Aamir Khan's very excellent foray into television activism has stunned viewers and brought many facts to undeniable light. As I observed the reactions in social media, a few questions come to my awareness.
What motivates cynics?
It is a fairly known factor that any kind of an activist ends up with a struggle to retain legitimacy. Online activism has led to us being called arm chair activists. Anna Hazare's andolan got called "deluded masses", most kinds of activism faces skepticism that it can actually result in any change at all. Today, Aamir Khan's show reached massive audiences countrywide, ended with a call for very specific action that will result in convictions of doctors for sex selective abortions - something that hasn't happened so far - and could set a new precedent propelling the fight against female foeticide into more actively enforced circumstances.
That someone the significance of one of the leading superstars of the country is asking for something so specific and clearly needed makes it highly likely to work out, if only to save face, and the only logical conclusion of the court cases has to result in punishment. One would think this is a fairly important step right here. Yet, we find people focusing on defaming him or devaluing his efforts or otherwise undermining the impact.
This brings up the question of why this is so. What is it that makes a significant section of vocal influencers undermine efforts for social change? The actors may change, but resistance remains constant. Some said it was a case of sour grapes with media professionals jealous of the impact. Possibly. Others thought that people have a vested interest in human rights being violated to feel powerful. Maybe.
I don't know what the reason is, but the fact remains that some of the other lack of perfection seems to bother significantly vocal members of our country enough to discredit calls for change. The perceived lack changes, the people change, but undermining efforts to create change is a constant.
Must activism be free?
There were a lot of reactions to the effect that the show being a for profit effort was fake. This is a view that has come up often, where "connections" or financing is seen as a lack of authenticity. My view has always been that the utility and investment of effort/resources in an action determines its authenticity. At the same time, I have heard disparaging comments by people as diverse as the Prime Minister of the country to random Tweeps where intent is attributed to the activist rather than valuing the issues raised. Notable examples are the "foreign hand" in the Kudankulam activists, or a comment on this blog, where the work of Sainath was discredited because his grandfather was a President and he got cash awards.
Does it really matter if someone earns from working on social concerns? Does it not make sense that such work earn for the activist so that it is sustainable? But whether it is so or not, what is the explanation of the requirement of "free" with social work? Is your country not worth someone working for its well being to be compensated financially?
Also, the lines are rather blurred. We have college degrees in social work no one expects to be free. We have social workers and NGO employees with salaries from their organizations. We have never expected that the people working on the vaccination programme not be paid, nor do we expect that news channels that disseminate information on social conditions be free - both as in advertising free as well as no channel fees. On the other hand, any individual making extraordinary effort must do it for free. Worse, if someone gets money for what they do, then it is a fair "proof" of their evil intent - this is even standard operating procedure with the government to derail dissent. What is the logic?
And the Aamir Khan situation is even more bizarre, because here you have a proper commercial show on a commercial channel backed by corporate sponsors, anchored by a celebrity. What part of this says that it was either cheap enough to produce to expect it to be made for free? Worse, just because a commercial venture is vital to the country, we expect not just that it be available to us for free, but that no one should pay its creators? In other words, make useless commercial content and earn, but do not make anything useful to the country if you want to earn? What crapshoot logic is this?
Strangely, no one expects the galaxy of crime shows, talk shows and what nots to be free. Why? Are they irrelevant to National Interest? The big difference between Satyamev Jayate and the other shows comes down to their content. The other shows are reporting/discussion, while SJ leverages the space into activism and actual calls for action. So it must fit the starving, khadi clad stereotype? How does such thinking help our country at all?
Or is it more unconscious resistance trying to delegitimize fights for rights on one hand, while ensuring that they always lack resources for survival on the other?'
Will this seed a trend?
The refreshing realism of Satyamev Jayate, its subject matter and its relevance to the masses - so far including the very poor - is new for television advertizing in content, intent and nature and size of target audience. Would the success of this result in more programmes catering to national interest? Are we in fact witnessing the emergence of a more mature phase in television programming? One show does not a trend make, it is true, but recently, Jay Hind also got a late night slot on Colors. So obviously there is some awareness on some level that the audience is ready for or media is ready to risk rocking a few boats.
The high voltage JanLokpal Andolan resulted in massive coverage, talk shows, and such content, further pushed by worldwide news of protests - be it the Arab Spring or Occupy Wall Street. Needless to say, money was made from activism related content, though news. Is this an experiment toward more activist programmes with deliberately created content as opposed to coverage?
The distinction I am making with existing programming is the presence of a high profile superstar, and the subject being an issue rather than incidents, with multi-faceted content around that issue that ranges from data to interviews to calls for action in National Interest. Existing shows stick to reportage.
Corporate sponsored activism
Less noticed by people is the fact that this show also signifies a milestone in human rights activism - corporate sponsorship. It may be argued that the sponsorship was for a guaranteed to sell programme by a superstar, with guaranteed massive viewership. And that may indeed be the truth. But the fact remains that the content of the programme was what it was.
I find this something to keep an eye on, considering that there are significant areas of human rights violations where corporations are guilty. Will such activism be effective on those fronts? Possibly through sponsorships of unrelated corporations? Or will it drown out those issues and end up creating a smokescreen of impunity for corporations, by questioning of corporates going missing from consciousness even as voices for human rights in general rise? For example, Coca Cola - the company Aamir Khan endorses is accused of spoiling water resources for the poor citizens near its plants. How does this impact the ability of such a show to take on the burning cause of the water crisis?
Time will tell, but I see this as a fragile balance that will inevitably come up on the front of human rights.
Why do we only question the "innocent" side?
An important perspective would have been that of a doctor caught in a sting who still continues to offer services, or family members who want a boy at all costs. We never explore that. Be it rapists who don't get questioned, school teachers who abuse students not getting questioned, murderers, corrupt policemen, parents of juvenile rapists or criminals... whoever. Why is it that our reporting, finding out, talk shows, everything always focus on questioning the victim, but raising no questions from those who commit crimes or promote or condone them?
There are some other questions, but they are too vague in my mind. This post will be updated.