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Backstory: The Vantage Point From Which to Tell the Story of the Farmers’ Protests

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

While covering the ceaseless swirls and eddies in the epic farmers’ agitation on Delhi’s borders, a professional journalist would need to arrive at a vantage point from which to view, report and analyse the developments, in order to tell this history-making story with some degree of credibility and seriousness.

Many media persons have not had to search too hard to find their respective vantage points. Some are happy to be guided by TRPs, circulation figures, or the hits they can garner in their search for the perfect perch. A great many are content to occupy a roost crafted for them by an authoritarian, micro-managing political apparatus through the agency of supine and mendacious managements. All they, on their part, have to do is to suspend critical thinking, give up any pretence of independent thought, stifle the voice of conscience, and find the stomach to endlessly expand on pre-formulated scenarios, pre-fabricated information, pre-cooked conclusions.

Much of the recent reportage on the farm protests emerged from precisely such a perspective, one which just cannot fathom why farmers should so stubbornly resist a policy that is designed by the Modi government for their own well-being. It does not perceive the anti-democratic manner in which the farm laws were brought in without consulting the primary stake-holders and spirited through parliament almost by sleight of hand; but it is full of outrage in framing a tractor rally organised on the same day as the Republic Day parade as a blot on Indian democracy.

It cites the Red Fort events and the clashes with the police at ITO to bolster the case that the protests are being driven by criminal, pro-Khalistani, anarchic, anti-national forces; but has no interest in the fact that the great majority of protestors did follow the prescribed routes, attracting the adulation and garlands of supportive crowds.  It insists that the protestors constitute only a section of farmers from Punjab and Haryana, turning a blind eye to nation-wide support across the country from Himachal to Tamil Nadu.

When the police raided Rakesh Tikait’s camp at Ghazipur and cut off electricity and water supply, it is framed as necessary steps to maintain law and order; but when masked hoodlums are bussed in to throw stones at the protest site in the Singhu border while shouting a murder-threatening slogan popularised by Anurag Thakur – who will soon be presiding over the forthcoming Budget presentation as junior minister – it is framed as “clashes” caused by local anti-farmer sentiment. It portrays the Union home minister as a no-nonsense leader committed to the security of the country while ignoring the reality that under his watch India has become less secure, less united, more polarised, more repressive.

Also read: Of Tractor Parades and Rath Yatras: The BJP Has No Moral Authority to Criticise Farmers

The vantage point of such a perspective is embedded in power and the exercise of power. In a piece for The Wire, a former CEO of Prasar Bharati Jawhar Sircar discerns with a practised eye that “most footage and reportage appeared to be from behind the safe security of the well-armed police”. He goes on to observe that the distance of the cameramen from the really hot action-spots revealed more than just the physical dimension of the problem. It showed a lack of integrity and independence in the media, especially when compared to the “studied neutrality” of footage captured by some foreign channels.

Yet, amidst the loathing for “godi media” so apparent at these protest sites, there were many remarkable media professionals who won the respect of both their audiences and their subjects. They didn’t shirk away from reportage in Hindi, Punjabi and English, night and day, in freezing temperatures and under serious threats to their physical safety, to bring us this epic struggle in all its dimensions and passion.

Farmers on tractors raise slogans during their protest over Centres farm reform laws, at the Delhi-UP border near Ghazipur, in New Delhi, Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021. Photo: PTI

What made their coverage so significant? This takes us to the question raised earlier: how does a professional journalist arrive at the right vantage point to achieve credible coverage of a complex story? The primary requirement undoubtedly is to understand both the cause and the causality undergirding it.

Coming to the first, all the distractions of January 26 should not wipe out the central reality: here are people waging an existential battle, not just for their present but their future – and incidentally our present and future too because the country’s food security is at stake. The reality that so many of their compatriots have died by suicide over the years because of their material conditions drives their implacable resolve, forcing them into a now-or-never moment.

The voices from the ground captured in the recent reportage express this very deep, often quiet, determination. In articles in The Wire, for instance, we come across quotes like: “We have not come to fight. One fights with enemies, not with one’s own government. First and foremost, we want to display that farmers have dignity and they have rights. And we have come to claim those rights”. The intention is not to destroy anything: “We will leave Delhi as we found it. We do not want to hurt Delhi or its residents in any way. The tricolour will fly from our tractors, as will our kisan flag, but the tricolour will fly higher!”.

Understanding the causality of this crisis – the circumstances that led to the present situation and how it impacts the future – is equally important to know, in order to arrive at the right vantage point.  The fact is that it is not the farmers, but the tyrannically powerful which had created the present quagmire in the first place. As another analysis, ‘Res-Publica: The Ground We Share’ puts it, “perhaps … this is a conflict between those who wish to turn the law into an instrument of domination and those who want the law to equalise the unequal”.  The pathway to a future solution lies in resolving this.

Could the farmers’ movement, just as the protests against the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act before it, “create a new language of democratic protest”? . It is a question that reporters of this story may well go on to answer.

Also read: Farmers Are Still Focused on the Real Issues. We Shouldn’t Be Distracted Either.

Tragic or Comic? media does matter

Following media news is like watching a dangal (wrestling match) in the jungle. The only spot of cheer has been the Gujarat high court’s ruling against Paranjoy Guha Thakurta’s imminent incarceration.

Old habits die hard for the proprietors of India Today. Three years ago, they terminated the services of Angshukanta Chakraborty, political editor of DailyO, for supposedly tweeting out of turn. This time, they decided to humiliate their biggest, most credible face – Rajdeep Sardesai – for a tweet, he had himself retracted. Like a schoolboy being made to stand in the corner, Sardesai was suspended for two weeks with his salary docked.

It is incredible that one of the country’s most senior journalists should be subjected to such humiliation by design, but in Incredible India, nothing is incredible anymore, not even governments booking journalists under charges of sedition for reporting on schoolchildren left to shiver during a state event, as the UP government just did.

What next, arresting children for daring to shiver? Kunal Kamra’s response to the Supreme Court – full of customary sparkle and humour – needs to be compulsory reading for every neta (politician) across the land: “I believe that there is a growing culture of intolerance in this country, where taking offence is seen as a fundamental right and has been elevated to the status of a much loved national indoor sport. We are witnessing an assault on the freedom of speech and expression, with comedians like Munawar Farooqi being jailed for jokes that they have not even made, and school students being interrogated for sedition.”

Kunal Kamra. Photo: YouTube screengrab

The Wire‘s article on the TRP controversy comes to the heart of the matter: a particular type of news content that favours the majoritarian politics of the ruling establishment is being monetised by television channels. Monetisation invariably involves market manipulation. What we saw in the scam involving television rating points (TRPs) was a neat exercise of monetisation for personal purposes taking place within the larger process of news monetization, as fake news came wrapped up in fake TRPs. Persons of influence within the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) found it profitable to manipulate TRPs to benefit Republic TV, run by the ruling establishment’s prize poppet, Arnab Goswami. But, as the piece points out, it was not just Republic TV that was in the game of monetising slanted, government-scripted television news – “many new channels, especially in Hindi, started aping Republic TV”, becoming clones of each other.

For confirmation of this, we just have to revisit Times Now’s Navika Kumar’s prime time peroration in which she disses her one-time boss, the Great Goswami, for losing his nationalist and professional values. In soulful tones, she described how she came to fill the giant footwear of the Great G by being made anchor of the 9 o’clock news on Times Now (it is quite another thing that the Great G promptly responded, from his prime time perch, that he had taken his footwear with him when he left Times Now and that imitators had better stop dreaming of being as good as he).  He followed this up with a defamation case against Kumar accusing her, among other things, of being “jealous”.

Watch | ‘Arnab Goswami’s Cosy Ties With PM Breaches Official Secrets Act’: Prashant Bhushan

Poor Kumar, all she wanted was to signal to the Modi government that of the two it is she who should be trusted because, as she put it, “I believe in my sarkar.” Can someone gently remind her that it is not her business as a newsperson to “believe” in the sarkar (government)? In fact, it is her business not to believe in her sarkar, unless there’s evidence to the contrary. But that, sadly, is what getting into the shoes of the Great G does to news anchors across the country.

Online trolling, offline violence

Journalists who do not “believe” in the sarkar get punished. Neha Dixit, one of those courageous young women journalists who has conducted such enduring investigations such as the UP government’s extra-judicial killings, the sexual assault on women during the Muzzarfarnagar violence, and the spiriting away of young Assamese girls by rightwing establishments for ideological purposes, has been targeted not just by online trolls but offline stalkers.  Dixit’s post led organisations like DIGIPUB and NWMI to issue statements in her support even as hundreds of professionals tweeted, posted or mailed messages of solidarity.

Mail from readers

Farm protests

Santosh Kumar writes: “Our English news channels as usual went overboard over a kisan raising a Sikh flag over the Red Fort.  It was seen as ‘desecration’ of democracy. Wonder what words those anchors would have used had they been covering Ayodhya on December 6, 1992?  Or for that matter, did they not see anything wrong when the prime minister of a secular country performed the shilanyas of a Hindu temple built on the very same plot of land where the mosque stood? Perhaps for them this has only bolstered Indian democracy! …By the way, does the Constitution anywhere set down that no one can climb on top of the Red Fort and hoist a flag? When a river overflows, it is quite natural that its banks may get breached at certain points. That was what happened in Delhi on Republic Day. The cause of the farmers cannot be maligned or belittled by shedding crocodile tears for democracy.”

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Aarthi writes: “As a citizen of India but a resident of London, I watched the events unfolding in the nation’s capital with increasing alarm. What I saw was a replica of the highly successful model deployed during the Gujarat riots.

“To set the record right, I believe, for three reasons,  that the government was planning and in fact hoping that farmers would enter the Red Fort. One, the police approved the Ghazipur camp route which ran close to Red Fort, ITO and the BJP head office on Republic Day, knowing well all the risks. Two, why when the Delhi Police used tear gas everywhere, did it not do so against those entering Red Fort? Lastly, although I personally saw no harm in a religious flag being hoisted alongside the tricolour, the policemen around were mere spectators when this was happening.”

Also read: The January 26 Violence Was a Result of Police Incompetence, Negligence and Chaos By Design

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Kapil writes: “Recently, something rare happened. A former Judge of a High Court — the Punjab and Haryana High Court in this case — came out in support of the farmers and has spoken against the three farm laws. It’s rare to see former judges of constitutional courts come out in support of the poor and against the government in such straightforward fashion. Justice Rameshwar Singh Malik, a former judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, who now practices as a senior advocate before the Supreme Court, joined the farmers at the Delhi border and addressed them. He told the crowds that he came as a farmer’s son and a farmer himself and could relate to their angst. Justice Malik is a man of high integrity and is considered an authority on land and revenue law. His verdicts on several land acquisition cases always kept the cause of the poor and peasantry in mind. He is also known to encourage youngsters to argue in his court.

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Where are the tough questions?

Sanatan Nehru writes: “I am a Kashmiri Pandit, who has settled in Mumbai. It pained me to read the interview with Mehbooba Mufti. The Wire claims to be fair and committed to pursuing the truth, so why didn’t the interviewer pose tough question of  Mufti? It’s on record the Mufti was hand in glove with the separatist Hurriyat and other outfits and that most of the militancy in the state occurred in her constituency districts of Bijberra and Pulwama. Also, wasn’t it a fact that her father was a stooge of the Congress Party? I don’t expect a reply to this mail; nevertheless I felt the need to unburden my pain which people like the interviewer will never understand.”

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Merely shouting?

A. Banerji writes: “The focus of ‘Backstory: If the Media Fails to Read the Farm Struggle Right, Irrelevance Awaits’ (January 16) was on the media and how they have been unable to understand the farmers protest.  The public editor spends so many words lambasting the government but not a single line on why the farmers’ protest is right and the government is wrong. This is the same form of journalism we see in prime time TV at 9:00 p.m. every day, with people shouting without understanding why they are shouting.”

The death penalty

Anirudh Kashikar writes:  “I have been following The Wire’s editorial stand against the death penalty in several of your articles. A case I am personally following is about a 43-year-old woman who was brutally raped and murdered. A fast track court saw it as a “rarest of rare” case.  The culprit, a totally worthless man, has appealed this punishment in the high court. The prosecution may lose the case as the defence cites your articles on the death penalty and the judge seems to be so mystified that the culprit may even be let off. I only have one question: if someone close to you went through a similar experience, how would you feel? Does drinking tea while sitting in an air-conditioned studio give you the right to comment on these matters? The death penalty is required for people who show no mercy.”

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Finally, a tragic observation from a young reader who wishes to be anonymous: “I am a second-year student at a prestigious business school in India and have just gone through a traumatic experience. One of my batch mates has committed suicide. It’s a shocking development and I think it reflects institutional problems.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in