About a decade ago, in an undergraduate class on comparative politics at the University of Adelaide, my lecturer (a South Asia expert) solemnly declared that India has a historically strong civil society.
I was reminded of another thoughtful declaration, by India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, on the eve of the fledgling nation’s independence from British rule in 1947. His words, “while the world sleeps, India awakes to life and freedom” rang through my mind as I contemplated the meaning of “civil society”.
I approached my lecturer en route to his office and asked for an explanation. “Which other country in the world has dharnas (demonstrations) and effigy burnings on such a regular basis?” he reasoned.
Perhaps I was too fresh off the boat (so to speak) then to really understand what distinguished the Indian public from those of other comparable parliamentary democracies. Perhaps I also used a Eurocentric lens when Kevin Rudd’s effigies were burned on the streets in India in the wake of a spate of allegedly racist attacks on Indian students in Melbourne in 2009-2010. Perhaps it has taken a couple of research trips of being an ethnographer in the country of my birth to shake me out of my own slumber on the mediated power of its people.
My research looked at the Bollywoodisation of Indian news television, the growing nexus between English-language news channels and middle-class aspirations, as well as the changing articulation of gender mores on primetime news and talk shows.
In a paper with a colleague on the use of social networking by the above movement (hashtag #indiaagainstcorruption), I was still sceptical about the selective nature of this media/middle-class activism, especially as natural and man-made disasters in rural areas and the everyday struggles of the urban poor barely received a mention in the ever-blinking “breaking news”. Stories on the occasional dowry death or honour killing were easier to find in an overseas newspaper, although this started to change in April 2012 when the TV channels ran blanket coverage of the story of three-month old baby girl (Baby Afreen) who was allegedly battered by her father.
Then Bollywood heartthrob Aamir Khan went on commercial television for the first time with a 13-part Oprah-esque chat show titled Satyamev Jayate (The Truth Alone Prevails). With the very first episode on female foeticide alone, he had won millions of fans and converts. Subsequent episodes on sensitive issues such as child abuse, transactional weddings, and interfaith love only added to the show’s credibility. As it wrapped up, many wondered if the interest, especially in gender-related issues and practices, could be sustained.
It was in such an environment of growing awareness of, and disenchantment with, both the political class and deep-seated traditional codes that the brutal r-pe of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a 23-year-old medical student was reported — and the news was absorbed by a vast majority of the Indian body politic.
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that this is yet another instance of the ratings-hungry Indian media voicing middle-class interests, but Pandey stands for the ordinariness of the contemporary aspiring Indian woman, and not merely for the discomfort of the one who can already afford to buy the products advertised on commercial television. Again, this appeal to the “ordinary” has widespread resonance in the nation at the moment — one of the organisers of the now-defunct anti-corruption movement, Arvind Kejriwal, has just started a political party called the Aam Aadmi Party (the Ordinary Person’s Party).
Sounds rather like the appeal to “working families” in our own political jargon? Maybe it is, but aspiration is a key element in both.
The world is sitting and taking notice because it is not just the odd NGO or UN agency generating statistics to force the Indian authorities into action; it is Indians themselves who are adapting the successful mobilisation measures used in movements such as Occupy and the Arab Spring.
This is neither a TV awakening, nor a social media revolution, but the role of the media is a crucial part of the overall message. The media facilitates a certain kind of assembly based on a cause (as opposed to party politics) which makes it both emotional for the individual and also popular for the collective.