Flinging Footwear, With a Message, in India

By Mark Magnier
(c) 2009, Los Angeles Times

NEW DELHI, India -- If the shoe fits, throw it, or so many people in India seem to believe these days.

Taking a cue from Iraqi journalist Muntather Zaidi, who earned a year in jail for his "real-time editorializing" after hurling both his shoes at then-President George W. Bush, India has witnessed a flurry of flying footwear in recent weeks.

These missiles of malcontent have left politicians on edge and prompted inquiring minds to ponder: Why can't journalists aim better? Do they get their shoes back? And will shoe hurling become a required subject at journalism schools?

"It's become an epidemic," said Ashis Nandy, a political psychologist.

First off the mark here was local reporter Jarnail Singh, who got into a heated exchange with Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram this month. At issue was why a prominent lawmaker of the same party was cleared of all charges in the death of 3,000 Sikhs after he was accused of firing up a sectarian mob a quarter of a century ago. As blood pressures soared at the news conference, Singh, himself a Sikh, launched his size-9 Reebok sneaker at the minister, who was standing just five feet away.

Although his question might have been "on target, his shoe was not," one news portal noted. "Perhaps he will practice some more at a nearby shoe-throwing range."

Fame of the 15-minute variety quickly followed. The Shiromani Akali Dal, a Sikh political party, offered Singh a $4,000 reward for his "courage and bravery." And several people pushed for an auction so they could acquire the offending item.

Singh responded that hurling was a not-for-profit activity aimed at making a point. And anyway, he added, the police who grabbed it for evidence still haven't given it back. No charges have been filed.

A few days later, a 64-year-old retired school principal threw a shoe at Congress Party lawmaker Naveen Jindal during an election rally. Let out on bail after a short time, hurler Rajbal Singh Saharan explained that he hadn't aimed at Jindal as much as India's political system. Returning home inebriated that day, he said, he saw the rally and became enraged at the false promises of politicians at a time when his son had just lost his job.

This was followed Thursday by a slipper attack directed at Lal Krishna Advani, an 82-year-old opposition candidate for prime minister, by a member of his Bharatiya Janata Party angry at being pushed out of a leadership position. And Friday, protesters threw shoes at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi after China sentenced to death two Tibetans for their role in March 2008 riots in Lhasa.

With India in the midst of a monthlong national election, the growing number of shoe protestations has prompted officials to tighten security, ask party workers and supporters to come barefoot or, in Gujurat state, build an iron safety net to stop airborne shoes in midflight.

"Flying footwear are now the weapons of mass distraction," noted a headline in the Mail Today newspaper last week.

Even as some throw shoes, responded a blogger, millions of Indians are too poor to own or wear shoes. "Appeal (to) these leaders to create some job opportunities in your country so we can get jobs and earn some money to buy shoes," the SiliconIndia.com commentator wrote.

Although shoe throwing is all the rage, it's hardly a new form of social or political protest. Noted Indian writer and social reformer Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar became so angry at the depiction of an Indian farmworker assaulting a woman in the mid-19th-century play "Nil Darpan" that he threw his shoe at the stage.

The actor immediately picked it up, the story goes and touched it to his own head, suggesting he was deeply honored that his depiction could engender such fury.

Gujarat anthropologist Shiv Vishwanathan says the latest bit of acting out is, to some extent, a creation of the media, which welcome controversy and a new spin on traditional electoral politics. It's also a way for the disgruntled to signal that so-called elites don't deserve our honor, he added, as in "they're all old shoes, these old politicians."

Although many are amused by the whole thing, there's a deeper message here. Shoes and shoe throwing are serious insults in much of Asia, to the point where those in India who really hate someone sometimes adorn their portrait with a garland of old shoes.

Pointing the soles of your shoes at people in India, particularly a member of the elite, has special resonance in this complex society. Historically, lower castes have been associated with feet, sociologists said, while upper castes embody the head or top ranks of the social order.

Shoemakers also have tended to be from the dalit, or "untouchable," caste since, in a society where cows are sacred, this profession has been called up to handle cattle carcasses.

"In Hollywood films, you sometimes see a woman put her feet on the hero's lap, on the sofa," said Nandy, the political psychologist. "That would be unimaginable here."

^Pavitra Ramaswamy in the Times' New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.<

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