Backstory | In Ram’s Name: New Media, New Methods

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

The dust of the Ram Navami festivities may have settled for the moment, but the detritus – material and political – left behind are clogging the lungs of the country (‘Violence, Arson Mark Ram Navami Processions Across States; Rally Held in Delhi Without Permission’, March 31).

Like mercury the molten hatred flowed in at least eight states this year. 

What accounts for the scale of such violence that accretes around a festival meant to celebrate Lord Ram, regarded by the ordinary believer as Maryada Purushottam, as the embodiment of the perfect man? What accounts for this wilful destruction of maryada (dignity, peace), year after year, during a festival meant to extol him?  

Two important pieces carried in The Wire attempted to do this.

The first, ‘A Single Factor Is Common to All Communal Riots During Religious Processions in India’ (March 30), was excerpted from the widely circulated and very relevant fact-finding report on last year’s violence brought out by citizens and lawyers, with a foreword by Justice Rohinton F. Nariman and edited by senior advocate Chander Uday Singh, ‘Routes of Wrath. The document emphasised that if “one factor were to be singled out as the most important catalyst for communal riots flowing from religious processions, and equally for the prevention of such riots, it would have to be the route chosen by procession organizers”. 

The second piece brought the voices of the affected to the reader (‘What Explains the Scale of Communal Violence in Bihar on Ram Navami?’, April 7).

It pointed to how a peace that had reigned in most regions of the state for decades was shattered. The words of Naresh Kumar, a painter in Bihar Sharif, Nalanda district, indicated how nobody could escape: “Naresh asked, weeping, “All Muslims [in the area] would give me love and call me painterji. I never faced any difficulties here. Miscreants in the Ram Navami procession snatched my only source of livelihood. Now how will I survive?” His words were echoed by Humayun Akhtar Tariq, a hotelier: “For 32 years I believed that I am safe here, because Hindus live around me. But today this belief has disappeared. Will get the hotel repaired, but restoring trust is difficult.” 

One of the triggering factors this time seems to have been the unusually large size of the processions, the unprecedentedly huge crowds, all of which were overseen by pathetically small contingents of police.

What was also noticed was that it was political fervour that was being passed off as religious fervour. Last year, the JD(U) was in alliance with the BJP in Bihar. This year Nitish Kumar realigned his party with the RJD and also initiated a hugely significant caste census. So the argument goes that the BJP is rattled by this and is sparing no effort to achieve communal polarisation. 

Whether this argument holds water or not, it is certainly worth media investigation, but the well-resourced Big Media are not interested in asking such questions.

If ordinary citizens realise that such violence create fear, trauma, injury, losses and deaths for everybody, Muslims, Hindus and everyone else, why do the Big Media – those responsible for putting out news and information on an industrial scale – fail to investigate the reasons for developments that can almost certainly be predicted if not prevented?

Videos screengrabs and Twitter images of violence in Bengal’s Howrah following Ram Navami processions.

This time too, Big Media, amidst the Ram Navami mayhem, stuck to their familiar scripts featuring sound bites from favoured figures, after the fact.

To take one example, incendiary quotes like this one from BJP Member of Parliament, Giriraj Singh, on the Bengal violence were put out repeatedly by Aaj Tak without contextualisation or counter: “Mamata Banerjee has spread a red carpet for Bangladeshis and Rohingyas. Violence on Ram Navami has taken place last year too, but this year it took place under the protection of Mamata Banerjee. And she should not forget, that every time Shivaji rises and takes a sword in his hand, Aurangzebs are destroyed”  (‘Eyes wide shut: what AajTak’s coverage of Ram Navami violence tells us about mainstream media in today’s India’, CPJ, April 3).

Talking of the media, let us not forget, that the weaponisation of the figure of Lord Ram for ideological purposes began with Ramanand Sagar’s Bollywoodised picturisation of the epic, Ramayan. As Arvind Rajagopal’s magisterial 2001 book, Politics After Television Religious Nationalism And The Reshaping Of The Indian Public underlined, that television serial changed Indian politics irrevocably. Rajagopal pointed out over two decades ago the multiple messaging behind this project to fuel Hindutva by asserting the right of Hindus while retrospectively punishing Muslims, consciously used the “polyvalent” Ram figure – “androgynous, high-caste dark-skinned renouncer-king, friend of the high and the low, and lately appearing as man and child as well.”

Rajagopal’s book largely referred to Hindutva of the pre- and post-Babri Masjid demolition days. The political Hinduism of that period could perhaps be termed as 2G Hindutva.

Today, we are living in times of 5G Hindutva, both literally and metaphorically.

If media was melded into the project earlier, it is even more the case today. If the earlier avatar drew on magical fare circulating on state-run television that breathed new life into a God Figure; today a million images of Ram and Angry Hanuman saturate the cyber and physical space. If the earlier avatar animated millions through devotional music dedicated to Lord Ram and circulated through cassettes, today millions of young men groove to the vicious “hate music” tracks downloaded from YouTube.

Earlier the songs put out were appeals to worship the Lord and build the temple.

Rajagopal cites a Ram Avtar Sharma’s lyric that goes:

We swear by Ram,

We shall build Ram temple there [Mandir wahin banayenge].

We shall show how to solve this Ramjanma Bhoomi issue.

The world turns at God’s feet…”

Now the lyrics openly exhort murder:

Chamak rahi talwar hai, chamak raha Trishul hai. Hindu ko kamzor samjhna dushman ki bhool hai (the trishul and sword are shining. It was the enemy’s mistake to think that Hindus are weak, ‘Jamia Shooter Now Amplifying Hindutva ‘Hate’ Music Videos Featuring Violence Against Muslims’, May 1, The Wire, 2022). 

Ram Navami processions have become legitimised in the minds of its participants as occasions to attack mosques, brandish weapons, roar filthy abuses in unison while marching through Muslim neighbourhoods. New media and new methodologies now animate the old. 

In a piece for The Indian Express (‘A Different Ram Navami’, April 8), academics Ashutosh Varney and Bhanu Joshi remind us that it was not always like this.

In the period between 1950 and 1995, Ram Navami was not a significant occasion for rioting. The Ram Shilanyas mobilisations and the Babri Masjid demolition altered the earlier dynamics considerably. But what we are witnessing today goes far beyond even that high watermark. We can only imagine what we could be witnessing in 2024, just before a General Election.


The multi-layered genius of Vivan Sundaram

The innumerable paintings, artwork and installations of the late Vivan Sundaram throng the mind as if to fill the vacuum of his loss.  As a journalist there was one aspect of Sundaram’s work that always struck me – his constant engagement with contemporary times, especially in his installations, whether by dismantling mannequins or searching for living worlds in garbage. In this pursuit he drew a lot from material published in the media.

One of his resonant works, ‘Memorial: Burial’, 1993 (mixed media), for instance, was drawn from a newspaper image from the post-Ayodhya communal violence that had rocked Mumbai in 1992-93. A photograph of a crumbled body of a Muslim man taken by Hoshi Jal on February 23, 1993, and which appeared in The Times of India, became the centrifugal force in a Sundaram installation.

As the artist told an interviewer later, “I was very disturbed after the Babri Masjid demolition and the violence that followed. But, I could not figure how to portray such a huge catastrophe on canvas. I came across an iconic photograph by Hoshi Jal in The Times of India, of a man lying dead next to a garbage dump. ‘Memorial’, one of my earliest installations made in 1994, was based on this photograph.” 

Vivan Sundaram standing next to his painting ‘May 68’ (1968). Photo: Ajay Jaiman

Twenty three years later, once again this direct drawing in from journalism and history was manifested  in another work, ‘Meanings of Failed Action: Insurrection 1946’ (‘An Artistic Reimagining of the Naval Mutiny of 1946’, The Wire, March 4, 2017). Conceived and curated by Sundaram and cultural theorist Ashish Rajadhyaksha, it was a memorable exhibition on a rebellion mounted by naval ratings in Mumbai – an important development that hastened the granting of independence to India by the colonial raj. 

Conceived as a living archive, Sundaram told The Wire that “Archive has always been an important part of contemporary art-making strategies. Memory is treated as an archival document.” 

Some of the material from this archive drew from contemporary newspaper reports and photographs. These included The Bombay Chronicle, The Sphere, The Daily Mirror, and The Times of India. What was striking, as noted by Dr Valentina Vitali, a professor of Film Studies in an essay she wrote for the Journal of South Asian Studies, most of the contemporary news coverage of the rebellion faithfully followed the line of the colonial administration and leaders of the Indian national movement, who saw the naval protestors as a “a violent, faceless crowd – a ‘mobocracy’”, as Gandhi saw it.”

But there were notable exceptions. Vitali references The Free Press Journal, as the only newspaper that bothered to put a face to the events by featuring Balai Chand Dutt, a leading telegraphist on the H.M.I.S. Talwar, which was the site of the rebellion. The editor of the Free Press Journal, incidentally was approached directly by the ratings for coverage.

The other exception was the People’s Age, the organ of the Communist Party of India, whose reporting was strongly sympathetic. The People’s Age also carried some brilliant illustrations by Chittaprosad Bhattacharya of scenes from the rebellion. Sundaram and Rajadhyaksha featured these prominently in their truly oceanic exhibition.

MediaOne, Media Won

Four major observations from the highest court of the county in the case involving the Malayalam channel MediaOne that could go some way into breathing some life into the constitutional guarantee of right to freedom of expression, which has been seen to be synonymous to the right to freedom of expression of the press.

The first of these is that not renewing the licence of an established TV channel amount to restricting freedom of the press.

Two, criticising government policy does not constitute a “reasonable restriction” under Article 19 (2) of the Constitution.

Three, the government cannot cite the national security under threat argument, without citing material evidence.

And, finally, the practice of the “sealed envelope” procedure in deciding such cases – which flourished under the watch of supreme court chief justices like Ranjan Gogoi – needs to be discouraged. All four principles now need to be protected and extended.

 This happy outcome would not have been possible if the MediaOne channel owners had not persisted with this case that began with the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting revoking the licence of the channel in January 2022 after the Union home ministry refused to grant it a fresh security clearance. Many media owners would have succumbed to the pressure. Fortunately for us those running MediaOne did not. The Supreme Court was recognising this in its observation that the channel has proved its right to a fair hearing “has been infringed by the unreasoned order of the Union I&B ministry”.


Readers write in…

Common Cause released ‘The Status of Policing in India Report 2023’, last fortnight. It sent across the key findings of this report:

  • The number of CCTV cameras with the police is significantly lower than the number of cameras within the cities.
  • There is no statistically significant relationship between the CCTVs available with the police and the rates of cognisable crimes from 2016 to 2020.
  • Even states that have a high registration of cybercrimes, the infrastructural capacity to handle such cases does not match the high volumes of registration of cybercrimes.
  • In the focus group discussions, stakeholders agreed that while surveillance is conducted by various actors it is the unchecked surveillance by the state that is the biggest cause for concern.
  • While the participants had differences about the efficiency of mass surveillance for controlling crime there was consensus that surveillance technologies required better oversight.
  • The focus group discussion participants were of the opinion that support for surveillance technologies amongst the general public stemmed from ignorance about the right to privacy.
  • It was felt that the public views surveillance as an effective tool for public safety and national security.
  • Some participants also pointed out the differences in opinions depending on the class of the citizens, with the poor being less likely to support surveillance by the police or the state.
  • Some focus group discussion participants and serving police officers said that police departments in India lack the necessary infrastructure and legal mechanisms to properly conduct surveillance (and therefore the ground reality is that the police are unable to use surveillance technologies effectively).
  • One out of two people (51%) said CCTVs have been installed in their households/colonies, while high-income groups are more than three times more likely to have CCTV coverage in their residential areas compared to slums.
  • The government is three times more likely to install CCTV cameras in slums/poor localities, compared to higher-income localities.
  • The poorest are least likely to support the installation of CCTVs at any location.
  • People with higher levels of education are more likely to believe that CCTVs help in crime reduction and are less likely to believe that CCTVs can be misused for illegal mass surveillance.
  • Only one in four people strongly feel that CCTVs carry a risk of illegal mass surveillance. Nearly three out of four people strongly believe that CCTVs help monitor and reduce crimes.
  • About half of the respondents supported the collection of biometric details of suspects.
  • Adivasis and Muslims are the most critical of the police collecting biometric details of all suspects.
  • More than one out of two people strongly support the use of drones by the armed forces, government, and police. However, farmers and the poorest are most likely to oppose drone usage by government agencies.
  • One out of two people fully support the use of FRT by the government, and police. People are four times more likely to strongly support the use of FRT by government agencies, compared to its use by private entities.
  • Nearly two out of three respondents believe that political parties surveil citizens for electoral gains.
  • Over half of the people strongly justify using CCTV cameras to control protests. People from small cities and poor backgrounds are least likely to support the use of CCTVs to curb political movements or protests.
  • One out of five people believe that it is right for the government to monitor people’s social media posts.
  • Large sections of the respondents feel government surveillance by CCTVs (52%), drones (30%), FRT (25%), etc. to suppress protests and political movements are justified to a great extent. Those from Punjab are least likely to support government surveillance during protests, while those from Gujarat are most likely to support it.


‘I feel news starved’

A message from a subscriber:

“I am a 79-year-old subscriber with a vision difficulty. For me, the most convenient way of accessing The Wire has been through the email. And that is what I was doing until three days ago when suddenly, and without explanation the daily edition stopped appearing in my inbox. I feel news starved. Please tell me what to do. Probably there is a technical glitch at your end which needs to be set right.”

My response: We hope to set this right.


End Note: Must say, one of the unintended consequence of NCERT’s removal of crucial pages in the history of the country was the unleashing of the sardonic Indian and the Twitter space was evidence enough…Here are some recent tweets, all of them projecting a future India:

Mahatma Gandhi was killed in an auto rickshaw accident while crossing the road in 1948. Future textbooks of India…

(Tweet from Mini Nair)

Some years later:

Kid (looking at Taj Mahal): Who built this? 

Mummy:  Pata Nahin. 

Kid (looking at Lal Qila): Wow! Who built this? 

Mummy: Pata Nahin 

Next day, Kid meets his friends and tell them that he saw the Taj Mahal and Lal Qila built by Pata Nahin

(Tweet from Sayema)

There were some powerful cartoons as well…here are two from brilliant women cartoonists, penpencildraw and Sanitary Panels (The News Minute).

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