Valson Thampu

A distinct feature of our current national outlook is a wilful reluctance to see the most obvious. This is illiteracy of a different sort: the illiteracy that prevents you from reading the writings on the wall. Like Pecksniff, the most hypocritical character Charles Dickens ever created (The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit), we look under issues, over issues, to the left of issues, to the right of issues; anywhere but ‘at’ issues.

The United States of America, going by Alexis de Tocqueville’s assessment –cf. Democracy in America- is the Eden of democracy; quite apart from the debate whether democracy in its ideal form is ever realizable in history. India is the world’s most populous democracy and, by our claim, the world’s largest ‘functioning’ democracy. This is aside of B. R. Ambedkar’s somber warning in the early 50’s that democracy in India, given our endemic incapacity for equality, could be a failed experiment in India. On 12 January, 2018 –how can we forget that moment in our history?- four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court of India came out in the open and, through an electrifying press conference, put the nation on notice that ‘democracy is in peril.’ We refused to read that message too. Now it looks as though judges have read aright our unwillingness to read such messages as proved by the outcome of the 2019 general elections. Expectedly, we had the Ayodhya verdict and a few more of the same breed that ensued.

Even at risk of being condemned as anti-national, let us compare two similar events from the two most significant democracies of the world: India and the US. Let’s begin with the latter.

On Friday, the 3rd of January 2020, General Qassem Soleimani, the second most powerful man in the Iranian military-political scheme of things, was eliminated through a precision drone attack outside the Baghdad airport by the US. I spent a lot of time on what I rarely do: watching the CNN. I had developed an allergy to this channel in the wake of the Iraq war when it turned human suffering into global arm-chair entertainment. War was morphed into a game. For the first time in history, theatres of action could be watched in living rooms in sanitized, select details –a blinding flash, a deafening sound, eerie silence… the excited voices of planted or ‘embedded’ battle-front journalists who provided thrilling, dramatic accounts of the action in progress. You got it all; except the unnamable suffering somewhere on the ground hidden from your view by the impenetrable blanket of the night –human beings blown to smithereens, women screaming in panic, children killed and maimed, buildings raised to the ground, vast areas plunged into darkness…. Everything became grist to the grizzly mill of electronic entertainment. My stomach used to turn in a welter of unease at all this…. I had to overcome those memories in order to monitor how this very significant turn of events for the entire region would be covered by a TV channel in a democratic country.

I was astonished, as I wouldn’t have been prior to 2015, at the freedom and objectivity with which the journalists in diverse locations and anchors in various studios, handled the event. Three features stood out. First, the reporting was strikingly free of fear as to how the government would react. The anchors weren’t looking over their shoulders to see if hands were about to throttle them. The reporters did not look worried that they would be fired if they stepped out of the line. There were moments, in fact, when I began to wonder if the CNN was not on the side of Iran! The US media does not have to deal with a political power centre more infallible than the Pope and more omnipotent than the Almighty. I felt jealous of, and happy for, them.

Here’s the second. CNN did not showcase its handful of experts who could be trusted to toe its line. Of course, the channel has its editorial line. Of course, it is biased. (It is furiously anti-Trump). But it used the event –the ‘unchartered territory of unpredictable consequences’ as one of the reporters put it- as a mirror for reflecting a wide range of thinking on the subject. One could get a feel, if you like, of the quality of thinking that goes on in that country, and not, as would be the case with us, the absence of thinking or the fearful reluctance to think.

Now cut back to Balakot airstrike undertaken by the Indian air force –reportedly guided on technical grounds by the Prime Minister himself- on terrorist launching pads in the early hours of 26 February 2019, with less than a couple of months left for the general elections to get underway. It was undertaken in retaliation to the Pulwama terrorist attack on our paramilitary forces in the erstwhile J&K. Reportedly, a Jaish terrorist rammed a car, laden with 100 KGs of RDX, into a column of buses ferrying CRPF men killing 40 of them and injuring many more. Yet there was no demand expressed anywhere by anyone on who actually perpetrated this attack, how it could be accomplished with such ease, and so on. Not even a security lapse was alleged!

Sam Pitroda, unfortunately for him, is a scientist first; a half-baked politician next. He was imprudent enough to stand on his scientific training and ask for ‘supporting data’ to endorse the Balakot attack; especially in the wake of cynicism about the event in the global media. He was roundly denounced. Scientific temper became anti-national in an instant. No one else dared to disagree with the official version. Everyone, including the so-called opposition party leaders, was left parroting the same line. The minds of 1.3 billion people looked eerily homogenized.

This, we are told, is the ‘new normal.’ This expression disturbs me; for it is compacted two positive concepts: new and normal. Admittedly, the degree to which ideals like nationalism and patriotism are used to snuff out dissent or principled disagreement is new in the sense of being unprecedented. But it is not ‘new’ in the sense of being ‘original.’ We who have lost a sense of value regarding ‘liberty, equality, fraternity’ and renounced the courage to read the writings on the wall: what do we deserve?

What do you think?

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