In An Age of Prime-Time Propaganda, Why Ravish Kumar’s Magsaysay Award Speech is a Must-Listen

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In An Age of Prime-Time Propaganda, Why Ravish Kumar’s Magsaysay Award Speech is a Must-Listen

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

M

y memories of growing up in small-town India are inseparable from the binding powers of television. I grew up in the age of Ramanand Sagar and Shaktimaan, and witnessed the sudden incursion of phenomenons like Small Wonder and Baywatch. Central to everything, though, was TV news. Regardless of the generational gap in our family, all of us sat glued to the rounded, blurred screen at prime time to gather our straightforward summaries of the day. But listening to Ravish Kumar’s Ramon Magsaysay award-winning speech, reminded me how those years of flowing interchanges have been replaced by aggressive and often pointless debating. Worse, it has been done by newsrooms that claimed to be its first avengers, as Kumar pointed out.

I’ve had my share of disagreements over issues with my family members and friends, but that was in an age of uncompromised, trustworthy reporting. We might have debated the merit of one thing or the other, but we never needed to debate the political origins of a fact, the possibility of news and fiction being one.

There were plenty of takeaways from Kumar’s humble yet deeply affecting speech. He began, on the day India waits for Chandrayaan 2 to land on the moon, by reminding people of the potholes in our road, the infections in our system. “My streets have craters and potholes that outnumber the moon,” he says. But of the many things that Kumar’s speech was mindful and an honest-to-reality reflection of, his anecdotes were what stood out, reminding me of a time when newsrooms informed rather than incited their viewers. Kumar tells the story of a schoolgirl who continued to watch his show despite her father telling her not to. “As long as people like her are there, democracy will survive,” he says. 

But listening to Ravish Kumar’s Ramon Magsaysay award-winning speech, reminded me how those years of flowing interchanges have been replaced by aggressive and often pointless debating.

Generations are often defined by the times they live through. My grandfather, at least on a mental level, never survived the Partition and the visceral pain it must have caused him at the tender age of 12. Over the last couple of years, though, he has been convinced by prime-time propagandists that India has come to exist on another Partition-like precipice, ready to jump and sink, one way or the other. My attempts to calm him often go unheeded. He’d rather believe his lived nightmares than the promise of sanity this country tried to build for 70 years — now eviscerated because some news anchor must empty his lungs to the beat of majoritarian politics. Unfortunately, grandpa can’t even change that many channels to reach a Ravish. Before long he might not even have that option; something that, as Kumar made distinctly clear, can be felt in the pulse of the media. 

Kumar’s speech broadly appeals to the citizens of the country, to their dogged sense of curiosity and activism. Kumar requests citizens to see beyond the click-bait “apocalyptic headlines” to search for meaningful information. He says that co-opted media — a media that speaks the language of the government — is a privileged accessory. It makes sense, on multiple levels. Amid a landmark slowdown in the economy, rather than peer into the windows of the finance ministry, the media has turned its eyes toward spicy tidbits that are ideal fodder for their prime-time verbal akhadas. The simple dissemination of information and reportage alone feels nostalgic, as if it belonged to some relegated period of golden history; the kind of history that is now criminally misrepresented by the media of today. We’ve made it through worse times, but I’m not sure if we’ve had worse motivations, all of us.

Kumar may enounce sanity in the newsroom, but outside he is as ineffective, as inconsequential, perhaps, as the next man. It is a fact he acknowledges his speech as well. “In my opinion citizen journalism is the need of the hour when traditional media turns hostile towards information,” he says. Kumar appeals to the citizen’s sense of pride in his or her rights, their sense of despair at being conned and lied to repeatedly. A media that is complicit in advertising a certain politics, Kumar says, is naturally against minorities, and interests it should rather pitch forward. A lot of what Kumar says isn’t rocket science, it is palpable, easily noticeable around us. The falsification of facts has become a vocation of its own. The fourth estate is nothing but the people’s ire — their anger and curiosity bundled into a voice note. The likes of Kumar should only be asked to play messenger instead of the hero’s role asked of him. We need to stop waiting for other Kumars. Because as Kumar says, “‘testing times’ is a meek euphemism for where we are today.”

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