Mumbai, Mehdi Hassan, Echo Chambers

I was in Mumbai this weekend for the Mumbai Lit Fest, also called Tata Lit Live, the annual literature festival conducted in Mumbai, sponsored by the Tatas. I had two engagements. On Saturday, after finishing my first event at NMIMS, Vile Parle, the management school, I drove to Nariman Point and checked into the hotel. 

As I wondered what I would do that evening before dinner, which was being hosted by a friend of the festival, I browsed through the website of the Lit Fest and saw two things that interested me. One was a performance based on the works of P G Wodehouse and the other was a conversation between Rajdeep Sardesai, the TV News anchor and Mehdi Hassan, a journalist from the US. I decided to attend both these events.

As I went through Twitter while relaxing on the couch, I suddenly saw Mehdi Hassan trending. I was surprised and took a closer look. I saw several tweets with a video, of very poor quality with subtitles. It was supposedly a video of Mehdi Hassan saying some nasty things about non-Muslims. There were also some tweets, characteristically, with very similar text, saying that in 2002, Ajmal Kasab came to Mumbai and attacked the Tata's Taj Hotel and in 2023, the Tatas invited Mehdi Hassan to speak at their Lit Fest. There were some suggestions to ask the Bajrang Dal to hold a protest at the Lit Fest!

Honestly, I had no idea who Mehdi Hassan was. I assumed from the tweets that he was a journalist who originated from Pakistani and might have moved to the US.

I went for the event soon after and settled in my chair. Over the course of the next hour, I saw how social media, especially Twitter, has polluted our minds and polarised people like never before. I learnt that  Mehdi Hassan was an Indian, from my city of Hyderabad, that he was a proud Indian and that he thought Hinduism is one of the world's greatest and most peaceful religions.

To be clear, he did not deny that he said those nasty things about non-Muslims. But that was more than 20 years ago! And he has agreed multiple times in the past that he was wrong. People change. People make mistakes. If he regrets what he said, I honestly, will not grudge what he said. Heck, I have said many things several years back which I don't agree with today. 

Trouble is social media is such a terrible medium that people jump to conclusions and don't bother to verify facts. Retweeting something is so easy that you do it without as much as a second thought.

And this is obviously not a problem only with people who were criticising Hassan today. The same thing happens with everyone. The Congress, the BJP, Hindutva sympathisers, Modi haters, Right wing, Left wing, everyone. No one is spared. And everyone becomes the victim.

The conversation touched upon several of these subjects and while I am no fan of Rajdeep and don't even know Hassan, what took place was a very sane, balanced and objective discussion on how we have  all become part of echo chambers where the only voices we hear are those similar to our own, where there is no scope for a divergent viewpoint to be heard and anyone who dares to express such a viewpoint is instantly castigated as having an agenda.

I like to believe that there are no 'good' or 'bad' people. I just believe people do good and bad things. Every one of us does a bit of both. Unfortunately, we paint individuals with one brush - good or bad based on a small set of things they have done. 

Take Indian politics. And specifically Prime Ministers. Manmohan Singh did a great job with the nuclear deal with the US. No one can also accuse him of personal corruption. But he was considered a weak Prime Minister and getting government files reviewed by the President of the Congress party and allowing corruption among his ministers are things that no one can forgive him for.

Coming to Narendra Modi. Even his toughest critics have to give him credit for his foreign policy successes. Demonetisation and the dilution of the powers of the institutions of democracy are things that definitely go against him. The farm laws, I am told, were steps in the right direction but unfortunately could not go through.

Why can't we accept that our leaders do some good things and can also make mistakes in other things? Why do we need them to be ideal human beings? 

We need to correct the way we use social media to ensure we get several kinds of views. If you are a supporter of one party, maybe follow a few handles of other parties as well. That way the algorithms can show you a mix of content which will help you to have a more balanced viewpoint.


Krishnan said…
Good one-
Social media has a huge segment that is 'anti social' masala. We need to be careful in understanding and analysing all that gets published there. Certainly we ought to think a hundred times before sharing the news item.