The 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi was marked by a spate of articles on him in the daily press. Most of these articles dwelt on historical episodes in his life. Some concentrated on his political philosophy.
Hardly any dealt with the controversies he faced in his life and death. As a reader, one could sense a tacit avoidance.
On radio, there was very little of any substance. Radio is an excellent means of dialogue and debate, but that is not the case in India. In our case, radio means mainly music and advertising, generously sprinkled over by civic advisories and advocacy of good conduct. You can spend a whole day with the radio and hear not a single word that might remind you of a debate. Gandhi Jayanti was no exception.
For discussion and debate, the favoured medium in our country now is TV. If you wanted to know what the word 'debate' means in our times, you will grasp it within one evening, no matter what the subject. Like any other subject, Mahatma Gandhi too caused fireworks. Even on a relatively sober channel, the panelists showed little sign of understanding each other. Everyone was supposed to represent a position and demonstrate that he or she can stick to it right up to the end. What did the viewer make of this display of fixed positions?
Then there is the question of tone. It is hard to say why our TV debates end up being so shrill. As the TV industry is driven by popularity figures, one must conclude that shrillness carries an entertainment value in our social ethos. Time, anchoring and response styles contribute to the harsh mood every debate descends into soon after starting. The usual time available is no more than half an hour or so, and within that time the anchor must let six or seven participants express their views and 'respond to others'. The anchor also needs time to question and govern. Time, thus, adds to the tension that the anchor attempts to create by pitting sharply disagreeing individuals against each other. They have no choice but to follow the format.
The viewer also has no choice but to keep watching as the voices get shriller and the space to make a point gets narrower. A historian on the Gandhi panel admitted there was no point in going into history with so little time and so much distortion to counter. The question set by the anchor was whether people who had nothing to do with Gandhi's legacy were appropriating him.
Another question pursued on TV channels was: Is Gandhi still relevant? As a subject of debate, it is not a bad question, provided one brings to it some informed understanding of the circumstances that have made the question relevant. Instead of doing that, panelists on different channels started by choosing their favourite targets. They were more interested in declaring who has made Gandhi more irrelevant than to reflect on ways in which he continues to offer guidance or why that is so.
Do such debates educate the audience? Certainly not. As a viewer, you feel cheated and frustrated. Afterwards, you wonder why you sat in front of the screen with so much shouting going on. Apparently, you were getting entertained. That is a disturbing thought, both for TV as a medium and how far it has brought us along to comply with its idea of entertainment.
Chatter over matter
Let me explain why I don't find these debates educative. One reason is that the anchor has no way to judge whether the arguments and facts being presented are valid and true.
Participants mostly get away with whatever they wanted to say. Occasionally, you see someone in the panel raising a finger as soon as another panelist has started to speak. The finger signifies instant discomfort. It is hardly possible for the anchor to interrupt every time a finger is raised.
The viewer has to wait to find out why the finger was raised.
When the finger-raiser gets a second turn, the discussion has moved on to a new point. Whatever had caused the finger to be raised must now be forgotten. This is just one aspect of the format that makes these debates educationally poor. Panelists get away with whatever they feel like saying, enjoying full liberty to marshal whatever facts suit an argument and ignore others.
A more serious problem is that no one seems to learn anything from others on the panel. I often hear a sentence like: "I completely agree with you," but I have never witnessed a change of mind or heart. Wasn't that the core of Gandhi's struggle?
(Courtesy of Mail Today)