Democracy, dissent, and media
About a fortnight back in these very pages, I read an article titled “Manufacturing dissent in liberal democracy” penned by National Institute of Design professor Mihir Bholey. In the very incisive piece, Bholey took on Noam Chomsky and others for criticising the government for its role in the JNU affair. Bholey argued that “manufacturing dissent could be far more disastrous for societies and nations than manufacturing consent.”
According to Bholey, in overplaying Chomsky’s comments “the same media which Chomsky bitterly criticises for manufacturing consent through propaganda, might as well in liberal democracies be manufacturing dissent.”
The readers of the Notebook might enquire what took their reporter so long to react to Bholey’s article. In the intervening period one rubbed shoulders with academia attending five seminars from disciplines as diverse as International Relations, Psychology, Business and Commerce, Sociology, and Political Science in Delhi University. In all these interactions, the role of the media and events of JNU kept coming back to dominate the dialogue.
The most startling question was put at the seminar on Constitutional Rights versus Human Rights, where it was asked why the media went to town with the Nirbhaya case but ignored the rape of Dalit women on a regular basis in the countryside. The accusation brought against the media was that absence of women and Dalits at the decision-making levels contributed to this trend.
I could not disagree more with this proposition. There are plenty of women journalists today at positions of leadership to counter such bias, rather they have added value to the sensitivity which media shows towards women issues. However, it cannot be denied that media expositions, especially the visual media, are influenced by several other factors - especially profit.
First the discussion on Nirbhaya getting extraordinary coverage compared to women in similar unfortunate situations in rural India. It goes without saying that the private channels today search for opportunities to enhance the Television Rating Points (TRPs), which helps them rake in greater revenue from the advertisers. Indian television not being regulated, in the mad race for TRPs, no wonder, often run of the tangent.
Nirbhaya coverage took precedence over the rapes in countrysides, in my opinion, for the “cinematic” visuals it provided. Agitation around India Gate and candle marches by youth and old alike created more visual impact than the rape and murder in the middle of a sugarcane field. The larger question, however, is how does one create protests in rural India so that it could be captured by the cameras for snapshot-hungry audiences. Thus,Baghpat loses repeatedly to New Delhi.
To Bholey’s argument that dissent on JNU campus was manufactured by the propagandist media, one may agree to a great extent to the point of dissent being manufactured by the media. But in this case again, media’s propagandist role, unlike what Bholey thinks, is fuelled more by concerns for profit than any ideological bent. Here, however, I must add that the matter is different in the case of newspapers - which would be discussed some other day.
To reiterate my point on media manufacturing dissent on the campus, I must refer to a recent article by a former Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University Professor Deepak Nayyar titled “Tales of Two Seditions”. The paper recalled how under two different governments he got sedition cases dropped against an editor and a group of students. The first related to Rajiv Gandhi government and the case was against Economic and Political Weekly’s editor Krishna Raj.
In the second case, the Vajpayee government had slapped sedition charges in 2001 against five students of Delhi University in Seelampur who raised anti-India slogans in a demonstration against US bombing in Afghanistan. Nayyar was Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University at that point of time. In the first case, he intervened with Rajiv Gandhi on behalf of Krishna Raj as a fellow intellectual. In the second case, he managed a meeting with then Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and intervened on behalf of the students as the Vice-Chancellor of the university. “The DPM listened to me patiently for 15 minutes and said he would let me know.
Soon after I returned to my office, the DPM’s office telephoned. Advani said that he had considered the matter and decided that the sedition charges against the five students would be dropped,” writes Nayyar. He had similar success with Rajiv Gandhi in Krishna Raj’s case. I doubt if this kind of intervention by a university Vice-Chancellor would have been possible with a prying media working overtime to keep the controversy alive for the sake of profit. The comfort of privacy which Nayyar enjoyed, probably would not be available to M Jagadesh Kumar, the present Vice-Chancellor of JNU.
The television media’s alarmist editorial line often escapes censure for allowing "freedom of expression" a free play. With television being such a powerful tool for shaping public opinion, it would be very difficult for any government to take a call on regulating it. However, for the sake of maintaining ethos of a liberal democracy some kind of regulation is called for to rein it from manufacturing consent or dissent.
Bholey writes in his article, “those manufacturing dissents against the idea of India must realise that it’s possible only in a liberal democracy like India, not everywhere.” Therefore, it is important to be on guard against abuse of free expression, especially by the media which is in constant search for profit. Instead, there is a need to promote Gandhian dissent which never believed inventing or manufacturing one.
(The author is President, Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post.The views expressed are personal.)