Pearl D'Souza
Daijiworld Media Network - Udupi
Pics: Crazy Frog Media

Udupi, Aug 26: About 1.3 billion people celebrated being Indian, this Independence Day. PM Modi reignited the idea of a 'new India' and President Kovind urged for a 'compassionate society' for new India by the next five years. A suject remains at the forefront of debate - what defines being 'Indian', and what constitutes 'Indian culture'.

"Citizenship does imply national obligations. It necessitates adherence to and affection for the nation in all its rich diversity," said former Vice President Hamid Ansari, concluding his last address during his term.

Diversity has been at the heart of our democratic nation. But when torchbearers of democratic ideals feel apprehensive about the state of Indian democracy, there is cause for concern.

Showing similar concern has been the esteemed Indian journalist and Magsaysay award winner Palagummi Sainath. In a candid interview with daijiworld during his recent visit to Udupi, he spoke about India's rich diversity, the harm done to it, and the role of media amidst this. Sainath's organisation People's Archive of Rural India is 'a living archive of the world’s most complex countryside' - rural India and captures the everyday life of everyday people. It is a repository to the complex worlds within the subcontinent - a salad bowl of sorts - a small effort to bring out the large diversity in India.


Q: What's your idea of India?

Ans: I think there are ideas of India. The village haat (in Odisha), where people argue, fight, sell products in 16 different languages... Mumbai's trains used to be like that. Twenty-one languages were heard on the trains of Mumbai as people went to work.

Q: Our economy and our society is so interlinked that the cultures too are interlinked. One is dependant on the other in a way that may not seem obvious. But has there always been a sort of understanding or is it just being said that India was a very cohesive nation?

Ans: It's not that there was no conflict. But Indians were far more cohesive than they are being made out to be today.

There was conflict. But there was conflict when there was breakdown. Those breakdowns were counter to the needs and interdependence of the society. Now, conflict exists as an agenda, and regimes making breakdowns has become a norm. It is a very different thing. If there are communal riots between two communities over some incident, that's one thing. If the state becomes an actor in it, it's quite another. So, it's not that everything was always cohesive. But there was a great deal of recognition of interdependence.

If you look at the partition, the Sikh Gurdwaras, do you know who sings the Gurbani in those old Gurdwaras? The hereditary singers in those Gurdwaras are Muslims.

Various forms of interdependence existed and people recognised this and continued with it. There was a degree of tolerance by default. Now you have a kind of intolerance by policy and agenda.

Cow slaughter ban was based on an entire bogus philosophy. There is every evidence to show from the epics, vedas, and from a lot of scriptures, that Hindus were big consumers of beef. Beef consumption and it was quite normal. Even now, by default, 42% of your population has no problem with beef. 14% are Muslims - they have no religious injunction against it. 16.8% are Dalits - Beef serves as the cheapest source of protein. 2.5% are Christians - they don't have an ideological problem with beef. 2.5% are Sikhs - largely no problem, they never had any scriptural injunctions against it. 8% Adivasis - some don't drink milk, but they eat beef. And then millions of Hindus eat beef - in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra, and elsewhere.

Yet this kind of intolerance is coming in every way.

In sum, the interdependence was and is there. But there has never been such a conscious intolerence. The society used to break down locally in one region in one place or another. Now that breakdown and construction of intolerance has been consciously engineered at a national level.

Q: What then would you say are aspects bulldozing our diversity?

Ans: Diversity means heterogeneity also. It means pluralism. Damage to diversity has been going on for decades. Massive intolerance towards the 'cultures' and 'habits' of others, extremely poor language policy and our social attitude to other languages, and lack of thinking about what our problems are, only deepens the crisis.

Right now, the country is in the midst of a ridiculous phase, where we try to impose our eating habits on others. 'You cannot eat beef, you cannot..' that kind of stuff. That intolerance and fundamentalist thought create the problems we are talking about.

As for language, there are 780 languages in this country, and 225 have died in the past 50 years. Barely 4% of those languages are taught beyond 6th or 7th std. Neglect of languages has created a situation where many languages are in danger of dying. In the entire Indian university system, there are only two departments for the study of endangered language. One in Hyderabad Central University, the other in Amarkantak. Mysuru too had a centre for Indian languages. So, you're having no departments of endangered language, but more and more of CSIR, science institutes being given orders that they must have a Sanskrit cell in them. That same intolerance pushes many of the other aspects - 'People have got to live the way we think Indians should be' is the attitude.

We do not have a language policy that worries about preserving all Indian languages. But policy is one thing. Socially, I think mostly middle class and elite have been extremely insensitive to the languages - particularly to the tribal, Adivasi languages.

And now you have in force, a group that tries to homogenise everything while boasting of diversity. Now you're going to say that we've got a bunch of zealots in power who want to say that everybody must learn Hindi, completely ignoring the disasters of the 60s when they tried to impose Hindi in Tamil Nadu.

You will find that in Mangaluru the Buthas, and Thayyams of Kerala are pre-puranic Hindus. But now you have people trying to appropriate them to mainstream Hinduism. But you have the RSS then trying to say that this is 'Hindu culture'. You go to Tamil Nadu and make Murugan an avatar of Shiva. Murugan is much older than Shiva. So this kind of trying assimilation and homogenisation is also problematic.

With this kind of force and no policies on language, things are going to get a lot worse. Yes, all these problems were there earlier. But they have grown exponentially in the last 2-3 years.

Q: Repurcussions of the ban on cattle sale for slaughter?

Ans: It's been a domino effect, a devastating one. It shows you how little they (government) know of their country. They have this imagined nation. Very fevered imagination. Or none at all. They wanted to hit the Muslims. How many occupations have we destroyed by this. Farmers can't sell cows and don't have the money to buy new ones. Farmers in Uttarakhand, Vidarbha are abandoning their cows at the forest edge for leopards to get them. The cattle markets have collapsed and with that, hundreds of occupations have too. The guys who make the shoes, those who make the little bells for the cows. And above all, the dalals of the cattle market - the agents. The Marathas are Hindus, the dalals are Hindus, OBCs - they're also finished, because there is zero sale in many cattle markets right now. People who make Kohlapuri chappals, are not able to get hides. They tried sourcing the hide from Tamil Nadu and the vans were burnt in Karnataka and Maharashtra borders. So, every one of them is effected.

I met farmers during the drought in Marathwada last year. He said he had 6-8 cows and could not sell or buy. He could not get food enough for his family because of this crisis. 'How will I look after these cows?' he asked me. I suggested he sells them. He said 'Yeah, we get onto the the highway and these thugs kill us.'

Christians are affected because of diet. Dalits are affected because who makes leather? Muslims are affected because of diet and trade. The Marathas are affected because of farming. OBCs are affected because they are the dalals at the cattle market. Who isn't affected? This type of intolerance has impacts far beyond what you can find.

Q: Are there grave events and stories in Mangaluru that seem under-reported?

Ans: There are stories. When I came to Mangaluru many years back, I was doing a project on Dalits for the Hindu Sunday magazine. My colleague and I visited a school where the school drama was being staged and only the upper caste students had roles in the drama. The play was Raja Harishchandra. Great mythological figure. And then people protested, it was a Dalit dominated school, that 'our children are not there'. It was a big controversy. And they tried resolving the controversy by giving a Dalit boy the role of a butcher. This was the play Raja Harishchandra. They created a role, a fictional character, a character who had no role even in that fiction, even in the original. And that also was a token representation.

This was in the twin districts area. There are issues of caste discrimination. There are issues of the rise of fundamentalism, which is very serious in coastal Karnataka. All these are issues. There is no shortage of issues.

Q: But by writing about fundamentalism and rising communalism, aren't we inciting more?

Ans: That is an ostrich attitude. It's like saying, if I bury my head in the sand, and shut my eyes tight and see no evil... That never helps. You have the right to focus, bring more serious issues to the foreground. But if something obnoxious is happening, to say 'I won't cover that' is not a good response. You have to show why it is happening.

Q: What role do journalists play in filling the gap between reality and the illusion created?

Ans: The fundamental feature of the mass media of our time is the growing distinction, the growing gap between mass media and mass reality. Today you have mass media without masses. It reaches masses, and excludes masses. They may have a giant reach but the number of people who get to participate in them, express their views, their opinions is less than 0.001%.

The challenge of a journalist in our times, is to sell your labour without selling your soul. Second, to expand the public space in a private domain, in an increasingly privately owned media, to push the boundaries of public interest as against private interest within a private domain, to connect with the society and tell stories of those who can't speak for themselves, whom we do not allow to speak, to create a situation where they can speak for themselves and not even be dependent on media, to undermine the monopolies that we're working in. How do we end such great monopoly in media? As long as there is monopoly there will be no smaller voices of dissent.

There are lots of people who write good stories but can't get them published. I came into journalism at a different time and that's why I was luckier.

A journalist should also be participating in every kind activity that strengthens his or her independence as a reporter, as a journalist. And ultimately it means that we also have to act as citizens, we have to have legislations to break the media monopoly. One person cannot be allowed to own half the Indian media. It's ridiculous.

A generation has grown up thinking anchors yelling and stamping the table and hitting the table with their fist, is journalism. That is also the responsibility of journalists - to record, inform, educate oneself first, then your audience. And also be educated by your audience.

Here's the paradox. You've got a society that is unbelievably diverse and more and more heterogenous. And you're trying to cover it with a media that is more and more concentrated and narrow and homogenous. Can such a media tell the stories of the Indian people? They cannot. You can tell the stories of bollywood, fashion models, Kabaddi league at best, IPL. That's it. What else can they do. Nothing else makes the money.

Q: But stories you speak of, don't sell

Ans: They readers will tell you, it's absolutely untrue.

It's not that the readers are saying it (that such stories don't sell). The choice of media agenda is one, self interest, two, the advertiser who is the primary person. When an editor says, 'not what the reader wants'. He just means really 'not what the advertisers want'.

I was told the same by 20 editors when I was trying to do my project, before I got the Times of India Fellowship. In January 1997, the book came out - 'Everybody Loves a Good Drought'. It has had 50 reprints since. It has stayed in sale for 20 years. If people were not interested, why would that be? If people are not interested, why should a book on poverty be a Penguin bestseller for 20 years?

Readers didn't demand 8 pages of Bollywood, which you put in as a supplement. You created an audience. You did that for advertisement. The supplement that comes - Bombay Times - please read what it says - advertorial, industrial and promotional material. Because of the paid news scandal, they are now forced to put that. They are forced to say that. I created the situation where they had to say that.

What kind of subjects were we speaking about at the talk (in Udupi)? Imagine the thousand odd people who came despite the rain. It tells me that people are interested in the subject. It tells me that people are interested in serious discussions. So don't blame the victim.

Q: Is there a ray of optimism in the trajectory the media and society is going?

Ans: Yes. Things will get better. But they will get a lot worse before they get better. If I was not an optimist, why would I remain in this profession. There is a lot of optimism in the way ordinary people continue with their lives, against all odds. A society that produced Captain Bhau Lad ( 94 year old forgotten hero of India’s struggle for freedom). That kind of person exists. A Karimul Haque (humanitarian who runs a 'bike ambulance' free of cost for villagers in West Bengal) exists. But I'm saying, don't use optimism as a security blanket or an escape - that is fake optimism.

Q: If you were a journalist starting out now what would it be like?

Ans: I don't know. When I came in, the atmosphere in Indian journalism was not what it is today. Everybody had a labour correspondent, an agriculture correspondent. Now, agriculture correspondent is someone who covers agriculture ministry, not the farmers.

The media's role has changed, concentration has grown, the concept of social responsibility of the media is dead. They treat it with contempt. Their job is to make money for the shareholders. That's what corporate media does. So you got to work there. You've got to fight within and fight outside.

It would be much more challenging, because the forums have declined. The space has declined. Newspapers are not about journalism. The media are very little into journalism. They are much more about revenue making. As much as 95% of your revenue comes from advertisers and 5% comes from sale of your newspaper. You are going to treat the advertiser 16-17 times more important than the reader.

One, as you said, it's how well the story is told also. That is true. But I'm saying, I know very good journalists who can tell a story but can't find a job. Because that's not the primary requirement of the media. They need people who do reports and stories that further the business of the media.

Where 30 years ago, the job of the media was to deliver information to audiences, in the last 30 years the job of the media has become to deliver audiences to advertisers and marketers. That's the change in the role of media.