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Shoe throwing: India's passionate fling

Politicians are ducking flying footwear in India. Officials are beefing up security, even asking supporters to go barefoot. Some Westerners might smile, but there's a deeper message to this trend.

April 20, 2009|Mark Magnier

NEW DELHI — 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 of his shoes at then-President 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 is this so endemic that shoe hurling will 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 five feet away.

Although his question may 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 said, 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 popular 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 81-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 on Friday, protesters threw shoes at the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi after Beijing 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 Gujarat state, build an iron safety net to stop airborne shoes in mid-flight.

"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.

Gujarat anthropologist Shiv Vishwanathan says the latest bit of acting out is, to some extent, a creation of the media, which welcomes 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 the people's honor, he says, as in "they're all old shoes, these old politicians."

Though many are amused by the whole thing, there's a deeper message here. Shoes and shoe throwing are serious insults in much of Asia.

In India, pointing the soles of your shoes at people, particularly a member of the elite, has special resonance in this complex, varied society.

Historically, lower castes have been associated with the feet, sociologists said, while upper castes have embodied the head or top ranks of the social order.

"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."

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mark.magnier@latimes.com

Pavitra Ramaswamy in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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