The elusive mustard seed

Last week, three letters reiterated a point I had made in my earlier column, ‘An inclusive public sphere’ (April 19), in which I had cited a study by the American Press Institute documenting the disjunction between core journalistic values and the expectations of a privileged citizenry. The first letter questioned the wisdom of the editorial, ‘Out of line’ (May 15), which pointed out a straightforward constitutional flaw. It argued that Governor Jagdeep Dhankhar’s visit to violence-hit areas in West Bengal was a breach of constitutional propriety. The second was a letter that came in defence of BJP MP Tejasvi Surya. It said that he too has his freedom of expression and the media should not gag him. The third letter was from a regular contributor, V.N. Mukundarajan, from Thiruvananthapuram, who was very unhappy with the newspaper’s coverage of the pandemic.

The narrative on positivity

The first two letters were virulent. Mr. Mukundarajan tried to make a case for positivity. Given the layered nature of his arguments, I reproduce here substantial portions of his mail. He wrote: “Not a day passes without the paper’s front page screaming death and destruction. The paper’s defining mood has been one of negativity underlined by a fetish for the macabre. Gruesome and revolting depictions of bodies floating on rivers and people choking to death in ICUs flashed as front-page headlines made me wonder whether I was reading a potboiler. Under the garb of telling truth to power, the paper seems to have embraced doomsday journalism. Nobody wants The Hindu to whitewash a tragedy, but over catastrophising makes one pause and look for ostensible reasons [for The Hindu’s coverage].”

He further invoked the international audience and wrote: “Whether intentionally or unintentionally, The Hindu seems eager to tell its international audience that India is collapsing under the weight of a catastrophe; that India is a failing state. Sections of the western media, ever on the lookout for India’s negative side, have already picked up the noise.” He made a distinction between holding a mirror to a tragedy and holding a magnifying glass to the tragedy that distorts reality. He said there is a total abandonment of sensitivity in a moment of tragedy when politics should take a backseat.

The present narrative of positivity, seen even in the high-profile Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh event called ‘Positivity Unlimited’, intended to counter the ‘negativity’ around the fight against COVID-19, urges citizens not to question those in power and their failure in planning for a disaster and mitigating the pain caused by the pandemic.

Glossing over failures

Some slogans have had the power to transform people’s life. Mahatma Gandhi’s anti-colonial struggle had a powerful slogan at its heart: ‘Quit India’. B.R. Ambedkar mobilised millions of people to walk out of humiliation through his powerful writing, ‘Annihilation of caste’.

But if slogans are meant to save those in power and gloss over the complete failure of governance, then their vacuousness is seen by all. Rhetorical flourishes touch no one’s heart. This government came to power with the slogan, ‘minimum government, maximum governance’. But the pandemic has clearly proved that what we have is more government and less governance.

A famous story in Buddhism, ‘Kisa Gotami and the Mustard Seed’, should be the guiding principle for journalism. The Buddha did not gloss over death, loss and pain. When Kisa Gotami went to the Buddha with her dead son and asked him to bring her son back to life, the Buddha asked her to bring him a mustard seed from a home that had not seen death. Those who are talking about positivity are in search of that elusive mustard seed. What the Buddha taught Kisa Gotami was that loss is universal. The task of journalists is to bring attention to the toll that this pandemic is taking on everyone. It is also a fact that those who are worried about the international media’s coverage of India are also jubilant when these publications carry positive reports about India.

This does not mean that the newspaper is not covering positive developments. For instance, it carried a long-form report titled ‘Beating back the pandemic in Mumbai’ (May 15). This report meticulously documented how the financial capital of India is trying to contain the spread of the pandemic. It pointed out that the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation met the second wave of the COVID-19 challenge on a war footing by learning from the lessons offered by the first wave.

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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 4:02:51 PM |

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