Hunting In A Pack
When I press the “guide” button on my set-top remote, “packs” are the first thing which appear on a scroll-down menu: the “entertainment” pack, the “movie” pack, and so on. One among these so-called packs is the “news” pack. It’s a pack alright, a pack of wolves. Vicious in its conduct, unforgiving in its method. A collection of a dozen or so news channels – some English, others Hindi, some claiming to take the high road, others proudly choosing not to – has transformed overnight into a pack of bloodthirsty wolves in search of TRPs and that chhutta that’ll keep them in business for a little bit longer.
Today, its transformation was complete.
A sense of outrage and sorrow that had enveloped the nation these past few days as it learnt of the horrendous details of the Delhi gang-rape and the hollow politician-speak, necessitated from our news channels a helpful release, a degree of balance and introspection so crucial in times of confusion and helplessness. Instead, what should have goaded a national catharsis of sorts became but a tool in the hands of all those who had earlier “handled” the Aarushi murder case and the Jessica Lal case and other such. I have little doubt that’s how they are looked upon under studio lights and behind tele-prompters: “events”.
The Indian viewer can now sense easily when his days are going to be turbulent and the coming nights sleepless – precisely when our news coverage shows the middle-class out on the streets. Everything about that unbelievably brave girl has been disclosed – where she’s from, where she works, who her parents are, how they feel – she’s even been condemned to lead the rest of her life as a “zinda laash”.
Anything else? “No, sir.” Right, then. Let’s use her as an “instrument”, let’s whip up some emotion, let’s make this an “event.” All for the greater good, of course. “Of course, sir.” Remember how we made Kejriwal and then un-made him, and then made him again? We are the Jantar-Mantar and India Gate specialists, we are!
The pack sensed it early in the morning. They sniffed and sniveled and tracked the scent of middle-class India – we, the people who watch their channels – all the way to India Gate and Raisina Hill. All through the day and on every news channel, there has been non-stop coverage of the events unfolding at these battlegrounds. Some channels decided to split the screen into three, apportioning camera 1, camera 2 and camera 3 to each column space, such was their fervour. Running battles with lathi-wielding police were voiced-over with breathless commentary, the camera zoomed in and out at a rolling teargas shell, the reporters ran after people holding their bloodied heads in their hands, their slippers strewn, their legs about to give way. These were the same people who watch the news channels daily. They watch the ads that make it possible to run these news channels. We are these people. You – the reader, and me – the writer.
The other 800 million who live on Rs 20 a day, don’t watch these channels. They don’t know what Seagram’s CDs & Cassettes means, where is Malaysia Truly Asia, when is the next Shopper’s Stop sale. They de-silt the manholes, wash dishes at the highway dhabas, till the earth. They pray for monsoon not Bisleri, they want cooking oil not Oil of Olay. And so the channels don’t have any stories about them, for them, by them.
It is “our” channel, but not theirs.
We the people are in reality, we the English-speaking, Hindi-understanding, middle-class people. We are a constituency for these news channels. We are not a constituency for the politicians who run this country.
It’s a game we have unwittingly become a party to. We, the people are now an estranged people. The news is for us. We make the news.
As water cannons drench the middle-class India, and gas-induced tears roll down her cheeks, the other India that no one bothers about, no one writes about, no one listens to – that India cries, too. But there are no 10-hour specials to cover this India’s suicides, this India’s helplessness and hopelessness, this India’s death and misery. There’s nothing for the hungry pack in the jungles of Orissa and the coalmines of Bihar. The pound of flesh is where the purchasing power is.
Unspeakable ills and irredeemable demons reside in middle-class India. We the people know it, and yet we don’t want to be reminded of it. We also know that we don’t elect the leaders who run this country. The other India elects them. They are not our leaders. Our leaders are the virtuous news anchors, who protect and cover us – for we pay their salaries.
Our politicians are not a true reflection of us, our news anchors are. They have okayed our blinkered existence with a stamp of approval. They decide what we see and hear. They monitor closely our angst, they regulate it.
P Sainath – “who?” – once wrote a book about the other India. Everyone Loves a Good Drought. The pack of wolves that hunts for a riot, a skirmish, a pitch-battle, so it can be stretched to a whole day, with sufficient number of ad-breaks, that pack of wolves doesn’t love a good drought. That pack of wolves never read Sainath’s book. It wasn’t prescribed in Journalism 101.
Shyam Benegal once made a beautiful film called Manthan. Half a million farmers donated Rs 2 each so the film could be made. The film described the struggle and ultimate deliverance of the poor farmers of Gujarat who contributed their hard-earned money towards its making. In a way, the film represented those who paid for it.
The news channels describe only those events that affect the people who pay for it, through the ads that appear in these channels. 800 million people don’t and so they don’t exist. The BBC covers the whole of Britain, its stories big or small, extensive or breaking, concern the length and breadth of the country. Why? Because every Britisher pays to keep the organisation running, they all have a stake in it. As with Manthan, what is covered is what people paid for.
The coverage has shifted entirely from the rape case and the condition of the girl, to the protesters who were tear-gassed and lathi-charged. Every few minutes a new voice is sought, a fresh face thrust in front of the camera. “English? English?!” shout the reporters from the English news channels in search for those among the crowd who can speak English, as though selling their wares at a railway platform.
One can’t help but wonder if only our news channels had highlighted the unspeakable daily horrors faced by the other India, sensitised us and our politicians to them with as much zeal, made their problems our own, perhaps then the brazen state indifference we are witnessing today wouldn’t have come to pass. But the notion of one India remains a dream, and just as a neta guards his constituency, so do the news channels.
It’s so easy for a man who earns two Ahluwalias a day (one Ahluwalia equals Rs 16) to come onto the street and protest. But miraculously he doesn’t. He runs from pillar to post, from one interstate bus terminus to another, he runs to earn those Ahluwalias, he runs and runs and then he can’t run any longer and exhausted he collapses, on a railway platform or a bus shelter or on the steps of a public urinal. In choosing his final resting place, he has done the pack a favour – he hasn’t come onto the street, he hasn’t showed up on Raisina Hill, he hasn’t dared to become middle-class.
You have lost the moral right to cover sensitive stories of sexual assaults against women. You have lost the moral right to cover the whole of India.
As channels allow its reporters stationed at India Gate a welcome breather and slip into a break, a pokerfaced Om Puri fills the screen. It’s a cement ad.
“Ye hai ubharta hua Bharat,” he asks, “iski guarantee kaun leta hai?”
Kaun lega is ubhartay hue Bharat ki guarantee? Kaun?!
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