Issues around Media and Misrepresentations in Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
This paper undertakes a critical reading of Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness to touch upon the ways through which media exerts its powerful influence to serve the interests of the dominant groups. Roy depicts how Media stereotypes the others, shapes the opinion of the general mass, and for media’s pervasive role, religious and communal violence get the proper soil for germination. Media generally broadcasts things in such ways that people tend to believe the media version of reality. Besides, this paper also aspires to expose the reciprocal relationship between mainstream media and so-called democratic (in reality, despotic) government.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is the second novel written by Arundhati Roy which “takes us on an intimate journey of many years across the Indian landscape” (Raina 45) through different lenses of multiple outcasts of the society. This novel reflects the writer’s views towards Indian politics, and deals with several issues like religious fanaticism, cultural and political domination, and corruption happening inside Indian society. The India Roy depicted in the novel has become such a state where “the ruling elite[s] make decisions, the middle class ‘guardians’ make it all happen and inform the lower orders […] about what is to be done” (McDougall 70). Here, in India, Media undertakes the role of the guardian which lacks the minimum interest in disseminating authentic information; rather, it fabricates most of the events, and thus, media operates to perpetuate hegemony and status quo. Media misrepresents, and misuses its power in every possible way. It also ignites the possibilities of communal violence, uses different types of advertisement to bolster the towering image of the government and the army, and so on. Moreover, the journalists engage themselves in circulating propaganda and misinformation despite being educated at the highest level; and for their journalistic silence, the government, big corporate companies, and army achieve unquestionable authority and power. In this novel, Roy offers her extensive critique of the media’s role in disseminating dominant views and values of the classes who are in power. A close scrutiny is made in this article to reveal media’s misrepresentation and distortion of reality to sustain corruption and control.
Before probing deep into my analysis, I would like to write something about media and its nature. Media has become an indispensable part of our life, and in the era of globalization, we live in a media environment where our reality, in every sphere, is getting amalgamated with media reality or virtual reality. As Press and Williams contend, media now “permeate[s] almost every moment of our existence [and] [t]here is almost nothing that we do that escapes mediation” (194). Media not only provides us information, but “media content actively shapes our perceptions of reality” (McDougall 14). Media works in close correspondence with power; and for this, existing power structures are normalized and perpetuated. Stuart Hall gives a definition of media pertinent to power and misrepresentation:
[Media is] the machinery of representation in modern societies. What they exercise is the power to represent the world in certain definite ways. And because there are many different and conflicting ways in which meaning about the world can be constructed, it matters profoundly what and who gets represented, what and who regularly and routinely gets left out; and how things, people, events, relationships are represented. What we know of society depends on how things are represented to us and that knowledge in turn informs what we do and what policies we are prepared to accept. (9)
Media belongs to the domain of “civil society” which is, in Gramsci’s definition, “the ensemble of organisms commonly called private” (12). Media, like other components of civil society, is supposed to be a separate entity, but actually, it has a strong relation with the operations of power, that means, state, dominant groups and corporate corporations. To produce spontaneous consent and hegemony of the dominant group, media represents and maintains everything in such a way that the various unethical acts of the powerful are justified when the voices of the marginalized people are very shrewdly glossed over. Likewise, media is used by the dominant group to “manufacture consent” (Chomsky 6). Therefore, the all-inclusive media does not “offer us a transparent ‘window’ on the world, but a mediated version of the world. They don’t just present reality, they re-present it” (Buckingham 57).
In this novel, media is used as a tool of the dominant groups to make ‘the others’ subservient. To retain its hold over other subordinated groups, the government very masterfully controls media, and consequently, media acts in a hegemonic way by stereotyping the other. When New York experiences a terrorist attack from indoctrinated and brainwashed Muslims, then the “Poet-Prime Minister” who believes that “India [is] essentially a Hindu nation” (41) gets a very convenient way to spread his antagonism against the Muslim community in India. He announces: “The Mussalman, he doesn’t like the Other […] His Faith he wants to spread through Terror” (41). This speech full of hatred has been broadcast in all the popular media of India. By broadcasting this speech, media deliberately denies a fundamental aspect of the Indian constitution: secularism which means “equal freedom and respect for all religions” (Sharma 45). After this announcement, popular media like newspapers, television channels publish and broadcast many reports about frequent bombing and terrorist attacks. Through these reports, the prime minister and his cabinet spread hatred against the Muslims by corrupting the mind of the general Indian mass. Hence, media makes the way smother for the poet prime minister to undertake any act of violence against the Muslims.
Moreover, because of some of the Muslim fanatics, sixty Hindus were burnt alive in Gujarat. Then an unofficial spokesperson was provided ample media coverage to proliferate hatred against the Muslims. He “announce[s] unofficially that every action [will] be met with an equal and opposite reaction” (45). The speech of the unofficial spokesperson full of spite against the Muslims stimulates a good number of Hindu extremists who literally bring about havoc to the Muslims in every sphere of their life, even they were attacked in pilgrimage; and for this, Zakir Mian died. If the government wanted to terminate the communal hatred by forcibly stopping broadcasting such news, hundreds of lives could have been spared. On the contrary, the government did nothing which indicates that the government is totally unstirred to the Muslim population. Conversely, the government is using media to unleash its wrath against the Muslims, and media supports the government to do such things in a frictionless manner.
In this novel, Roy portrays the image of a corrupted government that has failed to keep an eye on the poor folk. Roy narrates an incident where the Supreme Court judge passed an order to do away with the “surplus people”, which means, the poor people who cannot afford to live in the city. When hegemonic power is being exercised, then different forms of resistance from people also emerge against the hegemonic order because, the subaltern groups have well documented “ability […] to develop oppositional agency even in extremely repressive contexts” (Nilsen and Roy 11-12). In such cases, media needs to play its vigorous role to resist the government from exercising its hegemonic power. On the contrary, media provides its utmost aid to the government to perpetuate its nefarious activities. The media agents and the journalists are controlled ideologically since they have no authentic desire to help the poor and marginalized; alternatively, they ask some irrelevant and nonsensical questions to the poor. The “untrained, but excellent-looking young reporters” (99) ask empty questions to the poor like this: “What it [is] like to be poor, the hungry what it [is] like to be hungry, the homeless what it [is] like to be homeless” (99). Here, Roy offers her stand against biased journalism which actually does nothing to mitigate the struggles of the people against poverty and domination.
Roy has severely criticized media’s role in making celebrities. She expresses her disgust since anyone can “become a cult figure overnight” (102) because of media and misrepresentation. Roy brings a particular issue into the foreground which talks about “a tubby old Gandhian…who [has] announced a fast to the death to realize his dream of a corruption free India” (101). Media takes him so seriously that his “[e]ach sigh, each widespread instruction to the people around him, [is] being broadcast live through the night” (101). As a consequence, he gets a massive audience and followers of all ages and professions. Still, most of his followers are youngsters who are “innocent of history and politics so far” (103) because, these ignorant youngsters are most likely to be hegemonized and brainwashed by the media policies. Besides, the Gandhian becomes thrilled due to his excessive popularity, which signifies that he is not really a true activist fighting against corruption since a genuine resolute activist must not be thrilled by his “instant stardom” (102). He wants to please everyone, each of the groups which testifies his lack of integrity behind his cause. Though his main agenda is to eradicate corruption from the state, in reality, he never does anything subversive of the corrupted government. Due to this fact, media makes him a national celebrity by “shaping of people’s awareness and consciousness” and thus, media becomes “the agents through which hegemony is constructed, exercised and maintained” (Watson and Hill 126).
For the old Gandhian, “[t]elevision viewership [has] skyrocketed, [and] [a]dvertising roll[s] in” (103), because, the shrewd media authority knows “which opinions are dominant” and “which opinions are on the increase” (Noelle-Neumann 108), and they keep broadcasting those issues in a monumental manner. On the other hand, another well-known Gandhian activist does not receive proper media coverage. Her causes are much more specific and compelling than that of the hollow old Gandhian. She has “committed herself to a fast to the death on behalf of thousands of farmers and indigenous tribespeople whose land [has] been appropriated by the government to be given to a petrochemicals corporation for a captive coal mine and thermal powerplant in Bengal” (105). Being the dominant group, the petrochemical corporations never receive any negative airtime because these corporations own most of the TV channels. They exert a powerful influence in contemporary society since in a capitalist state, “a small number of big multinational corporations dominate media ownership” (McDougall 32). Moreover, many of the TV channels are not in a containment by simply not covering her issues; instead, they try their utmost to demean her through false information and propaganda. They are “denouncing her and insinuating that she [is] being funded by a foreign power” (106). Media’s staple aim in India is to serve the authority even if by supporting the latter’s corruption. To serve the authority, sometimes, media hides authentic information; and sometimes, it also spreads propaganda to shape public opinion; and due to these reasons, media audiences become less than passive things—in Chomsky’s words, the “bewildered herd” (21).
Roy inserts the Bhopal issue very skillfully to delineate the dystopic condition of the country where the sufferings of Bhopal-maimed people hardly receive any media attention due to the power politics. These maimed men are not in a physically sound situation; there is no sign of improvement, but “their condition [is] deteriorating steadily” (111). Nevertheless, amid the scorching sun, these maimed men of deteriorating physical condition cross a long way from Bhopal to Delhi to claim the justice they deserve; they came to Delhi “to demand compensation: clean water and medical care for themselves and the generations of deformed babies who were born after the gas leak” (111). Their intention is not to wreak havoc in the city; instead, they are putting forth some urgent and indispensable issues which are needed to get ample coverage. Conversely, media authority pays no heed to this issue since their “struggle [is] too old to make the news” (111). Moreover, no significant news is published against Mr. Warren Anderson, the C.E.O. of Union Carbide Corporation (alleged main culprit behind Bhopal tragedy) since “news and other media contents […] are shaped to the requirements of capitalist, or corporate ideology” (Severin and Tankard 282). Here, Roy criticizes the corrupted media—blinded by corruption, and silenced by power that lacks any genuine interest in the mass welfare.
Media often stereotypes the other. The country as a whole is facing injustice; maximum families abuse women/ intersexes, but media remains silent when the issues go against the majority. Conversely, media, in most of the cases, is eager to broadcast anything against the minority. When the media authority comes to know that Anjum, an intersex, is living outside her home, the mainstream journalists give Anjum a frequent visit so that they may get ample information to broadcast a piece of news against Anjum’s Muslim family. They “[encourage] Anjum to talk about the abuse and cruelty that her interlocutors assumed she had been subjected to by her conventional Muslim parents” (26). On the contrary, when Anjum gives her statement in favor of her family, then “they were invariably disappointed” (26). Hence, media stereotypes her family, wants to broadcast something in where Anjum will be depicted as a victim of family abuse.
There is a huge discrepancy between what media broadcasts in Kashmir and the real situations there. Media presents Kashmir as a place of Edenic beauty; but in reality, Kashmir, occupied by the Indian government is such a place not better than hell. For example, Jammu and Kashmir tourism department advertised the scenic beauty of Kashmir as having “snowy landscapes and happy people in warm clothes sitting in snow sledges” (90). The department advertises Kashmir in such a way that it is a land that is “white”, “fair”, and “exciting” (90). Conversely, in reality, Kashmir is such a god-forsaken place covered in mire and blood. Army press release is another example of how Media distorts reality by publishing propaganda. The press release shows how the girls of Bandipora leave for excursion in an overjoyed mood; but actually, people of Kashmir regularly undertake the excursion into the graveyards and detention camps. General Indian masses tend to believe what mass media lets them believe because they are “extremely vulnerable to mass communication messages” (Severin and Tankard 125).
Besides, mainstream journalism never broadcasts the brutality of the Indian army in Kashmir. When Naga was in Ashfaq’s chamber, he gazes at the wall, and then, he comes across a framed poster containing the following verse:
We follow our own rules
Ferocious we are
Lethal in any form
Tamer of tides
We play with storms
U guessed it right
We are Men in Uniform. (220)
Obviously, the poster, containing the words like “ferocious”, “lethal”, “tamer”, is a clear symbol of domination and torture; but Naga never gathers that much courage to publish what he has seen. On the contrary, media views the propaganda of the Indian army in Kashmir with the eyes of appreciation; and in “live round-the-clock bulletins news anchors marvel at how much brave Indian soldiers [are] doing for ungrateful, surly Kashmiris who [do] not really deserve to be rescued” (264).
Gafoor’s story is another burning example to show how media is biased, and controlled in every possible way. Gafoor, a poor laborer, who has no explicit connection with the Kashmiri conflict, has been tortured brutally, and later, he is killed, and buried in the manhole in the midst of human excrement. Moreover, the STF labeled him as a “dreadful Afghan terrorist” (193), and in order to justify the labeling, the special task force enforced two innocent civilians to become witnesses of the incident they have fabricated. This fabricated story has been published as a piece of news in the popular media. The media, especially in Kashmir, lost its validity, cannot have the courage to undermine the corrupted narratives of the soldiers, and in a sense, media becomes a puppet of the corrupted army and government.
Naga’s character must be taken into consideration to show how media corrupts, and manipulates people. Naga was a radically left student who ultimately turned into a mainstream journalist. Nevertheless, he worked for, and covered some of the leftist causes for which he attained popularity among the oppositional groups though he says nothing subversive of the government because he has been hegemonized on a monumental level. For his former radical and iconoclastic views, “he [is] still the intrepid journalist who [can] be trusted to expose the so-called crimes of the Indian state” (166). Conversely, he promotes “mainstream journalism” (163) which fosters and bolsters the government’s dominion over the mass. He has become “a star reporter” (163) because he assimilates himself in the pervasive web of corruption; and subsequently, he serves the government’s interest in lieu of narrating the actual events.
Naga’s journalistic silence gets focused when he comes across Aijaj in the cinema house cum detention camp. Aijaj, according to the narration of Ashfaq Mir, is “brainwashed, indoctrinated” but “neutralized” (224). Ashfaq Mir wants Naga to take an interview with Aijaj. When Mir leaves the cell, Aijaj reveals the truth. Aijaj asserts that what Mir has talked about him is a complete lie. Aijaj blatantly retorts that he has not been brainwashed; instead, he does everything with sense and consent “for Azadi and Islam” (227). Aijaj describes what happened with him:
They tortured me, they gave me electric shocks and made me sign a blank sheet. This is what they do here with everybody. I don’t know what they wrote on it later. I don’t know what they have made me say in it. The truth is that I have not denounced anybody. The truth is that I honour those who trained me in jihad more than I honour my own parents. They didn’t force me to join them. It was I who went looking for them.’ (227)
Aijaj reveals these truths to Naga because he thinks that Naga is a “fearless journalist—not a fellow traveler by any means, but someone who [can] be useful” (226). From this interview, Naga comes to know everything—the tortures inflicted upon the Muslims, and their hope for the good days to come. Naga could have formulated a wonderful story about the sufferings and resilience of Kashmiri people with a touch of sympathy and authenticity. Conversely, he remains silent—nothing goes in the air, because, he is such “an investigative journalist, [who is] cultivated by the army” (Barta 430). Hence, he abuses his power, and serves the powerful in order to acquire fame.
Ashfaq Mir’s attitude also needs to be mentioned to depict how powerful people use media and journalism for their own purposes. He allows Naga to take an interview with Aijaj because he knows very well about Naga’s mainstream journalism. To him, Naga is such a brainwashed journalist who the government nourishes to display a seeming resistance. Even ironically, he says: “He writes against us openly, but still we respect and admire him. This is the meaning of democracy” (224). Though he talks about democracy, he does not believe in the freedom of the press, because, if he really calls for that freedom, then he must not want to reconfirm what Aijaj says. He contends: “Before publication you can please reconfirm with me any facts he [gives] you. He’s a terrorist after all” (229). This incident shows Mir’s disregard for the necessity of a free press to perpetuate individual freedom in a democratic country.
For media’s hegemonic nature, the demise of Miss Jebeen the first does not receive that much media attention as it deserves. Miss Jebeen the first is Musa’s daughter who dies at the age of three in a massacre in Srinagar, Kashmir. The story of her demise gets covered in international media. On the other hand, in India, “for obvious reason, the photograph of Miss Jebeen [is] less popular” (327). If media covers this incident in a monumental manner, then there will be a huge possibility of the emergence of anti-governmental sentiment which is, not at all, convenient for the authority; and this is the obvious reason (italics are mine; used for emphasis) for which such a burning issue encounters journalistic silence.
Moreover, a maimed Bhopal boy has become immensely popular at the time when Miss Jebeen dies, and “in the supermarket of sorrow, the Bhopal boy, victim of the Union Carbide gas leak, remained well ahead of her in the charts” (327). As argued previously, Bhopal issues do not get much focus in usual times because the Bhopal issue is clearly a demonstration of a government that fails to fulfill the needs of the people dwelling in the state. But now, Bhopal issue becomes that much popular because the Bhopal boy is Hindu; and he has nothing to do with the imminent cases of Kashmir. Conversely, the demise of Miss Jebeen gets minimum media coverage since the Indian government does not want Kashmiri causes and issues to be broadcast.
As described by Barta, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a “political novel by all accounts, as it refers to political personages, but more than that has the political issues at its core which trigger most action” (429). Being a political novel, it is solely concerned with power, domination, control, propaganda and other relevant issues. In order to perpetuate existing power politics, media’s role is utterly undeniable since “the media has ceased to exist as a dominant agency of power” (McDougall 16). Media’s magic system has the capability to establish order, harmony and peace in India. Conversely, media nourishes violence against the minority groups, but very masterfully conceals the violence conducted by the Indian army in Kashmir. In a sense, media manipulates the mass of the society by controlling individual consciousness: people think that they are apparently free and independent, but they are very tactically manipulated by the power politics of media for which people never tend to believe that they are manipulated and dominated. The very recent example of the United States of America and Afghanistan can be taken into consideration. American media, for nearly twenty years, presented their occupation in Afghanistan as “war on terrorism”, but in reality, they are exploiting Afghan resources and practicing power over the occupants; and people both in United States and worldwide, think that the American soldiers are building a nation but actually the scenario is entirely different. Media uses its two prominent tools to manipulate and misrepresent—one is advertisement, and the other one is propaganda. From the prime minister to the journalists (Naga), each of them is a propagandist who controls the contents to be published in popular media. Consequently, in the country, as Pilger asserts, “most of the available information is repetitive, politically safe and is limited by invisible boundaries” (qtd in McDougall 19). Therefore, the government gets massive power, the country experiences a huge level of corruption; and most importantly, people are robbed of their freedom—they only get a shadowy trace of freedom.
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Date: December 24, 2021