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Breaking Down News: Look Ahead in Anger

The intolerance debate is two months old and has moved from the wide open spaces to Parliament, and taken up aeons of television time.

The strangest thing about this week is that there was a debate on our commitment to the constitution. The very idea, and no one raised a stink about it. Putting commitment up for debate implicitly admits the possibility of electing for the opposite, faithlessness, but the usually keen-eyed sedition police remained unexcited.

The intolerance debate is two months old and still a chartbuster. At the government’s pleasure and to its subsequent discomfiture, it has moved from the wide open spaces to Parliament, and has become intolerably long-winded, taking up acres of bandwidth and aeons of television time. Never mind the home minister, who became the target of the parliamentary equivalent of an IED attack, even the innocent bystander has had enough of the escalation. Only catastrophes like the rains in Chennai seem to be capable of diverting media attention.

Out there, social media is no longer just a cosy place to dream up smart alecisms. On Wednesday, #ChennaiRains and #ChennaiRainsHelp became powerful platforms connecting volunteers, the authorities and those in need of immediate aid. Facebook posts and rapidly deployed sites like chennairains.org were listing resources, including homes willing to feed and shelter people rendered homeless by the waters. Twitter India and The Hindu curated tweets offering help. The range of traffic has been extraordinary — red flags about 700 in danger in old people’s homes, two men in West Mambalam offering to rescue people from stalled cars, offers to pick up and deliver meals, if someone would cook them, and a baker’s offer to put out thousands of loaves for free, if someone would deliver them.

In contrast to such an extraordinary display of public spirit, the polarised TV battles raging in parliament seem fatiguing, and appreciation for the prime minister’s intervention and statesmanship in the house delusional. But everyone united to applaud the government for trying to evict hordes of cultural figures and journalists who squat in government accommodation. Such stories appear with metronomic regularity, because every government tries to turf them out but generally retires in frustration. The quietly persuasive Venkaiah Naidu has been more successful than his predecessors, but the trolls are darkly commenting that now we know the motive behind award wapasi. And that now, creative people will scream louder about intolerance.

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They’re done screaming, of course, and have retired to their mostly inconspicuous lives. The real dhartipakads of Lutyens’ Bungalow Zone have taken over. But while they seem to be having a lot of fun bashing each other in the legislature, in the legislature, they’re boring the subject races to death. We are tired of hearing the same rhetoric for and against the mastodon in the room.

Aren’t there any other issues out there? Arnab Goswami is seized of the matter. Do you need to stand up for the national anthem? Do you have a choice? Of course you do. You can go to Pakistan, as so many of us are invited to do. From there, you can go to Afghanistan and points west. Wonder what the Pakistanis feel about this recurrent tourism ad. If there were a WTO for geopolitics, they would have hauled us there and demanded anti-dumping measures.

Actually, they’re taking Indian manias in good humour. Please Google Dawn’s expose by Nadeem F Paracha on what really passed between Nawaz Sharif and Narendra Modi as they huddled on that improbably clean sofa in front of that impossibly bare table in Paris. The body language of the series of photographs depicting a secret, silent conversation has been analysed more diligently than any disarmament talks picture from the last century. On dawn.com, it reappears with speech bubbles attached.

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In the first set, a grimly purposeful Sharif says, “I really want to order beef biryani.” And Modi responds, “No, Nawaz, do not do that. Because then my staff will have to lynch you. Order some veggies instead.” In the frames that follow, it just gets hilariously worse.

Is humour unparliamentary? Really, it would be such a relief in the house, where the discourse is distressingly high-minded and of national scope. The counsel for the defence does not seem to understand that the accusation is not that India has become more intolerant. It is that you, the right-winger, have become intolerant. So the argument is lively only when it gets personal. Like Kirron Kher, who darkly and improbably linked the present debate to the replacement of her husband Anupam Kher by Sharmila Tagore at the head of the censor board. Two documentary makers appear to be at the bottom of everything but unfortunately, in line with parliamentary propriety, she did not name them. Pity.

First published on: 05-12-2015 at 12:08:40 am
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