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Backstory: Breaking Hate – When Intent and Content Get Inextricably Entwined  

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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The Supreme Court’s observation on September 2 – that hate speech spread particularly by television channels is poisoning the country’s social fabric – has become something of a marker in national conversations. The court also simultaneously recognised the role of social media in this proliferation of hate.

Given how fluid information tends to be, this should not surprise anyone, least of all the apex court. Television channels use social media to take their programmes to wider audiences, and users of social media constantly link television programmes to their posts and tweets. In other words, nothing in the age of the internet remains in its respective silo and mediatised hate can flow without impediment across entities and platforms to reach ever-larger audiences, much like a sea at high tide.  

Consider some of the early efforts by television mavens to exploit the emotionally volatile sentiment of hate to engage audiences. There was the manner in which respected litterateurs who, dictated by their conscience, took the call to return state awards to signal their resistance to rising intolerance, were preyed upon. Within weeks, chat shows were framing them as the ‘Awards Wapsi Gang‘. How dare a fringe who benefitted from the system call India intolerant when they have nothing to say about the KKK in the US, was the general cry.

The word “gang” was given a further lease of life to gag and crush public spirited JNU students and frame them as ‘India haters’. To further this charge, senior television journalists even did some off-duty labour – senior India Today journalist Gaurav C. Sawant put out a tweet on LeT chief Hafiz Saeed supporting JNU’s anti-India slogan shouting as supposed evidence of their anti-nationalism. 

The phrase ‘Tukde Tukde Gang’ had an afterlife that went far beyond the TV studio, as did ‘Urban Naxals’ – a coinage grown in the studio – that became part of the vocabulary of the ruling elite. The prime minister himself recently dipped into this inkpot when he claimed that “in order to obstruct the development in India, many global institutions and foundations create disturbances and these urban naxals keep dancing to their tune.” 

Also read: My Name Is Arundhati Roy And #MeTooUrbanNaxal

A sharp anti-Muslim turn to television news followed the general election of 2019 which installed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) once again in power, followed by the reading down of Article 370, the handing over of the Babri Masjid land to the Hindu party, and the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Soon after the violence in northeast Delhi that inflamed already polarised sentiments on both sides of the communal divide, Zee News’ then editor-in-chief, Sudhir Chaudhury, sought to further feelings of persecution among Hindus (in the “Hindu khatre mein hain” vein) by devoting an entire show to the various forms of ‘jihad’ – from education jihad to land jihad – being waged against the country by Muslims.

Similarly toxic was the targeting of Muslim women protesting the CAA in early 2020, with television channels claiming that their investigations lead them to believe that the women protesters were being paid to come out on the streets in Shaheen Bagh. This piece of “breaking news” was later traced back to a video tweet from Amit Malviya, the resourceful head of the ruling party’s IT cell, that seemed to capture furtive transactions allegedly being made in some corner of that neighbourhood. Malviya’s creative talent in framing his targets has today assumed iconic status – he has become something of a King of Con, successfully melding hate news with fake news.

In mid-2020, Amish Devgan of TV18 India in his programme, ‘Aar Paar’, described the revered seer,  Pir Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti,  as a terrorist and bandit (“aakrantak Chishti” and “lootera Chishti”), who came and changed the religion of the land by coercing Hindus to embrace Islam. Faced with multiple FIRs for his shocking statements, he claimed in court that it was a slip of the tongue, and that he had meant to refer to Allaudin Khilji instead. 

But Devgan’s legal troubles did not dissuade Suresh Chavhanke from making the charge in his signature programme, ‘Bindas Bol’, that Muslims were conspiring to infiltrate the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC). Over the year that followed, Chavhanke metamorphosed into a public champion of the Hindu Rashtra, getting public audiences to swear that they will work to usher in a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ even if they have to kill. Chavhanke’s trajectory indicates the enormous social capital riding on hate television.

Also read: Suresh Chavhanke Gives Call to ‘Fight, Die, Kill’ to Make India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’

It also needs to be said that there is nothing commensurate to this when it comes to fanning Muslim anger through television. Those TV channels that do exist are either too small, too insignificant to impact pan-Indian audiences or too surveilled to matter very much.

Most Urdu channels confine themselves largely to spiritual matters like broadcasts from Mecca, Unani home remedies, mushairas, and the like. Peace TV, that had a huge following in India, was banned in 2012, and the man behind it, Zakir Naik, remains a fugitive under Indian law, with the National Investigation Agency (NIA) having filed a case against him for allegedly inciting youth to take up terror activities, giving hate speeches and promoting enmity between communities.

Those who raise the ‘What about?’ query when confronted with rising hate speech against Muslims have to perforce confine themselves to citing the occasional maulvi who may feel particularly courageous at a given moment, or an Azam Khan or one Owaisi or other, overcome by the urge to do a spot of tongue lashing. Even taken together, they don’t come close to the sweep of the anti-Muslim discourse that inundates television in India today.

There are structural reasons for this proliferation. To ensure that a prohibitively expensive proposition like running a television channel actually yield profits, owners are driven to plumb the depths of corruption and baseness, both at the monetary and psychological levels. The domestication of mass audiences is central to this objective. The presumption is that once viewers are addicted to the narcotic of hate, they will keep craving more.

The country’s political, economic and criminal justice ecosphere works to enable, not check, this. India emerges in this neo-liberal tele-telling as a Hindutva-ised site that is an international force for the good which delivers good governance and economic growth. A synchrony is, therefore, created between the larger political intent of Hindutva-driven majoritarian politics of the present order and formulaic television content that keeps manufacturing the perfidies of the ‘Other’, occasionally framed as the ‘Violent Other’ (most evident in the reportage on the recent Popular Front of India raids), even while erasing the often horrific violence perpetrated on the community.

The apex court urges the Modi government not to be “mute witnesses” to hate speech and suggests that it enact a law to curb it. While the trust that the court has placed on the rulers of the country is touching, such recommendations don’t take into account the very forces that are driving these congeries of hate.

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Glimpses of the Great Indian Newsroom

Very little is known about how decisions are made within newsrooms in India but sometimes, when professionals within it leave the organisation or are forced to leave it, the door flies open to afford important glimpses of the real story of how much of what we know as “news” is actually created in India.

When Punya Prasun Bajpai left ABP despite the great popularity of his programme, ‘Masterstroke’, we got to understand the many layers of pressure that were brought on to him. “On July 14, 2018, the proprietor-cum-editor-in-chief of the national news channel ABP, owned by the Ananda Bazaar Patrika Group, had a conversation with me along these lines: Proprietor: “Can you refrain from mentioning the name of Prime Minister Modi [in your programme]?” 

Also read: Exclusive: Punya Prasun Bajpai Reveals the Story Behind His Exit From ABP News

Two years later, we had Tejinder Singh Sodhi’s letter that made public the reason why he quit Arnab Goswami’s Republic TV. We were told that while its owner and his coterie made “huge money”, the people who do the actual work were being given “peanuts”. Sodhi explained that it wasn’t long before he realised that the work he was doing there was not the journalism that he had joined Republic for; that he did not want to be used to do “hit jobs on behalf of Arnab”.

There are many slogging it out in various corners of the country who are ashamed of the journalism they are forced to do. Most recently, we had the case of Anil Yadav whose video went public after his resignation from the Lucknow-based News Nation, where he had been working for the last decade.

He put it bluntly, “I feel ashamed calling myself a journalist. I am a servant”. According to Yadav, Hindu-Muslim is the perennial flavour of the news season and if at all the reporter has an urge to bring down a political leader, keep off the Holy Cows but feel free to attack Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Mayawati, and Akhilesh Yadav. In fact “screwing up the Opposition” may even get a journalist a much sought after promotion.

It is of course what we had suspected all along and which has depressed us no end, but such confirmation from the horse’s mouth is valuable. Perhaps one day it will help render a defining history of the media in the age of the Modi sarkar.

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True Crime, podcasts and justice

There is something irresistible about criminal trials, which is why courtroom dramas in fiction are so popular. They also make for great journalism. The recent release of Adnan Syed, a high school kid from Baltimore implicated and then convicted for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999, took me right back to a car ride on which I was taken while on a visit to the US. It was during a trip between Chicago and West LaFayette that I got absolutely engrossed within minutes in a podcast playing on the audio system called Serial

Its protagonist was a young, bright 17-year-old son of immigrant parents who had a large circle of friends and a buzzing social life typical of American teenagers his age. The podcast didn’t need images to create the spatial dynamics of his living space, the car rides he made and the haunts he frequented.

We heard the voices of those who thought he was guilty and those who vociferously defended his innocence, including family members. We were provided glimpses, albeit over audio, of his young girlfriend, her infatuation with Adnan, how she got attracted to another young man, and how her body was later found in a distant corner of a park to the great distress of her classmates, including Adnan. 

Also read: US Judge Vacates Murder Conviction of Subject of Famous Podcast

Then came the slow unspooling of what appears to have been shoddy investigation, followed by an equally shoddy court proceeding, which resulted in the incarceration of the 17-year-old. The biggest question that buzzes through it all is the obvious one: Was Adnan guilty of murdering his former girlfriend?

Serial does not provide a definitive answer, which arguably added to its allure. However, we hear Adnan and his straight-talking defence of himself from behind prison bars. He never sought to pin the murder on anyone else, but he did strongly plead for his innocence and resisted plea bargains that may have got him out of jail earlier but would have rendered him guilty for all time.

Today, news that he has finally been given his freedom under GPS surveillance, 22 years after he was first convicted, does cheer those who had, after listening to the podcast, concluded that he was not guilty. Of course, his continued freedom hinges on whether of the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office persists with the case, or not. What cannot be disputed, however, is that Koenig’s podcast has contributed towards a process of justice that may finally exonerate Adnan. It also did something else:  gave a fresh lease of life to long form, serialised podcasting, bringing to it the compelling force of audio storytelling that often eludes its more glamorous filmed counterpart.

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Readers write in…

Word of denigration?

We received a mail from Bengaluru-based Karthik Krishna that criticises the piece, ‘The Modi Cult Seems All Pervasive, But For How Long?’ (September 7): “This article describes Lord Ganesha with an inappropriate adjective. The offending sentence seems to be written with the sole intention of denigrating and belittling the Lord who is much loved and revered by every Indian.  Here is the excerpt: “In the last few days, many images of the portly Hindu god Ganesh.” How does such material go past the editorial review? Maybe the writer is above all such scrutiny? Doesn’t suit The Wire.in, which claims itself as a champion media house of democratic and secular values. I hope this was just an oversight which would be remedied with an apology.”

My response: Your mail made me scramble for the dictionary and I came across this meaning for the word ‘portly’ in The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: “Stately, dignified, handsome, majestic, imposing, stout, corpulent.” The writer could have used this term in all these meanings. I therefore see no grounds for offence – or indeed the necessity for an apology. We are sorry, of course, if you are offended but ultimately, as someone put it, “one sees what one chooses to see, because all perception is a choice.”

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Carry on, The Wire!

G. Radhakrishnan of Thiruvananthapuram writes: “I am a regular viewer of The Wire.in and have been following the career of one of its founder editors who was the first chief editor of The Hindu from outside the Kasturi family, but was forced to quit due to differences within the family. With the print media in India being mostly controlled by industrial barons, The Hindu, with a history of a century and a half, has been a beacon light for the people. But it has changed somewhat and today I read Mathrubhumi first, and The Hindu only after that. But these days one has to depend on the online media to get the news behind the news, and your news portal is the foremost among them I believe. So carry on, The Wire.in with integrity and courage!”

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Refund us

A student sent in this distress mail: “I urge the honorable President of India to persuade the University Grants Commission to take strong punitive action against Saurashtra University and associated colleges to refund a fee of Rs 31,200 which was forcefully collected from us in July 2018 against a No Objection Certificate for transfer of college.”

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The spirit of Bengaluru

Dr Vivek Pinto sent in the story of one ordinary doctor which shows that while much may be wrong with Bengaluru (‘Backstory: Bengaluru Floods – Where Are Ordinary People in the Media’s Coverage of Urban Affairs?’, September 10), the human spirit is alive and kicking: “Please see this story of an ordinary doctor with his team committed to an ordinary patient: Dr Govind Nandakumar, a gastroenterology surgeon at Manipal Hospitals, was on his way to perform an emergency laparoscopic gallbladder surgery on August 30 when he got stuck in the traffic jam on the Sarjapur-Marathalli stretch. The surgery was successful, and the patient was discharged on time.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in.