Article: Backstory: The Mob-Making Media Machine

Pamela Philipose

This reference to India as the “world’s largest democracy”, a term widely used during the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent charm offensive in India, requires to be subjected to serious critical review. Indeed, India may soon become the largest country in the world by virtue of its population, but its claim to being a democracy is getting eroded by the day. There is another word that could more suitably describe what we have become: an ‘ochlocracy’, or a system ruled by the mob.

It is the mob drawing its ideological ballast from Savarkarite Hindutva and its muscular physicality from the BJP governments at the national level and in 17 states that is calling the shots today.

In her 2009 book, The God Market, philosopher of science Meera Nanda noted how the state-temple-corporate complex in the country is “creating new institutional spaces where Hinduism is renewing itself”. Today, these institutional spaces are allowing Hindutva not just to renew but to reinvent and reinvigorate itself.

The impacts of this are a legion but one specific fallout, as noted by Delhi based columnist Asim Ali (‘Hindu Rashtra’: How Hindutva Has Created a Self-Propelled Market of Mobs, The  Quint, April 19), is the propensity of the ruling party to incorporate “Hindutva organisations in their political regime as a key component having the specific function of agenda-setting in the political system”, which has led to “the state sanctifying with law the demands made on the street”.

The demand for demolishing the houses of those accused of pelting stones on a Shobha Yatra that was making its way through Sector C of Jahangirpuri on April 16 came from the street, and ensured that within a couple of days the police and North Delhi Municipal Corporation, working in tandem, went on to bulldoze the property of the alleged stone pelters.

The action defies credulity in so many ways.

For one, there was no attempt to identify the supposed stone pelters and punish them for their egregious acts. For another, bulldozing property can never be considered just punishment given that its impacts go far beyond the individual wrongdoer.  There was also no attempt to link this crushing punishment to the original crime. This was the third Shobha Yatra on the same day that made its way through the same northeast Delhi neighbourhood still gripped by the violence that had occurred two years earlier.

Illegal structures during a joint anti-encroachment drive by NDMC, PWD, local bodies and the police, in the violence-hit Jahangirpuri area, in New Delhi, Wednesday, April 20, 2022. Photo: PTI/Shahbaz Khan

The stone-throwing on the procession that ensued was vicious and condemnable. Yet, it cannot be overlooked that the manner the local, predominantly Muslim, community was baited by the mob of processionists at the time of the Ramadan fast, through offensive sloganeering, songs, the brandishing of fearsome weapons and attempts to plant saffron flags, was designed to create an explosive communal flare-up, one that would inevitably be exploited by criminal elements in both communities, some of them bearing arms.

What concerns us here is the coverage accorded to these developments by sections of the media, more specifically television news channels that both supported the mob and provided protection to it. The intent behind their coverage was fivefold.

First, was to frame the use of the bulldozers as legitimate action against “illegal encroachments”. On the spot reporting, emblazoned with kickers like ‘non-stop rolling coverage…”, were interspersed with quotes from known malefactors like Kapil Mishra, chief agent provocateur of the Delhi 2020 violence, who has lost none of his genocidal edge.

He pronounced: “Log kush hain (people are happy). It’s time to remove this pollution…”  Much has already been said of Aaj Tak’s Anjana Om Kashyap’s physical and verbal pirouettes on a bulldozer, as the demolitions were taking place, but the larger media questions are these: a) How is an anchor allowed to be a reporter just by virtue of trading in her workaday clothes for a pink blazer? b) Does Aaj Tak/ India Today make no distinction between reports and opinion when it concerns the same story?

Second, any suggestion that these demolitions were biased actions to target the Muslim community was roundly dismissed by this section of the media. A much favoured formulation that got an airing in practically every television studio was that if stone-pelting does not have a religion, neither should bulldozers. The chat show format, with its time-honoured fashion that pits one side against the other, is irreparably flawed. The supposed “fair balance” is a façade that disintegrates from the very beginning itself, with titles like ‘Bulldozer Justice’ or ‘Is Demolishing ‘Illegality’ Wrong?’ coming into play.

This time, BJP spokesperson Dr. Sambit Patra made a huge meal of it, appearing in chat show after chat show with his now tired bag of tricks – including the familiar ‘Rahul Gandhi yowl’ and the ‘pseudo secular jibe’.

In Navika Kumar’s ‘The News Hour’, he was allowed to heckle a fellow panelist almost without ceasing. There was this point when one of Kumar’s Muslim guests, in a moment of desperation, invited Hindus to kill all Muslims in the country. An overwrought statement it was, no doubt, but it did reflect larger helplessness and anxiety. Yet the anchor was having none of that. She swooped on him with the words, “Oh the victim card is out!”

These are men and women, hardened by decades of being bathed under studio lights, bereft of a smidgeon of empathy. In fact, the rulebook set by Arnab Goswami (whose shoes Navika Kumar feels inadequate to fill) declares that the more obstreperous and brutish you are, the higher will be your TRPs.

These demolitions, by the way, brought out The Arnab in Arnab Goswami, as he declared on top of his voice, “The bulldozer is the metaphor for the rightful application of the law…and a billion citizens are standing in support of it” (or words to that effect), following it up with an announcement of another familiar gimmick – a poll on the theme ‘For bulldozers/Against bulldozers’. Goswami’s viewers did not let Goswami down, the great majority appeared in enthusiastic favour.

Third, there was a constant effort by anchors to frame the Shobha Yatra as “peaceful” and that any weapons that surfaced were wielded by Muslim “rioters”, not Hindu processionists. Such a false framing segues into the larger, much promoted fake narrative of the mob: that Hinduism and Hindus are in danger from “jihadis”.

Rahul Shivshankar in his ‘India Upfront’ is always careful to talk directly to viewers, anxious to draw them in, as he unspools his arguments. It is the “tax-paying citizen” who has been bulldozed all these years, he declares, and casts those who oppose him as ‘The Lobby’ congenitally incapable of acting in India’s interests and who are inevitably pro-“jihadi”. This time he brought into his script the Shaheen Bagh dadis, and the losses they caused to the exchequer and the pockets of tax-paying citizens who didn’t want to live in a civic mess.

Fourth, another favoured device is that of distraction. To move away from the core argument – that this was indeed a vengeful, blunt assault on the Muslim community – stories on the “Jahangirpuri conspiracy” emerged that sought to link the “rioters” with Bengal/Bangladesh.

Before long Hindutva’s long favoured trope of the Bangladeshi undermining the country’s security was being given a free run. CNN News18 even produced a dossier labeled the ‘Full Jahangirpuri Plot’ (“gamechanging disclosure”), accusing the PFI of funding the rioters to create violence. Delhi Police helpfully provided the information that “20 hardcore criminals” were involved. All of this, of course, we the viewers were expected to digest as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

What can one say about the fifth strategy: those innumerable efforts to deprecate and dismiss the suffering of those who lost their properties and goods in the demolition?

Navika Kumar’s tweet, “Dramatic increase in demand for bulldozers. Are we increasing domestic capacity for manufacturing or will we have to depend on imports?? #JustAsking” was of a piece with G.L Narasimha Rao’s barb: JCB or Jihad Control Board. There were a lot of memes that expressed similar sentiments. A Postcard image showed a riot-hit scene with the word, “Problem”, followed by a visual of a JCB with the accompanying word: “Solution” and then there was Zee Hindustan’s tweet on the visits of opposition leaders to Jahangirpuri as a congregation of “Jinnahwadis”.

In the end, it was clear that the bulldozer has been successfully recruited by the mob into the Hindutva lexicon, and large sections of the media will now ensure that it emerges as a symbol of “good governance”.

Press freedom?

Three decades ago, a little over a year after Nelson Mandela had been freed from his 27-year-long imprisonment under a repressive apartheid regime, a seminar on press freedom was organised in South Africa by a raft of UN agencies. It ended with the adoption of the famous Windhoek Declaration.

Today, if May 3 has come to be regarded as Press Freedom Day the world over, it is largely because of that conference and its declaration in defence of the links between freedom to seek, impart and receive information. It recognised that “the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press are essential to the development and maintenance of democracy”. It also iterated that by an independent press, what is meant is a “press independent from governmental, political or economic control or from control of materials and infrastructure essential for the production and dissemination of newspapers, magazines and periodicals”.

Today, all this may seem as pieties and the principles expressed are on the verge of becoming extinct in innumerable parts of the world, including here at home. Yet the need for journalists who value their profession to hang on to these hoary ideals has never been greater. Attempts to demolish the media as an institution is carrying on with renewed vigour by both institutions of the state and private interests. Every day brings evidence of new ways being used to undermine the agency of those who question, investigate and publish wrongdoing.

Just in the course of April 2022 we saw a series of assaults that dramatically exposed the impunity with which the state, the police and private armies have treated journalists attempting to expose wrongdoing.

In Odisha’s Balasore, the local police left TV journalist Loknath Dalei chained to a hospital bed after allegedly roughing him up in their custody. In neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, the police in Sidhi town stripped local journalists down to their undergarments, for daring to cover the arrest of a local stage actor. The crude idea behind the move was to assault their dignity and humiliate them publicly.

The shocking arrest of three journalists, Ajit Kumar Ojha, Digvijay Singh and Manoj Gupta in Ballia district for reporting on the leak of an Uttar Pradesh Board Class 12 English paper was another disturbing case that took place this month.

In Mumbai, a journalist who went to cover a sit-in of local residents outside the office of their MLA over the Malad-Kurar wall collapse on April 18 was picked up and beaten. Then, of course, you had a Hindutva mob round up journalists covering genocidal speech at the Burari Grounds and assaulting them when some of them were found to be Muslims (‘Arrest Communal Hooligans; Release Jailed Scribes,’ Says Press Club of India, The Wire, April 6).

While delivering the O.P. Jindal Memorial Lecture at Brown University on April 15, one of the founding editors of this news portal, Siddharth Varadarajan, noted “a disturbing new trend” – the filing of criminal charges against journalists for the story they did or attempted to do.

“Siddique Kappan has spent more than a year in UP jail, charged as a terrorist for attempting to report on the rape and murder of a Dalit woman in the town of Hathras. In Kashmir, Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul have been booked under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Public Safety Act. Aasif Sultan, who has spent more than four years in jail on UAPA charges that the state knows it can never substantiate was rearrested this week under the PSA when a court finally gave him bail.

In Manipur, the TV journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem spent two lengthy bouts in jail for Facebook posts, including one where he questioned how cow urine and cow dung could protect anyone from Covid-19. It took Andamans-based journalist Zubair Ahmed 17 months to get the high court to quash the serious offences he was charged with for a tweet in which he had asked the police why they had quarantined a family simply because they had spoken to a coronavirus patient on the telephone. I can go on at sickening length. And lest you think this is a problem of the boondocks, remember that it was the police in New Delhi which filed a case of sedition – no less – against senior editors Mrinal Pande and Rajdeep Sardesai for reporting that a farmer who died during a protest in January 2021 had been shot.” (An SOS for India’s Democracy and Media, The Wire, April 21).

Thirty years ago, the Windhoek Declaration had roundly condemned such state, police and instititutional intimidation. The message was that if such assaults on journalists succeed, journalism cannot survive.

Readers write in…

‘Get figures right’

A reader and occasional contributor to The Wire, N.D. Jayaprakash, responded to the piece, ‘BJP Behind the Jahangirpuri Communal Violence: AAP’ (April 18) with a query: “This report says all those arrested are Muslims. However, The Hindu in a report on its front page had said that 16 of the 21 arrested are Muslims. The facts must be crosschecked.”

My comment: What is not in dispute is that five of those accused of communal violence and booked under the repressive National Security Act in relation to the Jahangirpuri incidents were all Muslims.

‘An article that changed me’

Gujarat-based Dharaa Patel writes: “I consider myself a journalist but since I was more interested in public relations, I decided to make a career of it. I write about social issues a lot. The change I want to see in society, I start with myself. I happened to read the article, ‘5,000 Children Abandon Studies to Work in Mica Mines of Jharkhand, Bihar’ (August 27, 2019) about the impact that the mining for mica is having on the lives of children. One of the uses of this mica is in the manufacture of cosmetics.

This led me to create my own cosmetics for my personal use made up of natural ingredients. They include lipstick, kajal, and shampoo. These products may not have the allure of those marketed by large cosmetic firms but I know of many young women in India who are encouraged to use commercial cosmetics, especially when they reach marriageable ages. They must know that the stuff they apply to their faces and bodies are also destroying the future of children, ruining the environment and compromising their own health. I am writing this letter to convey to The Wire the impact of an article that it had published.”

A welcome step in Assam

Assam-based Prasun Chaudhuri welcomes the renewed push for issuing Aadhaar cards in Assam an issue The Wire had reported on from time to time:

“The decision to go ahead with the issuance of Aadhaar cards in Assam is a welcome move. In fact, around 27 lakh Aadhaar cards had not been issued in Assam. This includes the 19 lakh individuals whose names are not included in the National Register of Citizens (NRC). This action will end the suffering of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. The action is in conformity with the unifying appeal of Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas Sabka Vishwas issued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and truly reflects Indian philosophy and spirit. This action will also accelerate the economic development of the region as well as the nation.

I now appeal to the prime minister to include the names of the 19 lakh individuals of Assam in the National Register of Citizens at the earliest. He had earlier also promised to demolish all detention camps. Perhaps drones could be deployed, along with adequate security forces along the Indo-Bangladesh border to achieve zero infiltration from across the border.”

Police excesses in Sri Lanka

Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, chairperson, and Dr. Roshmi Goswami, co-chairperson of South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), write: “South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR) condemns the use of excessive force by the police on the unarmed civilians’ protest in Rambukkana, Sri Lanka, on April 19. Live bullets were fired at civilians protesting over the rising fuel prices. One protestor was killed and 13 persons injured as a result.

SAHR calls for a transparent and impartial investigation into the Rambukkana incident and to hold perpetrators accountable while ensuring non-recurrence. Reiterating that right to peaceful protest is an essential part of democracy, we firmly urge the relevant government authorities against obstructing freedom of assembly and freedom of expression which is manifested through the right to peaceful protest – a critical element of social change in a democracy.”

Write to Courtesy The Wire