Towards its end, “The Post”, Spielberg’s film on the Pentagon Papers, says: “The role of the press is to serve the governed, not the governors.” Which makes one think. Who are these people we are meant to be serving in India?
Take a look at the snaps above. These people — belonging to Mizoram, Odisha, Punjab, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat — were photographed in the last three years. So much of our policy debates play out in their name. And yet, how little we know about them. And how static/outdated even that limited awareness is.
Some of this is about distance. Out of sight equals out of mind. Ergo, the periphery gets far less attention than what surrounds the centres of power.
And some of this is about power. As Brett Walker writes in The Lost Wolves Of Japan, “Power engenders a peculiar kind of ignorance: dominant humans almost never take the time to really get to know the peoples, plants, and animals they subordinate”. A curious drive to diminish is at work here. As Walker writes, we rejected the notion that flora/fauna might have their own emotional lives — reducing them to just gene-directed automatons. They come to be seen, not as discrete individuals, but as a broadly similar category. Which is something that Barry Lopez writes about in Arctic Dreams. About how the Inuits knew the personalities of every caribou, seal and what have you around them. Killing any of these, for them, was a far more considered process than it is for any big game hunter.
With biodiversity, some of this is due to a resetting of power dynamics between us and other species; some of this is due to how our thinking changed (more focused on what can be measured, for one, keeping the scientific method in mind) after the enlightenment; And partly, as in the case of Japan’s wolves, is about economic imperatives trumping old cultural systems.
As Walker writes, such diminishing, for want of a better word, extends to humans as well. We see it every time a demagogue wants to stoke up bigotry. The process starts by reducing their targets to broad categories — reducing flesh and blood individuals to identity markers (like Jewishness or Islam or the colour of their skin or caste) they cannot transcend. We also see it in governance. An instance: Back in 2011, when the Planning Commission wanted to delink minimum wages and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, activists organised a workshop in Delhi where they called Montek Singh Ahluwalia for a discussion. The audience? Mostly NREGA workers. Faced with the task of explaining to the workers why they should get less than the minimum wage, each of the visibly discomfited bureaucrats said their piece in English — and then left instead of staying for the discussions.
So much easier to clinically discuss workers/poor as an abstract category defined through a couple of traits than see them as real, living people.
There are questions here for us reporters as well. This stuff about our immediate context determining our priorities raises questions about us knowing whom to serve. A related question takes us further beyond. How does one serve? Report without knowing much about these people, or the latest forces acting on them, and the risk of us mischaracterising the problem/fighting the wrong battle cannot be ruled out. Take one instance, is today’s agrarian crisis in India is the same as the agrarian crisis we faced ten years ago? Or are there subtle (or large) differences?
Journalism is a knowledge producing trade. It needs method — if we are to capture a representative slice of whichever emergent process we report on. Ignore such questions. And we will end up with journalism with unchanging — and increasingly irrelevant — analyses which cannot do good.
Which is why India needs far more local reporting. For deracinated hacks like me, one answer, I guess, is to keep doing periodic deep dives into the field to update our understanding re the issues we write on. Essential given the rapidity with which societies change.
Another, I think, is to maintain a certain watchfulness towards how our brain arrives at its conclusions. To be aware of the cognitive traps we carry with us. And to work correctives for those into our reporting/writing process. To get time/freedom to report. And to read more — especially about the unknowns.
PS: I am blogging more than before. I used to when this blog was hosted at http://www.fracturedearth.org. And then, I got busy and the blog just became a place where I aggregated links to my reportage. Trying to change that now.