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Posted at: Jul 17, 2016, 12:34 AM; last updated: Jul 17, 2016, 12:34 AM (IST)

Social media: Democratic, subversive

Harish Khare

Harish Khare

Suddenly, everyone is getting excited about the social media. Because it is mostly beyond the reach of the governments, it is deemed as potentially subversive. Currently, Kashmir is grappling with such a headache. A young militant, Burhan Wani, took to the social media to create an aura of invincibility about him. When he got killed — which was bound to happen, sooner or later — all those people who had identified themselves with him and his defiance felt violated. Wani had succeeded in projecting his anger and defiance on to very many people in the Valley and in his death, they themselves felt vulnerable and helpless. 

The authorities in Srinagar have reacted by shutting down the internet and all other means of communication that could be unplugged. It can only be a temporary patch-up remedy.

There is no reason why “our” side cannot use the social media to reach out to the sullen and resentful Kashmiris. In any case, social media is the new tool available to any authority to understand the nature of anger in society. There is nothing secret or mysterious about it. 

Social media is deemed so troublesome because it is intrinsically a democratic weapon and it can be made to fire in any direction. Every wrongdoing, every atrocity or act of high-handedness can get communicated all over. The ugliness of the village is no longer a matter to be put up by just the have-nots in rural India. Take the instance of the inhuman treatment of Dalits in Gujarat. Thanks to the new technology, the rest of the country could see — to its shame and horror — three young Dalits being mercilessly flogged in broad daylight on a trumped up charge of skinning a dead cow. 

Of course, social media can also be used to flare up passions and sentiments — as was done not so long ago when a doctored video was introduced on the JNU campus to crank up a nationalist hysteria. 

Nonetheless, social media provides a kind of level playing field in society. About time we got used to its presence and potential.

About three years ago, a friend of mine, Bhaskar Roy, embarked on a remarkable literary-cum-journalistic enterprise. He decided he wanted to edit a quarterly magazine — that too, in this time and age when even weekly publications are struggling to hold on to their readers.

Bhaskar was lucky enough to find an equally enterprising and gutsy publisher, Yogesh Malik. Thus was launched The Equator Line. It is promoted as “magazine of the new world.”

Each issue of The Equator Line is devoted to one single theme. And it is designed to have seven or eight long, but not tiringly long, pieces. By way of support, solidarity and encouragement, I have over the years written for Bhaskar’s magazine two or three times.

What prompts me to discuss and applaud this magazine is that its latest issue has for its theme a very unfashionable subject: Pakistan, After the Stereotypes. Not only that, he has invited a Pakistani author, Taha Kehar, to be the guest editor of this issue.

This is refreshingly bold. We in India have become very, very comfortable in our prejudices about Pakistan. There is now an entrenched media-political nexus that promotes enmity, animosity and hatred towards Pakistan.

This issue of The Equator Line is a wonderful collection of pieces about a Pakistan we are rarely allowed to contemplate. There are stories of a Pakistan that is modern, young and technocratic and is insisting on carving out its own space despite the regressive and the backward-looking politician and his unsavoury cousin, the mullah. 

As the guest editor, Taha Kehar, writes, the mind is equally poisoned on other side of the border. “Since my childhood days, the mere mention of India had triggered a magnetic field and drawn people into the web of conspiracies. Be it cricket or crossfire on the Line of Control, the battle lines had been drawn in advance and little could be done to alter these dynamics.” 

But Mr Kehar does manage to give us a glimpse of young Pakistanis who are as fond of “chilling” as their counterparts in Delhi or Chandigarh. He notes regretfully that “a contributor was working on a piece on how tricky and exhilarating it can be to date in Pakistan. Unfortunately, she pulled out at the last moment. That bold, boisterous and carefree voice would have added value to this collection.” Despite this last-minute attack of cold feet, it is a charming collection of prose and poetry pieces. But the most rewarding is a photo essay. 

I would want everyone in India to try to read these young Pakistani voices.  

Delhi is an unforgiving city. It changes its standards, ethics, likes and dislikes, and favourites as per the changing power equations. New ministers are serenaded while the outgoing ones are demonised.

Take the case of Jayant Sinha. Till he was the Minister of State in the Finance Ministry, the pink papers routinely hailed him as a bright and knowledgeable manager of matters economic. Then, unexpectedly, he was moved out. And, expectedly the bad-mouthing began. It was whispered in many ears that he was being penalised, mostly because of his wife’s “activities”. In particular, she was deemed guilty of having hosted a tea party at her husband’s official residence where many officers and corporate movers and shakers were also present.

Jayant’s wife Punita Kumar is a finance consultant and has professional credentials, quite independent of her husband. The offending tea party was seen as an effort to cash in on her husband’s ministerial position. 

This was nothing but malicious stuff. I would not be surprised if these insinuations had the blessings of the powers-that-be because it ends up showing them in good light, as a watchful class monitor. And, anyway, this kind of assassinating people’s character is very much part of the Sangh Parivar culture.

But, to her credit, Punita Kumar has done a brave and bold thing. Rather than leave the insinuations stand unchallenged, she has made public her side of the story. In a detailed communication to many newspapers, Mrs Sinha has given complete details of the famous tea party. She has even disclosed that the Finance Minister himself was present, sipping tea at her husband’s house.

There is a larger issue. No one is asking the question that if Jayant or his wife was guilty — as was being insinuated — of any kind of ethical misconduct, should he not then have been thrown out of the government altogether? 

But Delhi would rather have its gossip. 

Our public life is generally defined by stuffiness. That too bogus stuffiness. Our political leaders, in particular, find themselves obliged to behave pompously and pretentiously. They rarely permit themselves to be seen as light-hearted, as if some kind of secret fatwa enjoins them to appear grim and unfunny.

Remember, it was only a few weeks ago that former HRD minister Smriti Irani was kicking up a big fuss because a Bihar minister had addressed her as “dear”? For days, our television anchors touted a controversy out of this totally inconsequential, unfunny matter.

In contrast, I thoroughly enjoyed reading a detailed interview the new British Prime Minister, Theresa May, gave to the Daily Mail, when she entered the race of the Conservative Party leadership. She and her husband were frank and candid, revealing her human side rather than the uncompromising tough Home Secretary she had been for seven years. 

The most hilarious part of that interview was a little naughty detail. As a student at Oxford, she took part in a debate organised by the Edmund Burke Club. The topic: “Sex is great but success is better.” When asked which side she argued for, the new prime minister-to-be, with a girlish grin, pleaded “fifth amendment.”

I leave the readers to imagine Smriti Irani in a similar spot, while I go and fetch a cup of hot coffee. Anyone?


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