Objectivity and Fascism
“IT is not, I think, humanly possible
for any reporter to be completely objective, for we are all to some degree
prisoners of our education, travel, reading — the sum total of our experience.”
Thus spoke Edward Murrow, the legendary American journalist who narrated from
the European battlefield the horrors of Hitler’s Germany for unprepared radio
audiences back home.
The assignment over, he went on to fight the menace
of McCarthyism dogging American democracy. It was an object lesson in how not
to balance the bigotry of states with the frailties of a beleaguered
opposition, which journalists often seek to do.
In recent days, in the mould of Murrow, Robert Fisk
and John Pilger, from UK and Australia respectively, have been the gold
standard for discarding nationalist blinkers that journalists are so prone to
donning. Both have shouldered the burden of combative reporting that has put
Western democracies in the dock with evidence-based charges of shoring up war
criminals, overthrowing secular governments and decimating proud civilisations
around the world.
Fisk passed away recently, leaving a void in
tracking the loot and plunder of the Middle East and Africa. Pilger’s probing
journalism traversed a wider span, which he crowned with the important TV
documentary — The Coming War on China. The film provides compelling evidence of
a bipartisan American military build-up in the Pacific, replete with dozens of
fortified bases rippling with nuclear weapons. India is being lured to join the
dangerous game. In the remaining days of Donald Trump, or even after he demits
office, the world will be a fraught place. Joe Biden’s likely team is tipped to
include warmongers. Susan Rice had advocated the destruction of Libya to the
The spectacular promise of the free world has proved to be a myth.
Not all journalists come out unscathed from a
pushback by their quarries. Mordechai Vanunu and Julian Assange continue to
suffer for exposing the slimy backstage that runs the global show. Edward
Snowden, in asylum in Moscow, is reportedly seeking Russian citizenship while
keeping his American passport, if the option exists.
As neoliberal systems built on a mealy-mouthed
promise of democracy flounder, we are least likely to hear of mea culpa. The
spectacular promise of the free world has proved to be a myth as can be seen
from the silence on the outrages being perpetrated in Palestine and Kashmir
under the banner of democracy.
It is likely the West would blame the global mess
on China and Russia. This portends tense prospects ahead. South Asia had an
excellent chance of securing itself against the looming mayhem, but India has
decided to hitch its wagon to the global chaos on the cards. The logic of India
spurning China’s hand in the regional economic pact (RCEP), for example, is
curious as countries like Japan and Australia suspended their deep differences
with Beijing to be part of an economic pact. It seems India’s aloofness springs
from a need to use the tensions in Ladakh to beef up narrow nationalism at
The untranslatable Urdu metaphor for a very slight
difference between two situations or things is ‘unnis-bees ka farq’,
literally the difference between 19 and 20. Sitar wizard Vilayat Khan would
advise his students to play at 19, if their preparedness was for 20. (“Unnis bajao, bees ki tayyari hai agar”.) A Pakistani
human rights defender was visiting Delhi when I asked him to compare the threat
to democracy in his country with India. Without demure, he said: “Unnis-ikkees ka farq hai.” (The approximate difference
is of 19-21.” I asked him to explain the interesting departure from the
metaphor. The visitor beamed and said: “If we describe the difference between
the situations in India and Pakistan as very narrow — unnis-bees ka farq — our Indian friends would feel
Indeed, both countries have been in and out of
trouble with autocrats, initially, on account of Cold War battle lines but
currently in their competition to woo support from the West. In the early days
of independence, India’s anti-communist slant at home was shaped by Nehru’s proximity
to the British Commonwealth, an idea promoted by London for post-colonial
societies to keep a safe distance from Moscow, relic of Britain’s favourite
bogeyman called Russophobia.
“Commonwealth ka daas hai
Nehru, maar le saathi jaaney na paae,” thundered partisan poet
Majrooh Sultanpuri. (Nehru is a slave of the Commonwealth, beat him up.) For
his insouciance Majrooh was thrown in jail from where he continued to write his
fabled movie songs for Mehboob Khan’s Andaz. Actor Balraj Sahni, also a member
of the communist party, was granted bail to complete his pending movies.
In Pakistan, the crackdown on democracy was led by
a military apparatus of which Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a part before he crossed
the street to become a populist leader, while still balancing the political
left with the cultural right.
In India, support for and resistance to Indira
Gandhi’s authoritarian rule was similarly structured along Cold War battle
lines. Pro-Soviet communists supported the Emergency, while pro-China groups
threw their weight behind the pro-American Hindutva leaders and socialists
inspired by Willy Brandt. It was a curious mix of alignments in both countries
with its inevitable outcome.
Mrs Gandhi defeated, the Indian left were handed a
pacifier that kept them self-absorbed for almost three decades in Tripura and
West Bengal. They thus abandoned vast swathes for depredation by the right.
Luckily, recent elections in Bihar have shown that the left has retrieved an
older reliable script to shore up democratic alliances rather than seeking to
lead them. The wafer-thin difference in votes between the right-wing victors
and democratic opposition is a reminder that opposition parties can go beyond
opportunistic electoral alliances to forge a grounded strategy to defeat
fascism. The fractious opposition in Pakistan can also learn a tentative lesson
from Bihar. The option to not fight the fight collectively doesn’t exist as
Edward Murrow told us from the battlefields near and afar.