“I had to articulate what a lot of people were feeling but had not said”

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A regular on many television discussions, social commentator, activist and Manushi editor Madhu Kishwar created waves when she wrote an angry two-part open letter (Part I Part II) to senior journalist and The Newshour anchor Arnab Goswami. The letter went viral online. She tells Karuna John what made her make her anger public.

Madhu Kishwar

What made you write the open letter to Arnab Goswami? Was it in reaction to any particular incident? 
It was not a particular incident but a cumulative frustration over the last couple of years. In the early years I was quite a favourite with Arnab Goswami. But he started getting impatient with me in recent years because I would press him to go beyond emotive harangues against the police or other wrong doers and focus on the urgently needed systemic reforms required to make our governance more accountable and our police act lawfully. In fact, I even phoned him numerous times to press upon him the need to create space for serious discussion on the agenda of police, judicial, electoral and administrative reforms, instead of beating to death a new issue every day and then moving on to the next. But it produced no effect whatsoever. In fact, he began treating me with such visible aggression when I differed with him that every time I went on his show, I would get any number of phone calls, especially from well meaning friends in Kashmir saying I should boycott his programme.

Therefore, I started avoiding going for The Newshour debates. However, in the meantime many other anchors had caught the same virus. The tipping point came when two of the most sensitive anchors of Hindi news programmes behaved in almost the same way over the issue of Khap Panchayats. They were treating senior representatives of Khaps with such disdain that I had to step in and shield them from ill informed flagellation. I felt somebody had to cry halt to the Arnab-wannabe spirit.

I do not think boycotting the media is the answer. Therefore I decided to articulate what a lot of people were feeling and expressing in small private gatherings but had not expressed in the open. I wrote in a state of agitation soon after one of my last appearances on The Newshour. But I decided to hold it till I could review it in calm and have some of my younger colleagues give me their feedback. I did not want it to read like an angry outburst.

No one has spoken up like this, were you the least bit hesitant taking him on? 
My whole life has been about speaking out my mind fearlessly, which often meant taking politically incorrect positions, risking the wrath of powerful people and influential lobbies and therefore paying the price for it. It is not as if I like taking ‘pangas’. But the intellectual atmosphere in India is so stifling, so horribly polarised into simplistic stereotypical positions that if you are in the habit of examining each issue on merit and not have pre-conceived notions, you have to be ready for ‘ekla chalo re’ position. I have practised this art so consistently and taken so much attack from powerful ideological camps that taking a stand comes effortlessly. My biggest strength as well as my biggest weakness is that I don’t have the fear gene in my DNA. Therefore, my instinct of self preservation is altogether missing.

When I wrote this I knew very well that I risked being boycotted by TV anchors. But I said to myself — so be it. Luckily, I don’t have to earn my living from TV appearances. I have a secure job as a professor which gives me tremendous freedom of thought and action. If those of us who have the wherewithal to exercise freedom will not do it, who will?

In any case, the issues I raise have nothing to do with Madhu Kishwar. It is not as if I was talking out of personal hurt or snubbed ego. It has to do with dumbing down of serious issues, of playing to the lowest common denominator, of getting people in a permanent state of agitation and self-righteous rage instead of creatively engaging with the varied challenges we are facing in India and working towards meaningful solutions. This is a dangerous sign. Serious problems need serious engagement. Not pious posturing.

Is this a general critique of the media or, in your opinion, does Arnab stand out? 
He had become the arch representative of a certain style of inquisitorial journalism. He was becoming a role model for many, especially the poorly educated and poorly trained ones.

As it is, our TV channels and media houses do not invest in training young people in ethical journalism. They do not provide them the resources and the time to do proper homework. Too many young people taking to this profession think that as long as they can talk glibly and emote powerfully, they have done their job well. They are not trained to handle responses they did not expect. That is why very few anchors allow diversity of views to come through. Even judges — whose job it is to judge and pass verdicts — are not as judgemental as are some of our news reporters and TV anchors. They really get angry and start bullying and hectoring if someone takes a position they are not prepared for or expresses an opinion which has been declared politically incorrect. Some of our journalists have taken on the activist mantle even more seriously than full-time activists.

I am not against journalists being involved in issues and taking sides. But when they wear the journalistic hat, they have to learn to allow a free and fair discussion and let diverse shades of opinion to come through so that viewers and readers can make an informed choice.

But most importantly, our media houses do not provide space, time and resources for real research, investigations and informed debates. Most of the exposés of corruption and mismanagement are leaks by rival politicians and bureaucrats. The problem is even more serious with TV channels than print journalism. That is why most of TV news programmes simply cull out sensational news items from the morning papers, get a little bit of visual footage of the same and spend hours on end getting the same limited set of people to comment and emote on those news items — be it a child who has fallen into a borewell or a group of lumpens attacking young women in a pub or a case of police atrocity.

What is your larger critique of the print and electronic media today? 
The media is now so predictably aligned, you know what to expect from which paper, and which journalist will take what line on which issue. But our social and political life is far more complex and cannot be understood if we take partisan positions. When journalists are not just ideologically aligned but also politically compromised — everyone knows who is pro-BJP or is pro-Congress or pro-Left — it leaves very little space for honest professional journalism.

Look at the way Baba Ramdev and Anna Hazare movements were covered. For some months, several TV channels, including Times Now became uncritical propagandists of the India Against Corruption and gave it 24×7 coverage, as if in a country of 1.2 billion people, nothing else was happening except the tamasha at Jantar Mantar. Then equally suddenly, when the Congress party put the heat on them, they are lambasting Team Anna and picking holes in everything they do.

The entire spectrum of the media has made their personality quirks the focus of all debates. It’s fair to subject the Lokpal Bill to scrutiny but it’s unnecessary to subject the personality quirks and personal failings of Team Anna the centre of debate at the expense of ignoring the central issue of governance reform. It is equally absurd of the media to try and debunk the entire movement against corruption on the ground that BJP and other opposition parties are supporting it or that Team Anna and Baba Ramdev have political ambitions.

One of the most important points being raised by media at the behest of the Congress party is that Team Anna and Baba Ramdev are now “playing politics” by getting support of various Opposition parties. Is “politics” such a dirty game that we must as concerned citizens loathe it? When you oppose policies of a government or a political party you have to be political. The Congress party also pours contempt on the BJP, BJD, Akalis and other Opposition leaders for “playing politics” with the anti-corruption movement. Tell me, if politicians will not “play politics”, are they expected to play cricket or kabbadi? If movement-leaders do not engage with political parties to win support for their causes, they are accused of being naïve and “anti politics”. If they do, they are disparaged for “playing politics” as if it is an evil disease from which all honest people should keep a safe distance.

You are right to ask BJP “Now that you are supporting the issue of Lokpal, how about implementing Lokayukta in your states?” “Good that you see merit in Baba Ramdev’s campaign against loot and plunder of public money and our natural resources. But how about taking action against the corrupt mafia dons in your own party?” These are fair questions. But you can’t debunk an issue just because the BJP is supporting it.

It is equally puerile to raise questions about the personal integrity of these movement-leaders as a way to shift attention from the issues they are raising. It is especially mischievous when the government suddenly slaps tax evasion cases on them. Was the government sleeping earlier? Why now? Are we saying only a Mahtama Gandhi can raise issues to rid governance of corruption? Will the likes of Arnab Goswami pass all the purity tests that they wish to subject Baba Ramdev to? How many journalists have bought their houses with 100% white money? When Amartya Sen raises the issue of discrimination against women leading to low sex ratio, do we dismiss him saying: first tell us how well have you treated your four wives before we pay heed to your warning against deadly forms of gender bias in family and society.

Take them on for specific cases of wrong doing and make sure that each of these movement-leaders behaves in an accountable manner. But to create an atmosphere whereby whoever gets the support of BJP must be treated with disdain and suspicion simply because it is BJP, is to encourage pious posturing which allows the Congress and the Left to get away with murder and worse.

Such intellectual phobias destroy non-partisan, honest and free thinking. Such posturing has made us intellectually and politically impotent.

Do the media reflect this? 
Absolutely. The media is petrified of being dubbed as pro-BJP or anti-Left. To me, this Left-Right-divide makes no sense. The guiding light for me is Mahtma Gandhi’s talisman — judge the worth of people and their actions by whether they observe truth and non-violence in deed and spirit. But even those who swear by Gandhi rarely take this mantra as seriously as it deserves to be taken.

There is a small community of internationally networked, well funded NGOs and Leftists in our country who decide what is politically fashionable and who is to be treated as an untouchable. Not too long ago, even Gandhi was treated as a Hindu revivalist, and therefore not a pure secularist, by the Left. They called him worse names than they call Ramdev. But Gandhi is no more unfashionable in the West. Therefore, they have had to tone down their angst against Gandhi. Once they set a chorus in motion, then no one has the guts to examine issues and personalities on merit. Indian intellectuals are petrified of being dubbed anti-Left or pro-BJP because then they get no patronage in western universities.

I personally don’t care if you wear a secular hat or any other. What matters to me is whether or not you use untruth, violence and crime to achieve political ends. Take the way we are handling the Gujarat riots and BJP/Modi’s involvement in the 2002 massacre. I am willing to condemn Modi with all the force at my command for his involvement in the 2002 riots, but I have no hesitation in congratulating him for providing 24 hour electricity to every village and urban home. I have no hesitation in applauding him for building a very efficient road network in Gujarat. In fact, I earn the right to criticise someone’s wrong doing, only if I have the courage to appreciate any good the person does. But the excessive demonisation of Modi by the Leftists is proving totally counterproductive, especially since the same people are very soft on Congress which has orchestrated hundreds of communal, caste riots and massacres. For the person being slaughtered does it matter if those who came to kill him or burn down his house were shouting, Har Har Mahadev, Bharat Mata ki Jai or Lal Salaam? A murderer is a murderer, and should not be judged by the ideological cover he uses to legitimise his crime.

How has the response been to your two-part open letter? 
I don’t think Arnab will even bother to read it, but the response from varied quarters has been overwhelming. I thought I would be attacked for giving him a hard time, but the response has been far more positive than I had expected.

I divided my open letter into two parts as it was quite long. I deliberately kept the portion on Khaps reserved for Part 2 in order to test the waters since on this one issue, select NGOs with support of the media, have created a deep prejudice among TV viewers and newspaper reading public. But I am really happy to have received long supportive messages even with regard to my thus far misunderstood stance on Khap Panchayats.

Someone from Pakistan responded by saying that the Pakistani media and anchors are acting exactly in the same manner — they just have to change the names while the text can remain the same. It has travelled far and wide on its momentum. It seems to have struck a deep chord. In fact, I am very encouraged by the fact that senior journalists and editors are forwarding it to their friends and colleagues. It has started a discussion and I hope it will lead to more reflection. But I would like to clarify that I do not wish to paint all journalists with the same black brush. There are plenty who are doing their job with integrity and I would like to see their tribe increase.

Karuna John is Associate Editor,Tehelka.com.
[email protected]

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