May 25, 2020
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Blame The Media

Blame The Media

WHERE are the immolators?" asked a foreign TV reporter in Bangalore. Everyone knew where and when the Miss World contest was being held; the self-immolations, however, had been announced but the cards had yet to go out.

In the event, the pageant went off like clock-work, but the human fuel stayed unlit: Ms Sashikala, the leader of the Mahila Jagaran Manch and the organiser of the human bonfires, went underground a day earlier (which is where she has stayed until now). The bomb promised during the show by another organisation didn’t go off either.

No one is complaining, obviously, but perhaps someone should. Because though it may look like one huge joke now, until Miss Greece walked off with the crown and everyone (except the other 87 contestants) went happily home, the city was tense. Only at midnight did Bangaloreans dare to exhale.

The people of Bangalore, of course, have the most reason to complain. The Miss World pageant may be a frivolous event, but it attracts a large worldwide audience (2.5 billion is the claimed figure). It certainly helped the previous venue, Sun City, go on the world tourist map. The protesters, on the other hand, ensured that the only people who would now want to visit Bangalore would be those interested in a freak show.

Then there was the inconvenience. There were cops everywhere, so that the city looked under siege. There were checkpoints, diversions and traffic jams. The people who felt particularly frustrated were the ones who had bought tickets for the show. The Diamond Clubwallahs were okay, because with Rs 25,000 tickets, the queues were smaller. But those with tickets of lesser denominations had to stand in line for hours to get in. There was frisking, ticket number verification, metal detector examination and dog squads.... If it took a mere minute to check each person, and if there were 200 people ahead of you in the queue, that was a wait of three hours before you could go in. At 10 pm when the show went on world television, they closed the gates. And if you were still in the queue? Too bad. "Go home and watch it on TV," the cops said to those stranded outside the stadium in spite of having shelled out Rs 2,000 each.

But it’s not just Bangaloreans who have a grievance. We—all of us in India—must feel a sense of disgruntlement because outside our borders, Bangalore is India, and all of us looked like a nation of cranks, a people who, ignoring the very real problems facing the country, fritter away time and energy on the inconsequential.

If all of us do complain, who should we complain against? Against Sashikala and company who made all the noise? To some extent, yes. There are those (including the editor of this magazine) who have seen in the protest a sign that our democracy is alive and kicking. There is something in that, although when you take it to the extreme, as Sashikala and the "Indian Tigers" did, you come very close to abusing the right to free speech and action. (To give the old example: you may have the freedom of expression, but does it extend to shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded cinema hall and starting a stampede?) Our strongest complaints, however, should be directed at the media. The Miss World event showed more than anything else in the recent past that the media—both electronic and print—has abdicated all sense of responsibility. Sashikala registered her Mahila Jagaran Manch this March. By all accounts, it had only a handful of members. It was set up to combat eve-teasing through karate, a skill Sashikala was to impart to members. So far so good; every city has fringe groups, and such variety is the spice of democratic life. Such groups exist in hundreds and lead an uneventful life, outside the glare of publicity.

 Sashikala’s own background is unremarkable. Her parents live with a son in Mysore, while Sashikala, who is unmarried, lives with an older sister in Bangalore. She has an MSc in Maths and is now doing the second year of a three-year law course. Somewhere in this ordinary middle-class upbringing, Sashikala learnt to press the right media buttons. Her opposition to the contest, she said, was because it would spread AIDS, prostitution and paedophilia. These objections, described by the Karnataka High Court as ridiculous, were barmy enough to be quoted. I mean, if she had given the cliched argument of beauty contests exploiting women, everyone would have said ho-hum.

But she really touched the media’s erogenous zone when she began to talk of self-immolation. CNN in Delhi immediately aired an interview. The BBC followed soon after. The press—Indian and international—went to town. An LLB student with a karate chop was suddenly an international celebrity. She also knew how to keep interest from flagging. The karate deterrent for eve-teasers now changed to bobbitisation, and by the time of her BBC interview, she had given a further embellishment to her self-immolation promise: she would consume cyanide first to lessen the pain.

Knowing which button to press is one thing; someone has to respond to them. The media jumped, as if electrocuted. No one, but no one, checked her out or her manch. Not one newspaper report or TV story found out how many members were enrolled in the organisation and its past actions and record. No one checked out who the India Tigers were either. This group’s single claim to fame seems to have been the vandalisation of a Godrej showroom in Bangalore. No one checked out the rest of the Miss World opposition: the Samrajya Shahi Virodhi Okkuta, the Anti Miss World Federation, the Federation of Opponents to Miss World Beauty Pageant, the Action Committee against Beauty Pageant, the Progressive Organisation for Women, Mahila Chetna Samokhya or the Progressive Youth League.

 "Who were they?" I asked a group of young journalists in Bangalore. "Letterhead organisations," said Yeshvanth Kumar, an enterprising TV journalist. The news agencies’ representatives agreed with him. "All you need," they said, "is to print letterheads and issue press releases." The more provocative the better. Why did they do the stories, given their local knowledge of these groups? "Because our editors/bosses wanted them," they all said. "And can you blame them," they added, "for not wanting to be left out when every publication and television station was rushing to get these stories first?"

 There, really, you have it. The unnecessary security cost of Rs 2 crore. Bangalore’s reputation was tarnished. We became a nation of jokers. Simply became a handful of publicity seekers took to the megaphones, and because the megaphones were more than willing to shout the idiotic messages to all parts of the world.

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