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Kerala story? How those in power seek to manipulate perceptions among masses

By Gajanan Khergamker* 

The Kerala Story, much like The Kashmir Files, furthers agendas. One, that wreaks havoc and furthers political propaganda and another, of setting the record right, for those wronged. The agenda and concurrent ire depend entirely on which side you identify with.
There are two key issues that are in contention with regard to the imminent release of ‘The Kerala Story’. The first being the figure of ‘32,000’ girls from Kerala joining ISIS and the Syro-Malabar Church’s statement in 2020 expressing concern over the “rising number of love jihad” cases in the state and calling it a part of a larger agenda of the Islamic State (IS) to “threaten the religious and social harmony of Kerala”.
The director of the film in question himself maintained that “the number doesn’t matter,” and that “even if one girl faced this, the story needs to be told.” The crux being the ‘generalisation’ that casts aspersions on Kerala as a state and affects the party in power which, inadvertently, places the blame on the Centre for manipulating perceptions. That said, following the Censor Board’s cuts, the Supreme Court has refused to stay the release of the film which will see the light of the day and create further ripples.
Those in power are known to manipulate perceptions among masses in order to further their own interests; and, it’s their manipulative processes that go on to create a narrative to their convenience. What’s news today by way of reliable communication put down in a permanent format that becomes a source of fact for historians and researchers who go on to call it history.
In order to deflect public outrage over an issue, ruling regimes are known to trigger situations at parallel times in order to dull the impact if not deter it altogether. And it isn’t that everyone falls for it either. There are sections in the informed strata of society which calls the bluff of the ruling regime even questions it as and when it can while steering clear of systemic brickbats.

History used to manipulate response

Very often, history and its perception is used to manipulate public response to further commercial interests too. The release of films based on ‘true stories’ and the responses they elicit depend almost entirely on the regime in power whose interests may be furthered by the strategic releases.
While on the one hand, the production of a film like Padmavat was shrouded with controversy from the onset itself. Starting with its very name, the film had to be screened for the benefit of a section which felt outraged and threatened violence on release. It was a slice of history and one that wreaked havoc on being told again. The choice of a history bound to rake up unpleasant memories for a film that claimed to be inspired and not a documentary claiming cent per cent truth, caused colossal damage but made news and grabbed headlines even if it were for all the wrong reasons.
For filmmakers, who thrive on documenting history for selective audiences and on platforms where they know censorship would simply not permit them to release their makes without cuts, the formula remains the same. They release a few cuts, make statements on a fact in history, stir up a controversy and all this even before approaching the censor board for a certification.
So much of history is now being relayed through medium such as film even audio-visual content and constantly being promoted through myriad means such as social media campaigns and targeted coverage even calculated controversies, that it’s nearly impossible to identify historians without an agenda.

Political parties and their bandwagons

Each political party in India now generates its own media through paid arrangements, advertorials, social media managers and spin doctors working in tandem not just to generate a narrative but also quash counter narratives or pitches that could add teeth to opponents. And, once the party loses power for whatever reason, a political opponent rises to obliterate the narrative generated by its predecessor, even change history starting with names of cities under the confidence of an opposition.
Now most regimes tend to camouflage their attempts with well-seeming acts and intentions to do public good even rectify another wrong, altogether. Whether an act is for public good or not isn’t important. What is remains the fact that it was perpetrated posing a public good in a particular regime and, swiftly dumped, when the regime loses power. It’s usually a lobby that backs up selective political decisions and attempts, albeit temporarily, to create facts and pass it off as credible history by publishing reports, creating documentation even curriculum for academia and popularise a narrative.
And, with the change in regime is a corresponding change in the lobby that works parallel in the eco-system. In time, the narrative generated also changes drastically but over so much time that it’s nearly impossible to see the shift. Right from reports to research-based documentation and curriculum for academia, everything changes in favour of the polity in power.

History is what is perceived

Heritage is what is perceived at the moment. Sometimes, it’s also what is perceived by the powerful. But, almost always, the weak’s version never ever gets to be classified as heritage which may, at best, form part of affirmative action and a spin-off that barely makes any material difference. So, the view of a powerful nation or one that owns the media or reins of populist indicators and lobbies is almost always of pivotal importance.
One good way to do so is to identify the platform on which getting published or having one’s views displayed, which decides the narrative…always. Ironically, in a democracy, the majority wins. A minority will never have the potential to catapult its view on populist platforms unless it’s part of the lobby’s alter ego and is playing bad cop, for a selective while, that is.
The struggle for control that lay mostly in the ownership of media, means of publication and production has now gone on to transcend to social media, academic narratives, political manipulations and state-sponsored entities. Now, sponsorship by the state and its entities has changed drastically over the years. With necessities and means made available and within easy reach of the masses, it’s the sharing of power and processes to dominate and subjugate strategic groups that matter.
Impressing upon locals the need to weed out ‘outsiders’ to be able to govern themselves may seem a wee excessive even unconstitutional but works like magic, everywhere. Whether it’s Goa, Karnataka, West Bengal, Rajasthan, Gujarat or Maharashtra, an insider-outsider rife and memories of a bloody incident from the past or a violent struggle etched in poetry, prose or film forms an integral part of a systematic history created to perpetrate the hatred; And, all this under the guise of a freedom, and ironically, guaranteed by the very State under threat.

Judiciary attempts to correct

A judiciary attempts to nip the scourge in the bud, as and when possible, even taking up matters Suo Moto but the narrative must be furthered to ensure power remains in the hands of the few select united. History and heritage continue to be treated as weapons of mass management by the polity and those in power.
Whether it’s a speech that may be inflammatory in content or a book of history that poses the threat of sparking violence or, lesser still, unrest and disgruntlement among a lot, it’s in the quantum of people affected that decides its credibility. If there is a risk of violence or upheaval, the law will take its course and attempts at preventive action, either politically or by resorting to the judiciary, will act in time.
But, if the people affected are weak or less powerful, read inconsequential, a skewed depiction of history in favour of the powerful will continue to trample upon the truth even valid concerns with wild abandon.
History and Heritage continue to remain the reins in the hands of the powerful and till those are not distributed by the state to reach and fulfil needs of all, even address them by sensitive censorship and timely nips, narratives will remain in the exclusive domain of the powerful few.
It’s in the progression of a free media, even social media, that history is being documented by all, the poorest, the weakest and the most fragile. It’s important to identify this history and amplify its reach strategically and not succumb to the game of algorithms and numbers.
If numbers of likes or followers on Social Media translated into real-time support, most of those sitting in the Opposition in India would be in power. And, that’s not a view but a fact!
* The writer is Editor of The Draft. A version of this article first appeared here



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