Chetan Bhagat helping Agitator against Reservation

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May 30, 2006

A couple of weeks ago I wrote an article against reservations and sent it to a trusted journalist friend (TJF). The article was in the form of an open letter to the prime minister. TJF replied that even though the article sounded heartfelt and the arguments were valid, she could not use it. The reason, she said, was simple. She told me a lot of what I was saying had already been said. The case for merit, equality, Indian competitiveness was already out in the open. Her newspaper would not repeat the same argument again.

‘What more do the upper castes want?’

I took her point and withdrew the article. However, it struck me that in many situations, the media will not cover something relevant just because well, it is not entertaining enough.

I had a call with another senior journalist friend (yes, I have journalists as friends — I have no life, I know). We discussed the reservation issue — on how it was practically more relevant to middle class Indians than any other issue. While the issue does get coverage, it has not ignited minds and galvanised the middle class. Somehow the issue is not getting as forceful a treatment. Fanaa’s ban in Gujarat attracted far more media space for instance.

“The reason quite simply is the lack of a dramatic event. Ten years back, kids were burning themselves. Nothing of that sort is happening now. And the media is so immune now, to get them interested young people need to do more”, was what she told me.

I am not here to do moral posturing. And I do respect her opinion. So I will not go into the “Media these days” rant. I will only take some lessons from a senior person in the media and try to give some tips to the activists to make sure their protests are more effective. After all, the point of making a noise is to be heard. And to be heard, one doesn’t have to burn himself — that is foolish and a one-time flash in the pan. If you want to do an effective protest, learn from the past masters — and who better than Mahatma Gandhi.

A lot of rage, a little Rang De

In photographs, Mahatma Gandhi is a frail, saintly figure. However, what is often ignored is his magical ability to make a point and attract attention. He had no advertising budgets or PR managers. There were very few media outlets then. And he had only one, constant — freedom. Yet, he dominated media space for decades and ultimately won. There is no reason why we cannot learn a few tips from him, some of which I list below. And you can get these checked by any media professional; they would tend to agree that this is a way to get yourself heard.

1. Keep a visual — This is vital in today’s multimedia world. Newspapers need to be colourful to compete with television, and a television is not a television without a visual. Gandhi kept a visual — salt march (everyone remembers the scooping of salt), burning British made clothes, operating the charkha and more. Placards are boring. Do something else — a huge bonfire, human chains — be creative, make it easier for NDTV. They will come, I promise.

2. Emotions more than Reason — Whenever activists talk to the media, always keep emotions in the forefront. Brooding anger, tears, banging fists is far more interesting than statistics on caste based demographics. Tell people what you think about the issue — you are on the editorial page. Tell people what you feel about the issue — you are on the front page.

3. Intentions more than Action — This is a trick most used by our politicians even today. In reality, actions alone matter. However, our politicians keep saying ‘our intention is to lift the backward castes’, and they almost sound reasonable. Of course, the actions only divide the country and kill merit — but they hide in the garb of purported good intentions. Protestors can do the same. They may be blocking traffic — but harp on the intentions: ‘But this is for Saraswati mata — knowledge should decide’. (Think about it — the politicians will be scared to take on Saraswati mata or if you mix any religious sentiment in your favour). Alongside, attack the other party’s intentions — ‘they are only doing reservations for selfish political gain’ (which is probably true).

The next partition of India

4. Don’t hurt yourself — Burning yourself or even hunger strikes are very dangerous tools. There is no guarantee they will be effective. If they don’t work, you will be seen as weak. Gandhi used a hunger strike rarely, and only after he had decades of experience.

5. Find a simple, interesting slogan — Gandhi always had a simple slogan. It gives two benefits — one it makes it easier to pass through word of mouth with minimal distortion. Secondly, it fits into the limited headline space in newspapers. In media terms, this is called ‘the hook’. The reservation movement has no slogan yet. Find one. My suggestions: “No suck-up politics” OR “India on Merit only”

The above points are important to make your cause heard. Ignore them and the world will ignore you. Play them right and the media is on your side. Trust me; the reservation issue has bothered a lot of people in the media too.

I personally feel very strongly against reservations, and I wish the agitators all the best. I give the above tips as my small contribution towards tackling this monumental issue that will take effort from all of us. I am writing this article for an online site so that you can forward it to all friends who feel the same about reservations.

You are standing up for fairness, God will be with you. Stay strong, stay inspired.

Chetan Bhagat is the author of the bestselling One Night@the Call Center and Five Point Someone. The views expressed here are his own and does not endorse it.

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