Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Mandal II and the Media

Sukumar Muralidharan

A recently concluded survey of the British media found that of the senior journalists with decisive influence over news priorities and editorial policy, a significant majority is drawn from a narrow, privately-schooled, Oxbridge-educated elite. Indeed, as British society becomes more diverse and the political system grapples with the challenge of inclusion, the media – if a comparison were to be made with similar data from the mid-1980s – has tended to become an enclave of class privilege. In the words of a report in the Guardian, the dominance of the upper crust is strong enough to ensure that it is “difficult for those from other backgrounds to get a foothold”.

These findings from distant shores were published at roughly the same time that a decision by the Indian government to set aside a fixed proportion of seats in the higher education system for classes of citizens disadvantaged by history, had ignited a debate on the quality of representation afforded by the institutions of Indian democracy. Among the institutions that came in for an examination – even if rather hesitantly and fleetingly – was the media. A survey prompted by the controversy, found that in a sample of 315 journalists in the national capital with the authority to determine media agendas, not one belonged to either a Scheduled Caste or Tribe. No fewer than 49 per cent of the sample was drawn from the Brahminical strata. And if all caste Hindu groups were to be considered in addition to the so-called dwija or twice-born, their share in the total is no less 88 per cent.

Where Scheduled Castes and Tribes are concerned, the argument over affirmative action was settled as part of the nationalist compact which brought India its independence. That the media should remain innocent of any participation from these classes, well into India’s sixth decade as a sovereign, self-governing nation, should surely be occasion for introspection by a social institution that has pretensions to objectivity and fairness in its self-assigned role of determining national priorities. Curiously though, the main English-language newspapers in the country had little space or time for this particular survey on the social origin of journalists.

It is a far from settled point that where one comes from determines what one is. That notion of determinacy is completely antithetical to all conceptions of individual liberty. It could be a valid proposition though, that a psychology of conformity could operate within large aggregates of individuals. Particular individuals could well transcend the limitations imposed by the circumstances of their origin and their accumulation of lived experience. In large groups though, personal commitments and convictions may well get submerged in the overriding pressure to do what is accepted.

To talk about the media today is to deal with complexity and multiple meanings. Variously perceived and described, the media is today a source of information and entertainment, as also the midwife of a union between the two. For a growing number, it increasingly serves as a forum of self-expression. In most studies of the modern media as a social reality, a self-serving myth, continues to hold sway. The media in this portrayal is the institutional bearer of the social right to free speech. This is a happy scenario, except for a minor quibble: the media derives its profits not from delivering information of value to an audience or from serving as a forum for a democratic exchange of views, but from delivering an audience of value to the corporate advertiser. The media arena is not a competitive marketplace where information and ideas are allowed a free run so that the best among them rise to the surface. Rather, it is a carefully controlled environment to ensure the most favourable circumstances for advertisers to sell their wares to carefully screened and selected audiences.

Evidently, perceptions of media neutrality and integrity often lie in the eyes (and ears) of the beholder. The notion that the mass media as an entity merits a distinct field of study originates with the proliferation of the print industry in the early 20th century, followed by the pervasive spread of broadcasting in the years after World War II. The early approach focused on media content and the impact this would have on public perceptions. The role of the media would also invariably come in for scrutiny when certain alarming or disintegrative tendencies, such as an upsurge in violent crime, became manifest in society. These would typically be accompanied by suggestions that the media should play a constructive and ameliorative role, though it has never been clear how best this function is discharged: through reporting things as they are, taking a moral position, or simply avoiding the subject altogether.

Similar is the dilemma that arises when dealing with the functioning of the media in a context of social conflict. Is the function of accurate reporting uppermost, even if it is disconnected from moral judgments? Or is an ethical posture inherent even in the most dispassionate account of any event or sequence of events? Does a well-considered effort at ascribing responsibility for a state of inequality, which does not hesitate to name winners and losers, aggravate an already inflamed situation? Or does it, by focusing attention on the sources of injustice, impel society at large to grapple with the viruses within its fold and root them out?

If any convincing answers have been devised to these questions, they are yet to be elucidated. Neither are they evident in the existing practice of the media. Publishing media content that is in conformity with a placid and uncontested paradigm of social evolution would be acceptable conduct, because it serves elite interests and safeguards their social preeminence. Anything that departs from this idiom would be behaviour warranting stricture and quite possibly, sanction.

This brings up the issue of the relationship between the media as a commercial institution and the public that it caters to. In turn, this requires that at least two other models of media behaviour be considered. The first of these could be called, taking Dennis McQuail’s widely cited formulation, the “ritualist” model, which emphasises not “the transmission of information across space” but the “maintenance of society in time” and the “representation of shared beliefs”. And then there is the “publicity” model which approaches the media less as a source of information than as a device of drawing and retaining visual (or aural) attention. This in turn, serves the direct economic objective of increasing revenue earned from an audience. This model emphasises that “mass communication is liable not to be communication at all, in the sense of an ordered transfer of meaning”. Rather, it is more about “spectatorship” in which the “fact of attention often matters more than the quality of attention”.

In 1990, when the Indian media faced its first significant challenge on the question of affirmative action for the “socially and educationally backward classes” (SEBC’s), it responded by invoking the sacred trope of a seamless Indian national identity and denouncing the divisiveness of caste. “Class” is the term used in the clause of the Indian constitution that enables the State to undertake schemes of protective discrimination, as also in the 1980 report of the Mandal Commission which coined the term “other backward classes” to distinguish its target group from existing beneficiaries of affirmative action. But “class” has invariably translated in official pronouncements into “caste”, raising fears that the ghosts of a primitive, ascriptive social order were rising again to haunt India’s halting but brave efforts at modernisation.

In its tone, editorial comment in the English language press – which exerts an influence far exceeding its reach in India – then tended to the view that all was going well until the government of the day gave into an opportunistic whim. Editorially, the Indian Express (August 9, 1990) condemned the decision as “ruinous” and gloomily forecast a “further deterioration of the state apparatus and heightened social tensions” as the first consequence of a “crassly opportunistic” move. The Times of India (TOI) similarly, commented (August 9, 1990) that the Mandal recommendations on job reservations in the central government, threatened to undo “at one stroke” all that had been achieved over four decades of independence, in building a “modern, egalitarian order”. Reservations, the TOI continued, would “enshrine casteism, undermine meritocracy and excellence, and work against the creation of a pan-Indian identity”.

Notions of progress, it has been said, are remarkably congenial to those ascending the scale of income and wealth. But no matter, the TOI was willing to concede that the backward classes could be helped to improve their “competitiveness” – again, that favoured term of the upwardly mobile – through the provision of “abundant educational, health, nutritional and other social welfare benefits”.

Having identified the augmentation of “competitiveness” within the backward classes as a national priority, the media then lapsed into a phase of inattention. When “structural adjustment” kicked in as official economic policy in 1991, the Indian media joined in eagerly with the chorus of acclaim. The withdrawal of the State from domains where its interventions were not essential, the media confidently forecast, would enable it to more effectively meet the basic needs of a wider mass of the population. In its turn, the easing of the onerous burden of taxes that the more affluent had to bear, would reignite the spark of entrepreneurship, since individual self-aggrandisement was the most effective incentive available for productive economic activity. As the size of the national product increased, the diminution in rates of taxation would more than pay for itself in buoyant tax revenues, empowering the State with ample means to address its basic welfare commitments.

As the decade of the 1990s wore on, it became increasingly evident that these initial prognoses were disastrously askew. The limitless self-aggrandisement of individuals was very much a reality and the media found considerable satisfaction recently in reporting that in a world where the celebration of wealth had become the reigning cult, India had perhaps the fastest growing number of billionaires. But few have concerned themselves with the inconvenient facts that India has also had a rapid growth in economic inequality, perhaps next only to the U.S. and China. The correlation with the rapid fading out of the social sectors from governmental attention is yet to be drawn. But future scholars will probably make the effort to draw the necessary links between growing inequality in India – as both cause and consequence – and the precipitate drop in governmental welfare expenditure.

A 1996-97 report by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) documented how educational infrastructure in the country was in an advanced state of decay. It was allowed to sink into oblivion with scarcely an acknowledgment from the media. In 2002, the Supreme Court directed in response to a set of very energetic petitions from concerned citizens, that the right to food was a basic entitlement the State had to protect. As a first step, it directed all state governments to introduce midday meal programmes in schools. Financial stringency would not be permitted to stand as an alibi for failure. The state governments had to “cut the flab” and the central government was obliged to help meet shortfalls in resource availability. Since then, there have been patchy and sporadic efforts to comply with the judicial directive, intended to serve the dual purposes of enhancing both nutritional standards and school enrollment levels. These have been far from adequate and periodic social audits, have put together a valuable documentation of governmental failure in meeting basic social obligations. These again have failed to excite the media very much.

The reasons are not far to seek. Beginning from around the mid-1990s, the global media began to acknowledge the undeniable fact that the cult of individual affluence also meant that celebrity narcissism would be the wave of the future. The interests and aspirations of the socially disadvantaged were of little consequence, since editorial content had to be moulded in accordance with the perceptions of the rich and the powerful. Editorial distinction may lie in the inclusion of diverse sections of the population in the priorities of the media. But commercial success lay in adapting editorial content to advertiser needs, in shifting content towards fashion, lifestyle and entertainment.

It took the resurrection of Mandal, this time in the shape of reservations for backward classes in institutions of higher education funded by the Central Government, to reawaken media interest in the gigantic defaults of social welfare policy through the 1990s. Initial editorial comment tended to be fairly uniform in its emphases. By providing preferential access to higher education, the government had effectively reversed priorities, said the media. Defending against the perpetuation of inherited disabilities was undoubtedly a national priority, but these needed to start with the basics of the learning process. Higher learning should be reserved as a domain where merit alone prevailed, where selection processes were entirely free of extraneous concerns. This national priority would not conflict with others, such as the redressal of the iniquities of history, if opportunities for all sections were to be equalised through a universal and non-discriminatory system of school education.

The patronising flavour in these editorial recommendations was not missed, their inherent suggestion that the backward classes were yet to prove themselves worthy of the professions, since they were yet to pass the threshold of school education. Rather than hammer home this theme and risk a further alienation of public sentiments, the media then chose a line of retreat. In an early editorial, the TOI argued (May 31, 2006), that the available data base for public policy on affirmative action was seriously flawed. This made a “caste census” in India a “necessary evil”. Later, the same newspaper (June 14, 2006) deprecated the fact that ad hoc decisions had for long held the field when “the need of the hour” was a “coherent justification” and a “clear roadmap for future policy on reservations”. Since several of the classes that had reservation benefits through earlier generations had graduated out of backwardness, there was a case for a continuing process of review of the list of beneficiaries. And the quantum of reservations itself needed to be revisited, since a “blind application of the maximum permitted reservation .. speaks very poorly of government policy”.

The Indian Express though remained fundamentally unreconciled to the notion, arguing that reservations threatened to fatally erode India’s potential to contribute to the global knowledge economy, where its competitive advantages were well established. In a June 5 editorial, it poured scorn on the political opportunism of ambitious individuals that had ostensibly triggered off the furore. It warned that the “space for liberal policymaking (had) been won after a long political fight”. In the course of this struggle, the more “intelligent leaders” of Indian politics, had realised that “quality and efficiency, in most fields, cannot simply be mandated by fiat”. This hard fought gain, the IE bemoaned, was at risk of being squandered in the pursuit of political advantage by ambitious individuals.

The Economic Times which clearly would have preferred not to address the issue, belatedly awoke to the merits of an alternative to the reservations process that has for long been established practice in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Editorially, it urged the Central Government to “universalise” the JNU admissions model, “which awards booster points for various kinds of backwardness..”. “Scarcity accentuates social fissures”, it warned, and any a priori segregation of seats for particular classes would deepen the sense of grievance among those who did not have the privilege to call themselves “backward”.

Editorially, The Hindu (May 25) urged that three imperatives be borne in mind in implementing reservations. The commitment that discrimination in favour of the backward classes would not diminish opportunities for others, needed to be operationalised. This meant that the central government, “must get serious about strengthening (the) physical and academic infrastructure” of the institutions that it was directly responsible for. “Funds”, the newspaper commented in defiance of the parlous arithmetic of the central budget, “should not be hard to come by, given the buoyancy in revenues”. Second, the newspaper urged that in “the larger interests of the nation”, certain institutions “need to be retained as islands of excellence, their entrance standards uncompromised even by socially desirable goals”. And finally, the central government should steer clear of the political trap that several states had fallen into, of viewing affirmative action as merely the institution of quotas. A far more serious approach towards basic education was essential if the ultimate purposes of protective discrimination were to be met.

The concern for basic education of course, was awakened within the national media only when the disadvantaged staked a claim to a place in the bastions of higher academic excellence, which were ostensibly the arena that would prepare the best of India’s youth to take on the challenges of globalisation. Editorially, the media tended in relation to its reaction to Mandal I, to adopt a more restrained tone of comment with the second visitation. But editorial comment is perhaps the lesser role that the media plays in moments of deep social turmoil. By far the more decisive influence is exerted by the tone and content of its news coverage. And in this respect, some of the biases that were blatantly in evidence during Mandal I have resurfaced, though with noticeably greater restraint. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the life and death of an individual who came to be seen in many ways, as a symbol of the agitation against Mandal I.

Rajeev Goswami died on February 24, 2004 aged 33, his passing marked by a few cursory mentions in the media. The image conveyed to the world on his death was drawn not from recent times, but from that moment in 1990 when he set himself afire in spectacular and violent rage at Mandal I. That fateful moment lived with Rajeev Goswami till the end. The cause of his death was internal organ failure arising from burn injuries suffered in 1990.

His injuries lived with him, but the message that Rajeev Goswami sought to convey proved transient. Parties across the board, after a period of connivance with the anti-Mandal demonstrations, began an anxious project of accommodation with the backward class assertion that Mandal epitomised. The Supreme Court put its own imprimatur of constitutional validity on the Mandal recommendations in November 1992. And by then, the media itself had turned its back on the incendiary rhetoric of the agitation.

The Rajeev Goswami tragedy had many dimensions, some of which were encapsulated in official statistics. Since he made his emblematic political statement, employment in the central government has fallen from 3.4 million to 3.3 million. New recruitment has taken place, only to replace retiring employees or others voluntarily leaving government service. Assuming rather generously, that there is an annual attrition rate of 5 per cent in central government employment, the jobs at stake in a regime of 27 per cent reservations for backward classes would number around 40,000. This is literally a drop in the ocean in relation to the tens of millions who enter the work force every year, most of whom fall back on some form of unorganised sector work.

Was Rajeev Goswami's sacrifice only about safeguarding the claims of “merit” to an infinitesimally small enclave of secure employment? Or was it about a larger cause? If the quantitative parameters alone are considered, the sacrifice was obviously not worth it. And that is not a retrospective judgment, since there were any number of voices counselling moderation on precisely these grounds, at the time the anti-Mandal agitation was most virulent. Whatever else, all those who participated in the violent disturbances in 1990 cannot plead lack of knowledge as an alibi -- least of all the media which instigated the agitators with unbridled rhetoric.

From the first stirrings of unrest on the street in August 1990 till Rajeev Goswami's paroxysm of rage on September 19, official spokesmen sought at several junctures to calm the student disturbances. The number of job opportunities that Mandal I would directly impinge upon, they said, was limited. The purpose of the recommendations was not to underline caste exclusions in Indian society, but to dissolve these by empowering sections that had drawn an unlucky number in life's lottery.

The message failed to win a receptive audience in sections that were rampaging through the streets of various north Indian towns. For this, the media bears a large part of the responsibility. The Indian Express, edited then by an individual who was later a member of the Union Cabinet, delivered its judgment mid-August, pronouncing the anti-Mandal agitation a clear “defence of the national interest”. Far from counselling restraint and a measure of sobriety in assessing reservations as official policy, it exhorted the agitationists to “spread and intensify” the disturbances.

Late-August, the same newspaper was denouncing the official effort to mitigate the sense of grievance within the student community. Central Government jobs may be just a small fraction of total employment in the country, but that was not the issue, said an analyst in its columns. What was of concern was the huge preponderance of central government jobs within “organised sector” employment.

The burden of the official rationalisation was that “organised sector” employment was not the only area of interest. There was a whole “unorganised” world outside, that needed to be accommodated in the formal structures of bureaucratic power. But with the media unequivocally behind it by this time, the anti-Mandal agitation was conspicuously displaying its contempt for the unorganised sector. Students from Delhi's elite colleges were trooping to the dhobi-ghats on the Yamuna riverfront to exercise their laundry skills in full view of the national media; others chose strategic street corners to sit with shoe-shine kits to offer their services to any passer-by.

An elitist contempt for all the livelihood recourses of the “unorganised sector” was evident in this pattern of public demonstration. By this time it was evident that “Mandal” had tapped into the populist vein essential for the sustenance of any mass movement. “Anti-Mandal” meanwhile had lost its moral compass, making too explicit a statement of disdain for the vast majority of the country's population. Inevitably, the momentum of the agitation was beginning to die out within a month of the policy announcement by the central government. Rajeev Goswami's suicidal violence on September 19, 1990, brought it back to life.

Rajeev Goswami survived that attempt, though not its long-term effects. He was the first to tempt death in the anti-Mandal cause. But the first to actually die was Surinder Singh Chauhan. This self-immolation happened a week after Rajeev Goswami's abortive attempt. Chauhan's death throes were recorded on film by a mysterious photographer who happened to be on the spot just at that time, equipped with a camera. This photograph was prominently displayed by most national newspapers, in violation of the well-accepted media convention, that photographs of the act of suicide are not to be published for fear that they could set off copycat attempts.

The image of Chauhan's self-immolation was conveyed to the newspapers by a confederate of Rajeev Goswami. On September 19, 1990, when Rajeev Goswami brought the anti-Mandal agitation out of its stasis, he was accompanied in his project by a colleague called Laxman Singh Tomar, who ostensibly suffered serious injuries, but survived. Tomar was the source for all the photographs published in the national English-language media of Chauhan's suicide by fire. The media was aware of this curious twist in the anti-Mandal agitation, as is evident from the fine print reporting of the event. But the media chose to wilfully disregard all the conventions about responsible reporting in that charged conjuncture.

In the retrospective judgment of the Indian Express, Rajeev Goswami was initially the symbol of the anti-Mandal agitation, but finally its fall guy. He failed to see that the older artifacts of merit and excellence were thin disguises for inherited privilege; that the inclusion of diverse sections of a plural society in all spheres of national endeavour was a desirable end in itself, one that contributed significantly to boosting achievement. Yet, this moment of revelation came to the media without any of the attendant inconveniences of accountability. It took little wisdom though, to conclude that Rajeev Goswami was finally, the victim of conniving politics and media irresponsibility. That the sordid drama of 1990 has not been reenacted in the context of Mandal II is testimony to a growing sense of social responsibility within the media. But the fact that some of the troublesome old tendencies persist, is evidence that the awakening is yet incomplete and perhaps, far too slow.

July 5, 2006

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