Friday, October 2, 2009

A Journey into the Past and through the Present : Part - 1

A quick glance at our pre-Independence history would tell us that despite the vicious tactics of our colonial rulers to use communal and religious differences of the diverse Indian society and also the caste system which was widely prevalent at that time in order to divide the moral, religious and communal fabric of our nation, the maintenance of communal harmony had been successfully achieved to a large extent in our nation mainly towards the end of the era of our freedom struggle, particularly in our southern states. (It would be prudent to observe that caste system still remains deep-rooted in India across all sections of the society, even among educated citizens). This achievement, I feel, is directly attributable to the concerted efforts of our band of Freedom Fighters. The selfless devotion and self-sacrificial lifestyle demonstrated in ample measure by these Freedom Fighters, through their own personal example are commendable. Their impact on the raw, innocent minds of the general public of pre-independence India was immense especially when we see that the people of those times relied on the guidance and advice by such leaders and were used to emulating such leaders in their day-to-day life.

Communication played a very vital role in the success of these leaders. As we all know, tools of communication of those days were restricted to word of mouth, newspapers – though limited in number, letters, telegrams, personal contact through offices of local governance, radio and lastly the telephone. Although the telephone was not readily available to the masses, the radio was available to small sections. Ideologies that were discussed by leaders who were at the forefront of the Struggle had to trickle down through a channel that was slow but steady. Personal interaction was the key to effective communication of those days. The important attribute of this channel of communication was that it was more of a unidirectional, top-down channel than a bi-directional one. Naturally, a person who could pass down data while being a part of the channel, and also interpret the data into meaningful information had an audience who were willing to listen and therefore a following. The wisest of these became the bottom-most link to which was tethered the nation’s anchor for the Freedom Struggle. The path that these leaders who formed the bottom-most link in the chain of national leadership adviced and followed, became the path of the people who believed and vouched for their leaders and this I think is what brought them all together under one Flag, fighting for a single aim - the creation of a free nation.

As is known, the last few years of the Freedom Struggle were the most crucial in marking its success. The most important matter to note here is that at that point in time, the nation as a whole had a common enemy in the Colonial Ruler and this was the most important singular factor that brought every one together under a common banner. However, in that fight too, various tactics and ploys were used by leaders at regional levels to gather men en-masse in addition to the speeches and exhortations of great leaders of the Struggle. These tactics may have taken various forms and hues in different regions of the country of that time, commensurate with the prevalent customs and traditions of that society. For the information of the youngsters of today, it is important to understand that the typical Indian society of that time consisted of a poor populace being driven by a powerful few who wielded power and wealth. Naturally, there would have been different strata in that society with people divided over loyalty to the rich and powerful, (a section which had the protection provided by the colonial ruler) and those of the working class who were downtrodden and exploited by the rich and the powerful aided and abetted by the Colonial rulers. Incredibly, the influence of singular leaders of tremendous willpower who led the masses by personal example, who were respected by a large part of the society – including some sections of the rich and powerful lot - and who wielded notable influence over such a society made the differences in class, caste and creed to fall apart for the first time in those societies and then, by their own means influenced the minds of the people to unite despite their differences. Also, the horrors of the Freedom Struggle and the oppression meted out to its leaders by the Colonial Rulers generated a deep sense of compassion for brothers-in-arms which flowed out of the brotherhood's fear of danger to the society that was being threatened of extinction by a foreigner. This, in my opinion would have generated a unique sense of unity in the minds and hearts of the people surpassing all barriers of caste and creed which played a significant role in strengthening the moral fibre of the Indian society of those days.

It may be noted that the older population of today who had the good fortune to witness the transition to triumph of the Indian nation possess a strong moral fibre that is hardly affected by the changes in moral outlook that have overtaken and engulfed the newer generations. More than in the urban regions, this fervour is passed down to younger generations in rural India to a large extent even to this day. However, their voice is hardly paid any heed in modern Indian society. But why has it come to pass like this? Where has it all started? Why and who has started it? Who has let go this destructive monster of divisiveness from the bottle? The answer is still not clear and the intellectuals of today would have many reasons to give. However, as a layman who has only a very basic and practical understanding of how society flourishes over the years would be tempted to observe that the uncontrolled permeation of emulative cultures and the blind and mad rush for economic independence coupled with an unstructured education system would partially be responsible for this degradation of moral values and the ruptures in the once-strong moral fibre of our nation. Having thought so, it cares to analyze these premises critically.

Although the Indian Independence Struggle is widely known and documented as a nation-wide effort, India's struggle for Independence in its final days were concentrated more in the northern states and the more important political and democratic decisions were taken in closeted fora which were inaccessible to the common man. The patriotic fervour that was being echoed in the nook and cranny of the nation was attributable much to the yeoman efforts of the local leaders of the Struggle, who were as insulated from the frontline leadership as much as were the men they led. As we all know, and have been supplemented with information that have trickled down over the years since Independence, there is reason to believe that a few Games had started off within the walls of ornate buidings of northern India and in the minds of some of our legendary leaders - under the influence and political pressures of our erstwhile white Rulers - long before the dawn of the hour when the nation was being freed off colonial rule. There is also reason to believe that the Colonial Rulers had chosen to pull out of the country very abruptly, when the frontline leadership had not expected them to be, although they were largely aware that a pull out would be affected soon. This was probably done so by sensing the chaos and conflicting thought processes that was building up among leading personalities of the Struggle at that time.

The national leadership of that time was so deeply involved in the defensive, non-violent mode of Struggle that the development of differences of opinion on issues of very great importance that were being fomented for quite some time among themselves had gone unattended by design or by default and were unpardonably ignored. Here, there is enough historical evidence to support the logic that the second line of leadership at that point in time was not discernible and had it existed, those leaders weren't part of the strategic decision making processes which the frontline leadership were involved in. This led to a state of affairs wherein the second line of political leadership was virtually jobless thereby making them always live in a wonderland as to what practical steps need be taken in guarding the unity of the nation once it is created. The utter confusion that existed at this layer of leadership paved the way for a very convenient method of existence wherein they chose to tow the line of their frontline leaders and act as 'Yes Boss' secretaries to them. The second line of leadership who ought to have been ready to take over the job of streamlining the unity in diversity that had been achieved by then, with the same patriotic fervour that had helped the nation to win its model fight against colonialism, failed in its duty to identify its role and contribute to this very important task that was the very first step in nation-building.

The frontline leadership, powerful as they always had been in their own way found it very convenient in the initial days of chaos to keep this second line of leadership under their toes with little or no freedom to act independently. Here we can see the first manifestation of the results of the ultimate aim of the Colonial Rulers in the kind of education they imparted to the Indians during their two century old rule - to create just clerks and not administrators. The frontline leadership was afraid to let go of their deputies independently fearing the consequences of independence. They were fully aware that they themselves had not allowed their subordinates to be part and parcel of the larger picture of India's future which they already had formed in their mind.

They forgot over a period of time that the chaos which had managed to float around in the second line of leadership was percolating down the line to the lowest links - the Common Man - and it was but natural for the common man to start thinking of reverse engineering when he found out that his life hasn't changed much after the celebrations on the creation of the new nation had faded out of his ears. For the Common Man, life was still the same as it was when the nation was under Colonial Rule. Soon, he understood that it was only the colour of the skin of the Ruler that had changed, not the mindset. The Colonial Ruler had sown his seed of Division on fertile ground and coupled with the deep rooted caste system, the seeds of mutual exclusivity in society started gaining ground. With the frontline leadership continued to be engaged in closeted discussions on sorting out internal chaos, the second line leadership, which by now had taken the form of sycophancy for their survival turned to discover their own ways and means of cutting the cake and savouring a share of it, for, they never wanted to be left high and dry at the end of the day.

The Administrators of the new nation, in addition to the Leaders, who now became part of the new governing mechanism of Free and Independent India had been erstwhile students and under-trainees of the Colonial Rulers and they had only been taught the time tested techniques of the Colonial Ruler of 'Divide and Rule' and the nuances of British Bureaucracy which was essentially rooted based on the basic traits of a successful trader. The administrator of the newly formed nation was only a glorified undertaker who only knew how to squeeze the juice out of the workers under him in order to earn beans for his master and in the bargain get to keep a small kitty of his own. These administrators became the squeezers of their own countrymen and more often than not, they were comfortable in basking in the old glory, not liking very much the fact that stared at them that one day they had to vacate their chairs for the new generations that were coming of age. The education system continued to be the same old system with hardly any change in its basic structure that was made with a different aim by the Colonial Ruler - to produce clerks and not Administrators. The nation needed rational thinkers who had to be exposed to the world that existed and prospered outside its borders and this was achievable only by the rich and the powerful, who could send their wards off our shores to seek and learn what was available in Europe or elsewhere at their own expense. The poor and the needy continued to feed on the crumbs now being thrown at them by native Rulers, the only difference being that the neo-administrators were thick friends (they always were) with the rich and powerful who regretted the exit of their Colonial partners as well as with the new line of leadership. As a matter of fact, the trading community of India (with some exceptions) was always towing the line of the Rulers that ruled India - that is to say, when the British were the Rulers, they towed the line of the British and when the Leadership changed, gladly they changed loyalties to the new rulers, thereby ensuring that their businesses were not affected grossly.

Despite the design of the rich and the powerful, Independence from Colonial Rule gave the chance to the society of united India to emerge as a modern society which consists of the resurrected poor of the past who never had any access to wealth or power for generations on end. Naturally, the poor of the land were more comfortable being subservient to the rich and powerful and were defter in handling ploughshares and fields than handling wealth and the glitter of the higher echelons of societal life. With India's Independence came freedom of thought, action and choice. Though not cock-eyed, the ill-structured policy for integrating rural India into the path to democracy brought out the deep rooted evil of communalism into the brains of the well educated rulers of modern India, which led to the greatest mistake of Reservations based on caste, religion and creed being introduced in the system of governance, employment and education. The demon of Division based on caste which had been brilliantly put to use by the Colonial Rulers but which had been driven under the carpet and tred on during the Great Struggle to achieve Victory over the Invader was given official sanction by the Native Rulers to dance on main-stage in front of the whole new world . The fervent Freedom Fighters who lived to witness this shocking metamorphism opposed this foolish move of the Native Rulers at the very outset bringing out the consequences it would have in the long run. Although the learned lot of the Rulers fully understood what they were doing, they had no choice but to turn a deaf ear to those words of wisdom. Those learned great leaders by then would have realized their folly of not having designed and kept a genuine plan in place at the very outset for making India emerge as a spectacular nation that had to demonstrate itself globally to be a befitting reply to the colonialists. Unfortunately, their vision was blurred and did not focus at the larger horizon which was in front of them. The Whites, who had become masters of the Indian psyche could easily fool around with the brains of those great leaders, who, in fact had been trained by their own educationists. The lackadaisical approach that these leaders continued in not nurturing a second line of committed leaders (training for tomorrow) was the first political fault that happened in modern India and that which turned the fate of the country. The other was the failure to appropriately acknowledge the stalwarts of Indian Freedom Movement in the right spirit and convert those brains into Knowledge - Bank which had jurisdiction over the Parliament in all matters of National Development, Economic Policy and External Affairs. This would have been a befitting tribute to their contribution and a more patriotic and sensible decision which would have given them their due respect and by which the nation would have benefited manifold rather than reducing those great Souls to mere impressions on postal stamps and left to live a Dog’s Life through a meagre allowance of Freedom Fighter's Pension which practically has lesser monetary value than the equivalent monthly expenses of dog food that are being incurred in the homes of powerful politicians and bureaucrats of our times. It would have also encouraged the emerging leaders to understand the importance of imbibing and practicing moral values, which as a consequence would have re-inforced the strength of the moral fibre of the nation. The failure of the creme-de-la-creme of Indian politics to percolate down the knowledge and wisdom that they had gained in the course of their life and struggle in the Freedom Movement in a structured and disciplined manner to the lower rungs of their followers is the third major failure that the Indian polity suffered.

Growth of a Nation – Is there Sufficient Gross Underkeel Clearance?

Social Studies and Civics were subjects that were much too ignored during my schooldays not only by backbenchers but by the front benchers as well. The general belief - and to some extent the truth - was that these subjects are trump - cards for easy scoring in exams. This was demonstrated in full measure by some frontbenchers after it was mugged up over breakfast, lunch and dinner. This was also the only (sensible) topic among others in school education that could be reproduced with sincere eleventh hour efforts for the backbenchers (the basic aim at the backbench in any case is to obtain a pass mark, if feasible as all my mates there would agree). I wouldn't know if this philosophy has changed after over two and a half decades now (maybe one could substitute breakfast, lunch and dinner with morning and evening TV slots).

The thought process germinated after I had viewed a funny presentation that I had recently come across on one of the popular online video sites on the Great Info Highway. In this particular video, locals at an alien location in Uncle Sam's country were being asked basic questions related to their own nation. It didn't surprise me when obese native whites were struggling to guess the name of the American nation which begins with the letter 'U'. More shameless were the answers to other questions of similar nature which any schoolboy worth his salt would have correctly answered. The answers that I heard were so idiotic that it made me remember the Rector of my school who used to teach us social studies, civics and political science. I recollected his discussions on the basics of the Constitution of the US and I remembered that he used to summarize his classes with stories based on his own experiences and the general impression any White would convey through his interaction with others; I particularly remember that he always used to compare those aliens with the legendary toads in a well - each in a make-believe world closeted from the realities of the outside world. He used to remark that, for those aliens the word world used to mean only their nation with a 'U' at the beginning. The rest of the globe was alien to them - may be the reason why even their propaganda material available at their embassies label non-natives as aliens.

This above incident sparked a thought process in my mind (incredible for a frontbencher) which made me think: Are we any better? Of course, as Indians, we are far better off than them in such aspects of general information not only about our own great, dear nation, but on many other global issues as well. Also, despite many shortfalls in rural and urban India, we are emerging as a Global Power – so the media tells us. However, there appears to be a loss of focus in the efforts that we as a Nation are putting in to reach that level of perfection. Why is there a feeling of loss of focus? Are we on the right track that will truly empower us as citizens of this country? Whom have we benchmarked with? Who is our worthy competitor? Is our Nation as cohesive as it was when we gained Independence? Can we really run this race as a Nation and finally attain Victory? Is our Common Man really aware of the state of our Nation? Are the youth of today maintaining our status and image as a culturally rich nation with a distinguished heritage in these modern days too? Are they getting trained today to become worthy leaders of a Global Power of tomorrow? Are we getting traded off in a very stylish way? Would we be also reduced to such idiots as are the citizens of the Nation whose name begins with the letter ‘U’? The answers to these questions, as a matter of fact, are not as easy as one would think. It is not easily given nor is it easily available. To be true to ourselves, these questions have to be answered after careful analysis and introspection.

On my own, I then thought of delving a bit into these issues which I had created for myself. The thought process that flowed in my mind was typed in as and when I got time and later on organized in my own style. The flow is more or less streaming and keyed in as originally as it came. I thought of organizing the text in two parts, with distinct separators in time. Before we reach conclusions, we need to dissect the moral fabric of the present day Indian (includes me and you) threadbare for, he is the element that makes up the matter of interest about modern India that meets the eyes of world nations. For the moment, let us forget about the Great Game and save it to be discussed some time later.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

50 Years of Doordarshan

50 Years is a long time indeed. It came as a pleasant surprise to see in the news today that the Grand Old Institution of Indian Visual Media – Doordarshan is celebrating its 50th year of existence. From a facility that started off with a modest aid by the UN with about 180 TV sets and a makeshift studio, Doordarshan has become a mammoth with more than 1400 terrestrial stations, over 40 studios and reaching to over 90% of the nations one billion people. An impressive growth indeed.

I never saw something called as a TV until in 1986 when I went to Agra to stay on a holiday with a close relative of my brother-in-law who lived in the vast Agra Cantonement. They had a table top 16” Texla black and white TV which was kept atop the standard steel locker provided by the MES in the largest bedroom of their living quarters which had been converted to a family living room. Half the room had been covered with an assortment of carpets and durries neatly arranged in sequence with a bunch of handmade soft pillows which are a standard find in any Army home. In the late evenings, the whole family and the guests (we totalled a decent nine including my then toddler nephew) would sit and chat together in the living room with the TV running in the background, the volume jumping the upper limit of about 10 only when a nice programme of music or drama was announced. I still remember the beautiful village songs that used to be presented those days at around 1945hrs in the run-up to the news bulletins at 2045hrs . The tape-recorder cum radio was still the hero of the house, even though our hosts were quite used to the ‘luxury’ of a TV for some years by then.

For my own home to possess a TV, I had to wait for another couple of years until 1988 when my mother – a simple teacher who taught Art at a nearby school - took a loan and bought a BPL core model Colour TV. It was our proud possession as only a few homes had a colour TV in our immediate neighbourhood. My mother had ruled that a TV would step in only I passed the SSLC exams. I had to watch my favourite matches of the 1986 Mexico World Cup at my class mate and neighbour Prashanth’s home, whose father was my Hindi tutor and himself and ardent fan of the world’s most beautiful game - football. I remember fondly that I had the liberty to walk into their home any time of the day or night and demand for the TV to be switched on during the World Cup Fever days. To dream of taking such a liberty in today’s shrinking nuclear society is simply ‘Forbidden’, as most of you would agree. Doordarshan transmissions were telecast only in the morning and in the evenings with the Gyan Darshan coming in as a boring drone in the afternoons. The TV soon became an uninvited guest to be mute witness to many of our living room discussions, decisions and fights. It might have smiled with us when my lovely niece was born and my nephew started grappling up with life as he grew up. It used to go silent when my father took ill and was laid up in the living room, which also doubled up as our master bedroom. I closely followed the whole of the Seoul Olympics, the World Cup at Italy, the Festival of USSR in India, the popular serials of Hum Log, Gul Gulshan Gulfam, Ramayana, Mahabharata, The Sword of Tipu Sultan, Black Hawk and many many more in the years that followed. The power of the Television was incredible.

It would not be inappropriate to also mention that despite the well-meaning intent, the telecast of Indian Epics like 'the Ramayana' and 'the Mahabharata' and the less-historic 'The Sword of Tipu Sultan' probably served more to stir-up communal disharmony than to take to the masses the essence of these works originally intended by the creators. There may be some of you who may disagree to this, but it would be prudent to reflect and realise that this is a shockingly true revelation.

I was an ardent listener of the Radio too, which had been the hero of our homes till the TV came into our lives in down south Kerala sometime in the mid-eighties. What I could not correlate through the radio, I started to correlate when relevant topics were discussed on various fora on the TV. Even when I started gaining interest in the TV, my father ensured that his old Phillips Major was fully functional. Soon we graduated to the National Panasonic, when the old Major had to resign to the sidelines – a piece which still holds its place on my bedside table. The Radio remained the fastest and the main source of news until probably 1992, when the Cable News Network (CNN) of the US introduced us to the magical world of cable TV. The first ever televised war – The Invasion of Kuwait by Iraq had made a big difference to the way the Indian sub-continent viewed the TV. The stereotyped nature of programming culture followed by the Doordarshan vis-à-vis the International programming methods were out in the open for people to see and a sudden realisation dawned on the people of urban India that the future of urban programming lied in cable networks. The inherent delays in the news updates that Doordarshan provided owing to the official nature of the Broadcaster was clear to the ordinary middle class man who had got wind of the new technology that was catching up. Soon a feeling of being left out started to grapple the psyche of the ordinary man, who had to take the decision whether to stand loyally by his favourite Doordarshan which came in for free or to give in to the fancy and entertaining sets of channels that were being made available to those who could afford by self-made private operators at a seemingly throw-away price. The procedural delays that resulted in a lot of filtering and political censoring of news and programme schedules which probably were existent in those days (and maybe even now) coupled with the back-door entry of CNN in big hotels and into the upper echelons of Indian society started to spell the doom of the future of Doordarshan.

In a short time, many cable operators commenced operations in every nook and cranny of urban India that had a sizeable population which saw them laying their own cables and catering to a small group of homes or offices around a nodal point where a sizeable dish antenna could be accommodated with a clear view to the sky. However despite a bouquet of channels that the small time players could offer, Doordarshan’s reputation and its popularity did not wane so easily. Authentic news was always attributable to the standard national programme bulletins of both the All India Radio and Doordarshan. News readers like Gitanjali Iyer, Tejeshwar Singh, Sashi Kumar, Sunit Tandon, Neethi Ravindran, Rini Simon, Sarala Maheshwari – the most elegant of the lot and many more were popular names in all households. Though they were miles away and we would never ever have any chance of meeting them or chatting with them, they were so much part of our family. I still remember my mother being very upset when Rini Simon got married and became Rini Khanna and then started to bloat up. A sense of disbelief and surprise would always come over her when she would see the lean Gitanjali and then wonder how she managed to be slim and trim for ever, while I used to wonder how she was maintaining the tight upper-lip pose always and every-time.

It is important to note that notwithstanding the foray of cable TV operators and the subsequent opening up of bandwidth for private players; Doordarshan did put up a very good fight before going down in the fight for supremacy, which was once its monopoly. In its efforts to put up with the changing requirements of its urban viewers, Doordarshan came up with news magazines of comparable international standards like ‘Aankhon Dekhi’ by Nalini Singh, ‘Newstrack’ and the ‘The World This Week' by Prannoy Roy. The earliest mega shows with popular participation which was a fore-runner of today’s ‘Reality Shows’ is the esteemed musical show ‘Meri Aawas Suno’ which was aired sometime in the mid nineties. This show brought forth the now popular Sunidhi Chauhan, who was then an adolescent. We owe it to Doordarshan for the immense support it provided to budding artistes and youth cultural movements who were given ample opportunity to showcase their talents at the regional or national levels. Informative Digests like Living on the Edge, Lonely Planet etc. were so engrossing and well programmed that a lot many youngsters like me have benefited out of the knowledge it provided. Prof. Yashpal’s science programmes, Shyam Benegal’s series based on Nehru’s Discovery of India, Siddharth Kak’s ‘Surabhi’ which brought to our homes the million watt smile of the homely Renuka Shahane, who was instantly welcomed into the living rooms and into the hearts of many urban homes are unforgettable contributions to the Indian middle class. Also, Doordarshan was the only TV telecaster who concentrated on programmes on agriculture through its most famous series called ‘Krishi Darshan’.

I did my first TV programme in 1992 and I still have fond memories of our train trip to Trivandrum, the stay at a popular hotel in the middle of the city, the picturesque premises of Doordarshan Kendra, Trivandrum and the chance to meet some of the popular media personalities of Kerala of that time viz., John Ulahannan, Maya and the very real Shyamaprasad who was the Floor Manager and Programme Executive for our recording. Mr. Shyamaprasad had joined back after a coveted training programme at the BBC and was a known friend of our choir master Prof. Lancelot Thomas who had done a few recordings earlier.

It is also nice to reflect and realise that most of the founders of successful private cable operators of owe their origins to Doordarshan, which in many ways is also their Alma Mater.

Although many would be excited in discussing whether this communication behemoth should be laid to rest or revived to its lost glory, if not surpassing it, with, of course, solid efforts; I personally feel that Doordarshan hasn’t let its loss in its fight for popularity over-rule quality and maturity of its programming. The public-sector ‘Prasar Bharti’ which replaced Doordarshan still does have immense talents within its restricted walls and has an enviable set of quality brains. On many occasions when the relatively young cable channels have got over-excited on trivial issues and on other occasions have blown out of control issues that had to be handled delicately, Doordarshan has demonstrated a very high standard of self control and maturity in handling such issues. The only sad part is that probably its upper leadership hasn’t been able to take a strong and independent stand with a view to make it the Voice of Asia as veteran media person Shashi Kumar once dreamt it to be. His dream was a reasonable one as despite the diversity in our cultural composition, we have had the immense power to stay united over many centuries. We have had very high standards of freedom for the press in free India and the Fourth Estate on many occasions have guided the formulation of key policy decisions which India has taken as an Independent Nation. Financial Independence with accountability to the Public (through the Parliament) and Operational Independence with no accountability to the Parliament but only to the common man is what, I feel would turn around the tide for Doordarshan.

With an illustrious 50 years behind its back, I sincerely hope that the shepherds of this great Institution which has, no doubt shaped the destiny of India would keep a faithful watch over it and rear it to the fore once again, regaining all lost glory and make it the proud dream of every Indian – A name that would identify him all around the globe with a single phrase: TV means Doordarshan.

High hopes!! Is it? I think it’s workable.