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India: Combating a regressive media in India

Wednesday 22 April 2020, by siawi3


Combating a regressive media in India

Jawed Naqvi

Updated April 21, 2020

UNDER the prevailing conditions in India, when a majority of TV channels and leading newspapers have become an appendage of right-wing state policies, a tested approach to an adversarial media is to studiously ignore it.

Be assured it’s not a pacifist approach. In fact, it works so well that Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Yadav, Mayawati, as also the left parties on their day, have benefited from it. They have all won elections in the face of sustained state-sponsored media hostility, thereby exposing the overstated reach the idiot box is credited with.

The government, the primary user of TV in India, is quite aware that the efficacy in its propaganda machinery lies in the success of its reach. It was thus that it showed its desperation recently, when millions spilled onto the streets from a badly planned pandemic lockdown.

The response was so starkly reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s hopeless moment when she lifted the emergency. The crowds headed for Delhi’s Ramlila grounds to join the opposition rally when Mrs Gandhi pulled out an ace. She got Doordarshan, the state TV, to screen the most popular movie of the day, Bobby. But the movie lovers preferred on this day to mill around the opposition leaders instead.

There’s little new in the prejudice other than a more current peg to hang it on — the runaway virus.

Not too dissimilar was the current government’s attempt to rein in the chaos it unleashed by re-releasing a popular TV serial from Rajiv Gandhi’s days, the Ramayana. But the famished masses were least interested in watching TV. A quaint Hindi saying described the dire situation: “Bhookhe bhajan na hoey Gopala.” To sing or hear a devotional song one still needs a morsel of food in the tummy.

The late Marxist poet Gorakh Pandey said it equally musically. “Bina roti ke na jhankai sitar sajani.” With no bread to eat, the sitar’s resonating strings go flat.

There is a second approach to handling the regressive media. Let’s call it the Arundhati Roy way. Taking a barrage of questions head-on about rumours of a troubled marriage and her alleged fondness for cannabis at a press conference she had called to explain her opposition to the Narmada dam 20 years ago, the writer was at her cryptic best. “I have a house stuffed with drugs and I am not a virgin. But please don’t build the dam.”

Apply Roy’s prescription to the ongoing trouble with TV channels. What’s the running story people are watching and what should they be seeing instead? Muslims. Indian Muslims. They spread disease, the anchors claim, and not so obliquely. Thanks to a thoughtless and ill-timed gathering at the international headquarters of the Tableeghi Jamaat in Delhi during the viral outbreak, much of the criticism is valid, but not the generalisation. What follows is a scream.

Muslim fruit vendors are being forced by vigilantes with the tacit support of the police to shut down their businesses. A Muslim guard was dismissed because the residents of the Delhi house he was guarding at peril to his life had got the disease. They blamed the guard, but the guard was declared free of the coronavirus. A pregnant woman was shunted between hospitals in Varanasi where the people turned her away because of her religion.

Yet, remember, much of this we have seen in 2002 when there was no pandemic, and in Delhi more recently. There’s little new in the prejudice other than a more current peg to hang it on — the runaway virus. The Hindu-Muslim binary is the traction the TV channels need to ply their trade.

What do the people expect and what are they getting? Much of the problem is aggravated in the minds of our TV addict friends. They like watching the horror movies only to complain about the inevitable gore. In fact, they watch the same horror story every day and come out retching.

In Roy’s view, not losing the focus of one’s objective is handy advice at the best and worst of times. The dam was built, of course, and its horrific consequences also turned out as predicted, an unmitigated disaster for the poor and the environment alike. On the other hand, her remarks were too cutting for the TV channels to carry, for doing so would expose the foundations of yellow journalism that much of the Indian media has surrendered to.

Discerning news gluttons would be wondering aloud: alright, that’s the Muslim story but how does that explain the dispossessed and stranded millions? How does that explain the untenable assault on The Wire portal, the arrest of outspoken intellectuals, including a Dalit writer?

What the channels are not keen to tell our TV addicts is that the swarming prejudice has not spared anyone. People from the northeast have been attacked racially. Christian citizens and their churches have been raided in different parts of India, most of all in Uttar Pradesh during the current outbreak. Dalits have suffered at the hands of mobs as usual. There has also been a report of a lynching of the poorest tribes’ folks in Maharashtra with attempts to give it a Hindu-Muslim colour.

The Hindu-Muslim fixation suits two constituencies but has little or no relevance for the wider strife in India. It certainly doesn’t interest the Kashmiris, who feel betrayed by Hindus and Muslims alike, particularly the Muslim clergy. Every communally laced report shores up Muslim clerics. And that could be the reason that while Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists showed up in Shaheen Bagh in solidarity, we cannot find a Muslim cleric, apart from a few individuals, standing in solidarity with other harassed Indians. The TV channels will not tell you this, but the Muslim clerics are their best-kept secret.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi