Pramod Kumar for BeyondHeadlines
The Khaps` diktats limiting the rights of women, the molestation of a young girl by a mob, on camera, in Guwahati and the killing of an Indian fisherman by the trigger happy GI Joes off the coast of Dubai, so reminiscent of Wild West, lost their relevance and news value on 18.7.12 because the death of yesterday`s Super Star Rajesh Khanna had greater traction for the users of News TV. The anchors lost no time in forgetting the outrage against the lawlessness and the loss of Indian lives because the grief for and tributes to the departed Star were more important than mere social aberrations like gender discrimination and lack of respect for law and order.
The News TV, till then was, almost hysterical in its rant against what was termed as the degeneration of Indian society. The channels appeared to be in mortal competition with each other in debunking and denigrating the political class for lack of sensitivity about the plight of women in our society. The police also came under media scanner for its dereliction of duty. The media turned into a lynch mob (no similarity with that of Guwahati, please note) and asked for not only immediate arrest of anti-social elements but their trial and sentencing too without due process. However, there was also a subtle shift of focus once the suspicion arose that media could have played an ignoble part in the Guwahati incident. It shifted from the state of Indian society to the alleged insensitivity of NCW Representative and Chief Minister`s office in releasing the name and picture of the victim. The anchors put such insensitive persons at par with the rowdies and demanded their scalps. The Opposition parties joined in the hysteria quite forgetting that such lapses are not uncommon for these reflect the true state of concern which people have for victims. In case of Khaps too, the focus shifted from the fact that people are still under thrall of obscurantist and feudalistic mind-set where individual`s rights have no validity or sanctity to the role of young Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh.
The media, till then, was apoplectic in demanding explanations for the delay in arresting the culprits. It also wanted India to assert itself against America and not let it play with the lives of Indians. The outrage displayed on the screens by anchors was so contagious that anchors forgot about their journalistic duty to question the authenticity and why the cameras rolled for almost half-an hour to record the sordid video. But what has now become a regular feature of news dissemination, the channels kept playing and replaying the same video for hours and even days to raise the emotional pitch. Ordinarily, the people indulging in hooliganism and criminal activity fear cameras but in this case they looked into the camera and smirked as if they were playing some game. This too should have prompted the anchors to question the purpose of rolling the camera for about 30 minutes even if the purpose was, as claimed by the media unit which recorded and released the video on YouTube, to help identify the culprits.
The anchors, it seemed, were quite satisfied with what was essentially a shallow and superficial treatment of above events. It is ironic that their hyper-ventilation of (simulated) outrage against the conduct of political class and the police was at variance with their role as journalists. The media has neither inclination nor intellectual honesty to treat these social aberrations in proper perspective or even holistically. Such events are used as sticks to attack the political class and law and order situation. The outrage, pretended or otherwise, also comes in handy to give anchors a veneer of social activism and not that of being mere caterers of sleaze and trivia to their main clientele.
These incidents are but symptoms and the rot runs much deeper and seems almost intractable in society which is male dominated, feudalistic and traditionally hide-bound. Ours is a complex society where discrimination has been a way of life for millenniums. The upper castes/class has been perpetrating indignities and barbarities on the lower castes and tribals for ages. They are treated as bonded labour and their women as means of gratification. The mandated histories may not have recorded sexual exploitation of Dalit women by Zamindars and Religious leaders but folklore is full of such sordid crimes. Unfortunately such atrocities have enjoyed religious sanction and a cover of social mores. The forms of exploitation may have changed over the recent times but the discrimination on the basis of gender, colour, creed, caste, community, class and region persists. The situation has instead worsened because of the bogey of Western culture and life-style affecting our boys/girls adversely and harming our society.
The media is either incapable of or unwilling to go deeper into the complexities of some of the social problems cited above. The grotesque and discriminatory treatment of women, including those from upper castes, is not a recent phenomenon. The sick notion that the woman`s sexuality is the repository of male honour perhaps is the problem. Hence the anxiety and diktats to secure women`s honour and chastity from the predatory male of other castes and creed. The finger pointing, loud declamations and endless, dreary and hackneyed studio discussions where professional panelists are invited (not to give their opinion but) to agree and endorse the pre-determined views and direction dictated by the anchors. The pet-peeves come out into the open and solutions offered only treat the symptoms and not the disease. And as is common, the incidents are soon forgotten because of the urgency of another news or celebrity caper.
The media informs but does not empower. The social evils cannot be eradicated by the band-aid of mere condemnation. It requires perseverance and patience. We have largely overcome, if not totally eradicated, two such evils, widow remarriage and Sati Pratha. The campaigns against these evils were launched more than a hundred years ago by Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Raja Ram Mohan Roy. The change has come about not through stringent laws or use of punishment but through engagement, dialogue and persistence of all concerned. At the same time, we have certain sections amongst us which encourage the agitation and violence against freedom of choice and certain rights of the people. The annual destruction of property and beating of young couples celebrating Valentine day are no longer news for media. It does take up attacks on writers/artists, ran-sacking of Institutions just because some strange sentiment of a section of people has been hurt but is it as forthright in these matters as it is in case of its OWN RIGHT to free speech. In Guwahati case, the role of media is rightly under scrutiny but it seems media has moved on except for a stray discussion at NDTV and TIMES NOW. Granted, a journalist does get subjected to a moral dilemma of giving precedence to his duty as a journalist or as a citizen. But in this case, it may not so since the camera kept rolling for more than 30 minutes.
This is what has raised questions about the role of News Channel NEWS LIVE of Guwahati. There are rogue media units. Remember the case in Patiala 4/5 years ago where an immolation attempt, instigated by a video journalist, went horribly wrong. Also the case of a woman teacher in Delhi accused of trafficking girl students by a News Channel through a manipulated video. It is true that most of the perpetrators of crimes go scot free because of political patronage and electoral consideration. However, the politicians and the law enforcement personnel come from the same section of society which has been indulging in violence against women, Dalits and marginalized. Media misleads the people by framing such incidents as mere law and order problem. These are social problems and must be dealt with at a broader canvas, involving all sections and through dialogue, persuasion, perseverance no matter how long it takes. At the same time, the authorities should be coaxed to make sure that the criminals are punished and do not enjoy any impunity. Surety of punishment and not the threatened (but incapable of enforcement because of sloth in the legal system) severity will discourage the criminals. Also, mere stick wielding will only exacerbate the situation while dealing with Khaps. The charged emotions and sharpened sentiments, if confronted with the state power, may lead to huge loss of life. The democratic process calls for engagement, persuasion and patience while dealing with Khaps. Of course, any act of violence or violation of one`s rights must be dealt with as per law.
Above all, it is time our media re-discovered the true tenets of journalism. It should inform and also empower the people and not be a rabble-rouser or dispenser of negativity and despondency.
(Pramod Kumar retired from Glaxo and now lives in Goa from where he keeps an eagle eye on Media and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)