Saturday, 13 December, 2008

Are we asking the right questions?

Like everyone else, I was also a proud Indian, until a few months back. I believed most of what the media dished out to me as news and most of what the Indian government did as part of state policy. Of course like every other Indian, I was wary of the sly politician, the corrupt bureaucrat and the all powerful police. I was also a staunch believer of the responsibility of newspapers to the public and its role as a watchdog of democracy. And then I quit the IT industry to become a student, eager to join the hallowed profession of journalism, and ``serve’’ the society even while I earned my bread and butter. But the first lessons we were taught at journalism school was to question everything, especially all that was appearing in the media as news.

This business of questioning was painful. But it didn’t bring my concept of India crashing down. Instead it woke me up to the harsh realities that India has to live with - realities that are swept under the carpet for the sake of pragmatic politics, booming economy and national pride. We have not bothered to ask why Kashmir revolted against India in 1990. We have not inquired why a microscopic minority of Indian Muslims took to terrorism after 2002. Neither do we ponder why the Naxalites have come to dominate matters in 150 out of the 602 districts in India. Nor do we think about why the LTTE turned against the Indian government.

For long, the media has been feeding us with one side of the story. It could be convenience, it could be laziness, it could be fear of government repression, it could be blind trust in the government, it could be the conservative beliefs of media bosses or it could be the absence of a tradition of questioning what is taught to us - a sad remnant of our long colonial history. A few magazines like Economic and Political Weekly and Tehelka have shown the courage to go out of their way to ask the tough questions and provide insightful analyses but the mighty state can afford to turn the other way as these publications, with their limited circulation, rarely reach the masses.

Since I have made grave charges against the government in the earlier paragraph, I will attempt to address them as succinctly as I can within the constraints of the space allocated to me. The roots of the Kashmir problem lay in the Indian government rigging polls successively, until in 1987, several of today’s ``separatist’’ leaders like Abdul Majid Dar, Yasin Malik and Shabir Shah took up the gun in disgust after the rigging deprived them of victory in the elections. The phenomenon of home-grown terrorism started after the Gujarat genocide of 2002, when young Muslims lost their faith in the Indian state’s intention to protect them; this was evident, if evidence was needed, with the failure of the Central government to sack Narendra Modi as Gujarat Chief Minister.

When Manmohan Singh called Maoists as the ‘single biggest threat’ facing India, he chose not to address the reason for their overwhelming popularity with the Scheduled Tribes. The Adivasis who make up around 10% of our population had been systematically deprived of their lands and livelihood for the sake of economic development of our country and none else stood up for them. The Indian Peacekeeping Force(IPKF) that went to Sri Lanka in 1987 to keep peace between Sri Lanka and the LTTE ended up taking sides with the Lankan Army and alienated the long-oppressed Tamil population of that country.

Of course, we have had examples of great journalism in the past when the Indian Express opposed the Emergency or The Hindu unravelled the Bofors scandal and the media as a whole exposing the spate of corruption scandals that came out during the early 90’s during P.V.Narasimha Rao’s rule, the reportage of P.Sainath in the Times of India in 1993-94 that signalled quite early on the lopsided path to development that India was taking, through the New Economic Reforms of 1991, by cutting down on public spending in health and education. Contrast this with the last 4 years of UPA rule and not a single corruption scandal involving the government has been uncovered. Has the government played straight or do you also smell something foul in the silence of the media? The world over, the media has grown lethargic and treat governments and erring institutions with kid gloves. How else would you explain the several acts of mal-governance by George Bush and co that went un-investigated?

It is important then, that we question and ask the right questions, if the media does not do it for us. The next time you read the newspaper, read it with an open mind (of course, feel free to criticize me too for lack of objectivity in this article, if you think I am wrong). See the news item from the perspective of a factory worker whose job is under threat; a farmer whose lands are about to be acquired; a pensioner whose pension funds were siphoned away and we will realize the havoc that an all-powerful state and unscrupulous corporates could wreak. But then, we are the middle-class, we earn good salaries, our lives are safe and secure, we live in cities which are pampered by the state, but think of the thousands of families in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh whose lands and homes will go under water when the dam is completed and the waters of the Narmada rise. Ask the right questions today. Tomorrow you could be the person blindsided by the State.

P.S - Article to appear in the upcoming issue of Sparx Mag - a recently launched weekly e-paper "targetted" at the IT and BPO crowd in Chennai. Check out the website