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The promotion of mass culture can be a tricky business. If rousing the people’s passions is central to it, devious or insensitive minds can turn it to horribly wrong uses. This seems to have happened in the case of the violence in Siliguri. The radio jockey, who obviously thought he was just entertaining his audience with a joke, had several things wrong. The least problematic of these is the fact that it was such a bad joke. Clearly intended to amuse, and not hurt, the audience, it ended up setting a small town on fire and inciting ethnic passions. More seriously, the episode exposes the dangers of ignoring India’s social and cultural diversity. It is unrealistic to expect entertainers or other communicators to know of the niceties of Gorkha or any other culture. But the least that they can do is not offend the emotions of any community with caricatures. The irony is that entertainment programmes such as Indian Idol are supposed to promote not just mass entertainment but a sort of nationalism as well. The show is supposed to have made Prashant Tamang a hero not only in his native Darjeeling but also in all of India. But the radio channel’s indiscretion proves that, despite pretensions to the contrary, most Indians are too chauvinistic to make sense of cultural pluralism. Also, the violence points to the dangers of public broadcasting falling into callous hands.

The ultimate responsibility for guarding against such provocations lies with the people. The violence in Siliguri may not have turned so bad if the people had taken care to separate rumour from fact. The Gorkha community there had every right and enough reason to protest against the uncivilized remarks made by the radio jockey. The violence had little to with the Gorkhas’ procession and everything to do with the rumours that followed. For a change, the people’s representatives acted fast to heal wounded feelings. If peace has returned to Siliguri and Darjeeling, the credit for political will should also go to Subhas Ghisingh, the Gorkha leader of the hills. But all political parties should ponder why an irresponsible remark could spark such violence and mistrust among different communities. The ethnic camaraderie that the leaders claim to have promoted in the area must be rather fragile. The governments in Calcutta and New Delhi must make the channel pay for its folly. But society may have to pay a higher price for its refusal to learn about other people.

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