STEMMING THE ROT

Margaret Bhatty

If some alien power wished to over-run this country in a surprise attack, it could do so easily on a Sunday morning between nine and ten o'clock. It would find our otherwise teeming streets almost empty of traffic, and any people outside collected in small groups, offering easy targets as they gape at TV sets in paan shops and display windows. The attackers will meet with only reluctant resistance.

This is the witching hour - the time when Doordarshan puts across the MAHABHARATA on its network. Earlier, the same zombie-like concentration was evident when the RAMAYANA was telecast. We seem likely to march into the 21st century our brains compressed into rectangular shapes with antennae for ears.

The malaise infects one and all - educated and uneducated alike. When my husband attended a conference of scientists on the treatment of affluents in industry held here at the prestigious National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), he was surprised to see the chairman interrupt one of the speakers and announce a break in the proceedings. A TV set was then wheeled in for the delegates to view the RAMAYANA.

More recently, a worker in my son-in-law's workshop in Bombay got his hand caught in a machine. He was rushed across to a clinic opposite. But he had chosen the wrong moment. The doctor sent word from his flat upstairs that he would come only after he'd seen the MAHABHARATA.

I always do my vegetable shopping during this auspicious hour because the market is not crowded. But my vegetable-woman has now installed a TV for everyone to watch. Shoppers demanding attention are made to feel they are intruding on an act of worship.

This intense collective nostalgia for the past, the uncritical absorption of out-dated feudalistic and chauvinist tradition, the spectacle of a judiciary being called on to decide whether Sita herself abandoned Ram (and therefore sinned), or whether Ram banished her to the forest (thereby proving he was a flawed god), and the stay orders and law suits brought against script-writers and directors for distortions which appear to purists like blasphemy, surely offer a fertile field of study for psychologists. Indeed, so convinced are the credulous of the reality of the myth, magic and mystery they see in films that politicians can confidently go out in raths among the people, dressed as gods to campaign for votes in a democratic process without appearing anachronistic. And even actors and actresses step out of the idiot box to sanctify political platforms costumed as Ram, Sita, or Bharat. The bizarre legend of MGR of Tamil Nadu demonstrates how a semi-divine mortal became a victim of his own cinematic charisma. But that is how the fans wanted it.

In the West the debate on the pernicious effects of television centres on the levels of aggression it incites in the young. Here Indian children merely shot out a few eyes using Shiva's bow. What is more worrying is the reinforcement of fossilised traditions as they are found in the two epics, and the fostering of blind belief in which all life's problems are easily solved by cunning, chicanery and abundant doses of magic.

The mythological themes on Doordarshan are simply serialised forms of what are also found in films. Television as a medium is as deadening in its creative impact as such cinema. Regional programmes on DD and AIR also dish up bhajans and religious songs, the lives of saints, gurus and the founders of various sects. Negation is glorified, poverty deified and self-torture and suffering proven to be the highest form of piety. In between programmes, carefully distanced from the toothpaste and other consumer ads, are the sayings of Gandhi, Vivekananda and others on the necessity of certain moral virtues. Any suggestion that we could as well do without all this is answered with the argument that India is a religious country and its people are deeply spiritual. No proof of this is found, however, in our communal killings, inter-caste programs and massacres, domestic violence and the burning of brides for dowry, untouchability and much else.

Is it possible to stem the rot and secularise DD and AIR? As government-controlled mediums both suffer from the same defect of vision as the rulers themselves - a promotion of the erroneous notion that all religions have equal relevance in a secular state and therefore must be granted equal visibility. The fact that Hindu rites, rituals and themes have steadily gained a higher visibility is explained away by stating that it is the religion of the majority.

If one could indulge in a degree of wishful thinking in the expectation that 'autonomy' as the present government promises could be associated with a greater degree of "SECULARISATION" of programme content, the range of ideas is unlimited. We need more confrontation with the poisons that corrode the vitals of our society. We must have more debates on communalism, caste enmity, dowry, bride-burning, rape, sati and much else. The remarkable impact made by TAMAS is a fine example of just how powerful such messages can be if creatively handled.

Religion serves no real purpose in public life. Integrity, decency and honesty are inculcated with the cultivation of conscience as faculty of the intellect. In fact, where religion infects politics we witness the worst cruelty and injustice visited on others in the name of God. A frank and honest recognition of how religious sentiment is manipulated by fanatics for evil ends was what caused both Hindus and Muslims to demand the serial be discontinued.

Secularisation of the electronic media would not only purge it of dubious piety, but offer healthier alternatives in challenging superstition through exposure campaigns. Simple science could explain to credulous villagers the supposed "magic" behind natural events. The scientific temper could be promoted through programmes which encourage people to cultivate the very useful virtue of skepticism. Discussions and demonstrations could also deal with astrology, palmistry, and other pseudosciences, with 'experts' facing panels to prove their claims.

Plays and serials could introduce the same ideas within the format of the soap-opera where worthwhile messages are demonstrated as workable verities in daily life. National integration need not be the usual charade of sants, mahants, pandits, padres, mullahs and maulvis all appearing together on the same platform to affirm that they love each other and urge their followers to do the same, spouting the usual platitude of "Unity in Diversity." Instead, inter-caste couples, and husbands and wives from different faiths can be presented to prove that nothing is lost in such cross-cultures. Rather, there is a special enrichment. With the kind of captive audience the electronic media commands in this country, there is enormous scope for the betterment of society through an intelligent secularisation of DD and AIR.

THE BRITISH & IRISH SKEPTIC

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Last update: 15 July 1998