City City Bang Bang, Columns

Freedom to be afraid

In an Independence Day survey carried out by this newspaper, security forces emerged as the true guardians of the country’s freedoms, followed by media. Not surprisingly, politicians figured low down on this list. A majority were comfortable forgoing their privacy in the interests of national security, being open to the idea that government could monitor their phone calls and e-mails. What freedom meant to this group (admittedly a small sliver of India, but one that represents the most vocal and influential minority in the country) was the ability to move around freely and vote. The freedom to protest was not seen as a particularly important need, with only 6% of those polled indicating that this was a freedom they valued.

It is interesting that in a country which is powering ahead economically, the section that has gained most from the accelerated growth, is so wrapped up in fear and anxiety. Freedom for this group is being imagined in extremely narrow terms- it is sufficient to be able to move around unhindered and vote once every five years. What is of overriding concern is not using freedom but preserving it. Freedom in India is guaranteed by the Constitution but lies in tatters in our minds, so afraid we are of losing it.

At one level, this is hardly surprising considering the spate of terrorist attacks India has been reeling under. There is trouble in many different parts of the country and the body count of civilians and security personnel seems to be mounting by the day. Kashmir, the North-East, the Maoist-dominated areas, the Khap violence (incidentally the Khap Panchayat are seen as protectors of our values by 30% of this group), frequent disruptions caused by forces like the Shiv Sena, MNS and their ilk are all adding up to create an atmosphere of heightened insecurity and fear. Add to it the constant threat posed by Pakistan and its machinations, which we all hear of so frequently.

And yet, the truth is that India is seeing a decline in the number of people dying from acts of terrorism. According to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, 2231 people died in terrorism-linked incidents in 2009, down from 2613 deaths the year before. In 2006, this number was 2775 and in 2001 it was as high as 5839. The figure for civilian deaths in 2009 was 720, down from 1019 the year before. In 2006 this numbered 1118 down from 1693 in 2001. The situation with Pakistan, though far from comfortable has been much worse many times in the recent past, and we are certainly not sitting on the brink of an imminent war.

Of course, numbers tell only part of the story but it is noteworthy that most troubled areas lie outside the immediate perimeter of concern for the educated elite in India. Kashmir has always been on the boil and it has always been shrugged off as a law and order problem to be addressed by the military. The North-East is an area smothered by our indifference; it is barely acknowledged as a part of mainstream India and its angst is seen as an intrinsic part of their make-up, we think of it as part of who they are. Maoist violence has existed for years, as has the cause they represent but before economics got politicians interested, we routinely ignored these acts as irrelevant. So in a sense, the affluent educated elite has no reason to become insecure on account of these disturbances for they are leading to lower loss of life and continue to fester in regions in which this class has little or no interest.

Then why do we sense this new feeling of edginess, this sense of looming menace? The Mumbai attacks have a lot to do this. BY attacking people in 5-star hotels, the terrorists drilled a hole in our psyche, one which time has not managed to fill in. But more tellingly, it is media that has created a new ecology of fear, making us anxious about all that surrounds us. The media seems to be full of bad news- scandals around the CWG, roads that collapse at the first sign of rain, even cricket is full of scams and court cases and crime seems to be on the rise. The urban habitat seems to have become a receptacle of grim foreboding, as we breathe toxic fumes of self-doubt and anxiety.

The relentlessness of bad news, the competitive one-upmanship in creating doomsday scenarios, the total loss of perspective in news reporting creates a world without a sense of scale. The absence of proportion makes every event appear a catastrophe of a titanic scale. Take the example of the Commonwealth games- that the CWG are a hotbed of corruption seems clear but its actual scale is far from clear. Is it only about a Rs 1.5 crore order or is the problem a much bigger one? How many stadia are incomplete- is it all of them or just a few that we are seeing and hearing about so frequently? Are the problems really serious or are they relatively easy to fix?

Because the intention is no longer the reportage of the whole truth, but of that version of truth that makes for impactful viewing, perspective is burdensome. Deliberately or otherwise, this kind of reportage helps a construct a climate of aggressive conformity and compliance. Ironically, greater apparent participation by the public begins to inhabit an increasingly narrow spectrum of opinion. The media is then, in danger of becoming an instrument of the state, rather than its conscience-keeper.

Of course, the climate of fear does not come from media alone. As a small part of India grows more affluent and has more to lose, and as its aspirations keep spiralling upwards, its sensitivity to any real and perceived disruptions grow dramatically. Fear keeps us from asking questions and makes us volunteer our freedom in exchange of certainty. Of course, the uncertainty we wish to banish is in significant part, a product of our own minds.

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