Using ‘national myths’ to polarize people
William Ury once said: “dealing with the differences is today one of the greatest challenges facing human beings.” True, what we are seeing happening these days is that the differences of opinions and worldviews are actually being exploited to breed conflict. And what is really unfortunate is that it is not only the regular “conflict entrepreneurs” running global networks of crime or politico-religious extremism who are doing it, the media too is doing it more openly and brazenly. This is why when someone talks of growing Islamophobia in the West or for that matter in India too as one of the underlying causes of “reactionary violent extremism”, some television channels latch on to it to showcase their communal bias, and their illiteracy about the politics, international relations and conflict.
The conflict of interests between various communities in India is as old as the country itself. But given the state’s failure in recognizing and addressing the sources of communal strife, the polarization has only been growing with each passing day. With the rightwing BJP capturing centre-stage of Indian politics, its parental and sibling outfits in the far right have suddenly become moral vocal about their politics, creating a corresponding unease and fear among the religious minorities. Seeking its relevance in the changed situation, media has chipped in by replacing the reality with a constant stream of wild and self-serving fiction. It is simply legitimizing the worst prejudices of the masses and the paranoia of the outside world.
“Lurking beneath the surface of every society is the passionate yearning for a nationalistic cause that exalts us, the kind that war alone is able to deliver,” says Christopher Hedges in ‘War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning’. In the face of current political situation in India, what is perceived as a “nationalistic cause” has seemingly erased the anxiety of individual consciousness as more or less every section of the society, including media, seems to have “abandoned the individual responsibility for a shared, unquestioned communal enterprise”. When this “crusade” is being embraced by the ‘entire’ society, the myths are bound to predetermine how everything is perceived.
Though a visible pro-right bias has been there all along, but since the rise of Narendra Modi, there has been a manifold increase in media partisanship as well. This is why today any dispassionate analyses of most of the television channels points to this bias and slant in favour of a particular community and naked prejudice against certain others.
Every society, ethnic group or religion nurtures certain myths, often centered around the creation of the nation or the movement itself. These myths lie unseen beneath the surface, waiting for the moment to rise, to define and glorify followers or members in times of crisis.
For the rightwing saffron brigade, this seems to be the “moment” they have been waiting for. National myths, writes Hedges, “are largely benign in times of peace, they are stoked by the media,” preached by religious groups or “championed in absurd historical dramas that are always wildly popular during war.” So in the wake of visible polarization in India across the religious lines media is simply igniting the “national myths”, besides giving some people and groups a nobility and greatness they never possessed. We have seen this happen in former Yugoslavia where nationalist propaganda was pumped out over television which provoked not only ancient hatreds but also rivalry and finally war between various ethnic groups; it happened in Rwanda where radio incited enmity between Hutus and Tutsis to ignite the history’s worst genocide wherein 800,000 Tutsis were killed in just 100 days; and India cannot be an exception if measures are not initiated in earnest to stem this rot.
Here too, media has been coerced, cajoled and corrupted to follow a particular line bereft of all objectivity. So the facts have already become as interchangeable as opinions. The facts that are inconvenient are discarded or denied and even the obvious inconsistencies are ignored not only by the media but even the people in general who were intoxicated by the newly found sense of national pride and “identity”. I am sure — and the history provides hindsight as well –- a day will come when all these myths will implode, and people will start questioning the motives and actions of all those who are creating these myths. Media cannot escape blame for its share of complicity then.