DELHI DELUSIONS - Little outside Delhi is news for the 'national media'

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By Politics and play: Ramachandra Guha ramachandraguha@yahoo.in
  • Published 18.06.11
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A Tamil economist, the late S. Guhan, used to say that Delhi was a capital in search of a country. I was reminded of that remark during the fortnight of May 29 to June 11, 2011. In that fortnight, if one watched the ‘national’ channels or read the ‘national’ newspapers, one would think all of India was involved in one way or the other with the ideas and practices of a certain Baba Ramdev. Many news bulletins were entirely given over to what Ramdev said or did not say, to how his utterances — and silences —were interpreted by his followers and adversaries. To a foreigner or visitor from outer space, these reports would have conveyed the impression that the citizens of India, all twelve hundred million of them, considered Ramdev and his tamasha to be of all-consuming interest.

I spent part of that fortnight in Karnataka; the other part in Tamil Nadu. In both states, the overwhelming majority of the rural population was ignorant of Ramdev and his doings. They went about their work —farming, labouring, trading, studying, sleeping. Most city dwellers were also in the dark about Ramdev and his activities. Perhaps in Chennai and Bangalore, sections of the English-speaking middle class were drawn into the tamasha, accustomed as they are to watching the news in the hours after returning from work and before going to bed. However, the less privileged residents of Bangalore and Chennai were, like their rural brethren, ignorant of or indifferent towards Ramdev, his friends, and his critics.

Ramdev’s eulogies to Hindu culture, his distaste for foreign ideas and foreign individuals, resonate with Hindutva ideology. The major leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party support his current campaign; many Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh activists are involved in it. Now Karnataka is a state ruled by the BJP, while Tamil Nadu is ruled by a party whose chief minister has shown pronounced Hindutva tendencies. And yet the vast majority of these states’ residents lived, laboured, loved, and sometimes died during that fortnight of May 29-June 11 in complete ignorance of Ramdev’s fast at the Ramlila Maidan.

One would expect the states of the east and Northeast to be disinterested in Ramdev and his doings. He has few followers in West Bengal, still fewer in Meghalaya or Nagaland. But as I found out that fortnight, his activities do not evoke much interest in Karnataka or Tamil Nadu either. This state of affairs, so evident on the ground, was apparently kept hidden from the anchors in the television studios in New Delhi.

The national media’s parochial biases were manifest in their coverage of the fast, and of its aftermath. The police action on the night of June 4/5 was indefensible. The police knew beforehand that what was advertised as a yoga camp would become a combative discourse about political corruption. Ramdev had made this perfectly clear. The correct action, under the law, was to have withdrawn permission before the camp began, or else to have waited, and intervened only if the camp became seriously violative of public order.

The action of the police deserved, and received, widespread condemnation. What was less easy to understand was the response of the Delhi media, which endlessly ran shots of policemen with lathis at the Ramlila Maidan, and then, also endlessly, carried commentary on those events by foolish or self-interested parties, who compared what happened that night to the Emergency of 1975 and even to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

If the obsession with Ramdev’s fast manifested the parochialism of the so-called national media, the discussion of its aftermath manifested its complete lack of political judgment. By the standards of police brutality, what happened that night at the Ramlila Maidan was a dinner party, a satsang even. Over the past five years, the police in Chhattisgarh have regularly burnt homes and crops and attacked villagers whose only crime is that they do not wholly endorse the state government’s promotion of the armed vigilantes known as salwa judum. Yet no paper published out of Delhi has ever run an example of such police brutality on its front page, no channel operating out of Delhi has ever made it a main headline on a news bulletin.

I speak of police brutalities in Chhattisgarh because I have some knowledge of them myself. Other scholars and writers could speak, with greater authority, of police atrocities in the tribal belt of Orissa, or in Manipur. In the action at the Ramlila Maidan, one woman named Rajbala was grievously injured. That was sad, a tragedy even. It is as well that public attention is brought to bear on it. But surely equal attention must be paid to women injured or killed by callous or over-zealous policemen in other parts of India? There are hundreds of Rajbalas in the states of Chhattisgarh, Orissa, and Manipur, not one of whom has ever been mentioned by name on a front page of a Delhi newspaper or in a headline of a television news bulletin.

My closest lady friend (that is to say, my wife) points out that in this respect Delhi is to the rest of India what the United States of America is to the rest of the world. Some 60,000 American servicemen died in the war waged by the US against the Vietnamese people — each one has his name engraved on a memorial in Washington. Perhaps one-and-a-half million Vietnamese died in that war; they remain nameless, at least in America. Even today, the death of one American soldier makes as much news in the New York Times as the death of several dozen Iraqi or Afghan civilians.

Some years ago, the Delhi media was preoccupied for weeks on end with the murder of a lady named Jessica Lal. Like the injury to Rajbala, that was a crime, whose perpetrators had to be held accountable before the law. But why is the same attention not devoted, by the press and the legal system alike, to the beating up and killing of women by the police in other states of the Union? Is it because the life of a citizen of Delhi is worth as much as the lives of five hundred or a thousand Indians who do not live in Delhi?

The media in the nation’s capital is very largely disconnected from other parts of the country. Someone who knows this well is Baba Ramdev himself. Ramdev says he is fighting a battle against corruption. For this, at least one fast in Delhi made sense, for the current United Progressive Alliance government is arguably the most corrupt Central government in India’s history. However, political corruption is ubiquitous in other parts of India as well. Without question the most corrupt state government is that of Karnataka, where mafia dons are ministers, having bought their way to power on the backs of millions of tonnes of iron ore illegally mined on forest land and illegally exported without paying taxes and by violating environmental and labour standards. The scale of their loot is best expressed in a remark made by the great civil rights lawyer, K.G. Kannabiran, who, shortly before he died, said that compared to the mining dons of Bellary, Nadir Shah was a mere pickpocket.

If Ramdev comes to Bangalore and starts a fast against political corruption I will be at his side. So will many other residents of Karnataka. But Ramdev will not come here, for three reasons. First, he speaks effectively only in Hindi, a language few in this state understand. Second, for all his protestations about being non-political, he is actually very close to the sangh parivar, and does not wish to embarrass a government run by the BJP. Third, he knows that a fast in Bangalore will not attract anything like the same interest from the ‘national’ media as a fast in Delhi, even if it be conducted for exactly the same purpose.