The government will respond to the threat to the very idea of India. That is what Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram said soon after taking charge of his new ministry on Monday. These were reassuring thoughts coming as they did in the wake of the terror attacks on Mumbai last week. But which India was the home minister referring to?
Yes, one of the many unintended consequences of the Mumbai terror attacks was the reiteration of the deep divide that separates the elite India from the ordinary India. That the divide exists and manifests itself in many ways is not a surprise. What however is a surprise, and therefore a cause for concern, is the manner in which the media made that divide even more wide and pronounced. Its response to the tragedy and the tone of its coverage reconfirmed one's worst fears that the media's content assessment mechanism may be flawed and its perspective is limited by the narrowly defined concerns of its practitioners.
This is not to underestimate the magnitude of the crisis or the enormity of the tragedy. The Mumbai terror attacks cost about 200 innocent lives. For more than 60 hours, a handful of gun-toting terrorists had gained control of two of India's most high-profile hotels in the country's financial capital, held as hostage a large number of Indians and foreigners and killed many of them. The media had to take note of this development, which it did rather well.
But the problem arose out of the manner in which the same media reported the developments at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) of the Indian Railways, where too the terrorists sprayed their bullets to eliminate several innocent lives. After the initial reporting of the deaths at the railway station, almost every television channel moved away from that area and focussed their cameras only on the two luxury hotels. The print media also gave the CST developments scant attention.
Could it be because the media's concern with the killing of some ordinary middle-class citizens in a railway station was far less than that with the attack on members of the elite India, who had gathered in those luxury hotels? Or could it be that the media empathised much more with the travails of the well-heeled citizenry of India and its preoccupation with covering the developments in these hotels was an outcome of that bias?
You might of course argue that the developments around the two hotels were far more significant and therefore the CST killings did not get the same coverage. The argument may have some merit. But compare the media's highly involved coverage of the killings last week with similar terrorist attacks in the past year or two, and it will become difficult not to conclude that the media's assessment of what deserves greater coverage is also influenced by the concerns of elite India. The seven bombs that exploded at seven locations in local trains in Mumbai in July 2006 killed almost as many people as last week's terrorist attacks. But the coverage of those blasts was quite muted compared with what happened now.
There were two key differences though. One, the train blasts in 2006 took place in a span of a couple of hours. The terrorist attacks last week lasted for about three days. Two, the nature of the two attacks was different. In 2006, it was a nameless and faceless terrorist who had got bombs planted in the trains to be exploded in a pre-determined sequence. Last week, terrorists with guns roamed around killing people at will. The two are not strictly comparable. And the media may have just responded to this unprecedented scale of the attack.
But then what about floods that a few months ago ravaged large parts of Bihar? What about the mindless killing of ordinary people by various extremist groups in different parts of the country? Clearly, the problem is not with the kind of coverage given to last week's terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The problem arises when similar events affecting the common man do not get the same treatment. It is then that questions arise on whether the media's coverage is influenced by its consideration of reaching a larger number of viewers or readers and in the process gaining more mileage for its advertisers. For instance, won’t floods in Bihar or Naxalite killings in some village get a much lower viewership rating than a terror attack on elite India?
There is also this uncomfortable feeling that the media's coverage is now largely influenced by the concerns of those who decide its content-mix. Thus, a public transport system will be attacked because car-owners are adversely affected, and a terrorist attack on a luxury hotel will become more sensational than a similar assault on a railway station. The disturbing thought is that the media and its practitioners have both become part of the elite India and their news judgment is influenced by their concerns and not necessarily of the vast majority of the common people in this country. This is perhaps no less calamitous than what happened in Mumbai last week.