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Television's daily rant
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Nobel laureate, eminent economist and global public intellectual Amartya Sen may not know this but he has done immense damage to public discourse in India with the admittedly appealing and highly marketable title of his very readable book, The Argumentative Indian! Sen ought to have known better. He is familiar enough with village India, even if it is only rural Bengal, to know that most Indians still tend to prefer a consensual outcome to argument and conflict. Pushed to the extreme Indians, like all humans, would react violently. But short of that, there is a preference for mutual accommodation. Without that spirit of live and let live urban India’s slums would have been overtaken by anarchy, mayhem and much worse. Except in legislatures, especially after live television coverage has started, and in television studios, most Indian discussions, debates and arguments tend to be rather civilised. The culture of disagreement is inherent to the sub-continent’s pluralist traditions. Even Islam imbibed Hindu pluralism in the Indian sub-continent, with its Sufi tradition.

Given this social context, it is often distressing to see participants in television debates shouting at each other, and the TV anchor provoking them, like a circus ringmaster poking a chained lion to make it roar in anger. There is something of the Roman arena and the Spanish bullfight to the Indian TV studio. Every night, every channel has to find a subject on which an adequate number of normal people can be expected to behave abnormally. There is no place for a gentle conversation, polite disagreement, a nuanced statement. No market for subtlety. It is always instructive to note that most seasoned Indian politicians reject the term ‘enemy’ while referring to an opposition political party. When TV anchors use terms like ‘enemy’ or ‘political untouchable’, the traditional Indian politician always takes care to add that her political opponent is an ‘adversary’, a ‘rival’, a ‘competitor’, and so on, not an ‘enemy’.

Traditionally, disputes in India are more often than not settled out of court, through consensual arbitration. It is only recently that there has been an acceleration of appeals to the judiciary. When neighbouring claimants of property in Ayodhya prefer the courts to community elders, or the Ambani brothers prefer the judiciary to the family in settling disputes, you know that there can only be winners and losers, not a happy consensual outcome. As a medium of public debate and discourse Indian television has regrettably adopted an adolescent posture of making every conversation a confrontation. What is worse, some television anchors have assumed the role of investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury.

Little wonder then that more Indians now watch spiritual and religious channels rather than news channels. The popularity of religious channels should not be misconstrued as evidence of rising communalism or bigotry. Rather, it symbolises a growing need of Indians to find peace and solace at home. Having negotiated the rough and tumble of urban chaos, in small town and big city India, few wish to return home to be shouted at by an assortment of busybodies on television in their living rooms and bedrooms. If it is that kind of action one seeks, then a spicy soap is better any day! And they have more eye candy for the entire family!
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