Newswatch: Katju, a harmless Rip Van Winkle

11 Nov,2011

By Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr


Justice Markandey Katju, the chairman of the Press Council of India, has written a long-winded piece in The Hindu of November 5, expressing his views on the state of Indian society, economy, media and what to do with it all. It is a meandering argument with usual college textbook learning thrown in, with quotes from Firaq Gorakhpuri, Tulsidas, Shakespeare, some kind of socialist critique, some talk of a transition from the feudal age to an industrial age.


The basic premise of the good judge is that India is in the age of 18th-century Europe, and what Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau did then should now be done by the Indian media; fight the establishment, fight feudalism, fight superstition and worry about the plight of the poor people and the suicides of farmers as does P Sainath in The Hindu (Katju mentions Sainath by name). That is, fight the evil windmills.


Then he talks of the need to regulate the media, especially the electronic media, which have programmes on astrology, devote more newstime to Lady Gaga and Kareena Kapoor’s wax image at Madame Tussaud’s than to the health and educational problems of the country.


It is clear that Katju is a confused man. He has a bird’s-eye view of the situation, and he seems to miss both the woods and the trees. The judge is gravely mistaken in saying that India is passing from the feudal to the industrial age. There is no feudalism except in the minds of Marxist historians. The rural social set-up we find today, including the rightly hated caste panchayats, is not an example of good old feudalism but of an undeveloped rural bourgeoisie, with false sense of honour and tradition, with enough money and little wit. To think this is feudalism is reading the situation wrong with the help of dated textbooks, especially banal liberalism of the HAL Fisher-type A History of Europe, which is a silly book in retrospect or the CPI-type NCERT history textbooks in India.


Katju is worried as to what will happen to displaced farmers moving to cities and not finding jobs because steel and automobile companies are producing more with less workforce. This is a perennial problem that has been with us for the last 60 years and more.  Farmers will pick up new skills as time goes along. All migrations involve changing lifestyles and working conditions.


Then he makes the futile observation that more than 90 per cent of Indians are migrants, excepting the pre-Dravidian tribal populations. Now that statement is neither true nor false in any meaningful sense of the term.


So, why was the media, especially the electronic media, getting angry with Katju? He uttered the word ‘regulation’ and said that no freedom is absolute. In themselves there is nothing wrong with the two ideas. Regulation if translated to transparent and fair rules is indeed the basis of any institution or sector. And even ardent liberals would accept that no freedom is absolute. We do not have radical liberals who argue for absolute freedom of speech, including hate speech. Our liberals are timid and politically correct.


The real red rag in Katju’s long homily is that he wants to set himself as the watchdog of the media, which is what the Press Council is supposed to be. Either there should be no Press Council, or if there is one it has to be watching over the media. The only effective way of refuting Katju is to dissolve the Press Council. If the council is allowed to exist, then this Katju-type of exhortation – vain and in vain – will have a place in the public sphere. It will be interesting to pick holes in it. And it can even be ignored.


Katju’s attitude does hint of paternalist socialism, the kind favoured by the Congress in its unconscious mind, where the government wants to tell people what is good for the people. Katju is no Stalinist – he would be horrified to know that there are intimations of Stalinism in his pompous obiter dicta – but he sounds very much a schoolmaster. It is, perhaps, nice to hear a schoolmaster once in a while, especially when you do not have to fall in line which is the case with Katju and the Press Council. But the truth is that Katju is a harmless intellectual Rip Van Winkle, speaking in the dead debating terms of a bygone era.


The media should not have gone into a frenzy over what he said. As always, the media was looking for a good bone of contention and Katju provided one. The media should be grateful that Katju chose to be provocative in his own outdated manner.


The writer works with the DNA newspaper at its Delhi office.

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