The year was 1987. On Sunday mornings at the magical time of 11 am , streets in India emptied out as the entire family sat around the idiot box watching a serial on the Hindu epic, Ramayana on the only television (TV) channel, Doordarshan (DD). The serial ran for a year and made TV history . With Ramayana a huge success, Mahabharat was snapping at DD’s heels. This time the producers got even more ambitious and had the nation’s eyeballs hooked to Mahabharat for two years from 1989 to 1990 . Some of us, at the risk of losing our Indian passports –would hit the streets on cycles as it was a divine time on the empty roads! Not quite registering a phenomenon in TV viewing.
Fast forward to 2012. The scenario has changed dramatically. There are over 600 channels on the idiot box and the good old terrestrial monolith – Doordarshan is still the greatest of eyeball catchers. Actor/ Producer/Director Aamir Khan decides to do the mother of reality shows –thirteen , 90-minute episodes on ‘social issues’ . The first grenade he lobs at our society is foeticide, the shameful practice of killing daughters in the very womb of the mother through sex selective abortion. India is a son-worshipping nation and only a son can be the nurturer of parents and do their final rites, not daughters, according to our Shastras.
A wizard of sorts in marketing, Aamir Khan does the best ever dream sales pitch..simulcasts his show – ‘Satyameva Jayate”(SJ) (translated it reads-truth alone prevails) both on Star Plus and DD and all of DD’s language channels. Not missing the potential of radio, he also pitches and finds space for his episode on All India Radio(AIR). Can’t get bigger and better than this. It is the IPL to beat all IPLs.
The media devours it. The same media, that Aamir Khan has in the past on different occasions mocked at, for running after Bollywood celebrities and not covering the real issues in India like farmers suicides and displacement due to large dams and other projects. Endless chat shows and studio talks follow the airing of the programme where real women in India who have been abused by their husbands and in-laws for giving birth only to girls “tell and shame”. India’s swept-under-the carpet-national- shame , the media claims, is out of the secret closet at last!
As far as I am concerned as someone who has engaged with this issue first as a print journalist and then a TV journalist and finally a documentary filmmaker (and there are several other journalists like me) having seen the frustrations of the victims and the rights groups working on this issue, credit is due to the Bollywood actor that he decided to begin his 13 episode serial with the subject of foeticide. The sex- ratio distortion in our country exposes a huge moral crisis in India and he dared to bring it very cleverly into every home in India through terrestrial and satellite TV, radio and social media.
What surprises me however is not the fact that Aamir Khan chose to begin his episodes with this “national shame”. But the fact that the TV channels almost behaved as if they had never heard of the issue before! Aamir Khan had to do this because the media with its 100 plus news channels on television and its ever growing print media, never took this issue head - on as a never-say-die campaign. Reporting on the issue was patchy and tragically never took a campaign mode. The two journalists who are showcased in Aamir’s programme who did the sting operation against 144 doctors in Rajasthan , got little backing from their own fraternity, were isolated and have been fighting a lonely battle in the courts .
In closed room discussions journalists covering the issue had talked about editorial discouragement when it got too close to the bone of famous doctors. The actor-producer had once again seized on an opportunity which the prolific and so called free media in India had clearly knowingly sidelined.
The reporting/commenting following the episode that ensued, smacked of the age–old, grapes-are- sour attitude– “Did Aamir Khan do it purely for commerce? “Why did Aamir go with the sponsors he did?” “Is it another marketing gimmick by Khan?” “Was that not immoral?” “Was that not exploitation?”
Or the flip side, others went completely gaga over the episode– “Isn’t Aamir Khan great that he brought this untold story to the Indian mainstream?” , “No one could have done it better than Aamir Khan..” “How would we have known all these stories of real women if Khan hadn’t decided to focus on them?” etc etc.
In talk show after talk show it was the same Why-Aamir-Dunnit Debate...rather than the real issue. Forgive me if I missed any channel that did it ,but I did not, as I surfed channels, see anyone ever mention the raw statistics that can shake any nation out of its complacency – that 7 million girls have been killed through sex selection in India in the last 10 years alone. Even as I write 7000 daughters are being killed in India today according to estimates put out recently. In the next ten years another 10 million daughters will be killed. The core issues are the criminalisation of the medical community and the use of unregistered ultra-sound machines . A study from Mumbai city alone had revealed recently that 50 per cent of ultra sound machine owners had not registered their machines and were running them illegally. Yet lawmakers simply shut their eyes to this.
No eyebrows are raised regarding the abysmal number of convictions there have been of this growing genocide. Does the nation know that the convictions are less than 80 so far? Seven million girls killed in the last ten years and less than 80 persons convicted since 1994– how does that sound as our legal record? For every million crime of sex selective abortion committed, there are hardly a few cases annually , in effect snuffing out deterrence.
In the media frenzy that ensued post the airing of SJ, unfortunately there was no real effort to get people who have been working in this area for decades and some of whom filed the original petition before the Supreme Court that led to the PNDT Act like Dr Sabu George, a long time crusader on this issue, Varsha Deshpande from Satara District, Akhila Shivadas of Centre for Advocacy and Research, Donna Fernandes of Vimochana, and the thousands of women victims who have been fighting court cases against their husbands and in-laws under huge financial and mental stress and the countless others who are still suffering this torture to produce sons inside the homes. Neither was there any recall- of people like Amartya Sen, the Nobel Laureate who first coined the phrase : “India’s missing girls” and flagged the issue in the early nineties.
Instead talk shows in the last two days just scratched the surface instead of getting to the heart of the problem- a systemic connivance to do away with the girl child. It provided the space to MPs to once again defend their non action on the issue. To Sonia Singh’s remark on NDTV that “foeticide has not been a hot potato for Indian politicians” Supriya Sule , NCP MP’s tame response was the age-old defense about foeticide being a ‘social issue” and hence politicians could not do much . She insisted on the tiring personal narrative-“My parents were practising family planning those days- I am the only child!..Please be assured that in the next few years you will see the change!” Yes, Ms Sule , we , the women of India, have been waiting patiently for the political class to ACT on the legislation that exists since 1994 in the form of the PNDT Act and move against the criminals.
Punjab politician ,Ms Badal, known for her fiery stance on TV shows, had her own brownie points to score –“Before I came into politics I ran an NGO which worked for the girl child- our government has now made education free for girls till college, we are giving them free cycles, laptops...the numbers of girls being killed in Punjab is coming down now”. Punjab had one of the worst statistics -798 girls for 1000 boys in 2001..in 2011 it is 840. “Does every state have to reach 700 before things get better” activists ask.
Kavita Shrivastva from PUCL rightly pointed out that doctors, who were major component in this crime against women and were conducting sex determinate abortions for as less as Rs 500 ,were simply absent from flurry of TV studio discussions in the last two days. That led Sonia to say that “Aamir Khan had indeed said that if a top doctor was convicted” then it would definitely be seen as a deterrent to the others. But so far this has not been done. A rare appearance from one doctor ,an office bearer of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) appearing as a panellist on Aaj Tak , instead of admitting the complicity of doctors in this massive genocide, actually said that India’s sex ratio had been improving in favour of the girls and that it had gone up from 928 to 944 in this census. Will someone please tell this gentleman of the toothless IMA that in fact the 2011 census shows that gone down to 914 and not upto 944 . Of course the anchor knew no better and therefore could not correct him!
On Times Now, Arnab Goswami struck a cynical note with his banner slugs :“Will it create awareness or is it a photo-op?” . Goswami’s comment that the meeting between Aamir Khan and the Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot was : “an exercise well researched and a well marketed photo-op.” This provoked his panellist Prasoon Joshi to chide him openly as a “being unnecessarily cynical ”. He defended Khan with “They had planned before that they would go to see the Rajasthan CM –it is not a publicity stunt- NGOs need a credible force that can impact”. !” But Goswami persisted: ” The show has generated a lot of money !” provoking Joshi to retort again “You are being harsh!”
Actor Kabir Bedi was switching his V-Sat connection between different channels and complimenting the Bollywood star :“Aamir Khan has taken a risk and with it a very important step has been taken.” Anil Dharkar was saying that politicians have simply wanted status quo to be maintained..particularly male politicians. Ranjana Kumari made a strong pitch saying that women’s organisations and NGOs have been working on this issues for the last two decades...and it is really a pity that their voices have not been heard on the media before.
There were also some sensible words of caution from Sanjay Jha for Aamir Khan – Indian celebrities should learn to take up causes like they do in the West – eg George Clooney on humanitarian Aid and his visits to Sudan..they learn to take up one cause and stay with it. They do not do TV shows and move on. “It is important for Amir Khan to hit the right button as a celebrity taking up causes” said Jha without malice.
Indeed what is important is that India’s Bollywood stars take up causes from their heart rather than parachute from cause to cause . And certainly they need to do some serious thinking on being the role models for fairness creams and aereated drinks and talk in the same breath about social good. For the time being, we can only be deeply indebted to Aamir Khan for bringing the forgotten crime of foeticide to centre-stage.
For me the most heartening soundbite was from Dr Mitu Khurana (who was on SJ as one of the case studies)whose campaign we have known for many years - “ All these years me and my twin girls and my parents have lived under threats from my husband’s house and in-laws – for the first time after this programme I feel that we are safe now as we have the support of so many people in the country!” For a victim who has fought against the system, there can be no moregratifying feeling and
if Khan’s programme has done that, then it has indeed served its purpose.
As a woman Star News (soon to be ABP News) anchor appealed fervently to her viewers : “Don’t shut your ears to this call that is being given out by our daughters”. That one sure came straight from the heart of the anchor! If we see this consistent passion from the media on this issue, then we may yet see the day when Indian daughters will not be eliminated in their mother’s womb.
(Nupur Basu is former Senior Editor with NDTV and the Director of a documentary on the subject of foeticide titled- No Country for Young Girls- telecast on BBC World in August 2008. The series was produced by UK based, Television Trust for Environment (TVE)