Like everyone else, I continue to sit transfixed in front of my computer and
television screen since the 26th of November. Also, like everyone else, I have
much admiration for Indian media. Something, however, is slipping. There seems
to be lack of direction and an absence of a deeper analytical understanding of
what the media’s role should be in this rather grave situation. Its
choreography of catharsis has taken a dangerous turn.
First, just some basic questions, prompted by sheer personal insecurity. I remain unconvinced by Barkha Dutt’s passionate defence of NDTV’s coverage of the attacks. I am worried about the way details of airport security are being divulged constantly. While we depend on the media to expose its gaps, perhaps some details should be reported directly to the authorities and not through public outlets? If there are potential attacks being planned, should there be such open knowledge about what security arrangements are in place? Very legitimate doubts have been raised about the way operations at the Taj were being telecast. There needs to be oversight of the media’s actions, and I would feel safer if such oversight was in place. By the way, should the confessions of Mohammad Ajmal Amir be narrated by the media as they emerge? Is receiving this word-by-word account really in our interest? And can we have some consensus on his name?
Second, it is commendable that the media has taken on the role of being the conduit of public anger towards our system of governance. However, the system of governance does not consist only of the politicians or the bureaucracy. Our celebrities, corporate leaders and the elite more generally are intrinsic elements of this system of governance. They are also the greatest beneficiaries of the system which they now blithely condemn. At the very least, should the media not raise questions about their complicity -- at the very least the issues of tax avoidance, tax evasion, land grab, etc. all of which are gains made directly from this system of governance? To the contrary, all we see are pretty young journalists enamoured by the rants of the great men and women they interview. As they ask coyly of their interviwees, "So what would you do to make a change?", the same generalities follow. This, quite simply, insults the many Indians who are already active in social change. The smugness and presumptuous demeanour of these suddenly engaged celebrities is impossible to stomach.
The talk shows are worse and their effect even more serious. Suggestions of
war and carpet bombing and gun ownership are aired regularly and with impunity.
Enough is enough chant the divas. Enough of what exactly is enough? This is a
country where the wealth of 40 people equals 30 percent of our $1 trillion
national income and 77 percent live under Rs.20 a day. Enough is enough, surely.
But it was not so, until very recently.
In shock (and awe) I watched the other day a rather shrill (and ill-informed) host ask her guests why the Pakistani civil society is not standing by us in this hour of need. Oh really? Do we stand behind them when unmanned US drones kill innocent civilians everyday? Did we stand behind the children who had their limbs blown off on their way to school? Did we stand behind the people of Bajaur who became refugees in their own country?
This brings me to the final point: there is almost no analysis in the media about how the deep imbroglio in South Asia is a direct consequence of US involvement in the region, in particular its actions since 9/11. Remember George Bush’s famous (and ominous) line: "if we don’t fight them there, they will fight us here"? This line is repeated time and again in these terribly choreographed debates on television. We hear how there have been no attacks on US soil since 9/11. True, very true. But how? Only by displacing them on to other soils, such as ours. Indeed, this is just another grotesque moment in the bloody history of empire. Remember, how another imperialist at another time, told us how it had saved us by partitioning us? Of course, the blame must lie, as always, with us: for not seeing through these manipulations and for allowing our leaders to use them for their own advantage - in our name. Ironically, this is also precisely what a large section of the American public has finally come to regret: that they had allowed the manipulation of fear for political and economic gains of some. The two wars, fought on the backs of the American underclass, have wreaked havoc both inside and beyond America’s borders.
The Indian public, now very understandably traumatized and overcome with a feeling of helplessness, needs to be given this wider context. It needs to be reminded of the long history of US intervention in Afghanistan and Pakistan, its role in fomenting instability and its destructive oil-hungry militarism since 9/11. Its long history of direct support to military dictatorships and armed militancy in Pakistan must immediately be brought into this discourse. It may be difficult at this point in time, as the US has positioned itself as India’s primary ally in pressuring Pakistan. But it is an alliance they must know they owe us, for having stoked the fires of conflict (which, of course, we ourselves have so perversely ignited and kept alive). Similarly, they owe much to the ordinary citizens of Pakistan who suffer from the scourge of militarism that the American government and the Pakistani establishment have unleashed on them. Not only should we not call for a new war, but we should call for an end to all ongoing wars, including on our own soil. It would be an unforgivable irony of history if we allow this tragedy to turn us into a local agent of American imperialism in South Asia.
I hope our powerful media is up to the task.
Ananya Mukherjee Reed is Associate Professor, Political Science at York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.