Terra Nullius | India’s tragedy

Aristotle’s conditions for a good tragedy need to be fulfilled for the severest calamity to get our media’s attention. That is the real tragedy.

Aristotle’s Poetics has a substantial definition of the perfect tragedy. According to Aristotle, a tragedy is “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions…”

The primary shaper of narratives in India is the media. Once the media has covered an event, the authorities of higher power usually have little choice but to take an interest in it because evidently that is what the “nation wants”. Whether good or bad, what usually gains media attention is dependent on multiple reasons. National significance, relevance, popularity, viewership/readership, associated politics, geographical location of the event, stakeholders involved, sensation and shock value, tweetability, and of-course the leanings of the reporting media, among other reasons. But what happens when events of similar nature and outcome take place? How does one event gain more attention than others of equal significance, especially if they are both tragic in nature?

The Badaun rape case in May received ample attention, with the ghastly visuals of two young girls hanging from a tree. Not to take away from the seriousness of this particular case, but multiple barbaric incidents of similar nature took place in Uttar Pradesh after that particular case, including the hanging of another girl from a tree. Outside of a few snippets in a news column, these events, among multiple others, saw little coverage, outrage or national sympathy. Last year, the victims of the Muzaffarnagar riots were made refugees in their own backyards during a harsh winter. Their displacement and predicament was noticed only after media coverage, and subsequent political mud slinging and parrying. Whether the immediate situation of the victims was resolved or not, the outcome of the riots were not of national consequence until players of national consequence got involved. Reports state that there were a total of 247 cases of communal violence across Uttar Pradesh last year. Each of these would have had consequences. How many were covered by the local and national media and how many were considered serious?

Over the last few days, news that has garnered attention and opinion has been diverse. Visits by neighbouring President’s (and simultaneous Chinese incursions), horrific floods in Jammu and Kashmir, a national daily disrespecting an actress’s body, our PM’s visit to the US, the initiation of a bold campaign to attract growth and development, India’s successful Mars mission, among many others. In a large country of over a billion, not everything can become a topic of national significance. And sometimes, even the worst stories from certain parts of the country remain unheard.

In August, it was reported that over 12 lakh people had been affected in the Assam floods. Over 163, 052 people had to take shelter in 212 relief camps across the districts. The situation has only worsened over the last few days both in Assam and in Meghalaya. The entire region has been put under flood alert at the moment. According to a report in The Hindu “Flash floods and landslides in four districts of Assam: Goalpara Kamrup, Kamrup (Metropolitan) and Dhubri claimed 37 lives including 18 in Goalpara and 12 in the Kamrup district. In Garo hills region in Meghalaya, the death toll mounted to 41…” The infrastructure and livelihood of both the states has altered significantly. Meghalaya’s deputy chief minister said the state suffered a loss of almost Rs 1170 crore and that the restoration of the road communication alone would require Rs 500 crore. According to the minister, more than 32,000 people are currently in the 108 relief camps that have been set up. According to the NDRF Chief, the current total death count in the region is 85, with 39 deaths in Assam and 46 in Meghalaya. Outside of a few news reports and tweets, these floods have gained little attention of the prime time media or the opinion shapers.

Coming back to Aristotle, in his definition of tragedy, Aristotle also defines the six components of a good tragedy, which determine its quality. These are: plot, characters, diction, thought, spectacle and melody. Study each component closely. Aristotle’s definition one can guess, was limited to the Greek stage that created fictional accounts of reality. However, in India, death, destruction, violence and injustice are never tragic enough. To be a tragedy of national significance, the casualty must be Aristotelian in its nature. Having the precise components that make it tragic and dramatic enough for a reaction from its audience, with more. They must be timely, that is at a time when we are not too exhausted outraging over other events. They mustbe unique, not similar in nature to another event that has recently incensed us. They must be events in the important parts of the country, represented by important people, who deserve media attention. And most significantly, they must not take place at a time when other important ‘national’ events are taking place. How else do we explain the lackadaisical coverage and paltry national attention towards the Assam and Meghalaya floods, that have altered the infrastructure and livelihood of the region and killed dozens, as opposed to all the other events that are currently being covered?