Being an atheist, or even a rationalist, doesn’t make it easy to work for a news organisation. I remember my own sad experience in a national news magazine, where I worked some 25 years ago.
I suggested to the editor, who enjoys a celebrity status in India, a comprehensive, investigative story about a popular godman. The conversation between us went something like this:
Editor: What? A story about him? Are you mad? They’ll hang us!
I: There is no crime that the godman hasn’t committed. I am investigating. I’m almost through, in fact.
Editor: Don’t you know that the swami has a huge following. If he contests elections as Independent, he’ll win without stirring an inch for campaigning. His fans include a large number of our readers, politicians and — he added in a whisper — people in our own management.
I: Not to worry. The story will have both sides. It will be both on the tremendous faith people have in him as well as the money-laundering and sexual crimes that he is being accused of. Will give equal space to both sides, if that’ll make you happy.
Editor: Do you have a peg?
I: Yes, the context is that his birthday is coming up. A large number of people including India’s top politicians, scientists and many from abroad or descending on his ashram to celebrate.
Editor: (Thought about it for a minute.) Guess that’s okay. Go ahead. It should be good for the cover. But be very, very careful in how you write it. Don’t forget to mention the educational institutes and hospitals run by the godman and his service to people. How long?
I: 4,000 words?
He agreed. After approving the story, the editor left instructions with his deputy to make it the cover story and proceeded on a fortnight-long foreign tour.
A few days later, I submitted a 4,200-word story, telling myself that it was one of the finest pieces of my career, and waited for the magazine. And when the magazine was put together, my mouth went dry. I was speechless. My story was nowhere near the cover. It was in the back pages. It appeared as a 600-word piece, a condensation of the ‘good’ part of my original, about how grand the godman’s birthday bash was.
It turned out that a director of the company had got wind of the story and "requested" the editor to remove all its unsavoury parts.
I learnt later that, besides the faith of media managements in godmen, what mattered to them was that the devotees of these self-styled spiritual gurus formed substantial sections of readers. The managements and editors are wary of negative stories about godmen keeping present and future readers away.
It was some years later when I joined a national daily that I realised just how important the devotees of godmen were to newspaper readership figures. Our "readership development strategies" included "community reporting" which, in turn, included stories about godmen’s activities and itineraries.
Samir Jain, the vice-chairman and managing director of The Times of India group, once famously said that spiritual content in newspapers was akin to pornography, in its potential for pulling new readers. This was, of course, the philosophy behind the huge success of the paper’s "Speaking Tree" columns and content.
Vote banks are no different
Readers are to newspapers what voters are to political parties. If the devotees of godmen and godwomen add to newspapers’ readership figures, they can swell a politician’s vote bank.
There may be nothing wrong with this, except that both media and the politicians are both terribly guilty of turning a blind eye to the reprehensible activities of spurious "spiritual" figures, who abound in India, running their private fiefdoms, immune to any exposure, leave alone action against their criminal depredations. Without the support of political bosses, deprived of even moral help from media, few policemen dare to go anywhere near godmen except to prostrate before them.
Political patronage of godmen has not begun with the BJP, as Modi-baiters imagine and would like us to believe. India has seen it since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru. Faith and even superstition are far too important for a politician to crack down on them. That was what stopped Nehru from making good the threat he heroically made in 1951 to ban astrologers after one of them "predicted" an India-Pakistan war.
And despite her "socialist" and "progressive" pretensions, Indira Gandhi befriended godmen and godwomen. She wore a rosary of rudraksha beads for good luck, presented to her — as her personal physician KP Mathur disclosed in his book The Unseen Indira Gandhi — by her "spiritual guru" Anandmayi Ma. Indira’s association with fraudster Dhirendra Bhrahmachari and PV Narasimha Rao’s soft corner for godman Chandraswami are too well known.
I have seen even the CPM leaders, who publicly profess rationalism in tune with their so-called communism, flock to swamijis, bishops and imams at election time to attract their faithful. They unabashedly join the queue of the leaders of the BJP, the Congress and other parties to tap into religious vote banks.
In a democracy driven by vote banks, political compulsions are hard to erase overnight in the absence of a humongous reform effort. But the media should know better.
Extending coverage to the "good work" done by cult figures and the considerable spiritual adrenaline that they pump up among their devoted flocks may be the right thing to do to boost readerships. But by choosing to ignore the criminal activities of self-styled godmen and treating them as specimens that have fallen from outer space with a license to rape, kill and amass black money, the media fails in its primary job as an information provider.
And that’s what makes the likes of Gurmeet Ram Rahim more powerful than they would have been if they only had political patronage.
The author tweets @sprasadindia
Published Date: Aug 26, 2017 19:42 PM | Updated Date: Aug 26, 2017 20:50 PM