Representational Image. Image Courtesy: Moneylife
Gandhi had offered an elaborate and intricate theory of violence. Violence for him was not just physical or mental. He referred to what an act did to the soul. Even criticism constituted violence. Excess verbalisation, and inability to listen to the inner voice, was also violence. He, therefore, practiced complete silence one day of the week where he communicated only through writing. What this meant, I experienced first-hand at a news studio I was invited to as a panelist.
The moment the programme began, it was about the contribution and hard work Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah put in these elections. The anchor sermonised the panelists to forget ideological differences and admire the sheer grit and resolve of a leader who made his mark in such a short time, being an outsider to Delhi. After a long diatribe, when the panelists’ turn came, they were cut short within less than a minute for the anchor to start screaming his guts out to announce that the Indian cricket team was set to leave for the World Cup, and soon started to play the press conference of the Indian coach, Ravi Shastri.
After this was through, the anchor once again started gloating, comparing cricket with elections, and how after one championship is over and the next is to begin, making India proud. He then shifted back to the theme, once again screaming. Meanwhile, it was time for a break, where the anchors changed. They did not know who the panelists were, and one of them introduced me as `varisht patrakar` (senior journalist). He started to introduce the theme when it was yet again cut short to take us to a press conference being held by the Opposition parties at the Election Commission. Once they got back, he threw a random question on whether it is justified to suspect the process. Even as a panelist was answering, the anchor announced yet another break.
The discussion was being held in an open space, where there were three other anchors recording on various other issues. The panelists were expected to shout over the other voices to respond – or at least make an attempt at responding-- to what the anchor was shouting out to reach the panelists. Meanwhile, there was another commercial break, and we were ushered in for some snacks and coffee. It was more than an hour by now and none of us had spoken a word. Only one of us managed to speak for half a minute. Meanwhile, one of my friends called me to ask he was patiently watching and when would I get my turn to say something. Are you a panelist or a judge listening to the proceedings of a case? he said.
The programme started again, and yet again we had a new set of anchors. By now they had moved on to the next theme in the election coverage, and we had additional guests from a political party from Lucknow, who was asked this time about the Exit Polls. As he stared explaining, this anchor aggressively shouted at him `kya UP ka results bhool gaye` (have you forgotten the UP results). A long and acrimonious ‘argument’ kind of mudslinging began between them. Only when the respondent threatened to quit, the anchor allowed him to complete his point, which by then sounded like some gibberish. Then the ruling party official matched the pitched with praise for his leaders. The anchor announced he would now play an interview he had with Narendra Modi, and the interview started after a commercial break. I politely excused myself and requested that my taxi be called as I wished to leave. The link man began to persuade me that a new set of anchors would now take over and there would be a panel discussion! I told him this might be discussion for him but for me it is nothing short of ‘third degree torture’. I insisted and left, without speaking a word after sitting for nearly two hours!
I felt a great sense of relief once I was in the taxi. I called up the link person to politely tell him that I refuse to take any honorarium since I never spoke and neither wish to speak in the future! He sounded flummoxed but I was in no mood to explain to him what I meant. He wanted to invite me for another ‘show’ on May 23, the day of election results, and said it was on prime time that he wanted me.
The newsroom reflected what society is waiting to become. Christopher Caudwell in his, Studies in Dying Culture, observed that fascism is not an event but a process that finds its roots in many silent corners of the society. He links scientificity and disciplining in the writings and plays of George Bernard Shaw to demonstrate how they contribute to the mushrooming of a fascist psyche. If scientificity and productivism were the sites on which fascism of the 20th century was based on, it is speed, impatience with facts and details and retributive social psychology that the fascism of 21st century is going to grow on.
My experience in the newsroom amply demonstrated this. The speed with which news items were being changed, anchors kept altering, it was clear that the anchors were convinced that it is pace that will continue to attract viewers. Even as the panelists attempted to respond, the anchors would either stare at their mobiles or talk to each other, perhaps to decide what next to do to keep up the excitement. The details, facts, analysis was just a filler to allow the anchors the breathing time to catch up with their breath and think of another ‘spectacle’ that would entertain viewers. It could be cricket, crime, any random thing that could surprise the viewers. They need to keep the hope of something coming alive. Hope created out of emptiness.
This was the violence against the soul at its best. I couldn’t survive two hours of it. But this is the prototype of what is to come. It’s no longer the right to speak and freedom of expression, it’s the right to think. Speaking without thinking has enough space and takers but if you are suspected of thinking, it looks like a ‘dangerous mind’. Fascism is not just political; it’s time we reflect in every little corner in which it is being manufactured, oblivious of its implications. I refused to be part of it. Not now, not in the future.
The writer is Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). He recently authored the book India after Modi: Populism and the Right (Bloomsbury, 2018). The views are personal.