The acrimonious political discourse in the country seems to have resulted in the much needed restraint and civility being almost a thing of the past. What was considered confined to private drawing room conversations or gossip people indulge in are being articulated by our politicians of all hues are adding to the space and time of the media. What the old time editors abhorred as anathema to prudery and propriety are occupying prime time and space, making messages ruder, cruder and lewder. In the world of competitive politics it is no holds barred where all inhibitions are shed, such messages seem to have become the normal with great acceptability. Besides restraint and civility, facts, accuracy, balance and impartiality are the biggest casualties.
Uncivil comments by leaders cutting across party lines, seems to have become common or rather this and we are going through a season for such comments. They are not always the loose cannons who are habitual offenders. There are ways in which those who cross the limits of civility later react. They would blame the media for misquoting or misinterpreting what they said or regret later and may even apologize or later withdraw the offending statement. Of course the damage has already been done. Then there are those who brazen it out and claim that there was nothing wrong in what they said. A prominent opposition M P compared a chief minister to ‘eunuchs’ but when he faced all round criticism, he apologized. Another opposition spokesperson accused a former Prime Minister who was later assassinated, for meeting a notorious underworld don. When he faced flak from people he withdrew the statement. Member of a major government body and well known scientist when asked about suspension of internet in Kashmir since August5, last year, lashed out at the reporter asking, “what difference does it make if there is no internet? You only watch dirty films”. After there was a backlash over his comments he clarified that he was quoted out of context and later reportedly apologized for hurting feelings of people.
Look at the kind of reactions to the present protests. There seems to be no softening of the strident stand on the part of the powers that be. There is more of a confrontationist approach by both sides and hardly any talk about dialogue or discussions. A cursory glance at some of the reactions against the protests indicates very little chance of any meaningful debate or discussion.
The tone and tenor of these reactions by the leaders show no restraint and the language used is nothing but civil. One of the leaders said that Assam and UP police had shot the protesters like dogs! Following condemnation from various quarters about such objectionable words, this leader later skipped the word dog; but repeated the same reaction at a press conference in Kolkata saying, ”if we come to power, the anti-nationals and those who destroy government property, they will be beaten with lathis, shot dead and jailed.” He also said, “some creatures called intellectuals have come out on the streets” and called them devils and parasites. He was re-elected as state president of the ruling party of the country. To another leader, a Member of Parliament, eminent citizens opposing the Citizen’s [Amendment] Act are Dogs!
In a democracy the dissent and protests are natural when there are opposing points of view, incompatible roles, goals, attitudes, drastic or far-reaching changes of policies or systems that are perceived to cause physical, social or environmental damages. When fear or anticipated fear grips sections of aggrieved populations, it is legitimate to protest peacefully without resorting to violence. The situation gets worsened when there are no efforts to resolve problems through mutual discussions, debates and dialogues. Either side has to leave obstinacy and egotism.
But, there seems to be no effort from either side to resolve the present conflict in India between the government and the protesters across the country. It is unfortunate that our father of the nation Mahatma Gandhi’s seminal ideas on resolving conflicts seem to have no effect on the warring factions. According to “Gandhian Concept of Conflict Resolution”, Gandhiji adopted nonviolent passive resistance as part of his Satyagraha. To a great extent the current protests may be nonviolent but the might of the state is being used to force the protesters to just end their movement. Conflict resolution is also focused on bilateral negotiations. When parties are not able to resolve the issue, Gandhi suggested third party mediation which is one of the important forms in third party intervention. Mediation provides a form of third party intervention aimed at facilitating the resolution of the conflict; it is more consistent with the aims and principles of Satyagraha. In the present context such mediations appear to be a distant possibility as there is no identified leadership of the protesters. The only possible solution seems to be judicial intervention which would mean accepting the majesty of law.
The media should have actually played a sobering influence in the present context and it’s “watch dog” role. But unfortunately there seems to be hardly any effort by the media to play a catalytic role. Instead, the guardians of democratic values and public interest are not exactly adopting such a role. A mentor of mine in broadcasting used to quote a well known editor [whose name I cannot recall] who said that journalists ought to practice “decent reticence”- distancing from any particular ideology, to be objective. Instead of using their power to mould public opinion in an objective and impartial manner, many of them appear to be blatantly partisan; and instead of being a sobering influence are adding fuel to the ongoing fire of protests and not paving the way for national reconciliation. As a media teacher both in the government media and different universities, I used to refer to the BBC’s Royal Charter which specifies, “the BBC’s Mission which is to act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain. It also establishes our independence from government, guarantees our editorial and artistic freedom and safeguards the license fee, the unique funding arrangement which enables the BBC to pursue a distinctive mission.”
Such guidelines are also there in our Press Commission’s detailed directives, but in today’s media these seem to be considered irrelevant. The public perception about channels, news portals and newspapers is that they are either pro or anti - government, pro or anti a particular political party or ideology, etc. In the process we see undesirable and patently unethical practices. It is indeed heartening what our President Ram Nath Kovind observed as the chief guest at the function in the national capital to mark the 14th Ramnath Goenka Awards ceremony for Excellence in Journalism, yesterday[ 20 January 2020]. The President said, “the quest for truth is, of course, difficult and easier said than done. But it must be pursued. A democracy like ours deeply relies on the uncovering of facts and the willingness to debate them. Democracy is meaningful only when the citizen is well informed. In that sense, excellence in journalism grants full meaning to democracy.” The President also deprecated the new menace of fake news by which “purveyors proclaim themselves as journalists, taint this noble profession”. I hope that the profession of journalism and all the political leaders would heed the words of wisdom of our First Citizen.
What is happening to the media today,has got a lot to do with the moral temperature of our times. What Justice N V Ramana of the Supreme Court quoted from 19th century English writer Charles Dickens’ novel ‘ Tale of Two Cities’ is axiomatic of what is happening in our country today. Dickens projects the signs of the times of London and the revolutionary Paris of the 18th century in the story set in the backdrop of the French Revolution. Justice Ramana quoted from Dickens while delivering the judgment on the restrictions imposed in Kashmir from August 5 last year while referring to the situation there. I feel, that quote is appropriate to critique the situation in our country in the wake of the ongoing protests on the Citizenship [Amendment] Act CAA] and the National Population Register across the country. To conclude, that quotation is reproduced below:-
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity; It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way- in short the period was so far like present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil , in the superlative degree of comparison only.”