Thursday, June 26, 2014

A national emergency brushed under the carpet

(No names will be mentioned. Readers are expected to fill the blanks themselves)

Think of the infamous national emergency of 1975 imposed by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and one would by default make an association with this national newspaper. Why, this was when the newspaper waged a fierce war against the government, burnishing its anti-establishment tenor. When few others had the guts to offend the government, this newspaper chose to excoriate it by publishing a blank space on its front page, usually reserved for editorial pieces. Our rulers themselves tried every trick in its bag to unsettle this publication – through coercion, threat and direct assault – yet it emerged unscathed.

As accounts go, Indira Gandhi wanted to stifle this media group because it would not bend to her whims and fancies. Supplies of essentials such as newsprint, electricity and even water were cut, so was its financing. When every other newspaper accommodated persons from the government in their editorial boards to cut off all anti-government material, this paper, tongue-in-cheek, published a cartoon showing the President (Fakhruddin Ali Ahmad) signing hastily authored ordinances in his bathtub, pleading that he be allowed to come out first for further ratification.
The epochal cartoon showing the President at Indira's
beck and call during the '75 emergency. Source: Internet

Therefore, it should not have been a no-brainer to expect the two entities of this glorious newspaper to carry a commemorative article/ editorial/ or at the least, an informative feature on the 39th anniversary of the event, which was on last Wednesday. Shockingly though, one of them chose to brush it under the carpet, as if it did no merit recall. The other, however, published an edit on Indira Gandhi’s 1975 national emergency, on the occasion, authored by the veteran journalist Inder Malhotra, detailing its horrors and its implications.

A word on why the anniversary is of importance to us Indians. Just as historic events such as D-Day or the crumbling of the Berlin Wall symbolise to the West a once horrific past to which no comeback must even be contemplated, the national emergency holds similar significance to us Indians – when our nation threatened to morph into another tin-pot dictatorship, a la Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe or Idi Amin’s Uganda.

It must be remembered that at this hour, the Fourth Estate hardly demurred – except for a few notable exceptions such as the publication in question. For its anti-establishment stance, the publication had to pay a heavy price – from its owner and journalists routinely facing life threats to the government itself letting loose vandals on the properties of the publication. This stemmed from a ruling of the Allahabad High Court that debarred the then PM from holding office for six years on an election petition against her. The petition pertained to allegations of widespread rigging in a poll that she had contested.

As senior politician L K Advani reminisced on the conduct of the media in this period, “You crawled when you were merely asked to bend.” It is perhaps for this singular reason that this newspaper would be forever enshrined in public memory.

However, the second entity did a disservice to its founder by not reminding citizens of the horrific excesses committed in this period – from Sanjay Gandhi’s forced sterilisation campaign, to mass jailing and torture of opposition political leaders and dismissal of state governments with majority. I anticipated a feature on it on the weekend issue, but alas, it was a futile wait.

Don’t we know that the past is as important as the present in determining the future?
When we have TV news channels scrambling in to claim undeserving credit for every expose (Case in point: the 2G scandal, when the groundwork of a little-known reporter from The Pioneer that led to the expose, failed to receive adequate mention), blowing one’s trumpet can be beneficial as long as it serves the larger good.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Ignorance is bliss, but not when alive

My ruminations on reactions to the demise of public personalities 
If ignorance is bliss, then we humans are the masters at being in a state of nirvana. An ever-burgeoning list of people blatantly ignored when alive, but eulogised after death offers clinching evidence for the same.

The passing away of every public personality, for instance, should set the template for the study of this behvaioural trait. From outrage to surprise or disappointment, reactions to the same can open a Pandora’s Box, leaving behavioural analysts salivating to no end. Case in point: the demise of former Union minister Gopinath Munde.

True, the Maharashtra BJP leader was a senior politician with considerable clout; in fact, he was widely tipped to be the state’s next chief minister. It was, therefore, expected that the leaders of his party were bound to shower the customary encomiums. However, it was a surprise indeed when leaders of opposition parties matched the BJP, if not bettered them, in offering their plaudits. Some said he was a statesman non-pareil; some said he was the leader of the masses; from some utterings one could glean that he was the rare personification of Churchill, Roosevelt and the emperor Chandragupta Maurya. So extensive was the flow of condolences that it was as if failure to offer one’s ten paise to the condolence bandwagon meant missing out on something as unique as the next Big-Bang.

In short, it was as if the dictum “criticise when alive, but be polite when dead” was being taken to an altogether new level. However, this begs a barrage of questions. If such a unique person was truly in our midst, it should not have been a difficult ask to be half as generous with our appreciation while he was alive? It could be contended that political compulsions may be the usual suspect, with party ideologies, and diktats of its chiefs, preventing such persons from displaying their humane selves. This, in turn, leads us to the question: “Is it the position, and not the person, that is of value to us?”

Disturbing questions, but certainly not unique.

The deaths of a litany of leading politicos with lengthy careers in the public eye across the nation – from former West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu to his Karnataka counterpart Sarekoppa Bangarappa to the DMK leader Veerapandi Arumugam, to name a microscopic few – has been met with similar results. Inconspicuous when alive, immortalized after death.

It is not as if politicians alone have been guilty of this “amnesia to all things good”. It was only recently that social media went aflutter when the prominent American poet and rights activist, Maya Angelou, breathed her last. Tributes sprung out of nowhere in the online world – from Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, Whatsapp statuses and so on. To a majority of us (including myself) the first time we got to know of this personality was only on the day of her demise. Still, did we not act as if we had known her for years together? The online world was then verbal diarrohea personified, with probably every person with access to an internet connection going all out to eulogise her. If this isn’t crass sycophancy/ herd mentality (take your pick), then what else could be?

Thankfully, though, our generation isn’t the first to err, as history would show. Think Vincent Van Gogh, Gailileo or Henry Thoreau, and we are confronted with the all-too familiar situation of belated recognition of brilliance. In fact, Van Gogh’s name even adorns a phenomenon in which artistes grovel to make a living but become insanely famous post death. One of his portraits – accounts have it that he failed to sell even a single painting in his lifetime – that sold for a measly $60 a little over a century ago was recently purchased for a mind-boggling $82.5 million. Galileo – who was reviled, tortured and excommunicated for his findings on astronomy – was single-handedly responsible for shaping present-day science texts.

His philandering and other shortcomings notwithstanding, John F Kennedy remains the poster-boy US President (poor Bill Clinton). Gandhi or Bose might certainly evoke more emotions than Nehru or Rajaji; a Silk Smitha would help us go more than just nostalgic than a Hema Malini or a Rekha (let’s face it, has even the thought of making movies on the latter occurred to Bollywood?).

All this might seem like placing death on a pedestal, and reiterate it as the sole path to attain everlasting or at the very least ephemeral fame. The fact that we are an apathetic lot needs to be cast in stone so that it serves as a reminder as to how we should not be.
It is perhaps for this reason that Gandhi (some accounts have it as the Osho as well) might have urged an attacker – no, I am not referring to Godse – to pull the trigger when he accosted him with a loaded revolver. “Kill me, for only then would I be known all over the world,” he is known to have said. If such renowned personalities themselves are known to have spoken thus, need anything be said about the fate of our generation which subsists on Facebook likes, retweets and Instagram updates?

A few words of appreciation when it deserves could help us stem this attention-deficiency pandemic. Elegies might come in handy later.