The Perils of Looking for ‘Balance’ When the News Itself is Lopsided

A strange nervousness engulfs the Big Media whenever they have to report something negative about the Sangh: they seem unwilling to tell viewers what happened without blunting the sharp, piercing edges.

Students and faculty members marched through Delhi University on Monday February 27 to protest the ABVP's violence on campus the previous week. Credit: NS/The Wire

Students and faculty members marched through Delhi University on Monday February 27 to protest the ABVP’s violence on campus the previous week. Credit: NS/The Wire

All of a sudden, media outlets are feeling the need to look neutral for fear of offending the regime. There is no Emergency but the state knows how to make defiance pay: imposing a day-long blackout, withdrawing advertisements, unleashing the enforcement directorate or income tax department, or worse. That is why the big media is falling over itself to be “balanced”.

How would it look if a media outlet says, “ABVP members, armed with stones, belts and police protection, attacked defenceless DU students who were trying to carry out a peaceful march from outside Ramjas College to Maurice Nagar Police Station.” It would look biased, right? Not befitting a reputed media outlet, right? Not something expected of a ‘balanced’  channel, right? Unfortunately for the editors, that’s exactly what happened at Delhi University on February 22. Unfortunately for their viewers and readers, that’s not how the events were reported.

What does accurate reportage require? An accurate description of events, I’d say. A journalist is not expected to invent or change reality. A journalist can, of course, have a view and a framework of analysis. Journalists are entitled to their opinion. However, an event which unfolds before their eyes cannot be changed to make it appear more ‘balanced’.

The manner in which the Ramjas College violence was reported is testimony to the strange nervousness that engulfs the Big Media whenever they have to report something negative about the Sangh: they seem unwilling to tell viewers what happened without blunting the sharp, piercing edges. Most anchors said that there were two sides to the story, that what happened was ‘a clash between Right and Left’. I would say that they are doing an injustice to their staff on the ground – camerapersons and reporters – who were heckled, assaulted and abused by Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) members, had their phones snatched or their hair pulled, or reported amid stone-pelting. Taruni Kumar of Quint was dragged by the ABVP mob in the same manner in which they dragged me – by the hair, mercilessly, unapologetically. Sourodeep Roy of Newsclick was attacked, perhaps mistaken for a student. The Hindustan Times reporter, on a Facebook Live, expressed surprise that some people were trying to snatch her phone. The person who was the first to rush in to save me was Aditya Menon, a reporter with Catch News, who was also assaulted. This is what he tweeted:

We put out videos showing ABVP leaders attacking students, while the police was acting with deliberate ineffectiveness, half-heartedly containing them, handling them with kid gloves. The scenes reminded one of a spoilt rich kid playing in the park, being mildly advised by his ayah not to pluck flowers. The ayah can only advise him but she knows where to draw the line. She has to make sure the spoilt brat doesn’t complain to his parents, or she would risk losing her job. There is no other way for me to put it. There is no way in which I can sugarcoat what happened.

A video which has since gone viral clearly shows an ABVP student punching Sucheta De, national president of the All-India Students Association (AISA) in the face; neither was the attack provoked, nor did De react to it. A photograph of Prashant Mukherjee, Delhi president of the Students Federation of India, was published in The Hindu where he is punching someone. This was widely circulated. However, the video which shows Mukherjee being attacked by a group of ABVP members is being ignored. Perhaps, he should not have protected himself. But then, who would have protected him? The police certainly wasn’t interested.

Many people might find it difficult to believe that we did not resist, we did not hit back but that’s what the truth is. A Times of India report the next day showed pictures of students carrying bags over their head while marching. Why do you think they did that? So as to save themselves from stone-pelting from the ABVP side, so as to be able to carry on with their peaceful march against stone-pelting that had taken place the day before. We didn’t resist because we believe that it is the job of the police to protect innocent civilians from violence.

There is no way in which this harsh reality can be moderated. Some journalists, in their wisdom, are pulling off a balancing act, allowing for ambiguity, granting the benefit of doubt, and asking AISA members also to introspect. They don’t want to look biased. So you have Rahul Kanwal, who, after subjecting ABVP members to rigorous questioning on the issue of violence on campus, felt the need to question Gurmehar Kaur on who really killed her father. Leaving aside the possibility that Kaur is right in criticising both the ABVP violence and the lack of peace between India and Pakistan, why would a journalist even want to pander to an irrelevant debate that those trying to divert attention from the violence have started? Is it because they are afraid of being accused of being biased by the government?

This is neither the first nor the last time that the ABVP has engaged in such violence. The group has repeatedly attacked film screenings, seminars and public meetings, protests by Pinjra Tod, Prof Chaman Lal’s lecture on Bhagat Singh. The ABVP attacked Najeeb Ahmed, a JNU student who went missing after the assault. None of this has to do with slogans, real or imagined. All of this is an attempt to hide the Sangh’s own anti-people policies and blunders. The JNU incident was manufactured to divert attention from Rohith Vemula’s institutional killing and the safe passage given to Vijay Mallya. The DU incident has been manufactured to divert attention from the issue of BJYM leader Dhruv Saxena’s alleged involvement with the Pakistani intelligence agency, ISI. The BJP has been candid enough to confess that the DU incident has helped them in the UP election. They exploit the love of people for their nation and religion, and deploy it for violent purposes.

As the victims, we are already speaking out against violence. If anyone else feels the same, let them join forces with us in condemning those who take the law into their hands. The ABVP fields reasonable-sounding spokespersons on TV but out there on the streets it has leaders like Satinder Awana, who has a charge of demanding dowry, who goes around threatening teachers with rape and other dire consequences, who addresses women activists as “randee”, or prostitutes. The ABVP and BJP spokespersons should come out and demand action against the likes of Awana, and not justify violence by alleging that there were ‘anti-national slogans’. If there were anti-national slogans, counter them with nationalistic slogans, with counter-seminars, or, if you can’t, take the matter to court. Don’t try to become a commando force which is in charge of cultural censorship. Don’t run kangaroo courts and armed militias on campuses. If you can’t defend the violence, denounce it. Don’t invent justifications. Article 19 of the Constitution of India gives everyone the right to express themselves. The first clause guarantees freedom, then come the restrictions in the second clause. Freedom comes first, then the restrictions, and those restrictions are for the state to enforce and not private individuals and organisations. Whether a certain kind of speech violates Article 19(2) is a question that only a court can decide. Violence should play no role.

Let’s remember that the hatred, the mob frenzy that killed Akhlaq in Dadri, also killed Srinivas in the US. Hate does not spare anyone.  As I write this, we are 15 years past the Gujarat carnage and more than 30 years past the anti-Sikh massacre; both involved the connivance of the police, on the orders of the ruling party. While Jagdish Tytler did not become the prime minister, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah managed to capture power in spite of, or because of, the violence. Maya Kodnani became a minister, while police officers who stood for justice ended up getting suspended or marginalised. Our only hope in these terribly dark times  where violence is normalised is the sea of students marching peacefully – filling those streets where violence was committed with hope, colours and songs, sarcasm, poetry and art, humour, debates and love.

We saw hope flooding the DU campus on Tuesday. We hope that hope will show its beautiful face on Saturday again, when thousands will march in central Delhi, demanding not just action against violence, but also collective action against hatred.

Shehla Rashid Shora is a former vice president of the Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union and a member of the All India Students Association (AISA), the student body affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) – Liberation.

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