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Backstory: India Is on the Wrong Side of History on Gaza, and the Media Has Not Helped

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

We are a month into 2024, and last year’s most devastating humanitarian crisis continues to cast a pall over the days ahead. The death toll in Gaza has now crossed 27,000, with 70% of those killed being women and children. Bodies of an estimated 10,000 more remain entombed in the rubble and an estimated 50,000 pregnant women bear inhumanly severe hardships in primitive, wintry conditions with only tents for protection.

Meanwhile, as India celebrated its Republic Day, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave its historic interim ruling in the case that South Africa had brought before it on Israel’s genocide against the people of Palestine under the Genocide Convention, 1948. In its ruling, the ICJ required that Israel “take all measures within its power to prevent the commission of all acts within the scope of Article II of this Convention, in particular: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; and (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.”

While the ICJ has regrettably not demanded that Israel commit to a total ceasefire, this ruling amounts nevertheless to a strong indictment from the world’s highest court of Israel’s barbaric assault on Gaza and its residents. As the Wire analysis, ‘By Invoking Genocide Convention, ICJ Makes It Clear Israel’s Killing of Palestinians is Not ‘War’ But Crime’ (January 27) points out: “After establishing both its own jurisdiction and South Africa’s standing in taking Israel to The Hague, the ICJ says categorically in paragraph 30 that ‘at least some of the acts and omissions alleged by South Africa to have been committed by Israel in Gaza appear to be capable of falling within the provisions of the [Genocide] Convention.’” Today Israel stands as an outcast among the countries of the world and the implications this has for its future will unravel in the coming years.

For the Indian media, all these developments could just as well have been occurring on another planet, so scattered and sparse has been the attention they have paid to them. While newspapers had some limited reportage and analyses on the ICJ’s interim verdict, mainstream Indian television blanked it out almost completely.

India Today, like its television counterparts, did not waste much footage on the world court or its arguments. However, it could not help but indulge in a little braggadocio over how its story on the Hamas attacks of October 7, 2023, had become a part of Israel’s counter submissions before the ICJ. The irony is that this very story – about a Hamas operative calling his parents after killing a Jewish family during the October 7 attack – had been handed over on a plate to the Indian news channel by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). So, the fulsome self-congratulations that the channel extended to itself – “it’s a big deal”; “it’s a moment of pride” – for a story that Israel had provided for propaganda purposes, were completely out of whack. This story, in fact, demonstrated the shameful fact that India Today, like many Indian news channels, allowed itself to get embedded in Israel’s army operations and narratives. Rushing to claim credit for having been part of an effort now considered plausibly genocidal hardly deserves to be regarded as a badge of honour, in fact quite to the contrary.

The one piece of reportage that India Today carried on the ICJ, that was halfway professional (‘South Africa sues Israel at ICJ for its ‘genocide’ actions’, January 3, 2024), was not its own report but one filed by the news agency AFP.

A recent international survey, ‘2024 Global Risk Report’, for the World Economic Forum, put India as a country “where the risk of disinformation and misinformation was ranked highest”. It defined ‘disinformation’ as situations where audiences are deliberately misled and ‘misinformation’ as cases where information is spread out of genuine belief but which can have harmful consequences. We can also add to such risks the deliberate erasure of crucial information. The question that the media of a country, which promotes itself as “Vishwaguru” (teacher of the world), should ask themselves is this: What happens when crucially important stories like the oceanic human suffering in Gaza or the ICJ ruling are blanked out of the news space?

An article in The Wire posed a parallel question: ‘What Explains the Desensitisation of the Western Leadership Towards Horrors in Gaza?’ (January 27) and went on to observe that “Unlike with earlier conflicts, this time we are able to see footage not only of the people on the ground as they are being bombed and seeing their lives completely disrupted but of the ones at the top doggedly supporting the carnage as something necessary.” The western media’s reporting on Gaza has met with widespread criticism. Journalist Vidya Krishnan recently termed it “a textbook case of coloniser’s journalism”, a “journalism done by practitioners from colonising countries who take pride in their imperial conquests and have an elevated sense of self, every fibre nurtured by centuries of predatory accumulation of wealth, knowledge and privilege” (‘Western coverage of Gaza: A textbook case of coloniser’s journalism’, Al Jazeera, February 2).

If this is the case with reportage from London and New York, how should we define coverage from India which makes its statement on Gaza through its non-reportage of Gaza? A textbook case of colonised journalism?

To grasp the real-life consequences of such media silence, one just has to listen to workers queuing up at various centres, facilitated by India’s National Skills Development Corporation, to work in Israel. A report in The Wire report indicates the blanket of opacity that marks the process. Nobody has any idea of the terms and conditions of the jobs that await them in Israel, nor do they have an inkling of their working conditions there. The Guardian has estimated that 400,000 Palestinians have lost their jobs in Israel post October 7, 2023, and chances are that these Indian workers probably do not even know that they are being shipped in to replace Palestinian labour.

Driven out by poverty and hardships at home, an extremely fraught scenario awaits these Indians, eventually estimated to number 40,000, with their own government not bothering to stand guarantor for their safety. The fog created by misinformation, disinformation and obliteration of information have contributed to making this passage rife with danger.

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Importance of calling out viral fictions

More dangerous than the toxic disinformation deliberately created and made viral, is the public silence that accompanies it. Three well-known journalists – Sreenivasan Jain, Mariyam Alavi and Supriya Sharma – by bringing out a book on the phenomenon have made a courageous effort to break the pattern of public apathy towards fake news in the country. The work they have jointly authored, Love Jihad and Other Fictions (Aleph, 2024), is particularly well timed, given that with another General Election on the horizon, the country is set to face a tsunami of fake information promoted by the cash-soaked ruling party. Advances in information technology, notably the rise of Artificial Intelligence, have only added to this threat.

The dangers of fake news are obvious. By becoming the stuff of everyday conversations, they have over the years deepened social fissures and spread communal hatred within the country. But the authors also point to impacts that are not so obvious, as for instance how fake content created and spread on social media becomes the foundation on which laws are made. As they put it: “Today’s WhatsApp Forward, Tomorrow’s Law’. Himachal Pradesh, then under BJP rule, was the first Indian state to enact a ‘Love Jihad’ law – the Himachal Pradesh Freedom Of Religion Act, 2019 (Act No. 13 of 2019). Over the next five years, most states with BJP governments went on to enact such laws that intertwine marriage with religious conversion. This flurry of law-making would seem to indicate that there is an exponential growth in interfaith marriages. In actual fact, as the authors point out in this book, only 2.5% of marriages in the country were interreligious, according to 2015-2016 National Family Health Survey data.

The book maps out how the idea of ‘Love Jihad’ gained such wide acceptability. One of the sources often cited for the supposed proliferation of interfaith marriages was a special edition of VHP’s in-house magazine which “described this strategy as ‘demographic invasion’ by Muslims to reduce Hindus to a minority”. Deeper scrutiny into the magazine revealed that of the list of supposedly 147 cases unearthed through investigation conducted by the VHP turned out to be a compilation of instances drawn possibly after a Google search.

Incidentally, OpIndia was the single largest contributor to this list!

Almost half the cases were found to be invalid.  The conclusion was inescapable: “The VHP list (perhaps the most widely cited source to buttress the claim that ‘Love Jihad’ exists), offers no evidence of a Muslim conspiracy.” What was clear was that from a wide catchment of gender-related crimes in India, instances were selected which involved alleged crimes and cases of misogynistic behaviour by Muslim men toward Hindu women, to establish the ‘Love Jihad’ thesis.

‘Love Jihad’ in one of four fictions the book sets out to dismantle. Others include claims that the population of Muslims will overtake that of Hindus because as a VHP apparatchik told the authors, Muslims “believe in procreating more children as a religious duty…in their rejection of population control methods.” The book takes this apart by citing credible data. The same scrupulous approach is extended to exposing other frequently cited claims, including those of forced conversions and Muslim appeasement.

An outstanding graphic in the book exposes how the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in its answers to parliamentarians asking for data of illegal immigrants in India admitted at least 10 times over the years of Modi rule that it has no confirmed data about illegal immigrants residing in the country. However, this has never stopped BJP leaders from making wild claims of crores of “infiltrators” living in the country.

For journalists in particular, Love Jihad And Other Fictions is a useful work to access. Apart from being a rich compendium of slanted stories, cynically distorted social media posts and carefully culled data, it counters the falsehoods in a straightforward and credible manner.

Has France let down Vanessa Dougnac?

French president, Emmanuel Macron, went back to France with one replica of the Ram Mandir; one Indo-French joint venture between Airbus and Tata for the manufacture of civilian helicopters; and the possibility of keeping alive two large defence deals running into several billions of dollars to manufacture Rafale-M jets for the Indian Navy as well as three Scorpene-class submarines, both of which had been in the pipeline. All in all, Macron had every reason to be satisfied with the outcome of his latest visit to India.

There was just a small fly in the ointment: India’s Union Ministry of Home Affairs had filed a showcause notice on January 18, about a week before Macron was arrive, against French journalist Vanessa Dougnac – who has been living and working in India for over two decades and is married to an Indian citizen – threatening to revoke her Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card.  If she does not respond to the MHA notice with an adequate explanation by February 2, she may face deportation. The reason for the action, according to OpIndia, a mouthpiece of the current political dispensation, was because of her “malicious” work which has created a “biased negative perception” of India and over alleged violation of visa rules. Besides this, the accusation was made about her work, that it provoked “disorder and disturbed the peace in certain sections of the society.” Vanessa Dougnac, on her part, has so far steadfastly denied all the charges made against her.

The showcause notice led to deep consternation among journalists in the country, especially foreign correspondents, 30 of whom wrote an open letter of protest on the issue. In the letter, they also made it a point to request “the Indian authorities to facilitate the vital work of a free press in line with India’s democratic traditions.”

From all evidence, the French authorities did raise the issue with their Indian counterparts, but so far, India has desisted from rolling back the order. Interestingly, in its latest statement on the issue, the Indian spokesperson denied that it was provoked by Dougnac’s journalism and this was a matter of complying with the rules. Could this be read as the Indian government taking a step back? We will have to see how it plays out.

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Readers write in…

Satyameva Jayate!

 Dr Naveen Kumar Vanam from Hyderabad wrote in: “Since 2019 I have been associated with the RSS, but now I am away from it for a few months because they are not following actual Hindutva and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita. Governments are veering more towards religion than the development of the country, ignoring equality and democracy in the process. I am really frustrated by the way they perceive people of other religions, giving more weightage to creed and creating conditions for future religious conflicts in India. Many of these issues have international dimensions.

“I joined the RSS only for India’s growth, not for its Hindutva ideology. The present leader is not ruling, he is dictating. Controversial bills are being brought in, the Election Commission has been suborned, people should realise that actual spirituality is missing from the actions of the government. If we do not speak out today, it is likely that the very name of India will be changed to incorporate his own name.

“I personally feel that there’s no religion in the world greater than humanity. May

Truth win! Satyameva Jayate!”

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Religion is the national ideology

Pradip Biswas had this comment to share with The Wire’s readers:  “After January 22, and the consecration of the Ram Temple, there can be no doubt that religion leads the nation now…”

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1.) Jayaram has this to say: “Not one Muslim among the Union Council of Ministers.

Not one Muslim among the ruling party MPs. Muslims make up 14 per cent of India’s population. Might be worth bearing this in mind in the context of the January 22 circus in Ayodhya/Faizabad.”

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Withdraw OSB

Dr. Roshmi Goswami, co-chairperson, and Dr. P. Saravanamuttu, Bureau Member, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, wrote in on the Online Safety Bill (OSB), by the Parliament of Sri Lanka on January 24: “Numerous parties within Sri Lanka and at international and regional level have demanded the withdrawal of the OSB, emphasising that it would severely suppress freedom of expression and dissent…After the OSB was tabled in Parliament, 51 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging its constitutionality…

“Across South Asia, there are legislations such as the Digital Security Act of 2018 and the Information and Communications Technology Act (Amended in 2009 and 2013) in Bangladesh as well as colonial era laws such as Section 124 A (Sedition) of Indian Penal Code and Pakistan Penal Code and the Official Secrets Act of 1923 of Pakistan and Bangladesh which have been used and proven to effectively stifle freedom of expression and suppress dissent. SAHR is concerned that the OSB too will be used in such a manner to suppress freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.

“Therefore, SAHR strongly calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to repeal the OSB and adhere to its obligations as a state party to the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Freedom of Expression guaranteed by the Constitution of Sri Lanka.”

End Note:  The RBI move on PayTM seems to have tickled the imagination of a whizkid on X.  Figures bearing placards that read ‘PayTM’, ‘Sahara India Parivar’, ‘Byjus’, ‘Micromax’, were shown to keel over, one after the other, under the tagline: ‘Billion Dollar Companies after Sponsoring BCCI’.

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