Lights, Camera, Showtime!
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Lights, Camera, Showtime!

An agitation doesn’t have to make primetime news to be “authentic”. But it certainly helps.

By Indrajit Hazra

Published on :

As I had always suspected, deep philosophical questions reside under that ant-heap called media coverage. (Journalism is a slightly more sophisticated version of media coverage. But let’s just say journalism isn’t quite the rage these days. Coverage is.)

But first, the “item”.

On September 10, the agitation demanding that the Madhya Pradesh government lower the water level of the Omkareshwar reservoir from 190.5 metres to 189 metres, stop its plan to increase the water level to 193 metres, and announce that it complies with a Supreme Court regarding the allotment of at least 2 hectares of land to each displaced cultivator family in the area, ended. The state government agreed to lower the water level and the agitation was considered to be a happy, partial success.

Like many other folks who depend on “coverage” to put their right hand to their chin and earn a slow buck, I too followed the 17-day-long protest through media coverage on television, the internet and print. The “Jal satyagraha” in Ghogalgaon village in Khandwa was certainly eye-grabbing and, dare I say, poetic: 51 people sat, partially submerged in the waters of the Omkareshwar dam reservoir, leaving the water only to bathe, go to the loo, eat food on the river bank, and to sleep for three hours every night on the bank.

These were people whose farmlands had been submerged after the government went ahead and raised the reservoir water level without allotting them land for rehabilitation. Just petitioning and protesting hadn’t worked, and in a country like India these weren’t exactly the kind of people whose woes were rare and grievances news-worthy beyond a dekho. And people are getting buggered by the “bigger picture” in other places, so “Potatoes, potahtoes; Omkareshwar, Kudankulam…”. All “such folks”, poor things, even look the same on TV and in photographs.

Which is when someone must have come up with the brilliant idea of having the protesters conduct their agitation by sitting half-submerged in the reservoir water itself. Their lands and livelihoods were going to be drowned, so they would make a symbolic show of drowning. This could have been a performance art show at the Tate Modern. But there it was an effective agitprop.

Which is when some people – not just The Times of India that ran a story questioning the authenticity of the Jal Satyagraha – started talking about it being a made-for-TV agitation.

Unfortunately, Chittaroopa Palit of the Narmada fell for the bait and wrote a letter to The Times of India (http://kafila.org/2012/09/16/letter-to-the-editor-times-of-india-from-narmada-bachao-andolan/) which the paper didn’t publish. Palit, understandably perturbed, went on to explain why the agitation was “not designed for the television” and the charges made by certain sections of the media were an “attack on the integrity and the authenticity of the struggle”.

For me, this was about a bigger issue, about that old chestnut about “coverage”. Were the critics of the eye-grabbing protest in Madhya Pradesh criticising the media for “falling for a trick”? And what is so horrendous about going about an agitation in a manner that makes it catch the legendary bored-about-such-matters media? It was the same criticism made against the Anna Hazare agitation at Jantar Mantar about it being “slick and media-savvy”. Which hadith makes it sinful for agitations to be “media-savvy”? I certainly don’t know about the correlation between a “good cause” and media shyness and coverage phobia.

Which brings me to “object permanence”, the concept that just because you don’t see something, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. Humans learn when they are around two-years-old that if someone puts his hand out to block the moon, it doesn’t really stop existing. Even if the media hadn’t brought out the big guns to cover the self-extraction of the wobbly tooth called Mamata Banerjee from UPA gums, the Trinamool pull-out would still have happened.

For an agitation such as the one conducted by the people of Ghogalgaon, it would have happened even if OB vans and reporters hadn’t covered the subversive act of submersion. But clearly, it was grand that the cameras didn’t stay away the way they do from other agitations that are perhaps as serious as this one, but end up just having “those kind of people” milling around and chanting slogans.

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