A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.
It has long been acknowledged that for the media, every election should be akin to an anatomy lesson, an opportunity to understand afresh the inner workings of a particular region through the prism of politics. This holds true, though, only if the media fulfils at least two conditions: one, shed biases of all shades, especially those that come with the seductions of power and money and, two, avoid oversimplifying complex realities.
The just-concluded election coverage betrayed failures on both fronts. The defining image from the Gujarat election was actually a non-image: the missing Muslim subject. Muslims, comprising a little over 9% of Gujarat’s estimated 67 million population, are not an insignificant number. But what makes understanding their status today particularly relevant are the successive riots, including of course the 2002 pogrom, that have left Gujarat arguably the most communally polarised state of India.
Against such a backdrop, political parties will adopt cynical poll strategies designed to distance themselves from the community and it’s hardly surprising that the two main contenders for power in Gujarat – the BJP, which defines itself as a Hindu entity, and the Congress desperately dabbing itself with the colour saffron – didn’t utter a word about Muslim welfare. But what was the media’s excuse? They are not political entities fighting this election, so what would explain their anxiety to steadfastly turn their gaze away?
One of the most poignant videos that The Wire put out during the Gujarat election season had Kaleem Siddiqui, the Social Party (India) candidate from Vatva in Ahmedabad (‘Watch: Why Are Muslims Missing From the Election Narrative in Gujarat?’, December 3), doing some straight talking. (It is a pity that a transcript of that interview was not published along with the video – this really should have been done.) The biggest challenge for the Muslim community in Gujarat, Siddiqui said, was that there was no one to speak for it. He called out not just the majoritarian politics of the BJP but the soft Hindutva of the Congress, pointing out that because there was no one to articulate the concerns of Muslims, their feelings of insecurity and anxiety are only growing even as the infrastructure of their neighbourhoods is crumbling. At a time when just a few hundred miles across the state border a man can invoke Mewar pride and butcher a Muslim migrant on a video in the name of fighting love jihad, these are not words that should be taken lightly (‘From Breaking Domes to Cracking Skulls’, December 11).
But where were the analyses, the documentation, the interviews with members of the community? Shouldn’t the mainstream media have seen it as their job to fill this conspicuous silence in election discourse? Why does it have to take portals like this one to talk about the landscape of separation that is Ahmedabad today (‘The Invisible ‘Other’ in Today’s Segregated India’, December 13) or the casual hostility towards Gujarati Muslims in everyday conversations within the majority community (‘What Communalism in Gujarat Looks Like’, December 12)?
In many ways, the past and the future came together in the Gujarat moment. The dust of a flattened edifice in Ayodhya seemed to have mingled with the dust of the electioneering. But then that demolition had brought down more than the three domes of the Babri Masjid. As a scholarly exposition carried by The Wire argued, “December 6 was the beginning of a new era where a righteously angry Hindu majority began to shape public discourse and political life in the country” (‘Babri Masjid and Its Aftermath Changed India Forever’, December 7). This piece was part of a series The Wire had carried titled, ‘The Babri Demolition, 25 years of shame’. For a news portal that also sees itself as a platform of record, this series indicated editorial recognition of the apocalyptic nature of an event that shook India at the tail end of 1992. It was also an acknowledgement that “India is perhaps the only country in the world where a real crime – committed in broad daylight, with evidence recorded by video cameras and presented in court by prosecutors – counts for less than an imaginary transgression that supposedly happened five centuries ago and left behind no witness accounts or contemporary records to establish what transpired” (‘Twenty-Five Years On, India Has Still to Live Down the Shame of the Babri Masjid’s Demolition’, December 6).
Among the constitutional principles that were laid low in the process was the fundamental right to religious freedom and belief (‘Requiem for the Rule of Law’, December 5); among the institutions that were undermined was the apex court of the country which allowed “symbolic kar seva” to take place (‘When Even the Supreme Court Let Down the Nation’, December 6). As for the media, the event saw the emergence of a new breed of journalists. ‘The Time When Hindi Journalism Turned Into ‘Hindu’ Journalism’ (December 11), which first appeared in Hindi and was carefully translated for The Wire, noted that many journalists at that time had in fact smuggled kar sevaks into the fraught site, by handing over their passes to them. Prabhash Joshi, consulting editor of the Jansatta, who went on to be recognised as one of India’s most astute editors, used to describe the Lucknow correspondent of his newspaper as a “kar sevak journalist”. Today, the kar sevak journalist, although suited and booted differently from the kar sevak journalist of yesteryear, is alive and well in our television studios and newspaper organisations. As the piece just cited had noted, the Hindi media did not lose a single opportunity during the demolition period to frame Muslims as the “arch villains on the issue”, neither did they make any attempt to highlight the fact that “there has never been any attempt from the Muslim side to pursue a solution that goes against the law”.
It was kar sevak journalists who have let the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi get away with their ugly subliminal messaging that if the Congress were to come to power, it would mean that Muslims would rule (‘Modi’s Tryst With Alternative Facts’, December 11). One analysis, ‘To Win Gujarat Again, Hindu Consolidation Is BJP’s Only Remaining Strategy’ (December 8), quoted a BJP activist as saying, “The Muslims are waiting to take revenge against the Hindus for the 2002 Gujarat riots. In the Congress government, they are hoping they would have a chance to get back at us. If the Congress comes to power, the Muslims will be back to their hooligan ways. Our (Hindu) women will not be safe.” Later, when Prime Minister Modi in full election regalia went on to make the audacious suggestion that the Congress, in cahoots with Pakistan, was conspiring to defeat him in the Gujarat elections, the Gujarati language media accepted the argument as gospel truth, while the corporate media kept the controversy alive through chat shows slanted in favour of the prime minister.
Media commentator Sevanti Ninan termed the growing number of “agenda-driven TV channels” treating the BJP’s political opposition as adversarial, as a “post-BJP phenomenon” in a recent piece in The Hoot (‘Gujarat 2017: How did the media fare?’, December 14), and wryly observed the spectacle of channels like Zee News, Times Now, Republic TV and IndiaTV “all going to battle on the ruling party’s behalf.”
In the process they are allowing the BJP and its twin-headed apex whitewash their own failures in addressing the life-and-death concerns of ordinary Gujaratis as another article, entitled ‘By Linking Ahmed Patel and Pakistan, Modi Is Deflecting From the Real Issues in Gujarat’ (December 12), contended, adding that the state government’s indifference “has affected more than half of the state’s population that majorly relies on farm incomes”.
The Wire also tried to bring back into focus the two forgotten words which had won Modi the Lok Sabha elections of 2014: “Gujarat model”. This is a state that had topped the charts in tuberculosis incidence per year (‘State’s Tuberculosis Rampage Exemplifies the Failure of the ‘Gujarat Model’, November 27); where largesse paid to corporate units has resulted in the government being left with “limited funds for education, health, environment and employment for the masses” (‘The Truth Behind the Gujarat Growth Model’, December 8); which has a per capita that is 20% higher than that of the country, and rural and urban wages respectively 20% and 15% lower than that of India as a whole (‘Gujarat Model’s Failure Explains Why the Economy Is a Significant Factor in the Coming Elections’, November 27). This is certainly not a model “that will bring about the greatest good to the greatest number of people” (‘Why So Many Economists Are Disillusioned With the ‘Gujarat Model’, November 29).
So why did the “Gujarat Model”, or lack of it, not figure in the election coverage this time? Perhaps because alternate facts are so much more alluring, there is really no point in bothering about the real thing.
I have often wondered why mainstream television has not found space for Karan Thapar, one of the country’s most incisive interviewers. It is also a comment on how badly the media scene has shrunk in terms of commitment to independent journalism. All I can say is that The Wire is a direct beneficiary of this unfortunate state of affairs. Thapar’s trenchant questioning came into full view in the video, ‘Watch: What Is the Likely Outcome of Gujarat Elections 2017?’ (December 13).
The piece, ‘Modi Government’s Rs 500-Crore Bonanza to the Adani Group’ (June 19), that was the subject of defamation notices served to the Economic and Political Weekly as well as this portal, has earned a well-deserved reprieve. The Wire had contested the application for injunction against the piece moved by M/s Adani Power Limited and the Ld. Principal Senior Civil Judge (Bhuj-Kacch), accepted its contention, ordering only the removal of one line pertaining to a high court decision as well as one adverb. The Wire has complied with the court order and continues to make the said piece available to its readers.
It’s official. The year 2017 has proved to be particularly unfortunate for journalism across the world. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has just reported that the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide hit a record high in 2017 – in fact, the highest number since CPJ began its audit in the early nineties. A total number of 262 journalists have found themselves behind bars for their work (figures up to December 1, 2017) this year, with a good number of them being presently lodged in Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s prisons.
Young Indians want the media to reflect their issues and concerns far more than they are doing at the moment, according to a reader Sarthak Sethi, a 16-year-old student in Delhi, who now wants to intern with The Wire. Is the mainstream media guilty as charged? I would say yes, because most corporate media tend to focus on those who are already part of consumer society.
There can be no denying that today’s youth have their own distinct concerns and tribulations. For instance, another reader, Jitesh Sharma, sent us a strong critique of the Maharashtra state law that stipulates that only those who can produce certificates of their families’ domicile status dating back to 1950 can avail of reservations. Although the cut-off from Nomadic Tribes and OBCs has been relaxed to 1961 and 1967 respectively, it is still highly unlikely that those belonging to such communities can produce the necessary documentation given their migrant lives and difficult living conditions. Consequently, a large number of young people from these communities are unable to access reservations for education and employment. The Wire, incidentally, had carried a piece on the issue last year (‘Maharashtra’s Bizarre Address Rule Leaves Its Nomadic Tribes Out in the Cold’, August 25).
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