Who is the real builder?
Who is the true martyr?
Who is the right leader?
Who is an authentic poet?
Which is the genuine song?
– Shrawan Mukarung in Utkhanan There are certain questions that ‘mass’ media never raise. What exactly is the definition of ‘people’ in the expression, “We, the people”? What constitutes ‘public’? What makes for the ‘populace’? What differentiates citizenry from consumers? Who decides on these definitions, for these everyday terms create conditions for fierce political contestations? The dynamism, stagnation, decay or destruction of a society depends, among other things, on definitions agreed upon by opinion leaders. Mythmakers are important, but no less crucial are the role of makers of meaning, for they are the ones who set the terms of public discourse. In Shrawan Mukarung’s Nepal, till recently it was sacrilegious to question the royal version of history that put the institution of monarchy over and above everything else. The poet got around official strictures against dissent by retrieving Bishe Nagarchi, a legendry Dalit who is believed to have counselled the King Prithvi Narayan Shah about appropriate ways of financing costly military campaigns. After years of struggle, the country of Bishe’s – or perhaps his king’s – dream was built by the beginning of 1775, the year Prithvi Narayan died. The victorious chieftain from the tiny principality of Gorkha took on the title Bada Maharaj – Great King – of Nepal. He bequeathed his kingdom to his descendents and bought the permanent loyalty of family priests and devoted courtiers by bestowing upon them generous land grants in the territories of vanquished rulers. That was the way of the onquerors of the 18th century. What makes the legend of Bishe poignant in retrospect is the manner in which his children would be dealt with by successive Shah kings and their all-powerful Rana retainers. Dalits would remain lowest of the low in the Hindu pecking order – their existence excluded from the present, their memory erased out of the past. Shrawan’s ode to Bishe Nagarchi captures the continuous agony of two centuries in its simplest form: the protagonist’s rebellion expresses itself in feigned insanity. When King Gyanendra used the name of his ancestors to usurp state power through a phased coup between October 2002 and February 2005, this unassuming poet resurrected the forgotten Dalit counsellor of Prithvi Narayan to pierce the pomposity of the Grand Pretender. Shrawan’s poems, as well as the songs of the troubadour Raamesh, were the anthems of awakening during the months of struggle that culminated in the April Uprising. They helped to dislodge Gyanendra the autocrat from of his flimsy perch. As Nepal moves ahead haltingly on the road to democracy, poets and singers have gone out of the media spotlight. Political party activists and rebel leaders now monopolise the centre-stage, even as breathless journalists speculate about impending breakthroughs or looming disasters on an hourly basis. Most journalists, however, lack the patience to search for meaning. They are quite happy to let events speak for themselves; show, don’t tell. The problem arises because events never speak for themselves; someone is always there to interpret them. The society that lacks committed creators of meaning risks falling into the hands of wily manipulators of the market or the state. Nepal and Gaya
Mythmakers must turn themselves into the makers of meaning, but the trend in Southasia generally and in India particularly is in the opposite direction. The youthful exuberance and occasional lapses of the Nepali press, free for all of 15 years, may be forgiven. But what of the waywardness of the century-old free media of India, whose ongoing degeneration is the real story of our times? In a moving foreword to Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani’s My Days in Prison, Siddharth Varadrajan describes the way the New Delhi press became a willing accomplice of the Indian establishment in the subversion of rule of law. Indeed, anyone who had witnessed the trial by media of the hapless scribe in June 2002 and has read the victim’s experiences will find it hard to believe anything that the New Delhi media says these days on matters of import. There is a dumbing down in progress in India’s press, radio and television, which hardly does justice to the masses, the public, the populace. The benumbing fare dished out by India’s television channels seems premised on the belief that the people deserve no better. The saddest part is that what is happening in India today is a glimpse of what will happen elsewhere in Southasia the day after tomorrow. For the sheer audacity of some of the India news channels, one can refer to a staged confrontation between security forces and the Maobaadi rebels in Nepal’s border district of Nawalparasi. A TV reporter bribed some soldiers and villagers into enacting the script, and the cameras rolled as the ‘attack’ was carried out. One terrified soldier believed it to be a real confrontation and fired, injuring a hapless villager. The journalist-producer used his connections and got the victim treated and compensated, and no one was the wiser. Manoj Mishra, of Gaya in Bihar, was not as lucky. He was killed on 15 August, India’s Independence Day, to feed television’s need for a visual story. Police allege that some TV reporters provided Manoj with diesel-soaked towels and a matchbox with which to immolate himself, assuring him that they would douse the flames as soon as they got the footage they required. But when the flames leapt up, no one came forward to help, and Manoj Mishra succumbed to the burns – an extreme representation of the ethics and interests of the commercial media.
When politics just reigns and the market rules with its velvet hand, profits set the social agenda. It would be naïve to expect a conscience-keeper’s role from a media forced to fend for itself in the marketplace. Circumstances have made journalists handmaidens of the self-declared ‘we, the people’, who want to be revered, reassured and regaled at the cost of the suffering populace. The commercial press cannot be the interpreter that once kept the two in dialogue. In the media bazaar, journalists have become suppliers of services like entrepreneurs in any other industry. They have very little time, talent or inclination for deep reflection. It has been quite a while since Indian censors stopped sending soldiers to the newsroom – something that happened recently in Nepal and is routine in some of the other countries of Southasia. The evolution of market mechanisms has made that unnecessary in a country where the size of a relatively affluent middle class is believed to be bigger than the population of Europe. Like in all consumer capitals of the world, all that a really powerful person needs to do is make a phone call to the chief executive of the media house presumed guilty of transgression. The rest is usually taken care of. Most media-persons know the sanctity of the line too well to contemplate crossing it. There is only one way to get around this enormous challenge of commercialising media: bring the mythmakers back into the public domain. Journalism is too important a discipline to be left in the hands of journalists. This is something that Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru knew quite well. But the presence of politicians alone will not be enough to change the tone and tenure of a scandal-obsessed press. Writers, songsters, thinkers and public intellectuals must also be brought back to the mainstream media. In their questions we shall find the answers of the most pressing problems of the day.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
The archive: 25 years of Southasia
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).