Mainstream media’s connivance with the Hindu right has drawn widespread condemnation and alarm around the world.
While the hatred of religious supremacists for minorities has never been hidden in India or elsewhere, the manner in which some members of the clergy with godliness exuding from their long beards and flowing saffron robes converged at Haridwar, Uttrakhand, late last year to give a call, bizarrely and wantonly, for genocide of Muslims as a recompense for country’s bloodied past where Muslim invaders and rulers allegedly caused untold atrocities and destroyed Hindu temples. This congregation relied on expected historical distortions that deepen hatred for the other by claiming moral and physical superiority.
Except shock and display of horror there was no immediate impact on the ground of the clergy’s call to the faithful to participate in a ghoulish genocide. The reaction to a call that brought back chilling memories of massacres at the time of partition or later in Rwanda was restricted to editorial comments. The outraged sought judicial intervention as the administration was limply trying to make light of these toxic remarks. The administration’s response was like a rap on the knuckle of the offenders as they merrily went back to their ordinary business of life. Interestingly, the violence of the words did not translate into bloodshed and gore. There were no riots or killings. It seemed that the perpetrators as well as the victims decided to move on. Not really.
What emerged from Haridwar episode is that the interpretation of what constitutes hate speech depends much on the administration.
Many of those who get arrested for hate speech were not those who took part in TV chat shows, but those whose tweets or facebook post were considered toxic. Till the judiciary intervened, Delhi Police had found no evidence of hate speech in the remarks of the anchor of a TV channel. When the local police realized that the courts were unhappy with their reaction, they hastily changed tack. What was the outcome? Nothing really! The nationalist anchor continues to spew hatred, in a matter-of-fact manner, on his eminently unwatchable channel.
In fact the channels have begun to see great merit in providing their platforms to hateful and divisive propaganda to garner not just a certain kind of viewership, but also substantial funds from those who endorse and promote such messaging. Besides, peddling this editorial line they also ensure that these channels are on the right side of the central and state governments.
Late last year, evidence surfaced in Agartala, Tripura, of how the media was forced to tow the government line as it was the only advertiser. The problem for the media gets exacerbated as there are no other companies or businesses that would be interested in advertising in any news outlet. It’s only the government that wants to control the media to manage the narrative. In fact the government is not averse to the idea when the media leans entirely for support as it allows them the freedom to control the narrative and its outcomes better.
From this sense, the violence that was triggered after the hateful remarks of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, has to be viewed differently. It took place in some cities of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal – many days after the TV outburst of the BJP spokesperson. The geographical dispersal of violence does not allow an easy explanation. Interestingly, despite the outrage by the West Asian countries to the remarks by the BJP leader on The Prophet, other news channels and newspapers friendly to the ruling ideology did not really criticize Sharma. They quickly moved, as if on cue, on to the violent protests and how the brick-batters were causing immense harm to public infrastructure. Thereafter, the attention of channels and others was captured by the decision of the Uttar Pradesh Police to demolish the house of the alleged chief conspirator in the city of Prayagraj. The howl of protests over the arbitrary and unjust decision was followed by appreciation and admiration from the followers of this aggressive majoritarian politics.
It is obvious that the biggest losers of this entire engagement that began with a seemingly mindless fracas on TV panel discussion were the Muslims. Not only did they suffer in comparison of the majority community, but also had the mortification of seeing some of their houses bulldozed in full public view. Their helplessness exacerbated by the fact that no one really stopped this manifest illegality when it was unfolding. In fact, use of bulldozers was celebrated in Uttar Pradesh and then replicated in other states of the country. Ideally, media should be the platform for expression of outrage when something so blatantly wrong takes place, but nothing like this happened. Instead, the TV news channels were seeing wisdom in what the state government was doing. Also, they were providing legitimacy to what was considered legally and morally reprehensible by presenting only one-sided news: For instance, stone pelting shown by only one side. Such camerawork by TV channels has been finessed in Israel and US and has done its bit feeding islamophobia and accentuating the impression of unreasonableness of the protestors. What is always obfuscated is the reason that triggered the violence.
Unlike the occasion when the Supreme Court stayed further demolition by bulldozers in Delhi’s Jehangirpuri after the riots, the SC chose another route after Nupur Sharma episode. This time around, SC bench said that the demolition should not be seen as an act of retaliation. How was the SC order read by the followers of the majoritarian narrative? Based on the TV news, they believed that courts had endorsed UP Chief Minister Yogi’s bulldozing ways. Such a narrow interpretation was facilitated by, firstly, how the television media spun around the judgment and, secondly, how it allowed millions of Whatsapp groups in this majoritarian eco-system to disseminate this message.
It is due to this skewed messaging that the man on the street maintains unreserved skepticism about the TV media and how it distorts news in favor of those who are divisive and bent on provoking a communal riot. However, the big message is that despite all the hate news that the channels may spout, those who are in a position to benefit from it usually trigger violence. The disadvantaged seldom gain from it and know the harm that may visit them if they are seen to be the initiator.
The same template in different forms plays out everywhere. Media, whose independence is so critical in a democracy, is threatened by issues of viability and ends up following the official diktat even if it means hurting the interests of its common readers and viewers.
Sanjay Kapoor is a Delhi-based senior political analyst and editor of Hardnews magazine.