Friday, April 20, 2007

An Uncivil Society

To some, the media’s collective outburst of indignation at the assault on a television office may seem a little excessive given the general scale of atrocities and violence in India — from the Northeast through the Naxalite rage of middle India to the misery of the Kashmir Valley. Doubtless there are cynics who will say there was only damage to cars and property not to life and limb; that the media is too sensitive about its own rights, and not so about those of others.
To take such a view is to the miss the picture. The assault on the Star News office in Mumbai is symptomatic of many dangerous things that have taken root in Indian public life. This includes the dwindling of basic tolerance, the arrogance of the lumpen, the rapid death of every sacred cow. The ironic thing is that the story that provoked the assault — by a rump fundamentalist group no one has ever heard of — was itself a cry against religious bigotry, bringing to light the plight of a young Hindu-Muslim couple. The kind of story free, liberal media must always embrace.
The scary part of the attack is that it happened in broad daylight in what many consider India’s most cosmopolitan city. The rampaging ruffians — swinging hammers and lathis — seemed to carry no fear of police and legal reprisals. Simply, they were offended by a media story and were going to teach the television channel a lesson.
A great deal of the blame for this growing uncivil society must be borne by the Indian political class. In Parliament and out of it, public discourse has been reduced to a low level vulgarity. When the vocabulary of a people degenerates, all conduct becomes infected with canker. If men with responsibility and power cannot speak the right word then there is no reason for the man on the street to adhere to any moral nicety.
Language is critical, even in these our visual times. That’s why the birth of every free nation — from America to India — has been heralded by men who spoke a lofty language. The freedom of speech is fundamental to a democracy and a free society — but to safeguard it we may have to insist that everyone, media and politician alike, raises its quality.
Apr 28 , 2007

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