Anand Teltumbde is a world-renowned public intellectual known for his rigorous analysis of the caste system in India. Perhaps one could have imagined, or at least hoped, that his arrest on the day of Ambedkar Jayanti would have generated a detailed coverage in the mainstream Hindi media, especially since the charges against him are very clearly directed at his intellectual work – he is accused of inciting caste-based violence and of being an “urban Naxal”. If nothing else, perhaps the mainstream media could have noticed the irony of Teltumbde, being a relative of Ambedkar, getting arrested on Ambedkar Jayanti?
In these times, this is very wishful thinking. Before surrendering himself to the National Investigative Agency (NIA) on April 14, Teltumbde wrote an open letter which begins as follows:
“I am aware that this [the open letter] may be completely drowned in the motivated cacophony of the Bhartiya Janata Party and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh combine and the subservient media, but I still think it may be worth talking to you as I do not know whether I would get another opportunity.” (emphasis added)
In the immediate aftermath of his arrest, his prescient comment regarding media coverage is remarkably accurate. Looking at the coverage of his arrest on April 15 in four of India’s largest circulating Hindi dailies – Dainik Bhaskar, Dainik Jagran, Amar Ujala and Hindustan – readily reveals that either Teltumbde’s arrest was not mentioned at all, and when mentioned it was either framed around the state’s narrative of the events or completely failed to provide the broader context. Together, these four dailies sell around 1.2 crore copies every day. They are read by a much larger audience, since typically multiple people read a single copy, and their printed stories are accessible online.
Hindustan and Amar Ujala did not deem the story of Teltumbde’s arrest worthy of any mention whatsoever. After an advertisement for “online classes” for kids covering the first two full-pages, Hindustan’s front page was reserved for other priorities. It featured a quote from Amitabh Bachchan, stating that the compassion he is witnessing in times of coronavirus is unprecedented. The irony of that quote being on the front page along with stories on coronavirus and the Tablighi Jamaat and police lathi charging migrants in Mumbai is stark. Among its eleven pages, Amar Ujala made space for printing seven images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, folding his hands seven times during the April 14 address to the nation, as well as a half-page quiz on Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Dainik Jagran printed a two-sentence blurb on the first page, where the sentences and the title repeated a single fact – that Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha, accused in the Bhima Koregaon case, have surrendered. If nothing else, corporate media should realise that extra space can be created for more advertisements by editing such redundant sentences.
The longer article referenced to in the blurb was buried in page 12. It used two full paragraphs to verbosely describe that Teltumbde and Navlakha were ordered to surrender, that they surrendered, and that they will appear in court soon. The last paragraph described the state’s accusations in a matter-of-fact way; no need was seen to present the other side or to question the state’s narrative:
Dainik Bhaskar printed a very short story on the back page. This story too, repeated the state’s narrative. When the standards of journalism are this abysmal, it is worth mentioning that this story contained a minuscule improvement over Dainik Jagran. Bhaskar described Teltumbde as a “civil rights activist” and “intellectual”, and Navlakha as a “social worker”.
Not a single editorial in any of these newspapers covered the issue – editorial space was full of articles praising PM Modi’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gautam Navlakha, who was also ordered to surrender, wrote an open letter before surrendering himself, describing how Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) “turns the normal jurisprudence upside down” because “an accused is guilty against proven innocent”. Unfortunately, the Hindi mainstream media replicates this pattern – by repeating the claims of the state without scrutiny, the media renders dissidents as criminals in the minds of its audiences.
It is not the case that the COVID-19 pandemic’s coverage is so extensive that it is leading to Teltumbde’s arrest being given a lower priority in these newspapers. Most of the pandemic coverage is completely uncritical of what the Indian state is doing to deal with the crisis, and is merely reporting elaborate statistics, stories of bravery and irresponsible behaviour by people, and motivational and paternalistic lessons. This is in good part because the Indian state has explicitly asked print media to refrain from negative coverage of the pandemic, and the owners have happily complied. The “motivated cacophony” that Teltumbde refers to goes beyond the issue of his arrest – the ideological hegemony achieved by BJP-RSS does not necessarily require them to coerce print media. The media does so willingly in the cacophony of “national unity”, “national interest” and “patriotism”. Under this ideological hegemony, Teltumbde is not important enough be given a voice in these newspapers.
Aman Abhishek is a graduate student of media studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.