By Dr. Shah Alam Khan
28 May, 2011
In April this year the media went into a loud and vulgar rapture as Anna Hazare continued his four-day fast against corruption at Jantar Mantar in the capital. Hyperventilating newscasters repeatedly declared that the issue of corruption has “touched a cord” with the middle class. The circus at Jantar Mantar ended on a happy note with an amazing display of rhapsody for millions of urban, educated, elite Indians as they saw the government kneel to the demands of Anna in re-formulating the Lok Pal bill. But this was more than a month back. In Indian politics, one month is a long period. With a short public memory and an equally uncaring public attitude, it is easy to comprehend why another fast in another corner of the country has evoked minimal response. Social activist and Gandhian, Medha Patkar has been on an indefinite fast since last seven days at Mumbai in protest against the land grab at the Golibar slum, next to the Mumbai airport.
The contrast is striking. No high profile players, no well known public figures, no lavish tents, no Bharatmata cut outs, no mineral water bottles for the attendees and of course minimal media glare. All the goodies of Anna Hazare’s protest are missing from Medha Patkar’s remonstration. What is most conspicuous is the “wretched” clientele for whom Medha is fasting. Medha’s indefinite fast is for the basic rights of 26,000 families, which dwell the Golibar slum. Slum dwellers! People who are a road block in the conversion of Mumbai to Shanghai.
Medha is protesting the blatant callousness of the Maharashtra government and its nefarious Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA). SRA is the by-product of the political-land mafia nexus aimed at usurping those living in the slums of Mumbai. This futuristic Shanghai has more than 60 percent of its population living in slums with Golibar being the second largest slum of the city. The SRA aims to authorize private builders to redevelop slum land. The result can be anyone’s guess. Private builders take up the slum land by force, forgery or on cheap rates. The resale value of these prime locations brings phenomenal wealth in the general property market. Even more despicable is the Clause 3K of the SRA, which gives a single builder right to redevelop a slum without inviting any tenders.
What is most deafening in this protest is the silence of the media (electronic, paper and alternative) which stood with Anna Hazare in his high profile fight against corruption. No facebook pages, no twitter messages, no hourly news updates. Surely something is amiss “now” as compared to “then”. Was it the personal charisma of Anna Hazare, who was largely unknown to elite Indians till April this year, which drew the masses and the media? Or was it a will of the media to suddenly awaken to the reality of corruption in this country? It baffles me.
Surely, Anna Hazare’s well-orchestrated (and hence well funded) fight against corruption was more appealing to the urban middle class Indian then a fight for the slum dwellers of a small locality of Mumbai. Although to evaluate the efficacy of a protest on the basis of number of people benefited by it is not only dangerous but purely foolhardiness par excellence! Protests represent the core values for which a society stands, not the number of people affected by its success. May be it is for this very reason that our very conscientious media fails to represent decisively the issues raised by Irom Sharmila, who has been on fast for the last ten years against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. Having said this, it may be noted that media has played a significant role in “individualistic protests” like those demanding justice for Jessica Lall or Priyadarshani Mattoo. Although it is easy to find instances of media manufactured struggles in India if the victims are elite, educated or middle class but to say the same for this very media taking up the causes of the underprivileged, oppressed or rural masses is difficult. No wonder there is hardly any coverage of Vidharba farmer suicides or of atrocities on dalits across the length and breadth of the country.
In India the amalgam of forces that drive a protest are also an important determinant for its adoption by the media. In Anna’s case high caste, elitist composition with a cosmetic supplementation by commoner Indians and fuelled by well-funded corporate driven NGOs, formed an ideal diet for high TRPs. A ready meal for media digestion! Unfortunately these ingredients of manufactured protest are lacking when it comes to core issues of human survival as in Medha Patkar’s ongoing demonstration in Mumbai.
The role of media in a democratic set-up cannot be over emphasized. But with more corporate control it is not difficult to discern what this integral pillar of democracy will support or rather avoid to support. With economic liberalization the media has become an important tool to formulate, channelize and direct popular protest; and there lies the danger for an unequal and unjust society like ours. Highlighting the correct story is a morally responsible task that has to be done without fear or favor. Medha Patkar and Irom Sharmila need an equal share of bytes & columns as Anna Hazare or Jessica Lall’s sister. Injustices cannot be compared, weighed and then sold to the general public wrapped in a piquant newspaper or an exciting television show. Discriminations cannot have different colors. Biases cannot be silent or loud. Inequality can never be less or more.
Dr. Shah Alam Khan workds at AIIMS, New Delhi. He blogs at www.indiaandbharat.blogspot.com