No middle ground: Can Indian journalism look beyond Left and Right?

A media set-up that is so deeply wedded to ideologies leaves everyone worse off.

ByVikram Johri
No middle ground: Can Indian journalism look beyond Left and Right?
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To an unbiased Indian looking to glean information about his country and the many neuroses that continue to afflict it, these are bad times. The shrillness between the left and the right has become so strident that it is nearly impossible to separate truth from falsehood. Every event is distilled through the prism of ideology before it is commented upon. What this has engendered is an atmosphere of deep distrust between those who subscribe to different worldviews. India loses in this bargain.

The divide between “liberal” and “conservative” media is so stark that it can be predicted with high accuracy which news story will make it to which outlet, and what angle will be given to it. Journalist VP Rajeena raises allegation of sexual abuse in Kerala madarsas. You know where to look. The Punjab unit of Shiv Sena offers a monetary award for slapping Aamir Khan (Khan is shooting for his upcoming “Dangal” in Ludhiana). You know where to look. You can visit the news outlet of your choice and marinate leisurely in the curious angles and half-truths it offers and rest assured that your world view stands defended. Not expanded, mind you! Just confirmed and secured, like a case of pearls in a strongbox.

Notice how dangerous this state of affairs is. The issue of sexual abuse in what is essentially an educational institution gets sidelined as we desperately search for views and ideas that will help us look at it as a one-off case, not something that might force us to question our slim ideas of secularism and agency.

The issue of a political party offering a reward for physically violating someone is no longer a law-and-order issue but one that lets us rejoice in our righteous anger or give vent to our vilest self, depending on the side we belong to.

What about that lonesome Indian who, unlikely as this may sound, belongs to neither camp? When Aamir Khan said at the Ramnath Goenka Awards that his wife had discussed moving out of the country with him, sections of the “liberal” media were opposed to even discussing what may seem to some as unnecessary fear-mongering. On the right, the situation quickly got out of control, with trolls abusing Aamir, protesting outside his house, and deleting the Snapdeal app from their smartphones.

What if you do not agree with Aamir, yet absolutely support his decision to voice his opinion? If you publicly commit to the first stance, you risk coming across as one of the army of demented bhakts that occupy the Internet. If you wish to nuance your argument, that Aamir’s statement may do more harm than good for communal harmony, that his perception of threat may be no more than a privileged stance, that the troubles he imagines are nothing on the very real travails of a poor Muslim man in Dadri, you are branded a right-wing nut job by the “liberals” who cannot countenance any variation to their pre-decided, giftwrapped, perfectly politically correct world view.

In Bangalore, Vikram Sampath has stepped down from the organising committee of the Bangalore Literature Festival because some participating writers took offence to his criticism of those returning their awards. That, together with Vikram’s plea that Tipu Sultan be looked at in totality and not branded a traitor or hero, ensured that he was too much his own person to be accepted into the “liberal” set.

A recent post in Medium pointed to how a culture of political correctness has brought about a situation where ideas – not hate speech, just ideas – can no longer be freely expressed for fear that one might renege on the Great Truth. Umair Haque, the writer of the piece, says: “Old Leftism asked us to sacrifice our individualism for the collective. Yawn. New Leftism offers us something far more tempting: sacrificing our potential for our identities. That is its central sleight of hand, and what is so alluring about it, especially to the youngs [sic]. Here is a long, long list of all possible identities, it says. They are approved, validated, acceptable. You can be a non-conformist — as long as you conform to them. You know the jargon already, perhaps: pansexual alloromantic sex-neutral male person. This is what, in the jargon, you “identify as” — not what (heaven forbid) you may become.”

He adds: “For the New Left, the development of the self, life’s greatest, most uncertain adventure, is a…dull exercise in box-ticking. For identity has already been bureaucratically categorized, divided, subdivided, mapped out — and all you have to do is choose one! Instantly, your life will have a little more meaning, purpose, happiness. It can’t, after all, if you don’t fit in a box to begin with. If you don’t fit in any of the pre-approved boxes, well then, you must truly be a non-conformist…therefore, New Leftism prioritizes identity over possibility. Thus, identity chosen, label affixed, conformity assured, danger erased, the great complications of life will begin to grind themselves away.”

While the Medium piece is, of course, set in the West, the situation in India is quickly hewing to this failed ideal. A “liberal” friend once joked that Opindia and other right-wing publications are a joke not because of what they say (though, in his view, for that reason too), but because of their poor journalism standards: “No fact-checking, no copyediting; they allow anyone with an axe to grind to vomit whatever he wants.”

But what of the vanguards of “liberal” journalism, like Outlook? The magazine’s April 20 cover on HRD minister Smriti Irani relied on unnamed sources to paint a damning picture of Irani’s work as minister. The article had predicted that Smriti’s “fall from grace” was imminent. No sign of that happening even six months down the line. Might we then extend my friend’s courtesy to some in the media who are on the other end of the ideological spectrum?

What then is the way forward? How do we trust a media set-up that is so deeply wedded to ideologies as to sacrifice truth and good, old journalism at the altar of grand theorising? Perhaps the answer is to read as widely as possible and think for oneself. No one view captures the entire truth. That slippery entity is too complex to be chained to lovely visions of ideology and opinionating. A more open mind and a willingness to question what we are fed should stand us in good stead.

That said, I can already predict the ideological bent of those who will share this piece on Twitter and Facebook. May we live in saner times!

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