Sunday, February 23, 2014

The land of Amma and ‘omerta’

Disclaimer: This post is not to cast aspersions on Mata Amritanandamayi or her Ashram. It is for the readers to decide their allegiance. So there

A somewhat inconspicuous sentence in a report on the latest controversy involving the Mata Amritandamayi Ashram in Kerala, published in the National Standard this Sunday, caught my eye. It read “… prominent dailies in Kerala remained silent on the issue”.

To the unititated, the “issue” was the alleged sexual exploitation and promiscuity involving senior members of the ashram, on which a foreign national had chosen to author a book. The person in question had been an attendant to Amma (as Mata Amritanandamayi is popularly referred to) for close to two decades.

I am yet to read the book, but I am positive that the revelations in it may not really be a powder keg. Going by the rate at which godmen and their institutions are involved in controversies, the day may not be far-off when they get slotted along with corrupt politicos (or are we there already?). But that’s another story for another day. What is worrying is that the mass media has chosen to turn a blind eye to an issue that was more than just ordinary.

Now, we are not talking about a state that featured prominently in the not-so recent reports by the Press Council of India and Prasar Bharati on the omnipresence of paid news. The region in question boasts of cent per cent literacy, and perhaps by extension, maximum public awareness, not to mention an opposition political party that is led by rationalists (well, largely).

I may be speculating but Amma’s presence in the media, especially print, is something that cannot be ignored. Dailies, especially those that claim to have wider penetration in the South, feature advertisements and articles on the activities of the litany of institutions run by the Ashram (that includes colleges offering a range of courses from medicine to engineering and arts). Her columns on spirituality, too, appear in these dailies. So, how would these publications bite the hand that feeds them, especially if they arrive in the form of assured and steady ad-revenues? Apply Sherlock’s theory of deduction and you would arrive at… yes, paid news, except that the lure of lucre bars you from publishing something, in lieu of promoting it.

In short, if this can happen in Kerala, then it can happen anywhere else in India.  

In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, publishing content that might even remotely antagonise Amma is strictly a no-no. The Amma here is the chief minister, J Jayalalithaa, also general secretary of the ruling party, the AIADMK. Tamil dailies – with the exception of Dinakaran, owned by Kalanithi Maran, the nephew of DMK chief M Karunanidhi, arch-rival to the ruling party – offer sanitised views and news on the government. In the newsrooms of these organisations, a negative news article either gets junked or twisted such that it does not ‘offend’ the ruling dispensation.

The Tamil newspaper having the largest circulation and a foot-hold in India’s top-ten, the Dina Thanthi (Daily Telegram) is perceived as the print version of Doordarshan, thanks to its “come what may, we shall not offend our rulers” policy. In fact, you are not considered a journalist to have worked in the land of Tiruvalluvar if you have not heard of the fable of the hotline linking the DMK’s party office to that of the Dina Thanthi’s editor. As the fable goes, a DMK secretary-level something, when the party was in power, used to call up the editor every evening and dictate to him what news must appear in the paper. Verbatim reproduction of content was rewarded with the most-favoured status for government publicity contracts. Unsurprisingly, this is a tradition that the AIADMK is said to have faithfully followed.

And we thought that the Swiss were amongst the neutral!

While the Dinakaran follows an anti-establishment (but not anti-DMK) slant, others such as Dinamalar and Dinamani, can be rightly said to have been caught between the devil and the deep sea. The de-rigueur editorial policy usually would be (Anti Amma news? Rule 1: Ignorance is bliss; Rule 2: follow rule 1).

English dailies are no exception. From “India’s national daily since 1878” to “the world’s largest English daily” to other lesser mortals, discretion has largely been the better part of valour. Again, tales abound of how a standing editorial instruction was issued in one of the papers on shying away from “anti-government” news; and how the resident editor and a reporter of another were summoned by the DIPR (the information and public relations wing of the government) for publishing an expose. A few other dailies, with presence all over the South, have deemed it best to indulge in PR in exchange for immunity from government-led sanctions.

A barometer of the glooming scenario can be gauged from the editorial metamorphosis of “Thuglak” – once considered premier among Tamil Nadu’s political magazines. Edited by the veteran dramatist, lawyer and political commentator Cho Ramaswamy, the magazine which used to slip in wry humour along with it’s critical viewpoints (when Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash as a co-pilot, the magazine issued prank postage stamps in memory of the pilot, Captain Saxena) now can’t make up its mind over whether it is a mouthpiece of the AIADMK or Narendra Modi-led BJP. Criticism of the DMK flows in torrents, while not even a whimper of protest against the AIADMK finds place in it. Ironically, he is once said to have commented: "Corruption in Tamil Nadu was initated by the DMK, nourished by the AIADMK."

Omerta, or the law of silence, on Amma pays, after all.