Two events met in my mind though seemingly unconnected. The death of Oliver Sacks and the story of Tuktuki.
In July Newslaundry published a story on the TV news media’s coverage of the 14-year-old Bengali girl Tuktuki’s disappearance and reappearance. There was what could not be called anything less than violence in the responses on Twitter. Apologies were demanded spiced with abuse. Was our story wrong? I read it over and over again. I felt we must apologise if it was wrong.
Facts were: in February this year Tuktuki disappeared from her home for a month; she reappeared in April. In May, Tuktuki disappeared again. Debadatta Majhi, vice-president of the Hindu Samhati, got involved and called several reporters and told them that the girl had been abducted by Muslims. Majhi, reporters recounted, insisted that they should highlight the plight of poor Hindu girls being forced into what he called the ‘flesh trade’. Tuktuki’s father told reporters that one Babushona Gazi had abducted his daughter for the second time.
But Tuktuki did not stand by her father’s declaration of abduction. She told the district Chief Judicial Magistrate (CJM) on record that she had left home as a result of a tiff with her parents over her studies and was living in one of her maternal uncles’ place. When asked by reporters whether she was abducted and whether she would return home to her parents, she vehemently said, “no” to both questions. She could have said “yes” to both. (See Newslaundry story for footage.) IG (Law and Order) Anuj Sharma, stated that the girl had left on her own and she was not forcibly taken away. He elaborated, “As per our information about her communication with police, she is not eager to return home”. One reporter stated that in his interview with his mother, she admitted that Tuktuki was involved with Gazi, they studied in the same class and she had eloped with him.
Tapan Ghosh and others who seem to have a committed interest in fighting Love Jihad insisted it was a case of abduction. If it was a case of Love Jihad, by all means fight it if that is your calling and we would report it. But, was it? Anyone watching footage of Tuktuki’s confident and aggressive response to reporters on whether she wanted to return home, I believe, could see that she did not in any way behave like a victim of abduction. Look at the parents’ position. Is it easy for them to say, ‘She ran away with a Muslim boy’? It is always difficult to be a parent of a teenage child. Dealing with what is unacceptable in society must have been agony.
One news channel sensationalised the story by presenting it as an abduction when there were some facts that said otherwise. Then the same news channel endorsed its own story by reporting only part of the National Commission for Women’s (NCW’s) statement. The NCW’s statement was ambivalent: it said Tuktuki could have been abducted, yet she may have gone on her own free will. The fact that the mother said that Tuktuki was afraid the boy would be punished was ignored by the channel. This can be seen at 8:27 in their report.
Questions were asked on the assumption of abduction as the foundation, which naturally anyone would condemn. Although the NCW report mentioned a case of conversion, it’s not clear if the conversion was voluntary or forced. If it was voluntary, one has to consider, was this all part of Tuktuki developing the Stockholm Syndrome? That too, doesn’t fit because it was established in court by the father that Tuktuki did have an intimate relationship with Gazi before she disappeared.
Finally, the judge’s order, however, was not ambivalent. He stated that Tuktuki was willing to stay with her parents and continue her studies, on the condition that her parents do not force her to marry someone against her wish. The order also stated significantly that the father mentioned that it would be difficult to stay in the same village because of Tuktuki’s intimacy with a boy from another community. He said he would like to stay with his older brother in another village and had made arrangements for Tuktuki to continue her studies there. Tuktuki was then handed over to her parents, with the stipulation that the Child Welfare Committee would periodically check whether the parents were taking good care of her and submit a quarterly report. Here is the judgement.
My reading of the story was that Tuktuki ran away with Gazi and the parents were left to mop up the messy aftermath. Others may have a different reading from the facts at hand. But this is far from a scientific fact that is settled and everyone has the same view. With Love Jihadi activists getting into the fray, it gave the parents some cover to save face. Understandable. But, why the rampant rage against our story? How do people see the same story from opposite spectrums? It is known that 12 people may witness an accident and not many versions match each other. How do we recall? How do we see?
This is where Oliver Sacks comes in. To call Oliver Sacks only a path-breaking neurologist would do him a disservice. Besides his mind-altering books and articles, Sacks used his own life to write about differing perceptions. Connecting with his patients in unusual ways that most doctors don’t, he made discoveries of how the brain perceives and works. His books create innumerable experiences that make the reader see the world and the people around differently. He breaks down preconceptions and, most important of all, elaborates in various ways on early 20th century French philosopher Henri Bergson’s famous quote: “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” It is taken further with: “The eye sees what the mind knows”. So, whether we are aware of it or not, our subconscious is at work with all our historical baggage of childhood trauma, suffered discrimination, hurtful bullying, class or caste victimisation, preconceived ideas, inner prejudice and ideology that decides how we perceive any incident.
“In her book, ‘Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril’, serial entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan examines the intricate, pervasive cognitive and emotional mechanisms by which we choose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where ‘we could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes us feel better not to know’. What’s most uneasy-making about the concept is the implication that it doesn’t matter whether the avoidance of truth is conscious. This basic mechanism of keeping ourselves in the dark, Heffernan argues, plays out in just about every aspect of life, but there are things we can do — as individuals, organizations, and nations — to lift our blinders before we walk into perilous situations that later produce the inevitable exclamation: How could I have been so blind?” From http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/08/27/willful-blindness-margaret-heffernan/
So how was it that the reporter Arunabh Saikia who went to the story with an open mind, more likely believing he was covering a love jihad story, turns out a story which doesn’t fit with those who seem to have an investment in making it a Love Jihad story. They insist and so do want it to be a Love Jihad story. Why? To push their alarmist agenda that Muslims are abducting Hindu girls? Is there a shortage of Love Jihad cases that they furiously took ownership of this case? What if it isn’t? If Saikia had found a Love Jihad story he would have reported that. No loss. But, was he supposed to go against his own findings and follow an ideological thread? If the story has been misrepresented by a news channel, it is Newslaundry‘s responsibility to point it out.
There are writers who can only perceive a story from their own ideological beliefs. When I once called a politician corrupt, I was told I said so because she came from a lower caste. The caste issue was far from my mind but very close to the person I was speaking to. Which meant that if I had mentioned another politician who was corrupt, I was biased against erstwhile royal families? If caste is the strongest thread in your mind, you will perceive everything through that prism. There are political spokespersons who, when in a debate about, say, the death penalty, can only talk against a political party, even if it is off the point. It is their permanent prism.
It is the rage against the Newslaundry story that tells the story. The sub-text is – Why aren’t you doing the story that pushes our agenda? (The quick answer is: because it doesn’t fit the facts.) There is a hollow pseudo-satisfaction in waging a war on Twitter. There is nothing to lose. You can harass, badger and abuse with impunity and without consequence. But, we do lose. We lose reasoned debates, evolution of concepts and reduce our discourse to debris.
A great metaphor of this sociological violence today is Hardik Patel. Is he going to use his sword to fence and slash his way to achieve what he wants? (A tiny question: what is the sword actually for?) It is time to put our swords away and live up to the Hindu civilisation. Hinduism does not have Fatwas and Ten Commandments. It is something to be proud of. Hinduism is there for each person to interpret as he/she chooses. There are discourses in Hindu scriptures on philosophy and lifestyle suggestions, some contradicting the other. If you are born a Hindu, can you be less Hindu if you differ in your interpretations? The core of every Hindu scripture, the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, the Vedas, the Puranas, the Sutras and Upanishads is about including all perspectives and debating philosophical questions. If Krishna and Arjuna were tweeting violently against each other instead of conversing, what would they have left us? It is time to reflect on what we are leaving behind.