Monday, January 19, 2009

Selling News On-Air

Many people thought that television news channels behaved rather immaturely and irresponsibly during their ‘live’ and ‘exclusive’ coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks. Some of my friends were so enraged that they thought that these channels should be banned.

It was not for the first time when functioning of television news channels had attracted criticism. But the latest case was seen as a compromise on matters of national security and domestic harmony, and the channels appeared ready to go for this compromise in favor of TRPs. Reports suggested that the government was planning to put a leash on the media and authorize bureaucrats and policemen to determine what should a television news channel show on such occasions.

Expectedly, such reports met shrill and united opposition from the media, especially the television media, and the top editors of the news channels termed the proposed step similar to draconian laws during Emergency. They asked; Whatever happened to the idea of free press in the largest democracy of the world?

Press? But the government was talking about the cameras, not the pens. Are television cameras a part of press? Are television journalists really "journalists"?

TELEVISION AND JOURNALISM

This statement might look like another of those television journalism bashing statements, which have become kind of fashionable now. But it can’t be dismissed just for being fashionable. The truth is, many professionals working in the editorial/journalistic roles in today's television news channels, especially the Hindi news channels, ask this question to themselves and are asked the same by their friends.

Usually, the responses are of the following three types:

  • Of course we are journalists, what wrong are we doing? Is the so-called press, those page-3 newspapers journalists, doing any better?

  • There are some compulsions of television journalism. Reckless race to become number one has compromised on some aspects of pure journalism. It’s sad.

  • Give me a break. If we show anything wrong, why do people watch it and give us the TRPs? There is a "demand" for such style of journalism and content.
  • The first reaction is of a ‘television’ professional who is working as a journalist.

    The second reaction is of a ‘journalist’ who is working as a television professional.

    We will talk about the third reaction a little later.

    When we criticize television news channels, unwittingly ‘television’ aspect gets emphasized, and such an emphasis evokes either of the first two responses. But let’s be fair and rational; journalism is more about the message than the medium, and a critique of journalism should involve analyzing the message as opposed to the medium.

    In any communication process, message (the output) surely is a function of the medium, but the medium is constant. If we are uncomfortable with the output, it would be wiser to focus on the variables and the input, rather than finding fault with the constant.

    So let’s for a moment criticize television news channels with this approach.

    We are unhappy with their output – a television news report. Let’s find out the inputs and the variables. Input is surely the event or the ‘news’. What are the variables?

    For ease of analysis, and since it’s not a PhD thesis, let’s keep the number of variables to as low as possible. I can think of the following three variables broadly:

  • The journalist/reporter’s perspective/prejudice (say, on issues like what constitutes or defines 'news')

  • The editorial guidelines of the channel

  • The business strategy of the channel
  • The first variable can be controlled by proper training and development of a journalist. There are very few quality journalism institutes in the country and there doesn’t seem to be a strict minimum qualification to become a journalist.

    The second and third variables are determined by the ‘bosses’ of a television news channel. And some of these bosses (and their disciples) come up with the earlier mentioned ‘Give me a break’ reaction when confronted with the question ‘Are television journalists really journalists?’

    TELEVISION JOURNALISTS

    So do we blame the bosses or lack of trained journalists for the current mess in which television journalism finds itself today? I believe that enough talent is there in our country and one can always find people trained and suitable for the job of a journalist.

    But television journalism doesn’t seem to be attracting the best brains today (with all due respect to all the current television journalists). Either the best brains don’t opt for television journalism or they are not actively solicited by the industry bosses. This hast to change.

    There was a time when the best brains were supposed to opt for the civil services and then the trend changed in favor of MBAs from premier institutes. There are two factors common in civil services and MBA from premier institutes – compensation or the money making prospects and some minimum qualification standard (faring well at CAT and UPSC exams) making the group 'elite and restricted'.

    Though not as lucrative as financial sector, television journalism surely has got attractive compensations and money making prospects. So if it is not attracting the best brains, is it because the group is not elite and restricted (or is it?)? Is it even desirable to have journalism or journalists as an elite and restricted group?

    I would leave that upon journalism fraternity to think how they want to ‘brand’ journalists as a group and journalism as a profession. However, if not an elite and restricted group (which I guess goes against the ethos of journalism), journalism as a profession must have a minimum set of standards for including new professionals.

    If these standards are missing today, or if they exist but are not being adhered to or respected, who is to be blamed? The mad TRP race to make a television news channel profitable, which doesn't require 'pure' and trained journalists?

    In the above sentence, there seems to be two assumptions:

  • TRP race is the only force that drives the business of running a television channel

  • The ‘business’ of running a television news channel is incompatible with the ethics/mission of journalism
  • The first assumption is a bit tricky, and we’d come back to it later after analyzing some other aspects of television business and journalism.

    The second assumption seems to suggest that the nature of the television channel ‘business’ is causing news channels to stray away from ‘pure’ journalism, or ‘journalism’ in itself is not a good ‘television business’.

    So if not the 'television' business, what business is compatible with ethics of journalism?

    BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM

    Historically news organizations have been running the business of ‘printing and publishing’. The modern journalism is supposed to have started with the Gutenberg press in the fifteenth century, when Bible was printed and made available to the common masses, liberating it from the clutches of the clergy.

    The Bible printing press evolved into of a press that printed books, periodicals and finally Daily Newspapers by the seventeenth century. Soon, various newspapers were in business all over Europe and America. Journalism was a ‘mission’ as well as a ‘business’.

    Many of these newspapers were ‘promoted’ or ‘owned’ by people on a mission – people committed to the ideals of democracy. Even in India, journalism students are taught that modern journalism started with some of the great freedom fighters, including Mahatma Gandhi, starting their own periodicals or newspapers.

    So journalism started as a business of ‘selling ideals' of democracy.

    These ideas sold. People, the common man as well as the rich and the famous, bought them and they didn’t mind paying a price. The business sustained.

    By the end of nineteenth century, some businessmen in the USA could recognize that the massive reach of newspapers made them the most powerful tool of mass marketing and advertising. The term ‘yellow journalism’ came into being a few years after. Profits skyrocketed.

    Journalism became a business of 'selling advertising spots’.

    And it gave birth to page-3 journalism, it gave birth to sold out editorial spaces (by cleverly calling it advertorials), and it now allows the television news professionals to claim that even print journalism is not 'pure' journalism any more.

    The problem with television news was even more complex. Unlike the printing and publishing business, television business didn’t start with any grand mission of propagating ideals of democracy, revolution or education.

    Television had broadly two roles when it started – government controlled mass communication medium or an entertainment medium better known as the idiot box, which attracted eyeballs and sold advertising spots as part of business strategy.

    When independent television news channels started, they had the challenge to not take on either of these roles – a government propaganda machinery or an idiot box. While they ‘seem’ to have saved themselves from becoming a propaganda machinery of the government, they are definitely struggling to save themselves from adoption the idiot box business strategy.

    Therefore a statement that ‘television’ business is incompatible with the mission of journalism is actually the result of television business being primarily the business of selling advertising spots. And the business of selling advertising spots surely seems to be incompatible with the ideals of journalism, whether print or television.

    BUSINESS OF TELEVISION NEWS

    If not advertising spots, what should the television news channels sell then? This is a real interesting question. For that, we should find out what are the possible things a television news channel could sell? I guess they could be selling some of these:

  • ‘Experience’ in form of watching news shows

  • ‘Information’ in form of reporting and analysis

  • ‘Products’ in form of television advertising spots
  • I guess most of us, and industry experts, would say that a television news channel broadly lies in the third category amongst the above three.

    So that’s what is causing the trouble? Should the television news channels, and for that matter, other news organizations (print or online) change their strategy and adopt a business where they primarily sell an ‘experience’ or ‘information’ rather than a ‘product’?

    Now, based on the above three options, a television news channel can be run as a movie production company (selling 'experience'), a consulting company (selling 'information'), or a manufacturing company (selling 'product'). Does that mean that the news channels are being run as manufacturing companies at present?

    If you still think that television journalists are not producing ‘advertising spots’, think again. In the current TRP driven business strategy, the journalist is producing a news story to attract maximum attention i.e. maximum TRP i.e. maximum eyeballs i.e. best slot for a commercial break, and hence maximum revenues for the channel because high TRPs would push up the advertising rates.

    Hence a TRP based television news channel or advertising rate based news channel seems to be working like a goods manufacturing company.

    A television news channel being run as a goods manufacturing company throws up very ugly picture – a journalist as a shop floor worker, those very senior journalists, who hang out with promoters, as toothless or sold-out labor union leaders, and the promoters/owners as the greedy monsters out there to make huge profits by making these workers toil hard.

    I don’t think a journalist would like to be equated with a shop floor worker. The idea is not so gratifying. And the current scenario is not so gratifying for a common person as well. He may not support the government to put a leash on television news channels, but he wants these channels to become ‘better’.

    A common person may watch sensational news, but he doesn't 'pay' for it. He watches it as an entertainment program. But is he ready to pay for it? Go and find out! He is willing to pay for Bollywood movies, but will he pay for absurd news? Somebody must find out, and my gut feeling says that he won't. Sensational news doesn't sell, it is being distributed free (Free To Air channels)! If anything is being sold, it's the advertising spots created by those sensational news. Hence it's flawed to argue that there is a 'demand' for absurd news or content. Rather, there is a demand for TRPs (by advertisers, who pay big money, unlike the viewers). Let's not confuse the two.

    Can a television news channel (or for that matter a newspaper or a website too) become better while still following the current business strategy of selling a ‘product’? Or does it call for a change in the business strategy?

    NON-TRP BASED TELEVISION CHANNELS

    If the television news channels shed the TRP-driven business strategy i.e. if they wanted to get rid of this character of being an advertising spots 'manufacturing company', what should they do? Should a television news channel be run like a consulting company or a movie production company, or something hybrid?

    Perhaps most of us would desire to see the television news channels running as a consulting company as the real ‘business’ of journalism should be 'reporting and analysis'. In such a scenario, a television journalist would become akin to a consultant or an analyst of a consulting company. Sounds gratifying…

    But consulting companies have government and corporate clients, from where they earn revenues. If news channels are run as consulting companies, how would they earn revenues? Who would be the ‘clients’ of a news channel?

    The government or corporate houses can’t be the major clients as that would compromise the credibility (the biggest asset in the business of journalism) of the channel. That would also make the channel accountable to government or corporate houses, a situation that would be no better than what exists today.

    A news channel should be accountable to the general public, and that means that the general public should become their clients. So are we willing to pay the consulting fees (higher subscription fee for a paid news channel) to see a change? Even if many of us are willing, it will require a radical change in the functioning of television distribution sector to achieve something of that sort.

    So what could be changed in the existing scenario to change the business strategy of a television news channel from being that of a manufacturing company?

    Since the television industry is not going to change overnight and is expected to remain advertisement rate driven for coming years, it’s not realistic for a news channel to completely shed the TRP based business strategy. But it must not remain solely TRP driven.

    THE TRP RACE

    I would now like to come back to our assumption “TRP race is the only force that drives business of running a television channel”. In the above sections, we have assumed that TRPs almost solely determine the advertisement rates of the television news channels. Higher the TRP values, higher the advertising rates, and hence higher the profits.

    We have also assumed that it’s mostly non-serious and non-journalistic television content that attracts higher eyeballs and hence higher TRPs.

    Both these assumptions are not completely unfounded. Television advertising rates depend heavily on TRPs (although not solely) and people tend to watch more of entertainment and non-serious content on television, because television remains a very important medium of entertainment.

    Could these two factors be changed?

    The first one (making television advertising rates a lot less dependent upon TRPs) would require a change in the market dynamics of the television advertising industry, while the second one (people start preferring serious television content) warrants a radical shift in social behavior, or mass arrival of a completely new and personal medium of entertainment making television an ‘intelligent box’.

    Obviously the change in the market dynamics of the television advertising industry seems more feasible than hoping to radically change the society or creating a new entertainment medium.

    Television advertising industry has three major players – the rating agencies (who calculate and release TRPs), the media planners (who interpret these TRPs to price advertising spots), and the advertisers (who spend money to buy these advertising spots).

    All these will have to mutually agree to come up with a formula where some other factor is given equal importance alongside TRPs while pricing the television advertising spots. For example, the rating agencies could ask common television viewers to rate television news channels on some ‘credibility’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘objectivity’ index and media planners factor these ratings while pricing advertising spots.

    Yes, I am proposing that television adverting spots should have ‘quality’ (public perception) too apart from ‘quantity’ (eyeballs and reach) to offer.

    And it’s not an outlandish or too idealistic a proposition. In outdoor advertising, subconsciously or otherwise, advertising spots have surely a ‘quality’ attached to them. If you are driving on a highway, you won’t find a billboard at a spot that could be considered an eyesore by the passing people, even though the ‘eyeballs’ (traffic on the highway) remain constant all across.

    Therefore the major players of the television advertising industry will need to be convinced that advertising on a news channel, which is considered to be frivolous or irresponsible by common people, is like putting up a billboard near a stinking heap of waste on a highway. So an advertiser is advised to look for a ‘better’ spot. It seems a bit difficult, but not impossible.

    In fact recent researches have shown that an advertisement in a 'serious' newspaper turns out be more effective than the same advertisement appearing in a tabloid. Should the advertisers not care about 'effectiveness' of their ad-campaigns than 'reach'?

    The first step towards the above solution warrants that there should be a public rating to calculate and evaluate parameters like sincerity, seriousness, credibility, neutrality and objectivity of different television news channels, just like there is currently the TRP scale to calculate and evaluate the channel's reach. Will it happen? Let’s see.

    But what can be done in the current situation? Can the situation be not improved without waiting for the television advertising industry or the common television viewer to change their current ways? I don’t have a ready answer, but I have the following thoughts:

    THE CHANGED CHANNEL

    The current team responsible for the ‘output’ of a television news channel should be divided into two teams – the TRP team and the Journalism team. The TRP team should continue with what they are currently doing – producing attractive news stories to attract maximum attention and eyeballs, and hence advertisements. The Journalism team should indulge in what has been traditionally acknowledged as the ‘mission’ of journalism – safeguarding common man’s rights, keeping a check on government agencies, development journalism, etc.

    The TRP team members should periodically meet and brainstorm over TRP ratings of their programs, and come up with ways to improve them. Since they would be driving the TRP based advertisement revenues, their compensation could include high variable component based on profits, enabling them to earn much more than the journalists. The TRP team could have swankier cars but not the ‘press’ sticker on them. And I don’t say it in any condescending manner.

    Today, in most of the news channels, journalists meet periodically and discuss why their ‘stories’ could not fetch high TRPs. This must stop. TRPs, as a measure of productivity of journalists, must stop. An alternate measure or parameter has to be found out, which could vary from organization to organization, to measure productivity of the journalists. And they should meet periodically to brainstorm over those parameters and find ways to improve themselves.

    The output of both the teams has to be spaced out evenly so that they retain their individual identities and even the viewer can identify, and appreciate, the difference.

    We will have to leave it to the discretion of the ‘bosses’ to create a healthy combine of both the teams and not to mix them up or give unfair advantage or importance to one of them.

    The TRP team could be roughly likened with the ‘sales desk’ of an investment bank, while the Journalism team with the ‘research desk’. Both these desks are vital for an investment bank.

    In terms of accounting and business strategy, the TRP team should run as a ‘profit center’ while the Journalism team should run as a ‘cost center’.

    I propose such a starting step because we must stop the term ‘television journalism’ from becoming an oxymoron. I have friends working with the editorial teams of news channels and they are not happy with the kind of sensationalism and TRP based stories that are seen on news channels today. They actually feel like shop floor workers and are getting increasingly detached from the mission of journalism, which they strongly identified with when they started as energetic young professionals.

    A news channel would cease to be in the business of journalism if it runs out of journalists. The bosses have to save these journalists, and yet run the show successfully i.e. earn profits for the business. The status quo won’t achieve both.

    Click here to read more...

    Sunday, December 21, 2008

    The Hindu Mindset

    The great Indian spirit that was witnessed after Mumbai terror attacks has started evaporating. The fears that I had expressed in my last post seem to be turning true.

    First it was a zealous part of intelligentsia that passionately argued that the attacks were termed as the greatest terror attack just because the ‘elite’ were targeted. The facts that it was panic on the streets (home of many non-elite Indian) of Mumbai and an ordinary Mumbaikar shuddered to venture out of his home (those who were elite enough to have one) on the night of 26th November were not strong enough a reason to believe that the panic, with an utter contempt for boundaries of class and creed, struck everyone.

    And now the worst, thought not unexpected, fear has come true – the reactions have taken a communal color. And I am among the first victims. I write this post as a 'Hindu' today.

    And the person who has helped me don this Hindu identity is a central minister, ironically (?) minorities’ welfare minister. The minister, the name is Antulay, A R Antulay, suspects a conspiracy behind killing of ATS chief Hemant Karkare, the person who was investigating the Malegaon blasts case, a proof of existence Hindu terrorism. He thinks Mr. Karkare was pushed into death by some people (what the hell, why can’t he clearly say ‘Hindus’) so that Malegaon investigation was derailed.

    There is nothing wrong in thinking or having an opinion. But each thought or opinion has a place in the civil society based on its ‘merits’.

    I guess the accepted norm is that when you have a differing opinion from the majority (and I don’t mean Hindus by majority in this case!) the onus is upon you to prove your opinion/assertion/theory. Galileo and Darwin had differing opinions from the majority and the onus was upon them to prove their theories, rather than upon the majority to disprove their theories. And I guess it was fair. What was unfair was the fact that on occasions they were not even allowed to prove their theories.

    But in politics, especially in Indian politics, and specifically with Muslims involved, it seems that the onus is on the majority (and here I mean Hindus) to disprove the theories and opinions of the minority.

    Otherwise why the political class, except the BJP, thinks that the Antulay’s conspiracy theory should be probed, WITHOUT asking the minister to provide some concrete evidence, say a suspect post-mortem report or any other tangible evidence, which hints towards his conspiracy theory holding some ground?

    Antulay did face resistance initially. But the moment he played the ‘Muslim’ card, everyone was willing to oblige rather than question his assertion.

    Mr. Karkare was probing Malegaon case. He got killed. These two events happening one after another is strong enough a circumstantial evidence to suspect and probe the causes of his death?

    Congress was under pressure over alleged fake encounter in Jamia Nagar. Arrests in Malegaon blasts case take place. Jamia Nagar outcry takes a backseat. These three events happening one after another is not strong enough a circumstantial evidence to suspect if ATS was acting under any political pressure?

    For me, both of the above are conspiracy theories, a perverted post-hoc analysis of events by some propagandists. But why should the former merit probe and the later be rejected with disdain?

    I can only see religion as the differentiating factor. And that’s my Hindu mindset thanks to Antulay.

    A few good men (and women) among you might suggest that I should not take the political class seriously as they always play to the gallery. Vote bank politics, you see. But that is not completely true.

    Even an educated Muslim and ‘secular’ Hindu has soft corner for conspiracy theories coined by Muslim groups. Some of the Urdu newspapers had carried out reports suspecting the whole Mumbai terror attacks as handiwork of Hindu Zionists (what on earth does that mean? A fake news report had suggested that Judaism and Hinduism were merged to created Hinjews to fight Islam, seems like our Urdu media and Muslim intelligentsia took that seriously).

    The reports suggested that Hindu Zionists (well, they are actually trinity of supporters of BJP, some elements of Congress, and Hindu elements of the Army, backed by Mossad and CIA) had carried out ALL terrorist attacks in India to defame Muslims. The only exception to this conspiracy was 1993 Mumbai blasts, which were not carried out by the Hindu Zionists, the conspiracy theory argued. (In their school text books they must have learnt that each theory has an exception, so they allocated one.)

    Among one of the important and tangible evidences that believers of this conspiracy theory provided in case of Mumbai terror attacks was the fact that terrorists wore Hindu saffron bands on their wrists (refer to the famous picture of Azmal Qasab). Hence Hindu Zionists were behind the attacks.

    Such a tangible proof it was. Wait, I had seen in some Bollywood movies that Muslims tie such bands after visiting dargaah of Sufi saints. Ah, those movies might also be part of conspiracy by Hindu Zionists. That’s why they issue fatwa against Muslim Bollywood actors.

    Anyway, the Mumbai attacks soon were proved to be an exception to the Hindu Zionist theory (the theory still holds true for millions, mind you) after Urdu media from Pakistan argued convincingly that Azmal Qasab was a Pakistani Muslim Jehadi, and not a Hindu Zionist.

    If I have acquired a Hindu mindset today, it’s not because of people who coin such beautiful conspiracy theories, but because of those educated Muslims and secular Hindus who shift the onus of disproving such theories (either related with existence of Hindu Zionists or Karkare’s murder) on the Hindu masses.

    The cushion of such conspiracy theories against the curse of communal discrimination has taken Indian Muslims into their shell and pushed them into a denial mode. They have got into a position that could make them blind to their own folly, a place where they could indulge in constant self pity and refuse self reform, and a ghetto that could help develop a Muslim mindset and induce a Hindu one upon people like me.

    And when I say that Muslims have got into their shell and in a denial mode, it is due to the fact that for several years now educated Muslims have been busy defending and professing Islam instead of accepting that there could be some problems in their own house and trying to correct it. And secular Hindus are more than willing to let them be there.

    They have got into their shell as even an innocuous idea such as protest against the terror attacks attracted resistance. Some Indian Muslims had opposed the move by some other Muslims to protest against the terror attacks. The Muslims who favored protesting against the attacks argued that such attacks were carried out in the name of Islam and hence they should clear the air by protesting.

    But the other group, consisting of some members of Muslim intelligentsia, argued that protests against the attacks were tantamount to owning up that the attacks were by Muslims. And why should Muslims need to speak up in capacity of being a Muslim against the attacks? Muslims must protest as Indians and not as Muslims, they argued.

    Sounds fair and logical enough, but it’s actually a manifestation of that denial mode. The same people used to find fault with media that ‘Muslim’ opinion against terrorism was never given proper coverage, and as a result terrorism was unwittingly linked with Islam. Now when some people, backed by media, want them to speak up and voice the ‘Muslim’ opinion against terrorism, they think it’s not fair. In fact now they claim that they are being targeted against for being Muslims when Media asks for their opinion as Muslims.

    Anyway, an average Hindu didn’t ask them to speak up either. The common reaction after the Mumbai attacks was, ‘Pakistanis did it, and we Indians must all be united.’ People trying to blame Muslims and Islam were pushed back and told to shut up. ‘Enough is enough’ was the refrain. BJP couldn’t capitalize on ‘Hindu’ sentiments in the following state assembly elections, as there was none.

    There were 'Indian' voices/noises all around. And then Mr. Antulay spoke up.

    And he finds support from Muslim MPs cutting across party lines and from secular and broad minded Hindus. I see an analogy between what USA did with Muslim fundamentalists during 80’s and what the secular Hindus are doing now. USA supported Taliban and gave birth to Al Qaida to fight Soviet forces. Secular Hindus want to fight communal Hindus with the same strategy?

    And don’t ask me which side I belong to. Don’t divide the Hindus in just two categories – secular and communal. What about Hindus who are proud of Hinduism but don’t want to be associated with rapists and murderers of Muslims, and at the same time are wary of rubbing shoulders with some so-called secular Hindus? Will they be allowed an opinion and independent identity? Or they would be told – either you are with us or you are with the communal forces?

    There was time when such a Hindu was real and respectful like Swami Vivekananda. Then he became like Santa Claus; people liked to believe he was there but declared him fictitious. And now with this polarization, he has become like Yeti; undesirable, fictitious and extinct.

    But he is still real. It’s a matter of choice for secular Hindus and educated Muslims to give him space, if not respect, by listening to the Hindu mindset. Or the other option is to brand him as a communal, reject his arguments, and go back happily into the shell.

    And the Hindu mindset says – stop donning kid gloves when dealing with everything that has a Muslim element and taking a moral high ground when dealing with anything that has a Hindu element in it.

    Enough is enough!


    Click here to read more...

    Wednesday, December 17, 2008

    Quote

    "Some people don’t get support from either the rabbi or the rabble; they are either genius like Galileo or frivolous like Gigolo.”

    yes, that's mine, and I hope to get international recognition for coming up with this wonderful quote! :p

    END OF POST. NOTHING MORE TO READ!

    Click here to read more...

    Sunday, November 30, 2008

    Root causes of terrorism

    It would be a crime if I don’t blog on Mumbai terror attacks (even though I write a blog post far and few) while all through the last four days I’ve been following each development related to it forgetting everything else. Now when I write, post-mortem of the incidents and the innocents are going on, and perhaps this post is going to be a part of it.

    The first reaction of most of the Indians to the terror attacks (apart from despair, dismay and disgust) was – it’s all due to our politicians. I don’t think it was a new reaction as surely most of us end up cursing the politicians, but this time intensity was really high, as measured by media reactions and blogs/comments on websites.

    But it also troubled me, especially comments like “Where is Raj Thackeray? Why is he hiding now when Mumbai is under attack?” etc. My ‘love’ for Raj Thackeray and his policies is not a secret given that my last two blog posts have been about him only, and I’d hate that even here he takes center stage.

    So when a fellow Bihari friend sent me the same message, I shouted back at him at how could he still think like a Bihari when it was time to think like an Indian? In his defense, he had to tell that it’s his frustration as an Indian only which was being reflected in such messages. Because he (a Bihari) was insulted and shooed away when he thought himself as an Indian and Mumbai as his home. He might be right in his conviction and contention, but I still argued that it’s not an ‘Indian’ reaction.


    I also shouted back when a Citibank telemarketer called me up to inform me that I was eligible for a loan. I called the poor girl/woman an ‘idiot’ who was selling me a loan when Indians were getting killed. I later apologized to her and I hope she understood. She was just doing her job and I overreacted due to a possible sublime sentiment that she was not being ‘Indian’ enough.

    Reactions of political parties are not even worth mentioning, they are hardly ‘Indian’ ever.

    I encountered many reactions that were ‘Hindu’, ‘Dalit’, ‘Marathi’, ‘Middle Class’ (there are people who think that the only reason central Home Minister resigned and other heads could roll was because ameer or rich people were attacked at Taj and Oberoi), ‘Academic’, etc. while I kept looking for that elusive ‘Indian’ reaction.

    The same ‘Indian’ reaction that we see when Sachin Tendulkar scores a century, the same ‘Indian’ reaction when… (help me find another regular non-cricketing instance…)

    It’s not that there was no ‘Indian’ reaction at all. The common men gathering at Gateway of India wore that reaction. The people who greeted NSG commandos after the Nariman House operation were showing Indian reaction. Many other reactions on media were ‘Indian’, similar to what we had witnessed earlier when bomb blasts took place in different parts of the country.

    But I fear these reactions would fade away, and worse, the other unfortunate reactions would overwhelm this feeling of being one as Indian. I pray my fears are proved wrong.

    My fears spring from a feeling that while most (or some?) of us are united today and showing that ‘Indian’ reaction, we might not stay together, as it has happened on earlier occasions. I guess this happens because after reactions, we want solutions, and as a civil society, we seem to be clueless about a solution to terrorism.

    Take for example Jessica Lall or Nitish Katara murder case, the civil society (backed by media) could see a solution - punish the criminals. But in case of terrorist attacks, our society is divided. We don't have a clear solution. Why?

    Because we keep discussing 'root' causes of terrorism – resentment among Muslims, Hindutva, et al. Come on, there were 'root' causes of those murders too (and for that matter, all crimes have ‘root’ causes), and those root causes were much more complex – a cocktail of problems of ethnicity, crime, corruption, class, among others. But our society didn’t waste time in analyzing those causes because the priority was to get justice, so that we can call ourselves a ‘civil’ society.

    But in case of terrorist attacks, it seems priorities are different. The focus in not to get justice or to get the criminals punished, but to happily debate the ‘root’ causes of terrorism. In fact, there are people who are ever ready to block any attempt to get the terrorists punished. They want to 'discuss' the roots instead of 'decimating' them.

    A crude analogy, but it almost seems like discussing morality when a rape has taken place when someone insists upon discussing root causes of terrorism.

    We can again say that politics is responsible. No, it’s because our ‘Indian’ reactions fade away after such blasts, and worse, the other unfortunate reactions (‘Hindu’, ‘Dalit’, ‘Marathi’, ‘Middle Class’, ‘Academic’, and others) overwhelm this feeling of being one as Indian.

    Remember, there can not be any homeland security as we just seem to have a ‘land’ called India, not a ‘home’ called India.

    This is the ‘root’ cause of terrorism.

    Click here to read more...

    Tuesday, October 21, 2008

    A Bihari thanks Raj Thackeray

    As a Bihari, I want to thank Raj Thackeray and team to have attacked Bihari students gone to take exams in Mumbai. They chased Bihari students away as stray dogs are chased by watchmen. They beat them up as donkeys are beaten up when they refuse to move. I loved it. I loved it as a Bihari.

    No no, neither am I a demented soul nor am I attempting any Gandhigiri. But as a hopeless optimist, I see a silver line in the clouds.

    As a Bihari, who studied in Bihar from kindergarten to my bachelor’s degree, I had tried several times to leave Bihar and go for higher studies or employment outside my home state. I ultimately succeeded in 2001 when I came to Delhi to study journalism. I never went back to Bihar since then.

    So these attacks are inspiring me to go back to my home state and do something for ‘my own people’? Not yet, I have to get rid of my insensitivity a little more to do that. So I am thanking Raj because I believe it will inspire more sensitive Biharis to go back to Bihar and do something? Not really.

    I thank Raj Thackeray as a Bihari who was/is sick of caste based feelings that ran/runs deep among Bihari students in particular and society in general.

    (my feelings are based on what I felt and experienced when I was in Bihar i.e. more than seven years back, I’d be most surprised and happy to know that situation has changed, but I doubt, as I do keep visiting Bihar a few times in a year)

    When I moved to a high school in Patna, I suddenly found out that my identity went beyond what kind of shoes I wore, what lunchbox I brought, or how many marks I scored in exams. I belonged to a particular caste as well. But fortunately, my identity was not completely hinging upon that aspect.

    When I moved to college (in Bihar, higher secondary is taught in colleges by state education board), the caste aspect of identity grew stronger, one of the important factor being writing your ‘category’ when applying for admissions in top colleges (from Bihari standard), but mostly due to the psyche of Bihari society; I was growing up, caste feelings had to catch up.

    All through the college days (both the higher secondary and bachelor’s degree), I encountered caste consciousness on a regular basis, on numerous occasions.

    Students tended to have friends from the same caste as their own (not so rampant or crass trend as it may appear from my words, but still it was a trend). In hostels, I heard students were divided along caste lines on many occasions. And in some cases, students even chose private tutors from their own caste to prepare for engineering, medical, or IAS examinations (only three career options known to a common Bihari student at that time).

    Of course, one can see that all the career options meant going outside the state as there were not many good engineering or medical colleges in Bihar (Jharkhand included then). So the benevolent MNS and Shiv Sena ideologues are not wrong in saying that Bihari leaders should be punished because they have created a mess in Bihar which leaves no option for Biharis but to go outside their state to look for jobs and studies. If they really believe so, I don’t know why there are punishing the victims in such a case, let them chase away or beat up the Bihari leaders, no one would complain.

    Anyway, coming back to my college days, tea stall (nukkad) gossips by students were about politics and which leader/political party is good for the state. Most of the students would take a stance simply because they belonged to a particular caste. They also discussed about cricket, girls, smoking, wine, and studies. I don’t know if caste was a factor in those discussions as well.

    Caste was (is?) a harsh reality among student community. After all they were also part of the society, the Bihari society, which was (is?) notorious for giving their beti (daughter) and peti (ballot box or vote) to people of their own caste. It seemed that the student community, who form the future of any society, had refused to come out of this caste rut and bring about any positive change.

    This student community, which had got no facilities in the home state, seemed least bothered about it. They knew there were better institutes and jobs outside Bihar, but they never seemed to worry why Bihar didn’t have them. Instead, they ‘prepared’ themselves for the competition to get into those institutes and to get those jobs outside Bihar. They had every right to do so as they all thought it was their own country and any person was free to move to any other part of the country.

    Preparing for ‘competitive’ exams was a ‘status’ factor. A typical Bihari student would take admission in some college in Bihar, which has no facility and system, and prepare for these competitive exams. These exams ranged from prestigious engineering, medical or IAS exams to bank-clerks, lower administrative jobs, and railways recruitment exams.

    All these competitive exams would eventually take them out of the state. Most of the Bihari students even chose centers of these exams outside Bihar, even if they had an option of taking exam in Bihar itself. That’s a mystery; either it was wanderlust or a cynicism about the home state.

    I also witnessed that while applying for those mushrooming engineering colleges in Maharashtra (wonder why MNS is not attacking those Bihari engineering students, or have Bihari students upgraded themselves?), there were students who would rank choice of their colleges for admission after consulting students from their own caste, perhaps to create a ground for making a coterie of their own castemen even outside Bihar.

    When going out of state to take exams, students of the same caste even tended to book railway tickets together, given they were not so much in number to muster courage to travel ticketless (yes, railways have been their favorite mode of transport, much before Lalu Yadav became the minister).

    I guess, and I hope and pray that I’m wrong, things have not changed much since then. The same set of events might have taken place in lives of most of those students who boarded trains and reached Mumbai on 19th October.

    And as soon as they reached Mumbai, some of them were attacked and chased away. They were treated with utmost disgust, as if they were animals. Those who survived were beaten up in the examination halls, again as if they were unwanted scums. I am sure it was a dreadful, disgusting, and demoralizing experience for each of those Bihari students and Bihari society.

    And I hope that the Bihari society has realized that when those students were beaten up, nobody asked them if they were Yavav, Bhumihar, Kurmi, Brahmin, or Paswan by caste.

    Thank you Raj Thackeray for creating parity in the Bihari society, which our leaders could never bring about.

    Thank you Raj Thackeray for making Biharis feel like one people.

    May God bless you. Get well soon.

    Click here to read more...