Ghar mein ghuske…

THE Caravan’s story on the BS Yedyurappa diaries, the full version of which is here outside the paywall, is intriguing — as much for what it reveals of the media, as for what it actually contains. But I’ll circle back to that early next week; for now, read the story.

While television (with the honourable exception of NDTV) was not merely ignoring the story but working assiduously to distract attention from it, I was intrigued by a small conversation I stumbled into on Twitter.

The issue is simple enough: The Indian government said it was boycotting Pakistan’s National Day celebrations. Fair enough, though it does raise the question of why, if this boycott had to do with Pulwama, the government was holding talks on the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor, and why an official delegation is scheduled to visit Pakistan for more talks on April 2.

The MEA, aware of the cognitive dissonance in its actions, tied itself in knots to explain that the talks are not “a resumption of dialogue” — which means what, exactly? We are talking, but it is not a dialogue? Reminds you of that classic Sir Humphrey line from Yes Minister: “A clarification is not to clear things up, it is to put you in the clear.”

But that aside, revert to the main storyline: India boycotts Pakistan’s National Day. And its officials, in a show devoid of grace, stop people in front of the Pak Embassy in New Delhi to harangue them. (Former diplomat MK Bhadrakumar, who has served in the Indian Embassy in Pakistan, was underwhelmed — here is why). And then it turned out that PM Modi had sent greetings to his Pak counterpart Imran Khan on the occasion.

There was a scramble to explain this — and one of the first such explanations that caught my eye came from journalist Aditya Raj Kaul, who said Imran Khan had “twisted the words to suit his narrative”. I pointed out that Khan had actually put the words within quotations, so either IK had deliberately put words in Modi’s mouth, or Kaul was in damage-control mode. The exchange that followed was bizarre.

The thread is here, but briefly it goes like this: The text is in quotes. “Not the entire letter”. May I see the part that is left out? “Please ask the one you tagged”. That would be Imran Khan — and that would be a deliberate distortion because it was Kaul, not I, who tagged IK (and Modi before that). Kaul also suggested that I ask the MEA, the PMO, the man in the moon, everyone but him, though it was he whose statement I was questioning. And then said he had posted the relevant bit on his Twitter feed — only, he hasn’t; all there is, is his personal declaration of what he says the statement contained. And the crowning irony? This. Check the time of Kaul’s post, and ANI’s. And the similarity of the words. And, in passing, read this Caravan cover on how ANI carries water for the government.

The episode, brief as it was, reminded me of a long-standing discomfort with how the media — okay, a sizeable section of it — has abdicated its primary role of questioning, of speaking truth to power, and is busying itself with defending a government that will not speak for itself, when it is not coming up with distractions to divert attention from the government’s failings (Ask yourself this: If a BSY type scandal, whatever the provenance, had surfaced about ANY non-BJP politician, what would have been the subject of prime time debates last night?).

Distractions reminds me — read this piece by Mitali Saran (in fact, read every piece she writes). Among other things, that ‘chidiya dekho‘ phrase is a perfect fit for what journalism has, by and large, been reduced to.

By May 24, the counting will be done and dusted, and we will have a new government, of whatever stripe, in place. But the damage that has been done to the media in the interim is like poison — it ingested into the blood stream very rapidly, but it’s going to take a very long time to flush out.

ELSEWHERE: A group of some 25 men armed with sticks and swords attacked kids playing cricket, barged into their home, and beat up family members. Just because. See why I gave this post the headline I did?

A mob chanting ‘Har Har Modi’ assaults dalits in Farrukhabad. Just because they can.

A dalit student en route to an exam hall was tied to a tree and beaten, in Gujarat. The assaulters told him he had no business studying, and should instead find some work to do.

All of this happened in a span of around 30 hours or so. And all of this, and the dozens of such instances happening across large parts of the country on a daily basis, is — or should be — the central issue of this election. Rahul Gandhi may be a “pappu” to the paparazzi, but he got that right: This election is about the fabric, the soul, of this country.

Added at 10.45 PM: While watching what purports to be a cricket match at the MA Chidambaram Stadium, I was browsing headlines and such and came across this:

Really? “Fight over cricket”? This is how you subtly shade your language to normalise behaviour that should be unacceptable in any civilised society. And it has become so common, we barely notice any more.

PostScript: Does anyone know a smart, innovative WordPress developer? Someone who understands media and can work with me to extend the feature sets, give this thing a different look and feel? I am happy to pay for the work, but I need someone good. Any suggestions/tips most appreciated, thank you.

Media matters: The Kulbhushan Jadhav episode

Of the many noteworthy events that occurred while I was away following the cricket, the one that sticks to my mind like a burr is the case of Quint and its story on Kulbushan Jadhav.

Briefly, Quint under the byline of one Chandan Nandy published a story citing two former heads of the Research and Analysis Wing to the effect that they were opposed to the recruitment of Jadhav, a former Naval officer, as a spy for the RAW. The story led to an outcry following which Quint took down the story. “The Quint is rechecking the Kulbhushan Jadhav story”, ran the headline over the website’s statement.

Since then, the story remains down. The statement has also vanished. And it is like nothing happened, nothing to see here, folks, move on.

But something did happen, and it should leave a sorry aftertaste in the mouths of anyone who is invested in ensuring that we get the media we deserve. The Quint-Jadhav story is one of editorial failure at multiple levels, with potentially dangerous consequences. And the subsequent silence of the website only compounds its initial complicity.

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Dotting the ‘i’

#1. The censor board, after consulting with its specially constituted panel, has decided to clear Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film — after the makers carry out 26 cuts. Oh, and change the name of the film from Padmavati to Padmavat.

Does it occur to you that as a nation, our collective “sensibility” is extremely fragile, and also extremely malleable? That these “sensibilities” are easily offended and as easily appeased? What is an ‘i’, more or less, among friends anyway?

Don’t imagine for a moment, though, that this is the last you are going to hear of a tiresome movie by a tiresomely pretentious film-maker — once the release date is set, now-dormant sensibilities in Rajasthan and elsewhere will be duly aroused again, and much ruckus will duly follow.

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WTFJH: The October 14 weekend edition

#1. It takes just one news story to meet, and exceed, the weekend’s whatthefuckery quotient:

Over two years after Mohammed Akhlaq was beaten to death on suspicion of consuming beef, the accused in the case, all of whom are out on bail, may soon secure jobs.

Moreover, the family of Ravin Sisodia, one of the murder accused who had died in jail of multiple organ failure, is soon likely to get Rs 8 lakh compensation.

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The News in Briefs: October 2

#1. In Agra, members of the VHP and the RSS, armed with guns, pistols and swords fired in the air near a temple in the Agra Fort region to “celebrate Dussehra”. The police have registered a case. The weapons, the firing, the communal slogans, all add up to calculated intimidation. And all the while, the RSS claims that it is the victim, not the perpetrator, of violence against its members.

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ATM thieves aka “terrorists”

The story received breathless play in the media: Pakistan’s NSA tipped off his Indian counterpart about 10 terrorists who had infiltrated into India. Manhunt launched. TV channels quote top officials to say three of the terrorists killed. Manhunt continues for the other seven. And so on. Turns out they were ATM thieves.

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Falling out of love

Gleanings from a weekend spent reading corruption-related content on various newsmagazines and sites:

A beleaguered people seethed at the betrayal, at the battering of their hope, at their realisation that cricket, as every sport, can at best only be a metaphor for the nation playing it. Pakistan, today, is cricket’s graveyard, its players the hangmen of the game. But they have acquired such disrepute, such infamy, only because so many of Pakistan’s cherished values lie crushed, because its politics has become pathological.

People understood this instinctively and, for a change, reacted spontaneously, refusing to spin conspiracy theories. In Lahore, an angry mob pelted rotten tomatoes on donkeys named Asif, Aamer, Kamran (Akmal) and Salman. One of them said, “We are already facing so many problems…they took away our one source of joy.” One Wajahat commented on Facebook, “In 1999 you (the Pakistani cricket team) broke my heart. But I was 16, and I learnt to love you again. I fear I am too old to love you again.” A sarcastic SMS doing the rounds reads, “We, the flood-stricken people of Pakistan, salute the worthy members of our national cricket team for their daring move to collect huge donations for the flood victims, even through match-fixing.” Newspapers howled, TV channels bristled and commentators said cricket’s hangmen must be made to pay.

Outlook’s story underlines the essential tragedy of the latest developments: that the greed of the few irreparably harms the many. ‘I fear I am too old to love you again’ ranks, on the poignance scale, with ‘Say it ain’t so, Joe!’

The magazine also features Dawn correspondent Kamran Shafi on the need to root out the present administration and reformat the running of Pakistan cricket; what he says serves as a cautionary tale for an IPL, and an administration, obsessed with la dolce vita [And while on cautionary tales, here’s Rohit Mahajan, also in Outlook, on why India is not inoculated against this evil]:

There is only one way for Pakistan cricket to go, and that is to dismiss the whole shoot: PCB, team and all. Our players should be banned from playing any international cricket for five years during which time cricket academies should be set up at the district level which should train players and form two teams each. These teams should then play each other with the winners playing the winning teams from other districts. At the national level, matches could be held between provincial teams and from this pool of talent, a national side chosen.

The PCB’s secretariat (yes, they have a plush secretariat too, including executive dining and living facilities and accommodations that would shame a seven-star hotel) ought to be cut down to half its huge size and proper accounting procedures instituted. The royal style—fat salaries, first-class travel, five-star hotels, daily allowances that would put even a prince’s privy purse to shame—that the PCB bosses arrogate to themselves should be controlled and the money, thus wasted, spent on the cricket academies.

Within the fraternity of journalists covering cricket, a talking point for quite some time is the increasing power and pervasive influence of the agent, who in recent times has been known to go outside of the stated brief of managing the player-client’s finances, and intervene in cricketing aspects up to and including selection of players. Mahajan’s piece elaborates on that theme:

Insiders say that agents chasing players, and trying to build relationships with officials, is a serious problem. “This is rampant in domestic cricket,” says a source. “In Delhi, for instance, some officials are long-time betters and have links with bookies. In some states, selectors receive a cut from agents for selecting their players.” The source says that at the national level, agents have become less important due to a BCCI decision—paid selectors. “Earlier, agents used to be seen taking selectors to dinner etc, and it was believed they influenced selection,” he says. “Now at least in public they don’t hang out together.”

Agents and the access they have to the players, or the access they facilitate for others, could also cause problems. The ICC suggests no or limited access to players during matches, but agents and their friends are always with players. During the Asia Cup earlier this year, the Sri Lankan chief of security wrote to the acu that a woman had gained access to an Indian player’s room. “The situation was managed, but it’s a potentially hazardous, in which a woman could be used to lure a player towards wrongdoing,” says a source.

A senior BCCI official says it’s time there was some regulation of the agents: “There are some good ones, but one or two are known to be of dubious integrity, misleading players about deals, attempting to influence selection. It might be a good idea to register agents, like in football and nba, so that there could be a thorough check of their antecedents.”

And in his piece, Mike Marqusee tangentially underlines the reason behind the growing power of the agent:

One of the sad but striking parts of the News of the World recording shows the way the agent-cum-fixer Mazhar Majeed treats the young cricketers—as inferior social beings dependent on his largesse. And they seem to accept him as such. After all, he has the money and the connections, just like all the others they have been told to obey and admire.

India Today has a story that hits the right spots with its toxic mix of corrupt cricketers, the fix, and the underworld — but speaking for myself, I am not entirely convinced by this one. For something on this scale to have happened — and remember, the Rs 50 crore cited here is not the sum total of the bets, merely the extent of losses suffered — I have to believe that such astronomical sums were wagered on the possibility of only two no-balls being bowled in course of an innings. Stretches credulity, that — fix or no, there is no bowling side in the world that can guarantee to bowl only a specific number of no balls in course of an innings; the no-ball [the non-fixed ones, that is] is an involuntary, heat of the moment act, mostly caused by a temporary blip in the bowler’s circuitry. You can as a bowler/bowling team guarantee to bowl one on demand; the converse, that you can guarantee not to bowl one, is a bridge too far for me to contemplate crossing.

To understand a crime, you have to understand context — and when it comes to Pakistan cricket, there are few that can explain context better than Osman Samiuddin. Two pieces of his that I read over the weekend provided context and backstory — from The Guardian and The Times of India.

Along with context, there is this: the past is always prologue, in cricket as in life. Gideon Haigh delves into the past, to provide a lesson for the present:

To cricket’s antique traditions, we must turn for a parallel crisis. Because, for much of its early history, from its rise in the Restoration to deep into the Regency, cricket and gambling were inseparable associates. The nobility and gentry who fostered the game understood about the game what the match- and spot-fixers do now – that in a gaming sense it is a target-rich environment, full of possibilities for wagers.

The oldest surviving version of cricket’s laws features extensive provision for the settling of bets.

Cricket also grew rich in potential for malpractice – to the point of almost causing its own downfall.

As one repentant player explained: ”Matches were bought and matches were sold, and gentlemen who meant honestly lost large sums of money, till the rogues beat themselves at last. They over-did it; they spoilt their own trade …”

What ended up saving cricket was that it became so obviously corrupt as to endanger its increasingly lucrative trade as a spectator sport, which was enough to scare its practitioners and impresarios straight.

That’s the view from the world at large; me, I am content — no, not content, more like resigned — to allow this drama to play itself out under the aegis of the ICC; to wait for a determination of guilt and innocence and all shades in-between. As Haigh said in his piece:

Cricket has in its hands the instruments of its own deliverance. The question is whether it has the courage to use them.

PS: I’m off, starting tomorrow, for an off-site that will take up the rest of the week. Expect blogging to be desultory to non-existent, for the duration.