When I look back in time, I sometimes wonder if I made a mistake in deciding not to emigrate. With some misplaced sense of patriotism – after all, my teen years spanned 1960s and 70s – with a good PhD in hand, I resolved to work “in my own country”, rejecting the prospects of working in the West. An unarticulated reason was, ‘it was better to be a first-rate citizen in a developing country than a second rate-citizen in a developed country”, however, one may choose to define first and second rate citizens.
And now I wonder if it was the right choice, because now I realize no one is actually a first rate citizen in our country unless one is a VIP or a VVIP.
And now, one is beginning to notice that even being a VIP or VVIP is not enough to be a first class citizen in this country, as Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan would testify. For instance, a mere reference to a family chat of emigrating has invited vitriolic reactions from so many that the reactions themselves justify the sense of insecurity voiced by the two. I have a number of friends, who are as much Muslims as I am a Hindu, and about as “patriotic” as I may be, even though in today’s shrinking world one may find the very notions of national boundaries and definition of patriotism somewhat stifling, if not downright pointless. And yet, I find some of them, who have an option of using both a Hindu or Muslim name, wondering sometimes if they should change their or their children’s Muslim names into Hindu ones for a better sense of security. Is such thinking ‘unpatriotic’? And if it is, who is to blame for such thinking?
The feeling of insecurity felt by a Shah Rukh or Aamir may or may not be rational purely in statistical terms. But that doesn’t make their feelings any less legitimate. There is a phenomenon called “availability bias” which would be relevant to discuss here. Ask a random lay person whether more people die of road accidents or of common cold in the country, and one is bound to find a majority favouring the former. The truth however is that the cold-related deaths probably outnumber road-accidents by several times. This is because while page 4 or 5 of virtually every newspaper may routinely report half a dozen deaths by road-accidents, no newspaper reports deaths due to cold-related complications. So people respond to whichever phenomenon is available in plentiful and conclude that phenomenon also to be prevalent in plentiful. As a matter of fact, even data on deaths from cold-related complications are not easy to come by, while statistics on road accidents are available aplenty.
Today with both public and social media reporting every single issue related to communal tension, direct or indirect, 24×7, any such news is much more available than it may have been say a couple of decades ago, leading to higher availability bias of such news. So even if the reality about communal tensions being lower today than what it was two decades ago may be true, the same cannot be said to be true of the perception.
Speaking of media, there is another matter we need to take cognizance of. In recent times, media has been playing a huge role in holding both politicians and babus to a higher degree of accountability before the public, than it probably did a couple of decades ago. But as any potent power, the media power does not come without its flip side.
Let’s take a view on the media coverage of some of the bizarrely provocative utterances by the likes of Yogi Aditya and Sadhvi Prachi, from the BJP and VHP stables, on Shah Rukh and Aamir. Of Yogi Adityanath, one can only wonder why a priest, who has been an MP since 1998 from Gorakhpur constituency, should have shelved all fortitude, and let-off spleen – that hardly behoves a priest – against a perfectly gentlemanly Aamir Khan, a national idol who was merely sharing his not entirely misplaced sense of insecurity for his family. As for the Sadhvi – who supposedly achieved Nirvana at the age of 16 – well, she has been doing what she does best: rabble rousing and trouble making by the bushels. Not for nothing had the Liberhan Commission which investigated the Babri Masjid demolition, reportedly held her (among others) individually culpable for leading the country to “the brink of communal disorder”.
If these worthies were feeling lost and irrelevant in a fast moving India, well, the media has handed out a lease of life to them on a platter. Whatever the relevance of these worthies in a modern society, when what the country probably needs is more of science and technology and less of religious bigotry (as distinct from religion), whether from Hindus or from Muslims, it is the media that seems to be unwittingly keeping them propped up.
It would seem that in the absence of all communal tensions, the likes of these Yogis and Sadhvis would have little role in the society, for the only relevance they draw is from communal disharmony, as do a host of Muslim Imams. But for such dysfunctional and bigoted priests and imams, the masses would probably go about their business of making two ends meet, and the world would be a more peaceful place.
So why do the media give them so much visibility? Why is a Lalu, a convicted jail-bird, who in his decades of rule in Bihar added not an iota worth of value to the state, a media darling? Why is a middle aged Rahul Gandhi whose only achievement in life is to have won the ovarian lottery, of media interest? For their TRPs, right?
In this sense, the media is unwittingly responsible for heightening the “availability bias” of dysfunctional and communally charged news items, rabble-rousing individuals who thrive in such atmosphere, jail-birds and talentless politicians . What they report may be true; but in situations like these, their reports are seriously dysfunctional at the same time.
Is it time the media started introspecting about their own reporting standards, just as we hold corporates responsible for governance standards? Is Media Reporting Standards or MRS, an idea whose time has come? They would do well to black out certain characters entirely from their coverage, for the simple reason that press-coverage or ‘availability bias’ is the life blood of good leaders as much as it is of bad ones.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
This article first appeared in Times of India.