Latest in Indian Footwear: Protest

Plainclothes police in Ahmedabad detain a man suspected of throwing a shoe at the prime minister, the fourth in a string of shoe-hurling incidents in India.
Plainclothes police in Ahmedabad detain a man suspected of throwing a shoe at the prime minister, the fourth in a string of shoe-hurling incidents in India. (Associated Press)
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 28, 2009

MUMBAI, April 27 -- In India, flying footwear is the new hunger strike, overtaking even the trendy Facebook protest as an expression of civil disobedience.

In the latest in a string of four shoe-hurling incidents during the month-long elections underway across India, a 21-year-old computer science student took aim at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at a sparsely attended rally Sunday in the western city of Ahmedabad.

The shoe, of a yet-to-be-disclosed brand, landed 20 feet from the Oxford-educated economist, who appeared not to notice the tumult. Known for his cerebral, if dry, oratory, Singh, 76, continued to hold forth on economic development, reading from a written speech.

Elsewhere in Ahmedabad on Sunday night, someone lobbed a traditional wooden sandal at prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, an 81-year-old leader of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. It was the second time a sandal of conscience has been launched in Advani's direction this election season.

"Joota: The ultimate nonviolent weapon," a front-page headline in the Mumbai Mirror tabloid read Monday, using the Hindi word for shoe. An editorial cartoon in the paper showed shoes being handed back to hurlers on silk pillows with a new wristwatch inside, "to get around the Election Commission's code against bribing voters," the caption read.

The shoe-as-missile-of-discontent appears to have been inspired by Muntadar al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who lobbed both his shoes at President George W. Bush in December. Zaidi became an international hero. But he also drew a year in prison.

In India, New Delhi journalist Jarnail Singh kicked off the "shoe bite," as the gesture is known here, when he threw a shoe at the home minister during a news conference this month in the capital. He said he was frustrated by the minister's reply to a question about riots in 1984 in which hundreds of Sikhs were killed.

Singh instantly became a national celebrity and was flooded with marriage proposals, boxes of sweets and even money. But he politely refused everything, saying that his shoe-throwing was a "nonprofit exercise."

The gesture resonates with many of India's poor and often illiterate voters, who say they do not have opportunities to question leaders about issues such as corruption, a common problem in this hierarchical society. Politicians rarely deal with the public in unscripted moments, except during elections.

"Shoe-throwing is a real expression of the frustration of the people," said Anil Bairwal of National Election Watch, a watchdog group. "But you have to consider that citizens are at a loss for what to do. For too long, they have hoped that the parties would improve themselves, be progressive, put the right people in the seats and work for the betterment of the people. But none of that has happened."

Throwing one's shoe at someone is seen as a powerful insult across South Asia and much of the Middle East. Indians rarely wear shoes indoors after being out in the often unsanitary streets. Showing the sole of a shoe is also considered an act of disrespect.

So far, no one who has thrown a shoe in India has been jailed. Some pundits here say that is a sign of the health of the world's largest democracy. Others say politically astute leaders realize that arresting the offenders may only make them bigger heroes -- and politicians bigger villains -- in the public's eyes.

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