‘Take big steps, urgent steps, fast-paced steps’

SUDHEENDRA KULKARNI writes: Whenever I see P. Sainath walk, I am reminded of the opening line in the novel Bharatipura by the Jnanapeeth award-winning Kannada novelist U.R. Anantha Murthy.

Jagannath, the protagonist of the novel, is a young man in a hurry to implement his revolutionary thoughts, which he has picked up as much from his Marxist influence while studying abroad as from a sensitive observation of the ills afflicting the society around him.

The novel is set in that scenic part of Karnataka, which is lush green, receives plentiful rains and is criss-crossed by rivulets and streams. (Quite unlike many of the places that Sainath has written his stories of droughts and farmers’ suicides from.) Anantha Murthy, who has a vivid style of animating his characters, writes: “While walking, Jagannath does not negotiate the ponds; he hops across them.”

Anyone who has walked with Sainath knows that he does so with long and fast-paced strides, giving a clue to any gait-reader that he too is a man in a hurry, a man with a mission. When he types—and I have seen him do so with manic speed on his portable typewriter in the pre-computer era—it is the same thing.

It’s as if his thoughts, expressed in a distinctively combative method, cannot wait to appear on paper and impact the hearts and minds of the readers.

To tell them about widespread inequities in society, about rampant corruption in the system, about why ‘everybody loves a good drought’ (which is the title of his award-winning book, based on reports from India’s poorest districts) and why farmers are committing suicide in shockingly large numbers in Vidarbha, Telangana and other parts of India.

To tell them about how India’s agrarian economy, on which a bulk of our population still depends for its livelihood, is currently facing the worst ever crisis since Independence; and how successive governments aren’t doing much to face this crisis with sound policies and effective implementation.

Sainath does not write for the sake of writing, but to provoke the readers to think and to do something. Indeed, even to start thinking about the society around you is an important step in itself in the direction of ‘doing something’. And anyone who has read Sainath’s book or his subsequent newspaper reports from rural India would agree that there is an unstated message to the readers in all his writings: “Take big steps, take urgent and fast-paced steps, in doing something to change this unacceptable state of affairs.”

Sometimes Sainath exaggerates, overstates his point and all too often sees a complex reality purely in black and white terms. But this, too, I suspect, he does deliberately. Because the ‘black’ side of the reality hardly ever finds place in our print and electronic media.

For most newspapers and magazines, farmers’ suicides are no more than a statistic. They rarely ever tell the well-examined and closely observed story of the life of the poor and the dispossessed, of debt-ridden farmers whose despair reaches a point where life becomes unbearable, of the callous government machinery and the apathetic economic and political elite that smugly believes that it is not responsible for this tragedy.

The media are more interested in tracking BSE’s sensex than what Sainath has called the rising ‘Farmers’ Distress Index’. He argues, and rightly so, that this is happening because of the growing control over the media by the money power of corporate houses, both Indian and foreign.

It was Sainath who introduced me, in the mid-1980s, to the writings of radical critics of the American media. I was deeply influenced, in particular, by the power of a quotation that he frequently used to refer to—“Mass media without the masses”. It appears in the writings of Herbert Schiller, the acclaimed American media scholar, whose books (Mind Managers, Mass Communications and American Empire, Who Knows : Information in the Age of the Fortune 500, et al) are a must-read for anyone who wishes to understand the deeply undemocratic hold of big business houses on the media and public discourse. It is this shared concern which prompted a small group of journalists and social activists in Bombay to come together, at Sainath’s initiative, to publish a journal called Countermedia. Brought out on a shoe-string budget, it sought to critique the writings in, and the internal functioning of, the big newspaper groups in India.

Sainath was then the deputy editor of Blitz, which was once the most widely read political journal in India. His room in the weekly’s office near Flora Fountain always presented a picture of chaotic order—full of books and paper everywhere, but suggestive of a person who used the facts, figures and ideas hidden in them to telling effect. Despite the pressure of deadlines, he always found time to interact with younger journalists from different publications in the city, guiding and encouraging them, something editors rarely do.

Some of the members of our group, all working closely with the CPI(M), were: Anoop Babani, who later joined Business India and was excellent in documenting, sifting and analysing information; Sudhir Yardi, a pure-hearted, music-loving professor at Wilson College, who, sadly, passed away a few years ago; and Dr Vivek Monteiro, a former scientist from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) and a leader of CITU, the trade union wing of the CPI(M). Vivek, who certainly must rank among the most dedicated and committed political activists on this planet, provided the inspiration and guidance for so many other activities of our group. From nuclear disamament to mobilising people’s support on working class issues, we were all the time busy with some progressive issue or the other.

In course of time, I moved away from members of this group due to ideological differences. The distance got wider after I joined the BJP in the mid-1990s. Nevertheless, I have always had the greatest respect for the social concerns and commitment of my former comrades.

Countermedia didn’t last long. However, on looking back and comparing the state of affairs in the Indian media then and now, the conclusion is inescapable that the control of big money—through ownership and advertising—has grown immeasurably in the past two decades. As a result, the worst effects of American-style corporate-controlled “mind management” can now be seen in India, too.

Just look at how much space in newspapers and magazines, and how much airtime on our TV channels, is devoted to the issues, concerns, problems, life experiences and aspirations of the poor and middle classes, especially those living in villages and smaller towns. Clearly, they constitute the majority—the ‘masses’, if you will—in Indian society. But how much are these masses represented in the metro-centred ‘national’ mass media? How many newspapers, barring The Hindu, have rural editors and regular reportage on rural realities? The answer to these questions points to the validity of Schiller’s critique, and also to the unique importance of what Sainath has been writing.

Therefore, when Sainath won this year’s Magsaysay award, it was not only a well-deserved honour for him personally, but also a much-needed recognition for the kind of people-oriented journalism that he has been valiantly torch-bearing. At a time when our newspapers and TV channels have decided that their raison d’etre is chiefly to advertise and eulogise the wasteful lifestyles of the super-rich, the award for Sainath is a reminder that there also exists another India, a vast geographical and social section of our country, which remains deprived and neglected, battered and betrayed.

In writing this tribute to Sainath, I must confess that I do not always agree with everything that he writes. Like most people in the Indian Left, he is prejudiced about Hinduism in general and the RSS-BJP in particular. Indeed, a rupture took place in my professional and personal relationship with him in the early 1990s when he left Blitz and I was invited by its legendary owner-editor R.K. Karanjia to take his place. By this time, I had got disillusioned with communism and developed strong doubts about the Marxist antipathy for anything Hindu.

By a strange coincidence, Karanjia, the grand old man of pro-left journalism in India, had begun to appreciate my strong nationalist and pro-Hindu affirmations on several issues, including the most important issue then dominating the national scene—the Ayodhya movement. I supported the demand for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya—and I do so even today. (Similarly, I have condemned the demolition of the Babri Masjid, and continue to do so even now.)

Sainath’s views on Ayodhya, Ram and the Ramayana were radically different and, in one of our discussions on the issue, he expressed his views rather sharply. Since then, we have hardly had any interaction. But that has not in the least diminished my admiration for him as a great writer and, more importantly, as a writer whose heart beats for the poor and the deprived.

Russy Karanjia, one of the most kind-hearted and genial persons persons I have come across in my life, would have been elated at knowing about his former deputy’s dazzling accomplishment. He would have greeted Sainath with his moustachioed smile, hugged him warmly, and called all his former colleagues for a cake-cutting ceremony. And I can imagine how much this would have meant for Sainath. Alas, in his current state of health, Karanjia, a nanogenerian, can barely recognise anybody. I pray for him, with gratitude.

I convey my hearty congratulations to Sainath on the prestigious recognition that he has won for himself and for his genre of journalism. As he receives the Magsaysay award in Manila today, 31 August 2007, we must, however, recognize that the space and scope for transformative journalism continues to shrink in India.

The power and influence of big money is growing not only on the media but also on the political establishment. This must be resisted and reversed. Mass media must belong to the masses. For this, the media’s ownership, internal structure and functioning must be democratized. It is a difficult task. The Left often behaves as if it alone can succeed in this task. It is a baseless, fruitless and arrogant belief. We will begin to succeed in transforming the media—and society in general—only if this becomes a broader national endeavour, one in which democratic and pro-change forces from different schools of thought come together, talk together, and work together.

(Belgaum-born Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee between 1998 and 2004. Apart from writing a weekly column in the Sunday Indian Express, he works closely with the BJP. Comments are welcome at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com)

Also read: Magsaysay Award for P. Sainath of The Hindu

‘Conventional journalism serves the powerful’


In picture, Sainath receives the 2007 Magsaysay Award for journalism, literature and creative communication arts from the Philippines Supreme Court Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban in Manila on Friday.

Photo courtesy: The Associated Press/ The Hindu