The battlelines are drawn and at the appointed time the anchor lets out a war cry — the show is on. For three nights in a row, Arnab Goswami has debated, no sorry, there is no debate on The Newshour (Times Now), berated Pakistani artists—Fawad Khan, Mahira and Atif Aslam, that-singer or-whoever — for not criticising the Uri terror attack accompanied by a dismissive wave of the hand and a contemptuous curl of the lip. Since he could not train his guns on the Pakistani actors, he did the next best thing: scold, badger and lecture the guests speaking up for them who tried with varying degrees of desperation and resignation to get a word in.
His campaign against Pakistani artists – it is a campaign and not a discussion after all — his unrestrained and utterly ungracious takedown of anyone who dares to speak against his line, is a blood sport minus the thrill. The anchor, who has long dropped all pretence of being a moderator, firmly aligned himself with all those who thought that the Pakistani actors shouldn’t be allowed to work in India for the time being — together they hunted down and subdued anyone who took a line that ever so slightly deviated from theirs.
It was film director Saeed Mirza one day, actor Om Puri another and Sudheendra Kulkarni a third day. So chuffed is Goswami for the big fight that sometimes he can’t tell his friends from his enemies. For instance, he rubbed actor Mita Vashisht who agreed with him on the issue of the Pakistani actors, the wrong way when she suggested we do something about the forgotten families of the Kargil heroes instead of discussing this issue. Tired of his constant shouting in her ear, she took off her headphones, said `shut up’ and walked away from the din of the debate.
More than the outrage, it is the implied contempt of artists that Goswami’s dismissive wave of the hand and shared smiles in the studio imply that is both unfortunate and unwarranted. In the gesture is implied a dismissal of artists and their art as a flimsy, almost a trivial pursuit.
When Sudheendra Kulkarni tried to read out a letter written by former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to ghazal great Mehdi Hasan in 2001, in which he speaks about his music that “like the music of all the great artistes of India and Pakistan, reminds us of the many common bonds of culture and spirituality that unite our two countries. Its equal popularity on both sides of the border illustrates that a life of peace and goodwill, and a readiness to appreciate the best of each other, is the natural aspiration of our two peoples,” Goswami paid scant attention to him. In his single-minded devotion to his agenda, this was not the time and his studio not the place to talk music and peace and if anyone dared show him a different point of view, he declared it an affront to Col VN Thapar, father of slain Kargil hero Capt Vijayant Thapar, who was present in the studio — that promptly shut up everyone.
Whether Pakistani actors should come out in the open against the Uri attacks, whether they should be allowed to work in India can be talking points but should this question and its answer be allowed to become a litmus test for patriotism? Is this the only defining quality of patriotism? If everyone with an argument is told to go to the front before talking, then why are they invited to a debate in the first place? Does holding a contrary view amount to belittling soldiers? The Nation may or may not want to know the answers to these questions but it certainly needs to introspect.
It would be easy to dismiss Goswami as an over-the-top anchor whose antics are almost comical if it weren’t for his following. It would be funny if it weren’t for the fact that his views often find a mirror reflection in the relentless messages circulating on WhatsApp, persuading us to boycott films one day, Chinese goods another and taunting some on bleeding at Fawad’s departure when they should be shedding a tear for our soldiers.
The argument has now successfully been reduced to an artist-soldier binary and there are no prizes for guessing who comes out looking like the loser.
In the 1999 Aamir-Khan starrer Sarfarosh, Naseeruddin Shah plays Gulfam Hassan, a soft-spoken Pakistani ghazal singer with nefarius designs on India. The film received many accolades but also some criticism for choosing an artist as a terrorist when for decades artists and their art had been the only bridge over the troubled India-Pakistan relationship. In times when the two nations were not talking, the songs from both sides of the border did the talking and so many felt that the film by showing an artist as a terrorist was doing great disservice to the fraternity.
Much has changed in succeeding years but it seems the artist is still the villain.