Land--its ownership, distribution, and use—has been the most contentious of issues in post-Independent India. If there is an intransigent “red corridor”, if there is Naxalism, if there are massive protests and pickets at SEZs, the issue of land is at the centre of it.
From October 2 to October 11, thousands of the landless poor, Dalit and Adivasi people from across India converged at Gwalior and began their march to Delhi. They were marching to demand minimum land rights for themselves. PV Rajagopal, chairman of Ekta Manch, was leading the march. In many of his statements about the jan satyagrah he is leading, Mr. Rajagopal clearly articulates the need for minimum land rights for the poor and the need to fight for their rights through non-violent mobilisation.
By signing an agreement at Agra with Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister for Rural Development, Mr. Rajagopal has now set in motion the process of ensuring the poor their right to a patch of land to live on and to cultivate. The government is expected to hold its first meeting on the issue on October 17. And if the minister means business, the committee is expected to meet everyday till the policy is fully worked out.
What did the media have to say about this?
The most significant piece was the Tehelka cover story by Brijesh Pandey with some outstanding images by Vijay Pandey, which captures not just the spirit of the march but goes on to give a historical context to the struggle without overdoing the personality of Mr Rajagopal.
Live Mint carried a brief opinion piece which doubted the feasibility of the demand, but the next day it carried a double spread full story on the march and its leader. The Hindu carried a positive editorial on the march. Except for Mint, all other daily newspapers carried the news on inside pages. Of late, most newspapers seem to be following the agenda set by television channels and thereby impoverishing the news selection process.
For the English TV news channels, however, Mr Rajagopal is Mr India–invisible. From October 2 to October 11, on English TV news channels we saw Ms. Gandhi “spending Rs. 1880 crore of public money for her health” (because Mr. Modi on Vivekananda Yuva Vikas Yatra said so); a series of rape cases from Haryana; Kejriwal’s daily dose of corruption exposes about the high and mighty of the country; and finally the resuscitated Vadra-DLF story.
Night after night prime-time news was dominated on the channels by raucous and inconclusive debates on corruption in high places.
Even as wisdom on massive scale was pouring out of all pores in electronic media, no space could be found for the thousands of the poor marching behind Mr Rajagopal or for that matter, for Mr Jairam Ramesh who met Mr Rajagopal to sign an agreement to come up with a policy on the land issue in the country.
NDTV, which is generally into saving tigers, hills, coasts, and such other things, had nothing much to say about Mr Rajagopal’s march to Delhi. Even now a search on their website yields two stories on Mr. Rajagopal dissociating from Anna’s team. Similar is the story for Times Now. CNN IBN did carry a special report on the march of the landless, but not on evening prime time.
The one major story on land reform, which can make a difference to a large number of people of India, has not found much space on the news channels. The channels run hour-long news shows. To fill time they have polarised debates on trivia with active and partisan inputs from rival political camps. It is not as if there was no time to accommodate Mr. Rajagopal’s march or to debate the issue of land reform.
There appears be a general consensus on marginalising the story. Is it because the land issue clearly goes against the class interests of the channels’ owners and patrons?
The channels went hysterical about Anna Hazare and his “Gandhian” fasting. Mr Rajagopal appears to have better Gandhian credentials, both by way of his direct association with Gandhian organisations and his politics. His march also does not have on offer personalised attacks, scandals, or violence. No Ramdev baba to add colour to the proceedings, no Kiran Bedi to mock at the netas. Mr Rajagopal does not sound controversial or confrontationist in any of his statements. He is promoting the idea of dialogue, debate, and participation of the poor. Again, should it not have been of great interest to the media given the larger public good involved?
Obviously not. Arvind Kejriwal is the man to follow. He is wearing a new cap with a new legend and lately he has called out Union Minister Salman Khurshid and his wife. Everyone--the accuser, the accused, and the sundry experts--all contribute to the Delhi-centric cacophony. One often hears strange statements such as “he is a good friend of mine, but …” in these debates. Ultimately, the story remains a friendly slug-fest among cocktail buddies with no winners or losers.
Letting Mr Rajagopal be invisible speaks volumes about the news values of the media. But then, that could well be the single best thing that has happened to preserve the sanity that is so essential for the debate on an issue such as land reform. Leave it to the more sober print media.
PV Rajagopal in Delhi.
Rajagopal P.V. speaks about the situation in Gujarat.