Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Racism in Indian Media

Media, in India is often touted as the guardian angel of democratic principles. Since Edmund Burke, the “fourth estate” has been regarded as something that checks and if need be, re-balances the division of power(s). I would credit the media to, more often than not, be doing an exemplary role in acting as a controlling factor that prevents the executive and legislature from going significantly against the wishes of the majority of people, criticizing the state in situations where it crosses some unwritten thresholds. However having said that the media is not perfect, nor should I expect it to be.

I have always been skeptical about the role of media in India. This is not to downsize the role they have played in what India has grown to be today, this is in no way to malign the toil, hardwork, bravery and integrity of some of the most talented men and women who have braved the odds to bring us news about the positive and negative happenings to our television screens, newspapers or the internet portals. In many cases, the media has played a crucial role in swinging public opinion, the most recent example that comes to my mind is that of the highlight of India Against Corruption movement in the earlier part of this decade. However, they do, sometimes, tend to go south. A penchant for increased TRPs or overtaking a competitor, news is often sensationalized and misquoted. There are instances where I have read news items which have got their facts wrong and a lot of media houses lack the grace to publish an admission of error or a letter of apology. Quoting “unnamed or undisclosed sources”, for many, seems to have become a way to stuff their personal or organizational opinions and ideologies as news event than news analyses.

However I write this piece to ponder upon my thoughts that media in India is getting especially negligent about news from North Eastern states of India. I’d go a step to cal it the racist attitude of the mainstream media in India. Yes, I know I am entitled to a criticism that this is more of a issue of regionalism, but I think I’d rather call it racism. Why? Because the media often quotes this term. Not against itself, but against us, the citizens of India.

I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that we, the people are racist. Okay, my definition of the term racism is strictly not according to how Wikipedia defines it. Most people of India are biased against the people from their own region of birth, against the people who do not share their mother tongue or their cultural background. I am from a state in Southern India who had the luck to go for my undergraduate degree in a college in the Hindi heartland in North India. I faced issues, mostly miniscule and negligible but issues they indeed were, where I was typecast into a stereotypical South Indian and judged, analyzed more based on that than who I was. I am certain that there would be many North Indians who would have faced the same issues in Southern India. That I think is quite understandable (and if you ask me, made for a lot of instances for me and my friends from across India to sit around tables and cafeterias and share a laugh!) and as long as it does not cause significant physical or mental agony, it should be something that is taken as the natural fabric that comes with a country as diverse as ours. However sometimes, incidents happen that do cross the unwritten barriers of physical or mental agony and cannot be ignored. That happens mostly with people from the North Eastern parts of India.

Yes, people who natively belong to states in North East, are most often, from a different race as the rest of India. And incidents happen when they are targeted for their race or ethnicity in other parts of India. Atrocious incidents have happened in Indian cities of Bengaluru, Mumbai, New Delhi etc, with increasing frequency. Whenever such instances happen, the media highlights the issue. There are endless debates and editorial pieces condemning the attacks. But amidst the din and charade that accompanies the debates and the glorified condemnations, you, I and the presenters miss one point – that the media themselves are racist.

The incident that prompted me to write this piece, to title this piece as it is, was the coverage of floods that ravaged the North Eastern states of India last month. And the stark contrast to the way the media covered the floods in Jammu and Kashmir this year and the floods in Uttarakhand towards the middle of last year. Almost all national media competed stiffly (and I would add, commendably) in covering the floods that occurred in Jammu and Kashmir, the impact, the severity, the rescue and relief and a host of other related aspects. A lot of them telecast their prime news reports from ground in Kashmir. But no media house (at least among the ones I follow) showed the same fervor and arduousness when covering the floods that ravaged in Assam and Meghalaya the very same month. When the waters started receding from Jammu and Kashmir, water levels started rising somewhere far east in the country, mainly in the states of Assam and Meghalaya. Surprisingly, the cyber world seems to be no less culpable. Wikpedia, which is the venerated encyclopedia of anything and everything, has no page related to the floods in North Eastern India. The page of List of 2014 disasters in India is conspicuous by the absence of North East floods. Normally I wouldn't have placed this arbitration against the media because it is quite understandable the amount of coverage their editorial boards decide to give various incidents. But this time, I think it went too far. Someone like me, who regularly surfs multiple media websites daily for news updates, came to know of the floods in Assam almost a full three days after they first reportedly happened. And if I consider myself an averagely avid news junkie, I can be uncomfortably reasonably sure that this news did not reach a significant households in India outside of the affected region. The media which is reputed in conducting periodic autopsies of the symbolic and on-the-ground acts of the new Union Cabinet, covered the visit of Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi to Jammu and Kashmir with true importance it deserved. However, the news item about Mr. Tarun Gogoi’s criticism that Mr. Narendra Modi did not visit the flood hit regions in the North East (which I think is quite matter-of-fact) gained only scant coverage in the media. Why, media? When you declare the majority of Indians as being biased against people from the North East, did you give a thought to look inside your own house to see if everything was well?

To me, it seems absolutely pointless that there needs to be some sort of communique from People’s Republic of China for Arunachal Pradesh to get a mention in the mainstream news media. It is pointless to talk about Manipur when and only when there is some news around Irom Sharmila. As long as the news media maintain this lackadaisical attitude, the citizens from other parts of India will continue to remain unaware and alienated from that part of their own country. And when a part of your citizenry do not get their fair share of exposure from the mainstream media, they are right to be felt ostracized and alienated. As much as “we” do not make “them” feel a part of the same country by all those dastardly acts, these kind of acts from the media would no doubt make “them” feel less integrated into the fabric of India. The blame certainly does lie with the citizens of other parts in the country, but some of the buck stops right in front of the media houses in India. 

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