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That right feeling about TV

Gullible Indians often believe that journalists on TV speak the gospel truth. I have met unsuspecting ones among them who believe emperor Babar was a Pakistani. They had read this somewhere or perhaps seen it on the news.

They are not mean or nasty people, just victims of a sleight of hand that has worked well. It has been dinned into their heads that Muslims (including their emperors) are Pakistanis, implacable enemies of the national interest. Narendra Modi simplified the equation by baptising Indian Muslims as Gen Musharraf’s children.

The Goebbelsian method seldom fails in swaying the masses. TV does the rest.

After all, the mob that planted the saffron flag on the rubble of the Babri mosque it had razed in 1992 was, through induced chants, threatening to turn to Lahore next. It didn’t mean to harm Pakistan, of course, but was just adding potent domestic politics to a cocktail of misinterpreted folklore and deeply planted religio-political subterfuge.

Television is only a new tool in the transmission of this garbled sense of history and politics in India. Cinema was as useful a weapon in the spiralling of prejudice to reap political dividends. Even leftist lore searched for nationalist palliatives on the screen.

I doubt that Kaifi Azmi had read Neville Maxwell’s proscribed book on India’s China war before penning his maudlin but popular verse on the military rout in Ladakh. But television has surpassed them all.

The transition began when the Hindu right leader Lal Kishan Advani took the information and broadcasting portfolio in his hands. That was his first chance to become federal minister in the garb of rejuvenated democracy.

The year was 1977. The right-wing penetration of the mass media began in earnest under his watch. That was also the year when acclaimed historians were trashed and the school textbooks they wrote with concise professionalism banned. This was partly to muzzle historical evidence seen as uncomfortable to the Hindu right, including the assertion that ancient Brahmins ate beef.

It was a similarly typical triumph of televised garble that Mr Advani was allowed to claim with considerable authority last week, even as the police in Hyderabad were still searching high and low for elusive clues, that the twin blasts in the southern city with its rich syncretic history was the handiwork of Pakistan.

Many couldn’t hide their exasperation, and not because the Pakistani establishment has not tried to harm India. In fact, the most vocal admission of this lingering animus comes from Pakistanis themselves, chiefly those who ardently wish to have normal ties with Indians.

Sadly for them, ties are unlikely to improve as long as the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress remain insecure in their domestic political arithmetic.

There are exceptions of course. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stands out as a solitary advocate for continued dialogue with Islamabad, but his pursuit is rooted in a lack of insecurity. He has never needed to win an election, and he has played out his innings with nothing much left to lose.

So, there’s a pattern in TV’s shifting focus from one crisis to the next to somehow keep Pakistan in the crosshairs. This began after the prime minister met his Pakistani counterpart in Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt where they tried to look beyond the horror of the Mumbai attacks. He was double-guessed by his bureaucracy.

If anyone thought that Ajmal Kasab’s hanging would lead to a calmer moment in their ties, they were in for a surprise. They had to contend with one contrived shock after another.

Immediately after Kasab was hanged, the narrative of alleged Pakistani brutality on a Kargil hero was excavated to hit India’s TV screens. That paved the way for the more vivid and more current decapitation claims and counterclaims on the Line of Control, which everyone thought had climaxed with the execution of Afzal Guru. Then came the Hyderabad blues.

Mr Advani may have jumped the gun on the Hyderabad blasts and the reason lies in the fact that previous attacks in the city have been found to be the work of the Hindu right.

He should read Manisha Sethi’s report on behalf of the Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association on the recent attacks in Hyderabad. She quotes the following conversation between two alleged conspirators from the Hindu right which anti-terror police chief Hemant Karkare had retrieved from their laptop:

Maj (retd) Ramesh Upadhyay: “…for example what happened in Hyderabad Mosque or at other places was not done by anybody from ISI; it was done by our person. On the basis of my information, I can say that it was done by this particular person.[ …]

Lt-Col Purohit: “… I have done two operations. They were successful Swamiji [Dayanand Pandey], I have the capacity to carry out operations. I have no dearth of equipment [explosives]. Once I decide I can procure the equipment….” […]

Lt-Col Purohit: “…I am in contact with Israel. One of our captains has visited Israel. Very positive response from their side. They have said: ‘You show us something on ground.’ […] Secondly, they say they cannot support us in the international forum under the present circumstances for two years, till our movement does not gather some momentum. Political asylum anytime; equipment and training once we show something on ground. I am trying to achieve that…”

Sadly, Hemant Karkare was killed during the Mumbai terror attack, apparently falling victim to an ambush by Ajmal Kasab.

What has happened to the full contents of the laptops recovered by him, Ms Sethi has asked in a well-researched set of questions on the latest bombings in Hyderabad. She has a few like-minded journalist friends in TV studios and newsrooms to carry her point of view. But they are all struggling to stem the Goebbelsian tide.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Jawed Naqvi, "That right feeling about TV," Dawn. 2013-02-28.