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regular-article-logo Monday, 15 July 2024

Friends and unfriends

Among influencers, Dhruv Rathee drew eye-popping eyeballs that should put the mainstream media to shame. What they refused to break down, he did so with remarkable clarity and focus

R. Rajagopal Published 07.06.24, 06:21 AM
Befriended?

Befriended? Sourced by the Telegraph

The preface to the epic graphic novel on the Holocaust, Maus: A Survivor’s Tale, by Art Spiegelman features a conversation between Artie and his father after the boy fell while roller-skating when the skate came loose.

“I-I fell and my friends skated away w-without me,” Artie tells his father.

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The dad, who was sawing a plank, pauses and asks: “Friends, your friends?”

The father continues: “If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!”

Little compares with the unspeakable and inhuman atrocities that were committed during the Holocaust. Yet, the yardstick set by Artie’s father is worth applying to our ‘friends’ when we were locked together in a ‘room’ from 2014 to 2024. The lock, although somewhat weakened after the general election results, is still in place.

The most telling account I heard was from Ziya Us Salam, the veteran journalist who authored Being Muslim in Hindu India: A Critical View. Salam told The New York Times in May about the loss of a friendship of 26 years. It started with WhatsApp forwards from a Hindu friend, mostly misinformation about Muslims. The relationship reached breaking point on the day Yogi Adityanath was re-elected as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Unable to contain his joy, the friend kept calling Salam who recalled that the friend had been complaining about rising unemployment and his son’s struggle to find a job during Adityanath’s first term. Salam told The Times: “I said, ‘You have been so happy since morning, what do you gain?’”

“Yogi ended namaz,” the friend responded. “That was the day I said goodbye,” Salam said, “and he hasn’t come back into my life after that.”

Several Muslims have shared similar accounts with me in the past few years. I have come across some comments from my lifelong Hindu friends that made me realise that we have become strangers in our own place of birth. If you did not experience any of this, you are either incredibly fortunate or you live in a cocooned world where such concerns have no place.

In that sense, the elections of 2024 provided us with a rare chance to know more about our friends, if not who our friends are.

The first ‘unfriend’, so to speak, that stood exposed was undoubtedly a section of the so-called ‘mainstream’ media. You can identify them by your own experience. How many original reports on the electoral bonds did you see in the newspaper(s) and on the TV channels that you watch? How persistent and consistent were they in reporting the biggest fund-raising scandal the country, if not the world, has ever seen? Did these media confront those who donated the money and took the money in the same unsparing manner in which they grill small-time crooks and local thugs? You can reach your own conclusions.

The commentator, Sushant Singh, described as “stenography” the anodyne manner in which two of the country’s best-known newspapers covered Narendra Modi’s claim that the day he does “Hindu-Muslim”, he won’t be fit for public life. In a damning indictment, Singh wrote about the stenography: “And as so many of our newspapers have shown today, this is nothing but the dying declaration of Indian journalism.”

Of course, it depends on which side of the curve you are to tell whether you had a friend or an unfriend in the media. For Modi, the media was his best friend in the summer of 2024, like in all seasons since the summer of 2014 or ever since he signalled his intent to make a run for power at the Centre.

For a prime minister who justified running away from press conferences by saying he does not need the media, Modi posed before countless — and breathless — admirers posing as journalists and fielded questions that had all the hallmarks of being scripted and approved in advance. The outlets included some ‘tempo-van’ channels owned by those the prime minister accused of ferrying cash to Rahul Gandhi. The PTI reported that Modi gave 80 interviews, averaging more than one daily, since the polls began. So much for the claim that the Great Communicator does not need the media. Of course, Modi and his acolytes can defend themselves by saying he was not speaking to the media but to his obeisant devotees.

Every unfriend throws up a friend too. If large sections of the mainstream media fled from the battlefield, the vacuum was filled by a wave of brave journalists and influencers who made YouTube their platform. Ravish Kumar became the symbol of what the mainstream media should have done. The lightning speed with which he crossed one crore subscriptions was nothing short of a slap on the face of the mainstream media that survives on marketing blitz and audience surveys. Was it a coincidence or was it the key differentiator that Ravish Kumar did not pore over the thesaurus to find euphemisms to avoid telling it as it is: that the prime minister lied during the campaign? Among influencers, Dhruv Rathee drew eye-popping eyeballs that should put the mainstream media to shame. What they refused to break down, he did so with remarkable clarity and focus.

The role of the citizens who subscribe to and sustain YouTube channels like those of Ravish Kumar and Ajit Anjum and become readers and viewers of The News Minute and Newslaundry cannot be forgotten too. As Ravish Kumar said, no “tempo” would be big enough to carry cash to buy these citizens who will never forget who did what to democracy in India.

Another friend that lived up to expectations and beyond was civil society. The role it played in reviving the spirit of resistance in many Indians who had given up hope has not been adequately researched and assessed. Countless citizens spent the past two months and more drawing up and translating talking points to expose the lies and hate-filled misinformation spread by the right-wing, holding small meetings, helping voters cut through red tape and, above all, hand-holding in times of despair and desolation. Some citizens had taken unpaid leave so that they could focus on battling the lies — a minor sacrifice compared to the hardships Teesta Setalvad, Roop Rekha Verma, Harsh Mander, Siddique Kappan and others underwent. Umar Khalid remains a living testimony to the tribulations faced by the youth of India who refuse to remain silent.

In every constituent of everyday life such as neighbours, childhood friends, former classmates, relatives, colleagues, former colleagues, film stars, musicians and sporting heroes you worshipped, business partners, teachers and students — the vital organs that make us a nation — we can look back at the past decade and draw up a list of friends who became unfriends when the room was locked up. Weddings have reportedly been called off in this country because of arguments over Modi!

It will be a very private and personal list; only you can decide whom you want to include there. Statutory warning: it won’t be an easy task and you will probably regret having done so. I could not complete such a list because as I worked through the faces and names I know, I realised that very few would remain outside the list. Some of the actors I had adored left me with such a sense of betrayal through their pronouncements in the past few months that I find it difficult to watch again their movies that were part of my bucket list. That is a small price to pay compared with the loss Salam suffered.

Yet, there have also been actors who were not afraid to speak out through their films and on public platforms. Shah Rukh Khan and Prakash Raj readily come to mind. Some people did pick fault with Khan for saying “Jai Shri Ram” at an Ambani spectacle but that gesture needs to be celebrated, not criticised, as one of the finest examples of what we had been.

If you risk the trauma and press ahead with drawing up that list, it may become your go-bag every time you fear you are about to be locked up with your ‘friends’.

R. Rajagopal is editor-at-large, The Telegraph

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