Speaking at an event to mark the release of revised editions and reprints of four books authored by Arun Shourie, well-known commentator on public affairs Pratap Bhanu Mehta made an interesting point on how we skirt the truth. “The problem really is not about free speech,” he said, “We have a lot of free speech but very little of frank speech.” Mehta was not exaggerating the ailment that afflicts public discourse in our country.
We are not truthful and we don’t want to be frank in what we say or write because we wish to be popular or flow with the tide. The first is what Mehta described as the ‘corrupting influence’ of democracy where popularity matters more than integrity. The second (Mehta did not say this) reflects a deep flaw in our national character: The vast majority of us prefer to toe the line of least resistance and flow with the tide rather than stand up and be the odd person out.
This is all the more true for those who earn their livelihood from jobs in the media, especially news television. A third factor comes into play for the commentariat which wields an enormous influence in deciding the content of newspapers and news bulletins, and the thrust of news on any given day. That factor is vacuous ideological posturing. In the guise of being persuaded by ideology, the commentariat not only ensures the distortion of news by twisting facts but also brings into disrepute media as an institution.
In the past, the commentariat could get away with this wilful distortion of news through suppression of facts. There was no way their casuistry could be contested and contradicted. But times have changed. In this age of social media, such distortion and suppression stand rudely exposed within minutes of them being attempted. If escaping scrutiny in the past was easy, it is dangerously difficult today.
Here’s an example. The media has not exactly covered itself with glory while ever-so-reluctantly reporting the communal violence in Assam’s Kokrajhar district. For nearly a week there was a stunning silence: Nobody was reporting the riot, leave alone the death toll. After much prodding and with facts spilling out all over social media platforms like Twitter, media began to report the story but gave it a strange spin. But, first the facts as they have emerged so far.
The long-simmering tensions between indigenous Bodos of Kokrajhar district and illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who have, over the years, intruded into and occupied what were once tribal-dominated areas erupted into violence, and the fires are still raging nearly a fortnight later. This is not the first time the Bodos have clashed with Bangladeshi Muslim ‘settlers’; such clashes have occurred earlier too.
Yet nothing has been done to either halt the inflow of Bangladeshis or protect the traditional rights and claims of indigenous communities. On the contrary, the Congress, which is in power in Assam, has through the decades slyly encouraged the influx of Bangladeshis – not only in tribal areas but across the State -- with the twin purpose of reaping votes in exchange of citizenship to outsiders and diluting the population of indigenous communities which tend to be bothersome because they won’t settle for tokenism as a substitute for their rights.
The demography of vast areas where Bodos were once in a majority has been perversely engineered to reduce them to near-minority, if not minority, in many places. They have found themselves being squeezed out of their own land by belligerent Bangladeshi Muslims who, backed by the Congress and agencies of a decrepit state only too happy to do the bidding of their venal political masters, now don’t even make a pretence of being ‘economic refugees’. What is being witnessed in Kokrajhar is bound to be repeated elsewhere in Assam and beyond – across the north-eastern and eastern States and through the country. Mumbai should worry. To think otherwise would be tantamount to being blind to the reality.
The bogus elite may talk about ‘accommodating’ illegal immigrants (the Supreme Court has called it ‘aggression’ against India), the underclasses would never accept aliens in their midst. The reason is simple: Illegal immigrants tend to under-cut jobs, push down wages and make the unskilled labour market that much more competitive. Second, the creeping encroachment on their land leaves indigenous people feeling insecure and vulnerable. When the state fails to stand by them, they decide to protect their turf on their terms.
A lot more can be said, indeed, needs to be said, about the silent invasion from the east and the social, political and security consequences of our failure to guard our border. But that must wait for another day. What is of immediate interest is the reluctance of the commentariat to accept that Bodos and Muslims are on the warpath in Assam. That the Muslims happen to be Bangladeshis is only coincidental: They could have been from Timbuktu and the facts would have still remained the same. It’s a full-scale communal conflagration out there in Assam and yet our commentariat forces the media to describe it as ‘ethnic clashes’.
This is not only disingenuous but downright sinister.