Saturday, March 22, 2008

Remembering a Great Soul: on V M Tarkunde

V M Tarkunde, eminent jurist and human rights activist, died this day four years ago. Here is an article I wrote on the man and the way media treated him on his death, a few days after his passing.

VITTAL MAHADEV Tarkunde died at 6 in the afternoon on Monday, 22 March 2004. He was laid up with leukemia for over a month and the end came peacefully when he was taking an afternoon nap, in the feverish city of Delhi, where politicians busily engaged in their wordy duels warming themselves up for the elections, and the temperature steadily rose to touch 39 degree celsius.

And the next day, the day of his cremation at the Lodhi Road Electric Crematorium there were around a hundred people, among them former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral, Law Minister Arun Jaitley, Attorney General Soli Sorabjee and many others. Here was a man taking leave, after 94 years of eventful life, a life which saw great struggles not only for the freedom of this country, but also for human dignity, democratic principles and the rights of the ordinary people.

And surprise, the day’s newspapers in the capital failed to notice that he was gone. The Hindustan Times had just a few lines in its city briefs, and the single column headline was curiously captioned "Ex-judge passes away"! Luckily for his admirers and friends, The Hindustan Times and Times of India carried small two column advertisements taken out by his family announcing his death and also the time and place of cremation as no other paper had bothered to carry anything on the death of this freedom fighter, the doyen of Indian human rights movement.

The Hindu which failed to notice his death, however, made amends the next day carrying a report on the cremation while most of the other newspapers from the capital city remained unmoved by the passing of a great man from among our midst. Only the Indian Express rose to the occasion, albeit the next day, placing a multi-column anchor piece from Fali S. Nariman on his brother at the bar, calling him the "Bar’s noblest soul."

The regional papers were much more acutely aware of the importance of the death of a man like V M Tarkunde. For example, Madhyamam, a newspaper from Kerala, carried the news of his death on the page one and it also had an editorial on his contributions to the nation besides a glowing tribute from veteran jurist and human rights activist V R Krishna Iyer.

For a newspaper reader, this raises some disturbing questions. Is the Indian media totally oblivious to its own role and responsibilities as a pillar of democracy? Does it think the nation does not care any longer for our own elders, our own heroes who fought for great ideals, who suffered and sacrificed in the service of the people, in defense of our national ideals though they may seem curiously out of place in our contemporary world? Has the media completely abdicated its rope as a watchdog? As a voice of the people? As a mirror of our society? If it has not, surely it would not have simply buried the death of such a person, even as it spends reams of newsprint to enlighten us on the nightlife of the rich and glamorous in South Delhi and Bollywood?

Going through the newspapers of the capital on the day of the death of Tarkunde, which surely should have received better attention if one goes by our traditional understanding of the role of the news media, I find that over 60 per cent of the space available for news, that is apart from the things one surely know are advertisements, went to the India Pakistan cricket series and the rest to national politics as it was the day Sonia Gandhi released her party’s manifesto. But a major part of the space in both the two premier newspapers in our capital, Hindustan Times and Times of India, went to gossip, both desi and foreign.

For example, Times of India on its super-headlines just below its masthead had a breath-taking international news item, which informed us that Kylie Minogue, a Hollywood enchantress, had just asked Olivier Martinez to marry her. Mind-boggling selection for the lead for the international section, on a day when Israeli missiles shattered the body of frail Sheikh Yaseen in Palestine. Hindustan Times, in the same slot, had an item about Afghan troops putting down Herat rebellion.

The incident was, in many ways, an eye opener for me, a person who had just landed up in the capital after two decades in South India as a journalist. I had my professional judgment on what should get precedence but now I find my whole understanding of the role of media completely toppled. I realize that newspapers are no longer there to inform, to cater to the needs of a reading public. They just entertain. The effort is to copy a more successful entertainment medium like television and the focus is on that section of the middle class who care little for social concerns any longer.

But is this perception correct?

It is important to ask this question, whether the print media is right in its sidestepping of its legitimate and historical role as a serious purveyor of news, views and social issues. The capital city’s newspapers do have a pivotal role in representing this country to the political class, but its failure here is monumental. Of course this concept that the newspaper is just a product, something which is as significant as a bath-soap or the toothpaste is cliché now. It has been accepted as received wisdom and the newspapers simply do not even attempt to question it any longer. But it is important for us to raise this question once again now, on the eve of a national election when our debates are more focused on inane issues like the colours of the sarees our star campaigners like Sonia, Priyanka, Sushma, Jayalalithaa and Jayaprada, the food and dress tastes of those from the tinsel world joining the political bandwagon, etc.

It is very clear that as entrepreneurs and as leaders of an enlightened bourgeoisie, the Indian media barons have practically lost out in their chance to lead the nation’s debate, but it is possible that very soon the foreign media which is more serious, more matter of fact and more keen on influencing the local political climate, would take an upper hand there too. It would be unwise and useless to shout from the rooftops then that foreigners are taking over in the hallowed precincts of our national life, monopolizing our media and politics, because when there is a vacuum, no one can blame the foreigners making an intelligent entry there. If our national media effectively erodes its own legitimate perch leaving it to foreigners, we will have none to blame but ourselves and our new breed of editors who seem to care more for the thick pay packet and political patronage than the quality of the paper.

(, March 2004)

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