Backstory: In the Year of Cow Vigilantism, Could the Indian Media Have Done More?

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

The commander of a Hindu nationalist vigilante group established to protect cows is pictured with animals he claimed to have saved from slaughter, in Agra, India August 8, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

The year 2017 could be branded as the Year of Cow Vigilantism. Credit: Reuters/Cathal McNaughton

As we stand at the cusp between the old year and new, everything seems clearer in the act of looking back. The year 2017 could be branded as the Year of Cow Vigilantism and the stench of its wanton cruelty lingers in the air as we travel into 2018 (‘Cow-Related Hate Crimes Peaked In 2017, 86 % Of Those Killed Muslim’, December 8).

When the entire story of this shameful chapter in the country’s history gets written, the role of media-generated stories on the consumption, storage and transportation of “gau maas” (flesh of the cow) in fermenting communal hatred may well emerge from the shadows. The term “gau mass” was invariably used in such reportage in the most incendiary and pre-meditatively provocative manner, with no evidence being cited to establish that it was indeed the meat of the cow. Each report of this kind was further amplified through the agency of social media platforms and interested political players. The hate acts these carefully calibrated rumour-mongering strategies provoked were later projected as “spontaneous” displays of righteous rage by the very same media.

But it is not the role of low level media entities that seed hate in distant corners of the land that concerns me here, but that of mainstream media. Could they have done more on hate crimes? Could they have worked harder to make the ordinary reader/viewer feel and suffer with the victims of such violence? Could they have created such a common sense of revulsion against such politics that society rises up against it? These questions need answers if 2018 is not to witness the same blood dimmed tide that 2017 did.

The one serious effort that a mainstream Indian media house had made to hold a mirror up to these incidents by monitoring them and publishing the evidence proved so effective that it apparently had to be prematurely aborted. The Hindustan Times’ Hate Tracker was envisaged as a crowd-sourced “national database on crimes in the name of religion, caste, race”, and it quickly gained public traction at a time when people were being killed with impunity by manufactured mobs with manufactured agendas. One would have thought that such a simple, effective idea that served the ultimate journalistic principle of providing voice to the voiceless and eyes to those who hadn’t seen, would have been adopted by their peers as a good journalistic practice. Similar formats have, indeed, been adopted by media bodies across the world. The Documenting Hate project instituted after the series of racist attacks in the US, received the support of several prominent news establishments, and helped to raise awareness about how widespread was the presence of everyday racism. It also mounted a search for solutions, including those for that disturbing conundrum: why do the police invariably side with the assaulters rather than the assaulted?

When it came to HT’s Hate Tracker, though, not only did the editor whose brainchild it was mysteriously put in his papers, but the ‘Hate Tracker’ itself dropped out of sight without leaving a track (‘Hindustan Times Editor’s Exit Preceded by Meeting Between Modi, Newspaper Owner’, September 25). The rest of us will never know the manoeuvres behind the curtain that led to those Houdini-like twin disappearances of editor and content, but it would be fair to say that it is such self-censorship that helps to create conditions for the flourishing of murderous rage.

Those who control media institutions and gain social capital from them actually owe an explanation to the rest of us for their failure to hold to account the forces behind the surge in hate crimes. They may be have been willing to allow reports on incidents of cow vigilantism in well-crafted prose accompanied by searing images, but they deliberately failed to make the connections between the rising occurrence of hate crimes and those who talk of the “pink revolution” from election platforms in order to come to power.

So why should we be surprised that the year that saw the highest number of cow vigilante attacks also witnessed an inordinate number of intemperate remarks from Bharatiya Janata Party notables that amounted to endorsing cow vigilantism? The year had a central minister of minority affairs denying in parliament that the lynching of dairy farmer, Pehlu Khan, ever took place even as a video of that sickening attack in Alwar had gone viral. A few days later the RSS chief, without wasting words of concern over this brutal murder, demanded a national law for cow protection (‘RSS Chief’s Call for National Cow Protection Law Echoes a Familiar Pattern’, April 10).

It was a year when we heard the Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh’s boast that he will hang anyone who dares kill a cow, and the chairperson of the Sanskrit Board in his state express a desire to publicly honour the murderers of “cow slaughterers”. It was a year when a high court judge ruled that the cow should be declared the “national animal” and that no crime was more “heinous than cow slaughter”. A former deputy chief minister of Karnataka equated those who slaughtered cows to anti-nationals and Pakistani agents and an MLA from Rajasthan said it “straight out that if you smuggle and slaughter cows, then you will be killed” (December 25). Statements like these, coming as they did in quick succession over the course of the year, amounted to nothing less than the issuing of public licences to kill. Mainstream media outrage over this collapse of the public conscience and common humanity was tenuous when it emerged, but mostly it did not.

So will it be more of the same in 2018? As someone once said, “An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” The pessimist and optimist in me are locked in battle, but hope is a thing with feathers that keeps singing. Among the developments that keep the optimist in me alive are stirrings of resistance within civil society which even managed to gain some media space (‘Anti-Lynching Rally Planned in Mumbai to ‘Wake Up Country’s Conscience’ ; ‘The ‘Karwan-E-Mohabbat’ Must Continue Its Journey). Then there was the response from large sections of the media to the many murderous attacks on journalists in 2017 which created a certain unity that bodes well for media independence. There has also been serious push back from the media community on defamation notices designed to beat down independent reporting and, as the year wound to an end, we had representatives from nine media groups, including from The Wire, file a petition in the Bombay high court against a CBI court-imposed censorship order (‘Journalists File Petition in Bombay HC Against Gag Order in Sohrabuddin Case Trial’, December 27).  So here’s wishing you (and me) a year in which freedom of expression and media content flourishes, not diminishes!


Pranav Patel, an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, sent in this rejoinder to the piece titled, ‘Why the Congress Will Continue to Lose Elections’ (December 22):

This article has lost sight of the fact that Gujarat is the proclaimed laboratory of the Hindutva Brigade. The extent of polarisation is almost unbelievable. Gujaratis are usually seen as being mild in disposition and pragmatic in approach and yet the level of hatred in the Gujarati has been fuelled to such an extent that even after all these years it clouds the judgment of people. Those who voted for the BJP in the 2017 election still think that it is the organisation that has protected them from the ‘other’, much like those who vote for the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra. They are prepared to condone misrule and misgovernance and continue to vote for the BJP as the saviour of Hindutva or protector of Gujarati ‘asmita‘. Some have realized their folly and have chosen not to vote at all. Only three months ago, nobody thought that the BJP would have to even make an effort to win the election, only the extent of victory was in doubt. It was thus a commendable performance by the Congress. The Congress could not win, not because of throwing Aiyar to the wolves, but because the Congress did not have the organisation or the local leadership that could persuade those disillusioned voters to vote against the BJP.

While some people might appreciate the ‘courage’ of Modi in not admitting his mistakes and blundering along irrespective of the misery caused to the people, and some might appreciate the ‘loyalty’ of Modi in standing by his party men, it only raises doubts about their wisdom. Are arrogance and deceit positive or desirable traits in a person or an organisation? Is a leader who inflicts so much pain on the people and the economy to be supported due to such ‘courage’ and ‘loyalty’?

Rahul Gandhi may not be a match for Modi in many ways, but that is thankfully a blessing rather than a curse. Modi and the Sangh Parivar have taken the country to the brink of anarchy and now the mobs dictate policy and the government implements it. Sensible people will have realised that Prime Minister Modi is not just a failure but even refuses to admit to having taken wrong decisions. Any criticism of the government or any minister is routinely fought by the dubious means of casting aspersions on the intent or character of the critic. Government data and figures are fudged with alarming regularity to build a positive spin around the tailspin the economy currently is in. Sensible people will hopefully make the correct choice in 2019.

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