Just when you thought that the news media was dissipating itself in the purposeless eddies of irrelevance, trying to keep people excited without engaging them here comes Aamir Khan with an exquisite piece of journalism. Satyamev Jayate is a television program which is ambition in scope, thorough in research, unrelenting in questioning, singular in focus, simple in presentation and yet searing in its indictment – of much of journalism as it is currently practiced, of the medical profession, of the keepers of law, the deliverers of justice and the political leadership. Khan has shown that there is not dearth of issues, only of imagination and that the television rating points game can be played without social regression or dumbing down.
Who would have thought that an issue like female foeticide could be the stuff of prime time television and keep the country riveted? Khan is dramatic without being theatrical. He is understated but the facts are not. (Thirty million girl-children killed the womb in the past six decades – as many as were killed by starvation during Mao’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s as China tried to catch up with the west in steel production). Khan does not let those figures be mere statistics as he drives home the terrible implications of mass murder committed within the oppressive confines of domesticity or the sterile walls of the operation theatre. Using 3G technology he brings us face to face with a group of Haryanvi youth in their mid-30s forced into bachelorhood (known colloquially as kanwar fauj or army of the unmarried) -by the ravages of the sonogram. A social worker says that in his native Alwar district of Rajasthan, an adverse sex ratio has resulted in a thriving market for Bihari brides. He estimates that at least 15,000 are bought every year. The lucky ones are those that stay bought. Many are sold onward. A Jain lady from Bhilwara (Rajasthan) gives a personal attestation: her cousin fetched a wife all the way from Karnataka’s Belgaum district. A lady ‘protection officer’ of Haryana says the degradation is not limited to females in the bridal market. Any woman who speaks out against the practice is questioned about her ‘aukath’ (worth), when women are ‘available’ for Rs 10,000 a piece.
Khan also summons eyewitnesses: women whose life was made hell by husbands and in-laws because they conceived the ‘wrong’ gender. A lady from Ahmedabad’s Vastrapur locality, Amisha Yagnik, narrates how she was forced to undergo six abortions in eight years without her consent and with the doctor’s connivance, till she plucked the courage to walk out of marriage and bring up a daughter, now eight years old, on her own as a single parent while working in a call center. The testimony of Parveen Khan from Morena in the badlands of Bundelkhand, an area known for mispalced machismo, was moving as much from her courage and grace as for the viciousness of the attack she was subjected to. Her face, badly disfigured by a furious husband but surgically reconstructed later courtesy of a doctor in Jaipur, was emblematic of the intense loathing that drives men insane when thwarted in their obsessive quest for the male child. Nor are these instances confined to poor and illiterate families. Khan rattles middle class Indians in their comfort zones. The example of Delhi’s Mitu Khurana, herself a doctor, is proof that education need not be ennobling or that wealth is an antidote to greed. Discovered carrying twin girls, she has to face the combined wrath of her husband, an orthopaedic surgeon, and in-laws – one a professor of history in Delhi University and the other, a school vice-principal. When born prematurely because of violence-induced shock, the grandmother is gleeful that the girls have a slim chance of survival. And when she kicks the mobile crib carrying one of them two flights down the stairs, it is the mother’s prudence and sheer luck that saves the child.
For those of us in television journalism, who have forgotten the basics in the din of daily news coverage, Khan’s is a refresher course. He does not scream, because the facts speak. He is not in your face, yet there is shock and awe. Khan does not berate or condemn. He is not a rampaging bull seeking retribution on behalf of the victims. He diagnoses the problem and tells us how things went wrong, when the government in its zeal to control population growth winked at sex-selective abortions in public hospitals. The salesmen of ultrasound machines invoked social prejudice and the avarice of medical practioners to expand the market with the promise of investment paying for itself many times over. And the bearers of standards, and the upholders of law connived in the practice: the Medical Council of India has not cancelled a single license. A seven-year-old sting operation on about 140 Rajasthan doctors has only resulted in harassment for the journalists of Sahara Samay channel; there has not been a single conviction.
Khan does not seek to titillate. His intention is not ‘entertain’ and leave the issue hanging in the air. Khan suggests solutions. He presents the example of Punjab’s Nawashahr where there has been a dramatic increase in the birth of girl children because of a public education campaign initiated by Krishna Kumar, an IAS officer, as collector. He calls for exemplary punishment of a few high profile doctors as in South Korea, where the practice, once rampant, was stifled within a year. He urges the audience to sign a petition (see http://satyamevjayate.in) to the Rajasthan government for a fast track court to try the cases brought to light by the Sahara Samay sting operation. And he tells us all to look deep within and change our mindsets.
Justice Markhanday Katju said upon taking over as chairman of the Press Council of India that he had a low opinion of journalists because the general lot, according to him, is intellectually lacking. If that is true, it is to be expected in a vocation where entry is free. But that is also its strength, because it draws in, despite relatively low salaries, a whole lot of young people who have the passion to change the world. And to those who are not so young the message from Aamir Khan’s is: do not be jaded.