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Cautionary tale

December 02, 2005

IT takes a good two hours in the morning going through a stack of Pakistani newspapers. It takes about half an hour to go through the leading English dailies that you get in Delhi. I have had to read them — newspaper-reading being a habit that members of the tribe carry with their luggage — these past three or four days (invited to Delhi for one of those seminars...what else?...in which worthy subjects are discussed) — and I can say with confidence that I don’t know what’s happening in the rest of the world.

You read them and you get to know more than you probably would want to about happenings in the film or fashion industry. But if you want to know a bit about events in the rest of the world you would have to seek some other fountain of knowledge.

You can’t blame television for being chatty and entertainment-driven because that’s how television sells. But you would expect newspapers to be slightly different. No such luck with Indian papers which, driven by the great forces of the market, have been dumbed down to the point where they are indistinguishable from any other consumer product. Small wonder if they are marketed in the same way and as aggressively as, say, a brand of washing powder or the latest cell phone from Nokia or Samsung.

There’s no point in singling any newspaper out. By and large, they all look like tabloids out of Bollywood, devoted primarily not to anything as gross or insulting as national or international issues but to some form of entertainment. After the information revolution and in the age of globalization we were all supposed to be more ‘empowered’. Is such dumbing down the new road to empowerment?

In Pakistan we are supposed to be overly obsessed with politics. Newspapers are full of political reporting. Columns and articles often sound as if they are one long wail about the national condition. Indeed, we have turned moaning and the pursuit of cynicism into national art forms.

Sounds morbid, doesn’t it? Yet comparing it to the Bollywoodization of the Indian media, the conscious pursuit of blandness and mindless entertainment even by such standard-bearers of the Indian press as the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, you wonder which is the more insidious, such over-the-top passion as to be found in Pakistan or the complete loss of passion, at least as mirrored in the press, you see in India?

You have to admit, it’s a neat arrangement. The masses are entertained — constant entertainment or a form of it the new opiate of the masses, much more effective than religion in many respects — while the governing class and the great captains of commerce and industry have things their own way at the top.

This principle the later Caesars observed to great effect in Rome where, when the empire started falling on hard times, they saw to it that the Roman rabble and indeed even the more responsible citizens were kept occupied and entertained by never-ending festivals and gladiatorial contests, so that no one thought too hard about the intrigues and power games being played behind palace walls.

Do the mass of American citizens think too hard about what is happening in their country or what their country is doing to the rest of the world? That George Bush and the cabal around him — a more dangerous set of characters than the world has known for some time — could drag their country into a war on the basis of the most transparent lies doesn’t say much for the collective intelligence and awareness of the American people or indeed of their chosen representatives in Congress.

The same Roman principle is at work here, the masses stuffed to overflowing on a diet of consumerism and entertainment while the leaders of government go about their business undisturbed. If questions are now being asked about the Iraq war it’s not primarily because of a rush of any new-found awareness but because the seriousness of the Iraqi resistance is more than anyone in Washington had bargained for, and because the lies of the Bush administration are finally catching up with it.

I hope I am not stretching the point when I say much the same dynamic can be seen in India where the media has managed to do two things very successfully: (1) brushed some very serious national problems under the carpet, to the point where there is not much national or international awareness about them; and (2) celebrated a story of Indian progress which partly is very real but which also relies heavily on fiction.

Entire regions of India — UP, Bihar, to name only two states — are in the grip of serious lawlessness and there is not much that anyone has been able to do about it. But sitting in Delhi or reading the Indian press you won’t get this impression. Only when something out-of-the-ordinary happens, a high profile killing, for instance — although in India’s wild east even this is no longer surprising — does it figure in the headlines, otherwise not.

There is a full-fledged insurgency in the northeast — Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, etc — but you won’t get to know much about it if your sole source of information is the Indian press.

More serious than these two problems is something potentially more dangerous. From the Nepal border in the north right down to Andhra Pradesh in the south, a wide swathe of territory almost cutting through this huge country is in the effective control not of any government, central or state, but the Naxalite movement. This is a mind-boggling circumstance, about 160 districts of the country — the total number of districts in Pakistan being 105 — outside governmental control. But again the Naxalite movement doesn’t figure much in Indian discourse.

True, India’s stability or integrity is not under threat. India’s very size is the biggest shock absorber of all, its capacity to absorb problems of this nature or magnitude commensurate with its bulk. Still, to insist, or convey the impression, that nothing troubles the Indian heartland is to close one’s eyes to reality. As already stated, the Indian media performs this pigeon act very successfully.

India is coming of age as an economic power. It is also flexing its muscles as a major military power. We all know the story and the statistics. Indeed, talking to an educated Indian who wears his patriotism on his sleeve (there being no shortage of this kind because being relatively new to high-power status, Indians tend to be touchy about different aspects of their nationhood) one stands in danger of getting an earful of these statistics.

But it is also a fact that the benefits of growth are not evenly spread, roughly 30 per cent of the Indian population enjoying the fruits of progress while 70 per cent is still trapped in different versions of poverty.

While the rich-poor divide is true of most societies, the great success of the Indian media lies in obscuring this distinction. Watching Indian TV or reading Indian papers one could be forgiven for believing that the entire Indian population, one billion strong, is living the high life. This feat the media has achieved by trivializing national discourse. The biggest temple of all in India is dedicated to none of the older gods in the Indian pantheon but to the new god of entertainment.

The cautionary tale is for us as we move forward on the road to democracy (a journey which would be made easier infinitely if Pakistan’s ruling general, fourth in a line of patriarchs the country could have done without, is persuaded to shed his fears and his uniform). If we can get democracy without lowering the standard of national discourse or without the pursuit of trivia, that would be a goal worth striving for.