Backstory: No Words, No Images Can Capture the Savagery of the Moment

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Even while Delhi was consumed by the worst communal conflagration it has experienced in 36 years, the Union Ministry of Home Affairs issued a statement of assurance to the country on Friday, February 28, after six days of violence had engulfed Delhi and whole neighbourboods had been consumed by murderous mobs; brutalized, burnt, and abandoned by residents fleeing in fear. It noted: “Only 12 police stations out of the 203 in Delhi (about 4.2% of the geographical area) have been affected by these riots, while normalcy and communal harmony has prevailed elsewhere in the national capital.”

It was an invitation to move on, pretend nothing serious has happened, just as the prime minister and his home minister have done. While Disney’s Hotstar, which promotes itself as “India’s largest premium streaming platform” took care to skip the John Oliver episode which criticised and poked fun at Prime Minister Modi (‘Why Hasn’t Hotstar Uploaded John Oliver’s Latest Show Criticising Modi and the CAA?’, February 26), the Union home minister even found time in this interregnum, to send out a message extolling V.D. Savarkar, who had with chilling clarity drawn up the template to achieve Hindutva nearly a century ago. He went on to address a rally in Bhubaneswar to defend the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) – the original instrument wielded in order to achieve precisely such communal polarising conflagrations. The editorial in The Wire (‘The BJP Has Wilfully Let Delhi Burn’, February 26), was upfront: “Nobody should be under any illusion that the Delhi communal riots of 2020 are not a product of deliberate attempts to polarise the country on religious grounds.”

This invitation to move on – extended to those of us not physically affected by the violence, who know that our roofs are intact and our doors still protect us, whose heads have not been beaten in with pipes, whose children continue to play before us, whose neighbourhoods buzz with everyday activity, whose livelihoods are secure – needs to be understood. We can only comprehend it in the fullness of its significance if we recall what happened in Ahmedabad on February 28, 2002. There too, “normalcy and communal harmony” had prevailed in one half of the city, even while the other half – populated largely by Muslims – was left to be consumed by murderous mobs. Ahmedabad emerged from that interregnum a completely divided city, so riven that the nomenclature of ‘border’ seemed apt in describing the space that lay between the ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ parts of the city.

This is the “normalcy” that the Union home minister hopes to create for Delhi and by extension the entire country. Large sections of mainstream media are fully on board that project – and it is not just Hindutva platforms like OpIndia. Nothing illustrates this more than the calibrated manner in which the injuries found on the body of Ankit Sharma, an Intelligence Bureau security assistant, brutally murdered on February 26, was conveyed in television programme after television programme over the next two days. When a large and influential section of the media did this day in and day out in a tense scenario, where the death toll steadily rises, mosques get burned to the ground, where Hindutva mobs continue to scream the crassest of communal abuse and threats, this amounts to nothing but being deliberately, calculatedly, incendiary.

Media theorist Arvind Rajagopal in a 1997 analysis had written about how “television becomes a key locus of collective activity, albeit in a serialized and individuated fashion” and “comes to ‘stand for’ society and serves as a crucial ruse of consent”.  Just one tweet from someone called ‘Rosy’, in response to Sudhir Chaudhury’s dangerously partisan report on Ankit Sharma, would indicate such causality: “Heart Wrenching The pogrоm & KiIIings of Hindus is typical of IsIamic Вrutаlity. Doctors who conducted Post Mortem on IB Officer Ankit Sharm’s body said they have never seen as many stаb wounds as they saw on his body #AnkitSharma #DelhiRiots2020 #Delhigenocide (sic)”

Criminal gangs from both communities have wreaked their customary havoc under the gaze of the police, but such saturation coverage on just one killing of a person clearly identified as Hindu is that the equally condemnable murders of others who happen to bear names like Mohd Shabaan, Mubarak Ali, Ishtiyak Khan, gets erased and the impression grows that only Hindus were killed by rampaging Muslim rioters, when in fact this is far from the reality.

People leave their houses at Brij Puri area of northeast Delhi, February 28, 2020. Photo: PTI

This coverage would be better understood against the larger background of the systematic way the same media actors had worked to portray the anti-CAA protests as the trigger for the violence and then cite their false framing to claim that the violence on Delhi’s streets was between anti-CAA and pro-CAA forces.

In actual terms, there is no such thing as pro-CAA – it is only shorthand for pro-government. The Wire analysis, ‘Narendra Modi’s Reckless Politics Brings Mob Rule to New Delhi’ (February 28) reminds us that the 70 days of the anti-CAA protests were absolutely peaceful –“no mobs on the rampage, no stone pelting, no burning of shops and homes”, just people forced into a struggle they did not choose, in order to resist an ideologically driven measure that threatens their future.

Never has the country more needed principled guardians of institutions to help us negotiate our way through this diabolically designed maze. Among these guardians, I would count the humble reporter, who despite the clear and present danger they face carries on with their mandated task of bearing witness. The Wire story ‘Delhi Riots: Mosque Set on Fire in Ashok Nagar, Hanuman Flag Placed on Minaret’ (February 25) heard the shouts of “Jai Sri Ram” and “Hinduon ka Hindustan”, saw the burning of the Badi Masjid, noted the Hanuman flag placed on its minaret. Little wonder then that mobs who take care to break CCTV cameras before they launch their nefarious activities adopt a similar approach to reporters – beating, even shooting, them. The courage with which The Wire’s fearless Arfa Khanum Sherwani has carried on with her work despite the vilest threats and abuses thrown at her is a matter of collective pride for this portal (‘Global Scribes’ Body Asks BJP Leaders to Stop Online Harassment of The Wire’s Arfa Khanum Sherwani’, February 27).  In fact, every journalist who bears the physical scars of their search for the true story needs to be seen as the unacknowledged custodian of the common good (‘Delhi Riots: Journalists Shot at, Punched, Asked to Prove Religion’, February 25). Each one of them contributes far more to society than do those over-paid anchors who whip up prime time confections of pure hate based on dictated recipes.

Reporters in lonely pursuit of the facts need talismans. One of these, I would suggest, is Justice Muralidhar’s extraordinary courage to right thing under the greatest pressure and the sure knowledge that he would pay a personal price (‘Delhi Riots: After Late Night HC Direction to Police, Injured Muslims Get Safe Passage’, February 26 and ‘HC Judge Who Pulled Up Delhi Police Over Riots Shunted Out by Modi Govt’, February 27).

Justice S. Muralidhar. Photo: LiveLaw

Whitewashing Pachauri

Women’s Day is a short spell away and it may be apt to repeat the words of Rose McGowan, the actress who was one of the first in a long line of women to call out Harvey Weinstein for being a sexual predator. Asked by the New York Times on the lasting impact of the experience she responded, “this is a story of us unraveling abuse of power. And I think that has to stop.”

One needs to hold on to that thought and remember that case (‘Harvey Weinstein Convicted of Sexual Assault, Acquitted of Being a Serial Predator’, February 24), when one considers the piece, ‘An Indian Leader in the Fight Against Climate Change’ (February 7), on the late R.K. Pachauri. It was met with immediate and unequivocal condemnation from readers in India and across the world. How could an article written in evident and deep admiration of a man who was, as it put it, “the only Indian to head an organisation that was awarded the Nobel Prize – the Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change”, not mention, even in passing, even in the briefest, most casual way, that he had been accused by multiple women of sexual preying; that he had spent the last half-decade of his life battling – not climate change – but innumerable cases of sexual harassment.

It’s difficult to disagree with this assessment. Whitewashing Dr Pachauri, great scientist though he may have been, reflects a manifest tone-deafness to the crime of sexual harassment, which has survived over the millennia because of this refusal to perceive it as a crime, invisibilised and normalised as it has become through patriarchal privilege. It is also difficult to argue with Vrinda Grover, who was handling two of these cases, when she writes in that the author of this piece “was a long standing friend of RK Pachauri” and had “deposed as a witness in support of RK Pachauri in the defamation suit that he filed against me and the two other women. As an experienced journalist and guest writer, Jha ought to have disclosed this fact.”

The question, of course, is whether The Wire should have entertained this piece in the first place? The editors, in their response, maintain that “As a matter of editorial policy, the opinions expressed by opinion writers are their own.” This one can accept. After all, freedom of speech in published work hinges crucially on those who edit conforming to that important principle. However, every editor also enjoys the right of veto – cutting out is at least one part of the task of editing – which they should have exercised in this instance, but did not.

Rajendra K. Pachauri. Photo: Kris Krug/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


After the pogrom

Responding to the communal violence that broke out in Delhi, Vijay G. Pradhan, a reader of The Wire and a senior advocate who had served as additional senior counsel for the erstwhile Srikrishna Commission that looked into the Bombay Riots of 1992/93, has an important suggestion. He wants The Wire to “forcefully highlight the necessity of referring the ongoing riots for a full-fledged inquiry, with comprehensive terms of reference, under the provisions of the Commission of Inquiry Act before a credible Supreme Court judge.


Ending this column with a spot of cheer. Was delighted to learn that The Wire notched ‘Best News Startup’ and ‘Best Use of Video’ at South Asian Digital Media Awards 2019 (‘The Wire Wins ‘Best News Startup’, ‘Best Use of Video’ at South Asian Digital Media Awards 2019’, February 18).

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