Paromita Vohra: The language outside the echo chamber
One of the many WhatsApp forwards doing the rounds following the Gauri Lankesh murder is a spreadsheet
Demonstrators hold placards with the picture of journalist Gauri Lankesh in New Delhi on Thursday. Lankesh was shot dead on September 5. Pic/PTI
One of the many WhatsApp forwards doing the rounds following the Gauri Lankesh murder is a spreadsheet — that theatrical costume of dispassionate objectivity — which lists various national English language journalists seen as liberal or left-liberal, and lists a numerical comparison of how many tweets of outrage and solidarity they wrote on Gauri Lankesh's murder (several) versus when journalists writing exclusively in a regional language were similarly killed (zero). This table, like some news, uses factuality to signal objectivity, while its ideology is exercised through the selection of (alleged) facts. For instance, it does not list other national media English or Hindi language journalists who are more allied with right/right of centre perspectives and what solidarities they expressed with regional journalists.
So keen is it to make an ideological point that in fact it seems to miss the horrifying heart of the issue — that so many journalists are killed for doing their job in the world's largest democracy. Forty-two journalists have been killed in India since 1992. In 2014 there were 114 attacks on journalists, in 2017, 54. The majority of these were doing investigative work in rural and small town locations.
The flabby conflation of ideology with ability, intellect or being in the right is something self-proclaimed 'progressives' are equally enthusiastic about. Hence, for instance, if a film attracts censorship, folks say it is a good film or an important one. If our public debate runs thin it is because it has actually been reduced on all sides to serving people an ideological report card which becomes a basis for promotion.
If we were to set aside questions of ideological rightness and ask questions about journalism and media professionally what would it tell us? Left wing, right wing or centrist, English language or Hindi, how many national media outlets devote enough correspondents to covering small town and rural news? By which we mean reporting consistently and routinely and not just as catastrophe, feudal exotica or electoral extravaganza, with that strangely othering lens not unlike how international media presents non-western stories? Count the paltry number of stories on any given day that play cyclically on a range of national media outlets, whether left or right and you will know the answer.
Further, what is the investment that newsrooms make even on fact-checking, research, language and domain expertise or historical understanding of their employees? What indeed is the investment of the profession — irrespective of ideology — in the profession? Yes, that question is a rhetorical one.
Are there any other kind in an echo chamber?
The national imagination is an increasingly monolithic one, contested for by elites on right and left, turning the same notion inside out. In a material sense, it is neither nourished nor modified by the much-celebrated concept of diversity we are quick to espouse.
What makes the journalist working locally, in regional languages, in smaller presses more vulnerable? The same thing that makes all those unrepresented in the national media, neglected and vulnerable. What aspirations lie beneath, what energies flower, what needs rage, what resentments suppurate, turning into frustration and violence, harnessed by some and not by others — whose ears listen to this? These are also some of the questions raised by the murder of Gauri Lankesh, who chose to work outside this curated national imagination in a local context after all.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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