.

It “warmed the cockles of his heart” but again proves nothing. In fact it only reinforces the point that nothing has happened to Ribeiro personally to make him feel a stranger in his own country. Many people said many things about Mother Teresa all her life. Presumably Ribeiro did not take it that personally then. The personal anecdotes he cites fly in the face of his own argument. And anyway the fact that some Brahmin couple wants a selfie with him proves nothing one way or the other in the larger argument about whether Christians are warranted in feeling under siege or not.

The other problem with using friends and family as arguments is it’s a way of hiding behind them. An argument has to rise and fall on the basis of logic and facts, not on the strength of a friends-and-family network. But it’s tempting because anyone attacking the argument can sound like they are attacking the family, making it all nastily personal. However family albums are hardly a reliable litmus test for our personal ideologies or lack of bias. And we anyway use them selectively. If someone asked Dr. Subramanian Swamy what his Muslim son-in-law thinks about his idea that only Muslims who acknowledge their Hindu ancestry be allowed to vote in India, that would be rightly regarded as an unwarranted breach of privacy, dragging his family into the debate willy nilly. But in a Caravan profile, Dr. Subramanian Swamy blithely offered up his family as Exhibit A for his personal lack of bias to Samanth Subramaniam.

“Once, standing in an airport shuttle at the end of a long day, Swamy indicated that any relationship with the Hindu right could only ever be strategic for him. “It isn’t emotional for me. It can’t be, given my family,” he said. “I’m married to a Parsi, my son-in-law [Nadeem Haider] is a Muslim, [and] there are Christians and Jews in my extended family. So I can’t very well go about saying that these people are inferior, or whatever else it is that they say.””

But the worst thing about using friends and family as a prophylactic against criticism is that it actually robs the real issue of the heft it deserves. Whether Christians feel nervous and under siege in India or not is an important issue. Whether there is real data to justify that is equally important. But by splaying his family album out there for the world to see, Bhagwati ends up distracting from his own argument.

Instead of wondering whether indeed the fears are overblown we are left curious about why that niece never married that young Muslim man. And that surely could not have been Bhagwati’s intent.

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