Breaking Down News: Trainspotting in Gujarat

The government guns for development with the bullet train and why it’s time to sharpen those ‘little grey cells’

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | Updated: September 16, 2017 2:03 am

India is transitioning from the land of the untimely bullet to that of dead-on-time bullet trains. On Thursday, CNN-News18 was one of a few TV news channels to threaten practically day-long coverage of the ceremony to lay the foundation stone for the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train, whose first leg is the historic Mumbai-Thane line, where the first passenger train in India ran. Good idea. The next such opportunity will present itself half a decade later, when the train is supposed to be flagged off.

Some uneasiness has been voiced about the propriety of holding the extravaganza in a state headed for the polls. But let’s not be so pernickety. The prime minister has opened his arms to all things Japanese, including restaurants. Which means that we can look forward to chhole sushi and lauki ka sashimi — fresh, raw bottle gourd, thinly sliced.

The Indian media is being taken to task by a small section of itself — which is the best way, really — for its coverage of suicides of young people who allegedly played a deadly “game” of Blue Whale. For the tiny minority still uninitiated into the mysteries of cetacean gaming (and they are quite baffling), Blue Whale is either a challenge or a meme which derives its name from the unexplained phenomenon of whales beaching themselves, presumably in order to die. The urban legend is that players sign on with an administrator for 50 days, who requires them to perform a self-destructive or otherwise unusual act every 24 hours, culminating in a suicide on the 50th day. The presumed organisational efficiency of this system is the legendary component, because the Blue Whale challenge probably began life as a hoax and was then harnessed by unscrupulous webmasters to attract traffic. But it is equally possible that it gave fresh heart to existing suicide cults and groups, which predate the internet.

The Russian media, where the Blue Whale challenge first surfaced, has offered no directly causal links with suicides, though it found a correlation between successful suicides and affiliation with groups. The correlation was reported in 2016 by the perfectly legitimate Novaya Gazeta (that’s where murdered Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya’s best investigative reporting was published) but it obviously does not follow that the groups should be held responsible. Correlation is not necessarily causality. As a rash of suicides among young people are reported from India (which is the world leader in this area of human endeavour), critics were right to point out the distinction.

However, just as murder is easier to contemplate in an atmosphere which appears to favour impunity, suicide may seem more accessible in an enabling environment, which is what groups on social media provide. Before the internet, “suicide clubs” met in middle-class homes and hostel rooms to morbidly discuss auto-extinction and the means to that end. For most young people, it’s an experimental phase which passes. But a young person already driven to the wall might go ahead and give it a spin, if they are told how to go about it. That’s why, even if suicide groups have no causal links with suicides and Blue Whale is just a meme, social media is careful about it. If you search them for ‘Blue Whale challenge’, they usually throw up a warning page and provide links to suicide helplines.

While India denounces the Rohingyas on TV and throws them aid helplines in real life, the crisis has come to a head — from the point of view of the world; the Rohingyas themselves knew it long ago. Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the issue threatens to intensify into a disappearing act. Her absence at the UN General Assembly session on Wednesday was read as a sign by the world, and pots of outrage was vented, especially in the US media. As much attention went to secretary-general António Guterres’ call to the Myanmar authorities to suspend military operations, end violence, uphold the rule of law and allow humanitarian aid.

Did Suu Kyi stay back to get all that stuff done? Well, maybe there are more compelling reasons.

Next month, the cameras roll on Press, a six-part BBC1 drama starring David Suchet of Hercule Poirot fame as a media baron who runs the holding company Worldwide News. It owns the Post, a tabloid recovering from a phone hacking scandal. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Post’s foil is a left liberal broadsheet, and the series will explore the ethical choices that face reporters and editors. That’s a pleasant change from the caricature depiction of the denizens of Fleet Street, who apparently spend their days and nights drinking and cussing and yet, magically, find the time to change the world.

The world concerned about law and order has spent decades watching courtroom dramas every evening. Are we about to see the beginning of the next wave, with the newsroom displacing the courtroom as the news — both fake and real —gains in influence?

pratik.kanjilal@expressindia.com

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