Sushil Kumar

There’s a raging debate in certain circles on the muzzling of the press, rising levels of intolerance, and that big brother is watching. This section of stakeholders feel that the country is now in the grip of gagging, never seen before. And that the new password for survival is ‘Omerta’.

It’s interesting to note that the highest court of the land witnessed an unbelievable happening –a presser by four Supreme Court judges against some in-house developments. Many felt the brother judges were right in airing their dissent in the public domain. But there were also those who felt that the code of silence should not have been broken –the Omerta Code should have been honored!

While the vociferous ranting against trampling of press freedom is on, there was this curious incident where a speech delivered by the scion of an industrialist was widely reported, albeit ridiculed, by the ‘fearless media’. But, lo behold, within a few days, the press went into self-censorship mode –torchbearers of e-media including established mainstream media blanked the story, soon after it appeared. But what was surprising was that there was no outcry among the votaries of press freedom and intolerance. Moreover, none of the media organizations that originally ran the stories and then took them down, offered any public explanation on their puzzling behavior. Omerta won.

In sharp contrast, in the much acclaimed Hollywood movie, ‘The Post’, the legendary editor, Ben Bradlee (played by Tom Hanks) says, “The way they lied, those days have to be over”. Says the movie’s ace director, Steven Spielberg, "Freedom of the press in 2017 is standing on the edge of a chasm. And I thought that the story of Nixon trying to stop The Washington Post's constitutional right to publish these stories, and trying to abolish the fourth estate … there were some profound similarities.”

It can be presumed that in India the ‘Omertisation’ of public opinion really started way back in 1975, when the then dispensation wanted a committed judiciary. The mission was achieved, ably assisted by large sections of the media –who were willing to crawl. The hush-word: Omerta.

Matters are not very different in professional corporates, with lofty mission statements: where the Omerta code of silence is rigorously applied. A lifting of the ‘corporate veil’ can reveal shocking incidents. Some of these corporate captains and their lobbyists wine and dine with Heads of State—and sections of the media including academia, intellectuals, et al, are virtually under their influence. Recall, how the adverse health effects of sugary drinks, or dubious drugs, or dicey food & nutrition products were kept away from the public eye. Worse still, the case of an auto giant who deployed pollution ‘cheating devices’, or nearer home, the worst chemical disaster —all kept away from impartial scrutiny, by way of a grand alliance of selfish stakeholders. Because the Omerta brotherhood guaranteed big bucks and assured returns.

What about our own homes perceived as the safest haven for the young and vulnerable. Haven’t we have heard of clandestine anecdotes of the uncle who had a dangerous liaison with the housemaid that resulted in a vexed ‘issue’. Or lecherous elders who violated trusted minors at home, damaging innumerable lives forever—but all protected by other family members, swearing by the Omerta dictum.

And what about the hit-and-run road accidents where the rich and famous celebs crush innocent people to death. How come, despite being gruesome incidents, the intolerance band, including the mainstream media is silent and looks the other way. Or, while Hollywood is waking up to the Me-Too camaraderie, why is it that Bollywood and the other regional ‘Wood-variants’ are quiet. The mum-word: Omerta.

Not to speak of the untold horrors committed by the self-proclaimed sentinels of religions & faiths in places, supposedly, dedicated to divinity & worship, where such things are least expected. All remain under wraps due to the unquestioned devotion of gullible followers; who mistakenly believe that Omerta is the gateway to heaven. In the bargain, the counterfeit types which far outnumber the authentic ones, mar the reputation of real masters & genuine seekers.

While the code of official secrecy is understandable within the ‘Sena’ (armed forces),the divisive nature of actions of the ‘Senas’ operating in both the northern & western hemispheres of this country is rarely condemned unequivocally by the Who’s Who in the political arena. Hail Omerta!

Long ago, the legendary musician duo, Simon & Garfunkel, created a memorable song, ‘The Sound of Silence’: a few verses may not be entirely out of context --

“…And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

Fools said I, you do not know

Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you
But my words like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence…”

The antidote to the Omerta phenomenon, to some extent, is the social media, which usually is not tightly controlled. So every attempt to silence the truth, or distort facts, is countered with a backlash. As in the case of the incident of the industrialist’s son, where the surrender of the mainstream media was checkmated by a humorous backlash in the social media.

So, when it comes to the Omerta Code of ‘Honor’, we see a convergence of the ‘Family’—be it the Mafia Family, the Corporate Family, the Political Family, the Celluloid Family, the Media Family and our very own Personal Family…we are one big family! As Michael Corleone says in ‘The Godfather’, “You must never betray the secrets of this society, observing the ancient tradition of Omerta...”

In a recent open letter, an actress made a scathing attack on the director of the movie, ‘Padmavat’, because she felt that the movie diminished her identity to the female anatomy. Her online piece was replete with the use of the six-letter V-word, which was repeated nearly a dozen times. But her thesis hardly found supporters among the marquee names of Bollywood, or the Robin Hoods of gender equity. The response was predictable: Shhh !

Sushil Kumar, Management Specialist, Former Dean, Amrita School of Business.