Outraged By The “Outrage”
While media-fuelled debates over any and every controversy may be entertaining, their long-term effects are dangerous.
Several years ago, on a reporting assignment, I found myself standing in a crowd along a village roadside in Uttar Pradesh. Rahul Gandhi had just announced his entry into politics and was making his first visit as neta to Amethi. It was a big event, and the excitement in the crowd seemed – to me – to be great. People jostled and stood atop trees for a glimpse of the young heir who would pass this way en route to his family borough. In due time, a cavalcade of cars came through and stopped briefly, people reached out to try and touch the young leader, who emerged from his car.
After the cavalcade had gone and the cloud of dust was starting to settle, I asked a young man standing next to me which way this village voted. It voted “cycle”, meaning Samajwadi Party, I was told. So why this crowd and great excitement about Rahul baba’s visit, I enquired? Even if you throw batashas (sugar dollops) here, a crowd will gather in excitement, he replied.
That’s how it goes in our great country. Everybody here loves a good tamasha. It is, of course, not unique to India, but a more general human trait…but in Switzerland, which is the opposite of India (neat, ordered, everything works) I’ve seen a man dressed as a rocket trying to cross a street in Zurich. He drew a few polite glances. In a subway station in Brooklyn, I’ve seen a large man dressed as a unicorn, with horn and tail, waiting patiently for his train. He drew a few polite glances. Now try either of those in a busy street in Delhi or a train station in Mumbai.
It is almost certain that here a crowd will gather. There will be curious questions and bawdy remarks. Someone will surely pull the unicorn’s tail. And perhaps a constable will amble up to ask what the tamasha is all about.
Our news media and social media reflect this same trait.
Every day, there is a “controversy” that requires “outrage” – or at the very least, debate. This is a compulsory requirement of the television news format for major channels in India. Imagine an evening without a sufficiently debatable issue. Disaster! What would the anchors do?!
So the TV news channels are bound, by their programming, to try and find issues to turn into the verbal equivalent of WWF wrestling matches. But those issues must find willing wrestlers to begin with. If the wrestlers refuse to fight, there’s no show.
Thankfully for the TV-wallahs, and actually for media in general, this country has no shortage of willing wrestlers. The political workers of every party that you’ve ever and never heard of are keen to enter the fray and show off their muscle. It’s great for brand-building; fame or infamy, either will do for these chaps. How many of us had heard of the Ram Sene before the Mangalore pub attack, or the Tamil Nadu Muslim Munnetra Kazhagam before the Vishwaroopam protests?
The targets of the attack, who are naturally forced to react in self-defence, also gain enormously from the fight in most cases. I don’t think the existence of a girl-band called Pragaash was widely known before the current brouhaha. Now, it’s a household name.
So, media and participants gain from “controversies”. What of the general public, the average citizen? Well, she/he gains too. It’s good entertainment, for free.
It would therefore be fine to allow it to continue, without comment, since everyone likes it so much. The trouble is not with the short-term effects of these controversies, which flare up and die every week, to be replaced by a new one. It is not even about “suppression of artistic freedom” since that is now a technological impossibility. Anything that is suppressed will inevitably show up online, and find its audience.
The trouble is with long-term political effects.
Prof Ramachandra Guha said in a recent interview that he thinks this flurry of controversies is strengthening group identities. The axes along which such identities are hardening are, in my opinion, religion, caste and lately, gender. Guha says that liberal politicians have shown an absence of spine. They become invertebrates at the first sign of trouble, when the trouble involves caste or religion. The rest of the political classes gain from the hardening of group identities along religious and caste divides. So the spinelessness of the liberal political elites, best exemplified by the same man with whom we started this story – Rahul Gandhi – contributes to ensuring his own defeat and that of his party.
In a way, it is perhaps fitting. After all, the current trend of spineless liberal politics in India was started by his father Rajiv Gandhi, who, allegedly on advice from Syed Shahabuddin, bent over backwards to ban Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1989 before even Iran had banned it. At the time, few “mango people” had heard of Rushdie, and almost no one had heard of The Satanic Verses or the word “fatwa”. Mr Gandhi also famously allowed the locks on the Babri Masjid to be opened following pressure from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The demons he unleashed have since roamed free and consumed many lives.
In his attempts at identity politics, Mr Gandhi did incalculable harm to India and particularly to Indian Muslims. He gave a handle to the Bharatiya Janata Party; the charges of minority appeasement rang true. He also gave them a cause to rally around, a physical symbol that could be fought over, in the form of the Babri Masjid.
That set off the chain of events that led to the demolition of the Masjid, the riots in Bombay and elsewhere, the serial bomb blasts in the city, the advent of Islamist terror in India, the rise of the BJP, the burning of the train carrying kar sevaks in Gujarat, and the subsequent riots. It made Narendra Modi, who was then relatively unknown in Gujarat or outside, into a national icon and a possible Prime Minister of India.
The current slew of controversies is cementing this trend. By framing issues every day along communal and caste lines, and then pitching the extremists of each group against one another in order to create a spectacle, TV debates are actually hastening the process. We are all becoming identified by tags that circumscribe us in a word or two: Muslim spokesperson, woman, Dalit, Hindu, Leftist, tribal. The complexity of our Indian identities, which are multi-layered, is being lost in this tamasha.
We need to stop this outrage. In the long run, it is dangerous for India.
The writer is author of The Urban Jungle (Penguin, 2011). Views expressed here are his own.