Why India mourns some, but not others

Kunal Diwan
Kunal Diwan
Selective vision

As reports of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s critical condition emerged on Thursday, the Indian media – both social and traditional – was flooded with messages and make-a-wish campaigns for the wellbeing of the former Prime Minister. Everywhere, people wanted their great leader to #GetWellSoon and #Pray(ed)forVajpayeeshealth — a behavior I found most unusual though, apparently, I alone felt that way.

What perplexed me was this:

Since retiring from public life in 2005, and having suffered a major stroke in 2009, Vajpayee had struggled with even the most basic physical activities. The last photos of him, taken by a news agency on the occasion of his 85th birthday, showed a gaunt and vacant figure, so obviously debilitated by illness and old age. That was almost 10 years ago.

With time, Vajpayee’s state, confined to a wheelchair and barely able to communicate with the external world, only deteriorated.

When somebody so senior – especially one who has led a life so enriched and ennobling – nears the end of his mortal existence, is it not more natural, more humane to pray for a release rather than an extension? When people in our families and in our social circles – withered with disease and crippled by advancing years – approach the final bend in the road, do we not wish for a ‘mukti’ for their soul?

Did people really expect the 93-year-old on his deathbed to make a full recovery?

Amid the frenzy to pay our tributes to the departed, how many paused to think of the ongoing natural calamity in Kerala and all those that had died therein? Certainly not the media houses and, by extension, not too many people either – personality always seems to trump key issues in the Indian landscape.

A little over a week ago, similar pleas to the Almighty to prolong the life of another political doyen had inundated the Internet. On the same day as M Karunanidhi died, at the ripe old age of 93, three Indian soldiers in the prime on their life were martyred in Kashmir. Even as an entire country paused to mourn the demise of the Dravidian icon, few spared a thought for the killed soldiers.

Strictly going by my own experience, content pieces on our website around the deceased leader fared exponentially better (in terms of page views and engagement) than the few reports we carried on the Kashmir tragedy.

Even sadder is a phenomenon I like to call the ‘Taimur quandary’. People despise the fact that a two-year-old cherub of famous parents gets so much ‘news’ space. But data shows that pieces around him generate the most viewership; who wants to read up on depressing farmers’ suicides when there’s this angelic creature with rosy cheeks and a fast growing fondness for flashing lights to follow up on! In the age of information, consumers are king and they will be served what they want, in the quantities they want it.

A casual glance through online comments sections across publications gives a fair idea of the hatred Taimur Ali Khan spawns. But that Taimur sightings – in the arms of his nanny, emerging from a brunch get together with his folks, walking, breathing – have come to form the staple of daily news coverage is not entirely an editorial blunder. So, then, what’s to be done?

Each time the child graces the pages of our own web portal, readers visit in droves to vent. The more decent, printable comments are such: Does celebrity spotting merit such coverage? Is there nothing more important than chasing around a child of illustrious parentage? When will you start reporting on the colour of Taimur’s faeces?

To the last, my answer is, ‘very soon’. It will bring the masses to our pages — certainly, more than a report on the death of India’s valiant on the border would.