Defenders of an open society can do better than to focus on Sach Ka Saamna.
What does Sita have to do with the new reality show Sach Ka Saamna? If the public shenanigans of our political class and some media channels are any indication, then truth could yet again be in danger of becoming a casualty. The verbal antics that pass for parliamentary debates in India are reverberating through unimaginative talk shows of India’s television channels and print media. Battle lines are drawn. On the one side are self-righteous protectors of India’s cultural morality, drawing their legitimacy as avowed representatives of the people of India. Facing them off as self-appointed defenders of freedom of expression, democracy and truth are electronic-media houses, show producers, news anchors, print journalists and the chattering classes in general.
The bone of contention is the latest offering from Siddhartha Basu, Sach Ka Saamna, on Star Plus. This is a reality-based game show, modelled on an American show called The Moment of Truth, in which contestants are asked 21 intimate questions about their personal and professional lives. Contestants are hooked up to polygraph machines, and then have to answer the often extremely personal questions in front of their family and friends, and have the option of leaving or revealing their ‘hidden’ (hopefully embarrassing) feelings. Those who pass the polygraph test and answer the questions become eligible to win up to INR 10 million.
Trouble started to brew in mid-July, when Kamal Akhtar, of the Samajwadi Party, complained in the Rajya Sabha that obscene questions were being asked by the show’s anchor, Rajeev Khandelwal. In its earlier episode, Akhtar noted, a woman named Smita was asked (as her husband and other family members looked on) whether she would have a physical relationship with another man if her husband would not find out. When Smita answered that she would not, the polygraph said the answer was wrong, prompting Akhtar to wonder how this whole thing made Smita’s husband feel. Akhtar was not worried, mind you, about Smita’s own feelings. And he is not alone. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ideologues such as former Rajya Sabha MP B P Singhal are following suit – all the time unmindful of the fact that Sita of the Ramayana herself had to pass through a far-worse humiliation to prove her chastity to the people of Ayodhya. Two petitions were subsequently filed before the Delhi High Court, seeking a discontinuance of the programme on grounds of ‘objectionable’ content, allegedly running counter to the ‘culture of India’.
Now we find ourselves in the absurd situation of watching a tug of war between the two pillars of democracy, the legislature and the media. Ironically, this has now become an issue of freedom of expression being opposed, in the interest of cultural integrity, by representatives of democracy: cultural revivalism versus modern values, censorship versus freedom. According to some, the very existence of the ‘Indian civilisation’, its cultural ethos and moral fabric, is in danger of being torn asunder. For others, all that is to be cherished in a modern nation – the republican Constitution, the values of freedom and justice that it enshrines – are in danger of being submerged under the tsunami of revivalism. According to the latter view, it is of the highest, national importance that Sach Ka Saamna be allowed to continue, in the interest of building an open, inclusive and tolerant society.
On 22 July, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry issued a ‘show cause’ notice to Star Plus. The notice alleged a violation had taken place of regulations that prohibit content that depicts “vulgarity, indecency and is against good taste”. In its defence, Star Plus had said that Sach Ka Saamna had violated no programming guidelines, and Star Plus sources claimed that the show’s content could not be considered obscene or vulgar. Moreover, Star Plus has pointed out that it airs a ‘parental guidance’ warning during the broadcast, which in any case is being aired late, at 11 pm. The show’s producer, Basu, has been quoted as saying that he respects the law and is willing to consider changes.
On 29 July, the High Court rejected the two petitions against the show, saying that “moral policing” was not its job. The judges also invoked Mohandas K Gandhi’s principle of ‘seeing no evil’, and advised those offended by the show to simply turn off their TV sets; they also went further to cite the petitions as a “misuse” of the public interest litigation system when the country faced “several far more serious problems”. Asserting that “Our culture is not so fragile that it will be affected by one TV show”, the bench was categorical that the court was not supposed to deal with an area in the realm of “perceptions and opinion”. The justices also affirmed that “morality yardsticks are to be decided by the government,” and directed the petitioners to take the issue to the legislative and executive branches.
Where does this leave us? While we are all familiar with the hypocrisies of the political class who are opposing Sach Ka Saamna, are we to take at face value those who are rooting for the programme’s continuance as being genuinely liberal defenders of democratic freedoms? Amidst the charged debate, few have paused to ask what exactly is at stake here. Though some have referred to Gandhi’s pursuit of truth as itself being a justifying guideline for allowing the programme to go on, almost no one is asking what Sach Ka Saamna actually has to do with truth in the first place.
Truth about secrets
There was a time when truth was that elusive, evanescent, transcendental thing in pursuit of which philosophers, seers and mystics would make endless sacrifices. In the best tradition of the Socratic dictum – “Know thyself” – it involved a rigorous self-examination, all because truth, in the words of John the Apostle, “will set you free”. Across time, cultures, philosophical and spiritual traditions, truth has been variously equated with god, beauty, justice, virtue, knowledge, love and the like, and the pursuit of each of these has been considered as a worthy end in itself. In turn, these ends have been behind the motivations of some of humanity’s greatest figures, from philosophers to artists to scientists to religious icons, many of whom paid the highest price for what they believed to be true.
There are those who say the serial is an attempt to strive for truth at the mass media level. Southasian societies, by averring that satyamev jayate (truth alone will triumph), have always accorded truth the privileged position of supreme value – not only in philosophical discourse, but also as a way life that was worth fighting for. Its revolutionary resonance, put to effect by anti-colonial freedom movements, was acknowledged long before our media moguls discovered it. Yet it seems that all this was, after all, little more than a figment of the collective imagination; at least, this is how it appears today.
For many, truth is no longer viewed as an ethereal, infinite, immeasurable ideal, nor does it have anything necessarily to do with notions of justice and freedom. It is now an entity quantifiable in terms of money: truth has now become a commodity, and henceforth the supply-and-demand laws of commercial markets will be applied to measure and price its worth. Thus the more inconvenient a truth is – or the more difficult it becomes for a contestant to take the risk of supplying truthful answers – the higher in demand it will be. By thus incorporating it into the ambit of the supply-demand logic of the market economy, the notion of truth has been robbed of its social, philosophical and revolutionary resonance. And while truth as an ‘ethical value’ is being subjected to a trivialising assault, all that today’s media intellectuals can do is rant and make the situation surrounding Sach Ka Saamna appear as a fight between regressive, self-serving politicians and defenders of open society.
In fact, all that Sach Ka Saamna is bartering in is secrets – not the truth at all. Of course, there are those who commend the programme for propagating the idea that it is perhaps better that secrets can no longer exist, as the line between the public and the private is getting thinner by the day. Perhaps this is what scares today’s politicians? Truth’s supreme importance is well recognised in the arena of politics, and a regime is publicly understood to be just or otherwise based on how open it is to public scrutiny. In India, legislation such as the Right to Information Act encompass steps towards just such ends, which in turn are supposed to lead to greater accountability and democracy. As in the socio-political sphere, so it should be in the personal sphere – or, at least, that seems to be the logic behind those defending Sach Ka Saamna.
Applied to politicians, this makes sense, and perhaps it would be a good idea to make all public representatives undergo a polygraph test before they take office. Yet one cannot but feel that Sach Ka Saamna has very little to do with building an open society. Does an open society necessarily imply revealing all private secrets? How would this impact on the privacy and dignity of individuals? In revealing our secrets, we also implicate and encroach on the private world of others. “We live in an age,” says Milan Kundera, “when private life is being destroyed … little by little the people themselves lose their taste for private life and their sense of it. Without secrecy nothing is possible- not love, not friendship.” It is not at all clear that revealing information about one’s adulterous liaisons, sexual preferences, unpleasant bosses, etc, will necessarily lead to an open, inclusive and tolerant society. Indeed, doing so may actually lead to exclusion, persecution and a closure of spaces, if it is not accompanied with a corresponding empowerment and bulwarking of basic human rights.
Such concerns, however, deal with the larger society, and few such arguments have been made during the recent brouhaha. Apart from deriding the politicians, most of the televised debates on the issue have been limited to one of two points: whether Sach Ka Saamna makes a case for a larger role for the state in regulating broadcasting, or whether individual broadcasters should take more responsibility in self-regulation. Obviously media houses are rooting for self-regulation, though it is doubtful whether this would mark a move towards more-responsible programming. As for the rest, it is clear that what needs to be put in place is much more fundamental, at the level of the idea, format and content of a programme purportedly dealing with truth.
Thus, for instance, the programme in this case could have been so designed that while providing an avenue for individuals to express their personal ‘truths’ – about their sufferings, sexual orientations, extramarital relations, etc – it could have also provided a platform for nuanced, sensitive discussions on, for instance, the repressive structures within society, problems of the institution of marriage, office exploitations and the like. Such discussions on the root causes behind issues, which compel some to hide their sexual orientation, or others to seek solace in extra marital relations, would not only have proven cathartic and therapeutic, but could also have served the larger social purpose of creating an introspective and self-reflexive social culture. In turn, this could potentially lead to the building of an inclusive, open and exploitation-free society.
Yet this, of course, is something that neither a corporate-driven media nor the state may want. Such programmes would also not easily lend themselves to the binary format of a reality show such as Sach ka Saamna, which demands an audience that is high on vicarious thrills and low on emotional and intellectual content. For one, given the state of Indian society, which provides little few avenues for developing the intellectual and emotional sensibilities of its people, where most everybody is living a hard life of daily struggle for survival, an audience that appreciates such a programme would have to be slowly created and painstakingly nurtured, probably over a period of years. This would require investments with doubtful prospects of immediate or even long-term returns. Worse, an intelligent audience such as this could begin to ask ‘inconvenient’ questions – perhaps about the actual necessity of the products being advertised during such programmes, or about the causes leading to marital discord and gender inequity, about the validity of an exploitative social order, etc. Is it any surprise that panel discussions at televised chat shows merely hover around the periphery, rather than going deep to the root of the matter?
Truthfulness is not something that springs ablaze by itself; it has to be created between people. Evolution, complexity, means, ends, real, praxis – such have been the terms of references used by social thinkers, educationists, feminists etc. for the notion of truth. These complex ideas have now been reduced to binary responses. As for most of the media (whose job it is to try to tell the truth, or at least to report the facts truthfully) and the politicians (whose job it is to practice truth), one can repeat the words of the playwright Arthur Miller: to them, “Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.” Should they deny this charge and say that what they practice is the real truth, quote back to them from the ancient Hindu scriptures: Neti, neti, neti (not this, not this, not this).