Since I had been to the region some time ago, a school invited me for a talk on Syria, particularly Aleppo, and why Assad was killing his own people.
“This is not true” I said. “Why do you have this impression?”
“Because this is what we read in our newspapers,” one student said.
“Even in the Hindi newspapers which my grandfather reads,” chipped in another.
Teachers were worse. Their minds were more firmly made up. They had seen it all on TV, and next day’s newspapers confirmed what they saw at night.
How does one cope with this challenge? I agree that world affairs are not the staple in hundreds of thousands of higher secondary schools in India. But the occupation of Afghanistan, Iraq, war in Syria, bombing of Gaza, the post-Qaddafi mayhem in Libya, Ukraine, Trump’s shock victory, Europe bolting from the stable of liberalism, are all events that must, willy-nilly, come into everyone’s focus, even in schools, the better ones certainly.
And they will all come through Western filters. And on all these issues, a large segment of the Western media has been woefully misleading. I shall never tire of repeating myself: now is the time for an Indian, global, multimedia network.
The students I addressed were 17 and 18 years old. Their world view was being shaped by what they watched on TV and read in newspapers. Since there has never been an Indian journalist, leave alone an Indian news bureau, in any of the live news theatres listed above, we are witness to an entire generation in the thrall of the only sources they have for information on global events.
In fact, the world view on show in that school hall, is not a casual inclination towards a way of looking at the world. It has solidified over generations.
Up to the 90s, BBC World Service News and Reuters were the routine sources of world news. The hegemonic embrace of the global media began in 1991 when Peter Arnett of the CNN inaugurated the new, invasive age of the global TV. He beamed live images of Operation Desert Storm in February of that year.
This was the first time that a war was brought into our drawing rooms. This was also the first time when the BBC was beaten by cousins from across the Atlantic. I still remember John Simpson driving around Baghdad with his satellite telephone for BBC World Radio. BBC World Service TV was born later.
The televised coverage of Western triumphalism divided the world into two hostile audiences — the victorious West and a humiliated Muslim world. This was the base on which hostilities simmered; 9/11 detonated an almighty explosion — the war on terror, which ostensibly brought the West into conflict with many Muslim societies on varying perceptions of terrorism.
Parents of those I was addressing in the school had been fed on this media diet for its understanding of world affairs.
An important fact is often overlooked. Operation Desert Storm and the subsequent Information Order coincided with new economic policies bringing India in line with globalisation, then on a gallop. The World Is Flat, declared Thomas Friedman in his bestselling book. He was treated like a local hero by Bengaluru’s IT pundits.
The neo-liberal economic policies rapidly augmented the ranks of the Maruti-plus middle-class. To cater to the burgeoning consumerism this class brought in its wake, came the mushroom growth of electronic media.
Both the media and the new middle-class found itself out of sync with another reality. The country was gripped by unprecedented social disharmony after the Babri Masjid was pulled down by BJP volunteers on December 6, 1992.
This was the period when Manmohan Singh, as Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister, was promoting new economic policies.
The new middle-class, was looking at the stars. A bonanza was writ on the horizon. He was impatient with the conflation in his mind of the war on terror and social disharmony in India. The Muslim was spoiling the game.
The new TV channels, creatures of globalisation, were brazenly imitative of the way the Western media covered the war on terror. As I have said earlier, Western coverage created a distance between nations — Western and Muslim. Indian coverage distanced 180 million Muslims with a distinct nuance on the war on terror. It strengthened majoritarianism.
I am not for a moment suggesting that all the Western media dissembles. They do, however, see the world from their own perspective. For us to swallow everything doled out to us by these sources will cause us to lose sight of reality.
“What nationalism” taunted a scholar recently in London. “You don’t allow travel between yourselves and a neighbouring country you helped create.” I thought this was the usual harangue about a Pakistan policy we have grown accustomed to. But his punchline was devastating: “And your entire elite, without exception, aches for a Green Card for its progeny, to be parked permanently in the United States of America — what nationalism?”
(Saeed Naqvi is a commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)