To understand the role which the media should be playing in India we have to first understand the historical context.
India is presently passing through a transitional period in its history, transition from feudal agricultural society to modern industrial society.
This is a very painful and agonizing period in history. The old feudal society is being uprooted and torn apart, but the new, modern, industrial society has not yet been entirely established. Old values are crumbling, everything is in turmoil. We may recollect the line in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth: “Fair is foul and foul is fair”. What was regarded good earlier e.g. the caste system is regarded bad today (at least by the enlightened section of society), and what was regarded bad earlier, e.g. love marriage, is acceptable today (at least to the modern minded persons).
One is reminded of Firaq Gorakhpuri’s Urdu couplet:
“Har zarre par ek qaifiyat-e-neemshabi hai
Ai saaqi-e- dauraan yeh gunahon ki ghadi hai”
In a marvel of condensation this sher (couplet) reflects the transitional age. Zarra means particle, qaifiyat means condition, e means of, neem means half, and shab means night. So the first line in the couplet literally means
“Every particle is in a condition of half night”.
Urdu poetry is often to be understood figuratively, not literally. So this line really means that (in the transitional age) everything is in flux, neither night nor day, neither the old order nor the new. Also, in the middle of the night if we get up we are dazed, in a state of mental confusion, and so are people in a transitional age.
In the second line, saaqi is the girl who fills the wine cup, but she is also the person to whom one can confide the innermost thoughts in one’s mind. The poet is imagining a girl, to whom he is describing the features of the transitional era. ‘Yeh gunahon ki ghadi hai’, i.e. it is the time of sin. In this transitional age it is a ‘gunahon ki ghadi’ from both points of view. From the point of view of people of the old, feudal order it is a sin to marry according to your choice, and particularly outside one’s caste or religion, it is a sin to give education to women, it is a sin to treat everyone as equal. At the same time, from the point of view of modern minded people the caste system is a sin, denying education to girls is a sin, and love marriage is quite acceptable. Thus old and new ideas are battling with each other in the transitional age.
It is the duty of all patriotic people, including the media, to help our society get over this transition period quickly and with less pain. The media has a very important role to play in this transition period, as it deals with ideas, not commodities. So by its very nature the media cannot be like an ordinary business.
If we study the history of Europe when it was passing through its transition period, i.e. from the 16th to the 19th Centuries, we find that this was a terrible period in Europe, full of turbulence, turmoil, revolutions, wars, chaos, social churning and intellectual ferment. It was only after passing through this fire that modern society emerged in Europe. India is presently going through this fire. We are passing through a very painful period in our history.
Historically, the print media emerged in Europe as an organ of the people against feudal oppression. At that time the established organs were all in the hands of the feudal despotic authorities (the king, aristocrats, etc). Hence the people had to create new organs which could represent them. That is why the print media became known as the fourth estate. In Europe and America it represented the voice of the future, as contrasted to the established feudal organs which wanted to preserve the status quo. The media thus played an important role in transforming feudal Europe to modern Europe.
In the Age of Enlightenment in Europe the print media represented the voice of reason. Voltaire attacked religious bigotry and superstitions, and Rousseau attacked feudal despotism. Diderot said that “Man will be free when the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest”. Thomas Paine proclaimed the Rights of Man, and Junius (whose real name we still do not know) attacked the despotic George III and his ministers (see Will Durant’s ‘The Story of Civilization: Rousseau and Revolution’). Louis XVI, while in the Temple prison saw books by Voltaire and Rousseau in the prison library and said that these two persons have destroyed France. In fact what they had destroyed was not France but the feudal order. In the 19th Century the famous writer Emile Zola in his article ‘J’ Accuse’ accused the French Government of falsely imprisoning Captain Dreyfus in Devil’s Island only because he was a Jew.
In my opinion the Indian media should be playing a role similar to the progressive role played by the media in Europe during the transitional period in Europe. In other words, the Indian media should help our country get over the transition period and became a modern industrial state. This it can do by attacking backward, feudal ideas and practices e.g. casteism, communalism and superstitions, and promoting modern scientific and rational ideas. But is it doing so?
In my opinion a large section of the Indian media (particularly the electronic media) does not serve the interest of the people, in fact some of it is positively anti-people.
There are three major defects in the Indian media which I would like to highlight.
1. The media often diverts the attention of the people from the real issues to non issues. The real issues in India are socio-economic, the terrible poverty in which 80% of our people are living, the massive unemployment, the price rise, lack of medical care, education, and backward social practices like honour killing and caste oppression and religious fundamentalism etc. Instead of devoting most of its coverage to these issues the media focuses on non issues like film stars and their lives, fashion parades, pop music, disco dancing, astrology, cricket, reality shows, etc.
There can be no objection to the media providing entertainment to the people, provided this is not overdone. But if 90% of its coverage is related to entertainment, and only 10% to the real issues facing the nation (mentioned above) then there is something seriously wrong with the media. The whole question is of proportion. In the Indian media the sense of proportion has gone crazy. Entertainment got 9 times the coverage that health, education , labour, agriculture and environment together got. Does a hungry or unemployed man want entertainment or food and a job?
To give an example, I switched on the T.V. yesterday and what did I see? Lady Gaga has come to India, Kareena Kapoor standing next to her statue in Madame Tussand’s, tourism award being given to a business house, Formula one car race etc. etc. What has all this to do with the problems of the people?
Many channels show cricket day in and day out. Cricket is really the opium of the Indian masses. The Roman Emperors used to say “If you cannot give the people bread give them circuses”. This is precisely the approach of the Indian establishment, duly supported by our media. Keep the people involved in cricket so that they forget their social and economic plight. What is important is not poverty or unemployment or price rise or farmers suicides or lack of housing or healthcare or education, what is important is whether India has beaten New Zealand (or better still Pakistan) in a cricket match, or whether Tendulkar or Yuvraj Singh have scored a century. The Indian media so much hyped up the cricket match at Mohali between India and Pakistan that it became a veritable Mahabharat War!
Enormous space is given by our media to business, and very little to social sectors like health and education. Most media correspondents attend the film stars, fashion parades, pop music, etc. and very few attend to the lives and problems of workers, farmers, students, sex workers, etc.
Recently ‘The Hindu’ published that a quarter million farmers committed suicide in the last fifteen years. A Lakme Fashion week was covered by 512 accredited journalists. In that fashion week women were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves an hour’s flight from Nagpur in the Vidarbha region. Nobody told that story except one or two journalists locally.