Feb 162015

I look at media centres and media peripheries, in this article in the DNA. What makes certain events more important than others?

Let us look at the difference in response to the killings of journalists from Charlie Hebdo in Paris,  and the killings by Boko Haram in Nigeria

Early this year, while the world was watching the events in Paris unfold, as Islamist terrorists, part of the Yemani al Qaeda, murdered 12 people in cold blood, the extreme Salafist terror organisationBoko Haram attacked and killed 2,000 people in the fishing town of Baga, Nigeria. While the former received acres of newspaper coverage, hours of air time, and terabytes of Internet outrage, the latter passed without even a blip in popular consciousness.

Within India too, there are clear differences between regions and states that make the headlines, and those that are ignored.

If you do a Google search for “floods in India 2014”, you will see a list of articles and sites that look at the human devastation caused by nature’s fury. Assam, Bihar, Odisha and J&K were all impacted by floods — hundreds of villages were submerged, thousands of people were displaced, and scores died. Yet, when it comes to both media attention and public consciousness, the one we would remember is the floods in J&K.

This is primarily because

The media centre tends to be aspirational, and aspirational is defined in terms of success, wealth, power, colour, caste and religion — and other things that we all like to believe are no longer relevant. The world is more concerned about people dying in European countries than it is about death in Africa; India is more interested in the states that are close to Delhi and the further away a state is from the national capital, the less important it becomes. Also important is the social class, caste and colour.

The full article is here – do read and let me know what you think

Sep 262014
My column in the DNA, earlier this week
The Times of India’s stand is pretty much the same as that of khap panchayats – she was wearing revealing clothes, therefore she asked for it
  • PTI

Last week, the Times of India, that claims to be the most read English daily in the world, peeked down actor Deepika Padukone‘s dress and put up content titled “OMG – Deepika Padukone’s Cleavage Show”. Ms Padukone, unlike most who grin and bear this sort of intrusion into personal space, hit back in a series of tweets that essentially took the news brand to task, in no uncertain terms.

In a Facebook post that has attracted over 2000 comments and over 150,000 likes (at the time of writing), Ms Padukone says, “I am not naive about my own profession; it is one that requires lots of demanding things of me. A character may demand that I be clothed from head to toe or be completely naked, and it will be my choice as an actor whether or not I take either. Understand that this is a ROLE and not REAL, and it is my job to portray whatever character I choose to play convincingly.”

And then the TOI decided to explain itself: “Deepika, we accept your reel vs real argument, but what about all the times, and there have been many, when you have flaunted your body off screen – while dancing on stage, posing for magazine covers, or doing photo ops at movie promotional functions? What ‘role’ do you play there? So why the hypocrisy?”

Well, since the old lady of Bori Bundar has asked, I thought I would help them understand the most basic aspect of women’s rights. And that is actually just one word – one simple yet elegant word – consent. Consent, very loosely defined, is permission or assent. Has the person in question said yes? At a second level is a related question, just as equally valid in the context of women’s rights: “Do women have the rights over their own body?” When a woman says no, no matter who she is, does it a) mean yes? And, as importantly, b) is she going to be judged by what else she says when she says no?

It is all very well to say, you are flaunting your body, albeit in a different context and therefore it is all right for us to intrude on your privacy, and use your body to our advantage. But at a very fundamental level, this is pretty much the same argument that we have been hearing from every regressive element in the Indian ecosystem. What the paper and everybody else needs to understand is that it is very clearly a matter of a woman’s right over her body and her consent for anyone else having a right over it.

The response of the TOI on the Deepika Padukone issue occupies the same space as a famous film scene. In the film Dostana starring Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman and Shatrugan Sinha, Zeenat Aman plays a modern woman who wears a bikini and a sarong at a beach. When ‘eve-teasers’ whistle at her, she complains to the policeman (played by Amitabh Bachchan). His retort is, “Aap aise kapde pehen kar ghar se niklengi toh ladko ke seeti nahi toh kya mandir ki ghantiyaa bajengi?” (if you wear such clothes and leave your home, what do you expect men to do – whistle or ring the temple bell). Today, we can look back at these lines and say regressive, regressive attitude, blaming the woman for violence and the rest. And we would be right. What do you say to the leading English language daily?

It looks like almost three decades later nothing has changed. It is the same argument that is being used. Today, when we talk about women saying no to sex and then being forced, or to being groped, or being whistled at, the same set of counter arguments pop up.  The argument, whether made by a leading English daily or by the head of a khap panchayat, ‘but she was asking for it’ needs to be treated with the same contempt that you would have for a traditionally dressed woman or man, who with the full fire of righteousness, and in an Indian language tells you that girls who don’t cover up their bodies will be prey to rapists If that had been the case, we could be sure that all of us, including the newspaper in question – would have outraged over medieval attitudes and patriarchal behaviour.

This entire argument goes beyond Deepika Padukone and into the space of women and media created perceptions. I would argue that it is not Bollywood or item numbers that demean women, rather it is these sorts of attitudes that do. When a leading newspaper tells ‘you that you flaunt you body, therefore we can peep into your cleavage’ it is far more dangerous than the head of a feudal setup saying something similar. We know we should oppose the latter as it is antediluvian and archaic insofar as its perception of women is concerned. But, what about the former? If the feudal organisations think of women as their property, this treats women as much the same. And frankly, there is not much to choose from between the two ways of seeing women. Except that one is in English and the other is in an Indian language.


A ‘roadside romeo’ is lumpen, but a media house peeking down a woman’s cleavage is ‘respectable’.
A khap panchayat that says a woman must be well covered to avoid rape is regressive, and a leading English daily which asks but if you flaunt it anyway, why do we need your consent?
No means no, except when we understand it as yes .

I agree with one point in the TOI article, and that is it reeks of hypocrisy. Unfortunately, it is not the hypocrisy of Ms Padukone, but of the media outlet. When the largest English Language daily in India justifies the invasion of the body of a woman – without consent – you should hardly be surprised that you have a system that justifies rape.

Apr 212013

My blog for Tehelka

When RahIllustration: Samia Singhul Gandhi addressed the CII conference, those who oppose him and his party, got #PappuCII (stupid) to trend on Twitter. A few days later when Narendra Modi addressed the FICCI conference, Congress supporters on Twitter got #Feku (someone who makes tall claims) to trend. (Hashtags are a useful way of classifying and searching for data on the internet. Twitter’s hashtags are explained here) You would think that this little tu tu mein mein would be the end of the matter. A bit of playground fun and humour by over-enthusiastic supporters on both sides, who are willing to rain on the other party. But no, this was just the beginning. The mainstream media –TV and print – jumped onto the bandwagon, at first by the use of the hashtags – either deliberately or inadvertently – and then by devoting space and time to the so called “Twitter wars”. Which is all fine in itself, after all it is their space and their time and they can fill it with anything they want. But for one problem – they make the issue seem bigger than it is, and more important that it should be.

Everyone on Twitter does not have the humour of a 13-year-old on the playground, busy dreaming up names for authority figures. What you have is a small, vocal, motivated, active and dedicated minority on both sides, who thrive on polarising the issue. The type for whom the dictum ‘if you aren’t for us, you are against us’ holds true. The real life equivalent of people on the streets taking out a morcha and shouting hai hai. The only reason it is interesting is because you see this on your screens wherever you are, it is in English, and journalists and influencers of the mainstream media are on the same platform.

While the mainstream media is a closed clique, Twitter can be an echo chamber – and it is this echo that makes events seem more important than they are. However, to give it its due, Twitter also allows more diverse voices to echo, more diverse opinion to gain shape. The echo can become noise, all sides screaming simultaneously, or agitating against the other, but it is by no means the only expression on the medium. The noise is possibly a fraction of the conversations that take place across the spectrum on a daily basis. But the mainstream media tends to reduce issues to a yes or no, oppose or support. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that instead of looking at diversity and plurality of views – even within the so called left or right online – the focus is on those who choose to polarise. This is also pretty much the way the real world is covered.

Despite the fractious last four years in politics, legislations have been passed, committees have met, work has taken place, and representatives across parties in Parliament and in state legislatures, have contributed to this. Yet, all that is seen is the dissent, the walk-outs, the screaming at each other in TV studios, the grandstanding, the nautanki– essentially sound byte politics. In a broadcast world where sound bytes rule, it is hardly surprising that Twitter is the chosen medium. Everything is reduced to 140 characters – that is great for headlines, great for fuelling more conflict, and great for projecting a world that is intrinsically polarised. That polarised world does not exist outside the TV studios and those who get hashtags to trend. News channels are happy because they get instant conflict ridden content; those who trend hashtags are happy because their view is presented as the only world view. And as always, the middle ground is left out. Most of the world is rather fuzzy in its choices, with neither committed party members nor haters.

The fact that Mr Gandhi & Mr Modi are talking to the people on vision and issues, and how they see the world is a great start. After a long time we are hearing content beyond caste, community and magic wands. What ought to be discussed is not the antics of activist supporters on social media, but the policy and vision of the two individuals. In focusing on the trivial and the banal, the really important is left out. Messrs Gandhi and Modi, whether we like them or not, are two individuals whose vision is going to shape public policy and the direction India takes both internally and on the world stage, depending on whose alliance comes to power in 2014. It is time that that vision is discussed beyond Twitter.

Apr 042013

My Tehelka Blog on the calls to pardon Sanjay Dutt

Ajmal Kasab had just turned 21 when he and his fellow band of terrorists attacked India on 26 November 2008. He was 18, when he began his descent into crime and terror.

The youngest unnamed accused in the horrific Delhi gangrape case was just a shade under 18, when he participated, willingly, in the rape and murder of a young physiotherapist. He was supposedly the most brutal of all the rapists on the bus, that fateful night. While the system calls him a ‘juvenile’ and in all likelihood will set him free, there is general revulsion at the thought of someone like him being free to walk around to commit the same crime again.

Both Kasab and the unnamed juvenile were born in poor families, grew up in a world where others took to petty and not-so-petty crimes, and were exposed to influences that could lead them astray – yet most people do not use their age, their background or reduced circumstances as an excuse for their horrific behavior.

Sanjay Dutt was 33 years old when the Mumbai Police discovered that “the actor had acquired AK-56s from Dawood Ibrahim’s brother Anees Ibrahim, and had even had one destroyed after the serial blasts in Bombay that left 257 people dead.”

Yet it seems like a large part of the film and political fraternity are calling for him to be pardoned. Here is a man who willingly took possession of arms that would be used against his fellow citizens. He tried to cover this up, and yet people are calling for his pardon. There is a very sophisticated publicity exercise in place that wants to make Dutt seem like a poor little lost boy, entrapped by circumstances and an unwilling participant in an escapade that went wrong. The truth is different. He was a grown up, who knew what he was doing, and kept quiet when a single phone call (even an anonymous one) could have saved over 250 lives.

So, what makes Sanjay Dutt special?

Born to Bollywood nobility – his mother was Nargis, father Sunil Dutt – brought up in the lap of privilege and wealth, Sanjay Dutt could have been anyone. He was given a dream film debut by his father in the film Rocky, he worked with the biggest directors in Bollywood, his friends were the A-list in tinsel town, fans loved him, the box office welcomed him and he had the world at his feet. You would think that a man born into such a background and who achieved success would do something useful and meaningful with his life. He didn’t. His early career in Bollywood was marked by absences, late coming and general bad behavior. So much so that he began losing out roles to relatively unknown actors (Sanjay Dutt was the first choice for the film Hero, that later propelled Jackie Shroff to stardom. The story goes that Subhash Ghai was so put off with the unprofessional behavior of Sanjay Dutt that he had him replaced). All this changed with the 1993 Mumbai blasts and the subsequent arrest of Sanjay Dutt under TADA.

Unlike the West where people, even stars, are penalised for their bad behavior, India seems to love its bad boys. Robert Downie Jr, Mel Gibson, and a host of others have lost roles, lost endorsements when they got embroiled in controversy. Mel Gibson for being a drunk racist, Downie Jr for a drug habit that led him to serve jail time – there was punishment beyond what the legal system mandated. There was ostracisation and a loss in earnings. But over here, the moment a star gets into trouble, he becomes more salable. Sanjay Dutt got better roles after his arrest,  and he is not the only one. It is almost as though advertisers and film financiers believe that sleaze will sell.

Today, when people who should know better are appealing the Governor to pardon Sanjay Dutt, they need to understand that they are giving their blessing to delinquency, to irresponsibility, to acting in an anti-social manner and a support of terror.

“He is a nice man” goes the refrain. How many nice people do you know who store automatic weapons and grenades capable of causing carnage? Then there is the refrain that says he was too young. At 33? When leaders like Digvijaya Singh put out statements that say, “Sanjay Dutt is not a criminal, he is not a terrorist. Sanjay Dutt, at a young age, in the atmosphere of that time, thought that perhaps the way Sunil Dutt had been raising his voice against communalism and favoured the minorities, then perhaps he could be attacked,” they are making excuses for terror.

What do you say to all those people who are minorities, or favour minority rights and would never think of going down the path of violence or terror? Indeed, what do you tell people whose family members have been arrested and convicted for terror – that it is excusable because they thought they were in danger? Is this the same approach to dealing with Maoists who believe that the only way they can get heard by the State is by committing acts of terror?

The last excuse is that Nargis and Sunil Dutt were patriots and deserve better. The head of the Press Council of India and former Supreme Court judge Markanday Katju says, on why Sanjay Dutt deserves a pardon: “His parents Sunil Dutt and Nargis worked for the good of society and the nation. Sunil Dutt and Nargis often went to border areas to give moral support to our brave jawans and did other social work for the society.”

This is an easy statement to agree with. Sunil Dutt and Nargis Dutt did deserve better, and their son let them down. Not the system. It is because he is their son that he is only facing just 5 years in prison, not a lifetime. Imagine if an ordinary boy named Sanjay Dutt, whose parents were not popular film stars, had been found with the weapons cache. Would the outcry be the same?

Mar 132013

Google News

25th February headlines and story links via Google News – India Edition

Google News is my landing page for news and opinion, and has been for the best part of the last decade. It acts as an aggregator of news from local, regional, national and global sources, and provides it to the user in an easy to read format. Google News, in its own words, has this to say about its offering :

In the last ten years, Google News has grown to 72 editions in 30 languages, and now draws from more than 50,000 news sources. The technology also powers Google’s news search. Together, they connect 1 billion unique users a week to news content.

Google uses a number of parameters to decide which news ends up on the landing page. These include number of stories (volume) on a given topic; number of words; importance of a news organisation/agency – all these are par for the course – obviously an international paper like New York Times filing a story will rank higher than a local newspaper in Dhule putting out the same story. But, what is also important is the weightage given to audience feedback. Which stories do we click on, which do we choose.

What struck me when I saw the list of news articles in the Google News India landing page, was the absence of certain stories.

a) The drought in Maharashtra – one of the worst droughts in the State, 16 districts impacted. Unprecedented migration from impacted areas to cities. Many places are water starved. It is almost as if no one cares. Not news agencies, newspapers or newsreaders. A human tragedy, that is compounded by the lack of awareness.

b) Bhandara Rapes – three sisters between the ages of 6 and 11 were lured away with the promise of food. Raped. Murdered. And, their bodies dumped in a well. What is striking is that much of the news on this crime is acquired from foreign news agencies, most newspapers neither have reporters in the area, nor the resources to send reporters there. Needless to say, the story has died. It is as though poor children in rural India do not matter.

c) Canning Violence – Canning is a little village in West Bengal that has been devastated by violence. A 100 people descend on a locality and destroy everything, and there isn’t a peep about it. You don’t know if it is gang violence, communal violence, an alien invasion – you know nothing about this event. News channels that gave the protests in Delhi and the violence at Azad Maidanl in Mumbai blanket coverage – are conspicous by their silence

d) Shahbagh Protests – next door in Bangladesh, young men and women are protesting to bring war criminals to book. They are also calling for the banning of the far right Jamaat Party that was, allegedly, complicit in the war crimes. While bloggers and individuals have covered the news on social media, there has been little coverage in the Main Stream Media. Indian news channels who sent their reporters to Libya and Egypt, are nowhere to be seen.

As far as news is concerned, there are media centers – Mumbai and Delhi – Cricket and Bollywood, Sex & Sleaze, the West and what it finds interesting – and media peripheries – the poor and hungry, the marginalised and dispossessed, the Rest of India, the Rest of the world. There are people and events that matter, and there are people and events that don’t.

And, you really cannot blame news channels and news agencies – readers have shown no interest in these stories. In a world of 24 hour news, instant updates, images and words flashed around the world in an instant – it is very likely that certain incidents will never be considered newsworthy by either the news companies or audiences. At the same time, there will be those which are flogged to death. There are topics that are ‘glamorous” – for example terrorism or the threat of terrorism is newsworthy. Thousands of acres of rainforest are destroyed and millions of minutes of airtime is consumed discussing this topic. On the other hand, the impact due to climate change on the most marginal communities, and the most vulnerable demographics – women, children, elderly – is relegated to more niche media. There are illnesses like ‘bird flu‘ that are attractive and take up a disproportionate percentage of news discussions, newspaper coverage and reader mindspace, while deaths due to malnutrition is ignored. Audiences tend to look for the more sensational. Also the more frightening the news, the more likely are people to watch.

What can be done ? Well, there is no magic wand to change audience attitudes. But as networked citizens and media professionals, maybe the solution is to keep talking about issues not present in the mainstream, till someone listens. It isn’t that there isn’t coverage – it is just that it has not been picked up and blown up the story. It is up to concerned individuals to keep stories alive, to bring them to the notice of the world at large. In a networked world, that is possible .

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)