Media

Backstory: Anyone Remember the Bhagalpur Blindings in Context of George Floyd's Death?

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

As angry protests over the murder of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer of the Minneapolis Police Department broke out, a piece in The Wire (‘Why Indians Don’t Come Out on the Streets Against Regular Police Brutality’, June 1) made a discomfiting observation: instances of vicious police violence in this country do not disturb us enough to get us out on the streets.

There wasn’t any dearth of video evidence of  the bestial manner in which the Delhi Police set upon a group of young Muslim men during the communal violence that raged in the northeastern fringes of the city in late February, raining lathi blows on them and making them sing the national anthem as they lay grievously wounded on the road.  The incident barely created a ripple within Delhi, let alone the country, even after 23-year-old Faizan died shortly thereafter.

One of the reasons why this is the case is because of the manner the Indian media covered it. Apart from some courageous newspaper and news portal coverage (The Wire filed two RTI applications on the case – ‘Why Is the Police Stonewalling The Wire’s RTI Queries on the Delhi Violence?’, April 21) and some important but limited television focus, that police murder was allowed to sink like a stone in a deep well. The observations of Danielle K. Kilgo, a media academic, are relevant here. She argues that journalists have “a lot of power when it comes to driving the narrative of a demonstration”, they can either privilege the establishment’s view of protests as criminals breaking the law and creating disorder or bring into clear focus the injustice, brutality and racism of the police action (‘How the Media Can Make or Break the Minneapolis Protests’, May 30).

Floyd’s murder may never have had the power of insistent exhortation at a mass level, which led to wave upon wave of public fury in the US and across the world, if his last minutes of life had not played out publicly, through a combination of video footage and media reportage. The viral Washington Post timeline video, ‘The death of George Floyd: What video and other records show about his final minutes’, is a case in point: over seven minutes long, it combined traditional reportage with audios of emergency medical service calls and video evidence culled from security cameras and private cell phone recordings. The truth-telling frame was captured in the video footage of bystander Darnella Frazier, when Floyd, his face pinned to the sidewalk under the knee of Officer beseeches his persecutors in a rasping voice, “Please, please, please. I can’t breathe…Please man…”

Also read: Delhi Police Mum as Facebook’s Zuckerberg Says Kapil Mishra Speech ‘Encouraged Violence’

But what if that video hadn’t emerged? What if this crime had played out under the cover of public ignorance? A policeman may drive his knee into a person’s neck but it may not emerge a crime. Indeed kneeling on the necks of recalcitrant arrestees appears to be a standard operating procedure and the Indian police too routinely resort to the practice as a Jodhpur policeman recently demonstrated.  This is why eyewitness testimonies such as that of Frazier’s which surface serendipitously – important as they are – are never enough. What is also needed is the journalistic scalpel to reveal the cancer of police impunity that lies below the surface through that largely forgotten tool – the investigative story.

This country has a record of some major investigations into police atrocities. Today, the story of the Bhagalpur blindings is all but forgotten, but it was the print media of the day that followed up on a habeas corpus filed in the Supreme Court in 1980 and uncovered for the country the rough justice meted out by the Bhagalpur police by piercing the eyes of those they deemed as criminals with cycle spokes and pouring sulphuric acid into them.

That such investigation is extremely rare in today’s media reflects their sharply altered priorities. We are then forced to confront the growing synergy between the two institutions of the police and media. This is not new of course. The police have long been the primary source of news stories for Indian journalists and are often the only source – the police version of an incident is the version most likely to get published. It has also long been the case that both institutions are relatively homogeneous in their composition, with the media dominated by the upper castes and the police by the intermediate castes. For instance, both institutions have an extremely low presence of Muslims. Fresh data on this is hard to come by but a decade and a half ago, the Rajinder Sachar Committee  had noted that Muslim participation rates in security related activities was 4%, although they constituted 13.4% of India’s population at that point. Around the same time, a group of social scientists and journalists had conducted a private survey of caste, class and community representation in 40 media organisations, and noted that Muslims constituted just 3 per cent of key decision makers within them. It’s extremely unlikely that anything has changed on this front, on the contrary Muslim presence in both institutions may have declined even further.

Also read: US: How Police Unions and the Supreme Court Shield Minneapolis Cops

What is new, however, is the manner the big media have succumbed to the diktats of the ruling establishment, which in turn has succeeded in weaponising the police for its own ends. The National Investigation Agency now finds Akhil Gogoi a seditionist because words like “comrade” and “Marx” figured in Facebook posts. It refuses to answer the Delhi High Court on why Gautam Navlakha was whisked away to Mumbai when his bail hearing was pending, and gets the Supreme Court’s acquiescence for its action (‘Unwilling to Give Delhi High Court Details of Navlakha’s ‘Hasty Transfer’, NIA Gets SC Stay’, June 3). While the police file draconian charges against students protestors against the Citizen Amendment Act, BJP politicians like Kapil Mishra whose provocative sloganeering triggered the Delhi pogrom have escaped police scrutiny (‘Modi 2.0: A Coming-of-Age Drama For Majoritarianism and Authoritarianism’, May 30). While 19-year-old Amulya Leona has been in prison for months for raising a ‘Long live Pakistan’ slogan, a union minister exhorting his party colleagues to shoot people gets to present the government’s COVID 19 relief package to the country (‘As the First Year of Modi 2.0 Ends, It’s Clear that Democracy Has Been Quarantined’, May 30). State governments too have no compunction in borrowing the Central government template (‘Mamata Banerjee Is Following the BJP’s Path on Media Intimidation’, June 3).

In such circumstances, when the heavy hand of the state and its coercive apparatus combine to deprive people of their human rights, should it not be the media’s role to police the police?

Readers write in…

Mridula Garg, noted litterateur, responded to the last column, ‘Backstory: When Storms and Pandemics Create Overlapping Human Disasters, What Should the Media Do?’ (May 23):

“You talk a lot about the devastation in West Bengal and Odisha, and about migrant workers waiting to go home to West Bengal . But there was not a word about what happened to residents of villages of Sundaravan. Were they able to vacate when announcements were made asking them to vacate their homes at 2 pm on the 20th, hours before the cyclone. They were asked to go to “camp”. Where was this “camp”? How many people could it have accommodated? Could all the residents of Sundaravan villages be accommodated within this “camp”? Amitav Ghosh has written nothing but the truth but what about the whole truth? Or has the life or death of the poor people of Sundaravan  no meaning for you? Shouldn’t the media be asking these questions? If you don’t know at least say we should say we don’t know, and are doing nothing to find out.”

Ms Garg will be happy to learn that The Wire did carry an extensive piece on the human suffering and environmental damage wrought by the cyclone in the Sunderbans, ‘Cut Off After Cyclone Amphan, The Sundarbans Losses Are Yet Unknown’ (May 26), a couple of days after my column appeared.

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Niraja Gopal Jayal, political scientist and professor at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, responded to a sentence in the piece, ‘The Pandemic as an Opportunity to Educate on What it Means to Be a Citizen’ (June 3) which read “As early as 1987, sociologist T.H. Marshall argued that digital citizenship was a means of facilitating the equal economic activities of all members of society as well as their increased political participation.” Jayal writes: “The point is that Marshall died at the age of 87 in 1981! And I doubt very much that anyone had thought of digital citizenship in 1987.”

Also read: Public Protests Are Vital to Disrupt the Status Quo That Led to George Floyd’s Death

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Jaikumar highlights issues of language usage:  “The Wire should adopt a uniform policy for abbreviating educational degrees. In the same article one finds M.Phil and PhD, the first has one dot the second has none. I believe the modern trend is to omit the dots  altogether, so we write BA, BTech, MTech, BSc, PhD, BStat, etc. There is no logic to writing B.Tech without the final dot when the degree is called Bachelor of Technology. Secondly,  the word “upto” is not listed in standard English dictionaries as a single word. It is “up to”, two words.”

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Another reader of The Wire, Aagam Doshi, wrote an irate mail: “It has been 26 days since I wrote to you about my concerns regarding your news portal. I strongly feel that The Wire is stooping to new lows, and disregarding all ethics of journalism. All of your articles are biased against the ruling BJP, and seldom have you written about issues faced by states not governed by BJP. If you continue in this manner, I will be forced to stop reading your news content. Jai Hind!”

Letter from Minnesota

A mail from Lisa Lewis, President and CEO, Life Member, University of Minnesota Alumni Association:

“As protests across Minnesota and the country have unfolded over the past week, the pain and anger over the death of George Floyd have laid bare the deep damage that exists within our communities because of generations of inequity. Our deepest sympathies are with the Floyd family and his friends and loved ones. The University of Minnesota Alumni Association is heartbroken by these events. We firmly believe that racism and unequal treatment in every form is not simply a problem for our communities of color, but a deep-rooted, systemic issue that we are all charged with solving.

“Leadership and staff at the Alumni Association have heard from members of our 493,000 alumni who are currently working passionately to encourage a more just society by speaking out, peacefully demonstrating, and raising their truth over this issue. We are with each of you as you continue this crucial work.”

Covid 19 stories

A Wire reader, Rudri Mehta, wrote in: “Hello! I’ve been reading The Wire regularly for a year now, and admire the honesty with which pieces are written – something we don’t often see in media channels. I am a 19-year-old student based in Bengaluru, where I am currently located, who studies in Pune. The current pandemic forced thousands of students like me to go back home from their colleges in great haste. They had no option but to leave their belongings behind in their hostels and PGs. Hostels are now taking advantage of  this: For example,  a luxury student accommodation in Pune is asking all 200 of its students to come to Pune, a COVID-19 hotspot, and collect  their baggage, or pay a fine of Rs 1,000. In this way, they stand to gain Rs 2,00,000 per day if students cannot  travel just to collect their luggage. Again, many of these students are themselves in areas of lockdown, and cannot travel. This is not an isolated incident, as various posts on LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, reveal. Surely this is illegal, and the authorities need to crack down on such profiteering.”

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The Wire has also been receiving a lot of mail from students of Manipal Institute of Technology on its decision to go ahead with conducting end semester examinations “despite the UGC clearly informing us in their guidelines that these exams can be skipped this semester and other methods of evaluations may be used”. They argue that the UGC’s approach would have allowed them a “much needed sigh of relief…in this otherwise trying time”. Despite this, their institute “has decided to completely ignore the mental health of their students and has proceeded with conducting online exams of more that 75 marks all over, including the three-hour final exam of each subject, entailing 50 marks.”

They believe that “the current environment is not at all conducive for learning” and that “it is unfair to expect students to perform their academic duties with full diligence while fearing for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones. It is even more unfair to expect them to recollect subjects that were taught four or five months back, and give examinations on them”.

They also point out that most students do not have access to strong internet connections, and those from Kashmir are being forced to study for these exams with only 2G network. “Those who are unable to sit for online exams will get an ‘I’ grade, and be forced to give examinations again, once the next semester starts. This will lower their GPA of the current as well as the future semester, eliminating any chance of getting a good placement through the college.”  A petition on these issues, signed by around 1,500 students, has been submitted to the director, but so far there has been no response.

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Finally, I cannot but share some of the hopelessness that B.R. Gupta expressed, when he resigned from the membership of the Press Council of India (‘Media Is in Deep Crisis’: PCI Member B.R. Gupta Resigns, June 4): “Everyone realises now that the media scenario is in a deep crisis. The motto for which the council was created was not being fulfilled and I felt I was not doing anything remarkable for the freedom of media.” Institutions are only as good as the people who comprise them and when people who comprise them feel defeated, we are staring at institutional collapse.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in