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Muddied Water

Muddied Water

M. V. Kamath
February 7, 2000
Title: Muddied Water
Author: M. V. Kamath
Publication: www.expressindia.com
Date: February 7, 2000

The Secular Parivar -- or Brigade -- if one has an allergy for the word parivar, has been having a grand time attacking all those RSS, VHP and BJP -- wallahs who had the nerve to protest against some unkind things said about Hinduism by Deepa Mehta, the latest secular icon. The script for her new film water carried some unsavoury remarks that were hardly called for, but after the protests from the people of Varanasi, the script has been again vetted and given clearance. But it is necessary to record the venom with which the protestors were attacked in editorial columns that goes to show the face of secularism in all its glory.

Editorial Condemnation

"It is a familiar screenplay" moaned The Hindu (1 Feb.), "The same type of villain's, the same irrational passions, the same tired arguments." "Like the heat over Fire" the paper said, "the flood of protest over Water -- conducted by a clutch of organisations which owe allegiance to the Sangh parivar -- seeks to derive its dubious justification from a set of dreary and jaded catch-phrases". The paper argued that talking about widows who are forced into prostitutions to eke out a living may be bold, but it is "hardly a profane or blashphemous theme." The paper expressed shock that "A few senior members" of Mr. Ram Prakash Gupta's Ministry had "opened identified themselves with the protestors" and alleged that this "reflects very poorly on the Uttar Pradesh government". Such controversies as over Water, the paper said, reveal "That they are almost always politically motivated."

The Bangalore-based Deccan Herald (1 Feb) said the ransacking of the set of a film unit in Varanasi, by leaders and activists of the BJP" and its front organisations" is "again proof of the intolerant streak that runs through them." having delivered that judgement, the paper said that Varanasi has been depicted in many ways in poetry, paintings, photographs, works of fiction and history and that "one more version of the city and its life by a creative artist can only add to and underline its greatness and appeal but unfortunately this truth is lost on intolerant and philistine hordes."

Not to be outdone in a sense of outrage, The Economic Times (2 Feb) said that while the might of law is supposed to be majestic and the law is above all, the exception is India "where hooliganism masquerades as politics". The paper said that the protestors against the film should have been jailed. It added : "Apparently the film depicts the sufferings of child widows in the holy city and this is too much for the custodians of the city's respectability and the politicians who want to show themselves off as the greatest defenders of Hinduism ever born." Having rapped the protestors on their knuckles the paper majestically told off everyone by saying that what they had done was "puerile stuff" and "its ugliness is no less than that of widows being forced into prostitution". Having fired off with all four guns the paper cooled down to add that "This is not to deny the right of people of protest (and) they can certainly do so". Only, they should behave like the middle class elite and protest gently.

The Times of India (1 Feb) was not one bit behind in condemning the Varanasi mob. It said : "The widows of Varanasi are a wretched lot, most of them, without any means of self-support, having been abandoned by their families. If only the self-appointed custodians of Hindu culture were really affected by their plight, they might have found better ways to help them than to disrupt a fictional 'distortion' of their condition". It obviously has not occurred to defenders of freedom of expression that they too have a responsibility towards ameliorating the conditions of Varanasi widows by studying and highlighting their plight instead of daily featuring nubile teenagers in a state of semi-undress and assorted fashion models even more dubiously dressed. Intellectual arrogance is all.

The Chandigarh-based Tribune (29 Jan) read a moral lecture to the Varanasi "goons" saying that "it needs to be appreciated that intolerance does not fit in with India's civilisational values" considering that "This country is known for its liberal tradition". That young widows in the two centres (Varanasi and Vrindavan) are often sexually exploited by unscrupulous elements is an issue which has been discussed in the media" the paper said. It would be interesting to find out exactly how many articles on the subject have been published by national media in the last five years.

The Hindustan Times (1 Feb) let off the Varanasi hooligans and goons rather lightly. It lumped the Varanasi episode with others and said : "The saffronisation of Gujarat, the open schism between the government and the RSS over its handling of the hijacking of IC 814, the U.P. Chief Minister's reported willingness to let the VHP build a temple in Ayodhya and the Sangh parivar's disruption of the shooting of Deepa Mehta's Water all suggest that the moderate Vajpayee-led consensus is in trouble."

The editorial apart, which was not specifically devoted to the Water episode, the paper published a Middle by one Poonam Saxena that showed resentment against the Varanasi goons. Writes Ms Saxena : "Varanasi widows in the 1930's -- is apparently incendiary enough to send the self- proclaimed custodians of Indian culture, tradition and morality into paroxysms of self-righteous rage".

So the self-proclaimed custodian of the artist's right to make a film herself went into a paroxysm of rage, claiming that "Everyone has a right to protest but there are legitimate ways of doing this" like obviously writing a Middle for the Hindustan Times. But after expressing the sense of outrage, Ms Saxena wondered whether the anger of the crowds might have been due to the fact that Deepa Mehta is regarded as an 'outsider' out to make a fast buck by showing anti-Indian cultural themes to the West. May be, she later conceded, that this could be true because "of the popular perception of Mehta as making films for a western audience."

The Asian Age (1 Feb) was more cautious. First it made its standard secular attack on the trouble-mongers in Varanasi. "Having said that" the paper then went on, "Some film-makers, writers and other sections of the educated elite should ponder whether their creative indulgence is in keeping with their social responsibilities". It added with a great sense of responsibility: "In a society which even in this day and age gets worked up over trivia, and often dangerously enough to hold social peace at ransom, those who should know better will desist from providing grist to the intolerant mill".

Claiming that some people "have a lot of time to waste on inanities" and are always looking "for an opportunity to contrive limelight for themselves" the paper added : "At another level, if the said film-to-be is about sad, sad world of widows of Varanasi whose plight has not evoked the level of concern it should, there is per se nothing wrong as long as it is a sensitive, careful portrayal which does not jump to value judgements about a given system of belief... neither a film maker nor his or her audience exist in a vacuum because there is world waiting for both outside the cinema hall".

At this point a valid question needs to be asked. It is all very well for the press to attack the Varanasi goons or protestors or whatever they are called. But isn't there a responsibility on the part of our media to look into social issues and comment upon them in a meaningful manner? Does everything have to be reduced to Sangh parivar versus the Rest in the matter of any controversy? How many newspapers in the last decade have really given any meaningful attention to social problems? How many articles have ever appeared in regard to the widows of Varanasi? Will some one tell? The point must be rubbed in that in matters of social change the media has been sadly remiss in its duties.

Discussing such issues as beleaguered widows cannot be a one-shot affair; discussion has to be long and sustained over the years for any change to be ushered in. The knee- jerk reaction to be behaviour of crowds in Varanasi is symptomatic of the area of unreality in which our English language media lives and functions. Attacking the BJP or the RSS is a cheap way to duck one's own responsibilities. It may provide some necessary unguent to editorial souls, but they should consider it poor consolation to their own inadequacies.

Which reminds one of the success of the initiative taken by Bombay Times in the matter of Elder Abuse. The Bombay Times -- outreach Reaching Out officially ended on January 22 but, says the paper, the response to it "has been tremendous" and its commitment to end Elder Abuse is not over. The paper is formulating a comprehensive plan to curb Elder Abuse with the help of city-based experts like judges, lawyers, police officers, government officials, NGOs, social workers, psychologists and doctors. As they say, all power to the paper's elbow. The paper merits high commendation for its invaluable services.

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