Backstory: It’s Media Information That Keeps India as a Country Together – or Apart

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

Riots can be tweeted. Election rigging can be facebooked. Communal murders can be whatsapped. The last fortnight brought disturbing reminders of how far we have gone down the road to a mediatised dystopia when, to adapt an evocative McLuhan phrase, we found ourselves once again driving into the future guided by the rearview mirror.

Recent images of Bihar migrants working in Tamil Nadu desperately clambering on to trains headed back home brought back memories of another time, a decade ago, when something similar happened to migrants from the Northeast. In mid-2012, morphed images of attacks on the Rohingya population perpetrated by the Burmese army a month earlier, had made their way to Assam’s Kokrajhar, opening a fresh vein of blood-letting between the Bodos and the Bengali Muslims by July 20. This, in turn, triggered a destabilising arc of events that traced a trajectory from Assam to Mumbai, where large-scale protests against anti-Muslim violence fuelled by social media messaging broke out after a rally held in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan on August 11. It soon spread to Pune and other places.

Shortly thereafter, threatening messages travelled to cities like Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, triggering panic among migrants from the Northeast located there. So high was the threshold of fear that, according to the Railways, at least 25,000 passengers from Bengaluru caught trains for Assam, and other northeastern destinations between August 15 and 17 – just three days.

Both sets of panic reactions separated by a decade were fuelled by the media and social media; both were enormously disruptive in a country as large and variegated as India, unleashing chaos and anxieties on a mass scale; both involved migrants and were quickly framed as outsider-insider confrontations. They also demonstrate that the faith the public vests in the veracity of images and texts that reach them on digital platforms has remained steadfast over this last decade.

But there were also differences between then and now. The first aspect we need to register, of course, are the significant changes in information technology. The SMS, or short messaging service, sent in bulk, which had wreaked havoc in 2012, has been completely overtaken by tweets and WhatsApp messages. Earlier it was the static image that did the rounds on the mostly simple mobile phone of those days, this time the videos curated to send a chill down the spine made it to internet-enabled smart phones, achieving a higher level of virality which hastened the pace of developments. In 2023, the fake material made to circulate had a level of sophistication that was missing in the earlier case. To take one example, what appeared to be screenshots of a report on Bihar migrants being asked to leave Tamil Nadu along with the masthead of Dainik Jagran, the largest selling newspaper in Bihar, lent huge credibility to what was patently false.

Two very striking differences this time, however, also need to be acknowledged. First, while in 2012 the untruths in the toxic messages swirling around were never conclusively established or called out; this time the forensic analyses of fact-checkers like Alt News of videos showing murder and assault on figures projected as Bihari migrants, conducted in almost real time, stood out. This was important transparency work and needs to be acknowledged as such by every Indian committed to a credible public sphere (‘Multiple Unrelated Videos Viral as Attack on Migrant Labourers in Tamil Nadu’, first appear in the AltNews website on March 2 and in The Wire on March 4). Take the step-by-step unpacking of Video #1 which showed masked assaulters attacking a man on the street with sickle and machete. Alt News, through a process of reading signage on the street, conducting keyword searches, breaking down the video into key frames while performing a Google reverse image searches on them and by syncing tweets and newspaper reports with the image, was able to establish that the footage which was now being passed off as an attack on a Bihari migrant on a Tamil Nadu street, was actually related to an incident involving a local gang war in Coimbatore. Other falsities also surfaced through the investigations of the Tamil Nadu police. For instance, the alleged “killer of a Bihar labourer”, turned out to be man from Jharkhand, Upendra Dhari, whose personal enmity with one Pawan Yadav had driven him to murder the latter. The video of that killing had fed the fake-news fuelled spiral of panic.

While in 2012 there was an array of interested political parties, including those driven by communal and ethnic ideologies, doing the mischief; this time there was evidence to suggest that much of the toxic disinformation was driven by forces aligned to the Hindu rightwing. This appears to be motivated by two politically partisan objectives: One, to ensure that the BJP emerges as a protector of Bihar’s interests in a state where it is looking to plant its flag of one-party dominance. As the Wire article, ‘On the Lookout For an Emotive Issue Ahead of LS Polls, BJP Suffers a Setback in Bihar’ (March 6), points out, “Bihar’s alliance parties suspect that the Sangh Parivar is plotting to build the narrative that migrant workers of Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and other parts of the Hindi heartland are not safe in Tamil Nadu… in order to reinforce that idea that a strong Centre headed by Modi is what is necessary to protect workers in other states.” The moment the fake news began to circulate, it was BJP politicians in Bihar who were the most assiduous in circulating it and stridently raising the issue in the state assembly. In time, one of them – the BJP spokesperson Prashant Patel Umrao – even confessed to have fallen victim to fake news. It’s another matter that he did this only after the Tamil Nadu police had booked him for intentionally causing a breach of public peace.

The second political objective of the Hindutva forces was to discredit the DMK-led alliance in Tamil Nadu because it is seen as a lynchpin of oppositional unity. Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin pointed out that the rumours came thick and fast after he had appealed to opposition parties to unite against the BJP. Fortunately, the chief ministers of both states, Bihar’s Nitish Kumar and Stalin, were quick to reach out to each other, issue public statements, ensure that their police took the necessary steps to bring the situation under control and set up fact-finding teams. This prompt action made a huge difference. In 2012 when the violence against people from the northeast, which was triggered by events in the Rakhine province in early June, took at least three months to subside. In the latest case, the situation was controlled within a few days thanks to the pro-active steps taken by the authorities.

Establishing the untruths behind the narrative, which required the efforts not just of individual journalists but state agencies as well, put an end to a divisive campaign that would have done immeasurable damage to the country. The OpIndia disclaimer after it had posted fake reports, said it all: “Update: The claims about murders and killing as well as the fingers of the Hindi-speaking migrant labourers being chopped and the labourers being locked in a room and hanged, which were reported by Dainik Bhaskar were retracted after the incident caused nationwide controversy. Since our reports were based on Dainik Bhaskar’s report and were reproduced here crediting them explicitly, we have removed those claims as well because Bhaskar doesn’t seem to be standing by it anymore.

The latest V-Dem report (‘India Is ‘One of the Worst Autocratisers in the Last 10 Years,’ Says 2023 V-Dem Report’, March 7) saw disinformation “as a tool to ‘steer citizens’ preferences’ that is actively used by autocratising regimes to increase political polarisation.” The recent cynical panic-creation in Tamil Nadu provides more evidence of this.

Asianet fracas

There are ways to oppose problematic media coverage but unleashing a group of energetic, slogan-shouting men into newsrooms is not one of them. On March 3, a group of activists of the Students Federation of India (SFI) forced their way into the offices of Asianet News in Kochi to stage a protest against a series that had been aired by the channel (‘Narcotics is a Dirty Business’, aired in November 2022) on the ground that it was based on fake content.

As the student wing of the ruling party, these SFI cadres were possibly driven by anger over what they saw was an attempt to cast the Kerala’s LDF government in poor light, but the impunity that marked their actions caused outrage across the country with several media bodies – in Kerala and elsewhere – issuing statements condemning their actions. Meanwhile the Pinarayi Vijayan government of Kerala did itself no favour by sending in police personnel to the Kozhikode office of Asianet News later for alleged violations in the same case and filing cases against the news channel as well as its executive editor and resident editor. All this was strongly reminiscent of the strong arm tactics of the Modi government against the BBC just a few days earlier and this in itself should have held the Kerala government’s hand.

There is a political angle to this story of course. The ruling party has been boycotting primetime discussions on Asianet News for a while now. According to a report carried in the New Indian Express, “The CPM has been complaining that Asianet News has an agenda to destabilise the LDF government at the behest of the ruling party at the Centre. The channel has aired many stories that were embarrassing for the government and the CPM. The fact that Rajiv Chandrasekhar, a minister in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, owns the channel was cited to be the reason for the channel’s antagonism towards the CPM.”

While all this may or may not be true, it would have been far better for the Kerala government to have made its case to the public after citing the required evidence. It was a fact that the series had carried an interview with a 14-year-old child who had been tutored to deliver some lines. It was also a fact that nowhere in the telecast was it mentioned that this interview was “representational” – the intention seems to have been to pass it off as an authentic interaction, which is of course a big no-no. The state government missed a chance to do the right thing in this case and ended up providing ammunition to its political opponents. Congress leader Ramesh Chennithala put it pithily, “Pinarayi Vijayan is acting like Modi…”

Hopefully, the fracas will come as an object lesson to other state governments raring to unleash their cadres and police to “discipline” media they consider biased and intractable: there is a limit to impunity.


Ads that speak

An ad put out by a matrimonial website, Bharat Matrimony, subtly highlighted the importance of what constitutes a “safe Holi”. It faced a huge backlash from those who saw it as an attack on “Indian values”. How perverted such a line of reasoning came across when Holi celebrations this year saw a spate of cases of the sexual targeting of women — as they do every year.

Meanwhile, a feminist observer in a published reaction drew attention to a Tamil advertisement put out by Prithvi Inner Wears which celebrated International Women’s Day by capturing the multiple realities of women’s lives without exhibiting a need to actually display its products. Don’t miss the song that undergirds it: ‘En Virupam’, translating as ‘My Wish’ and the opening line: “Our sincere thanks to …the real life women who gracefully and enthusiastically accepted to be part of this production to serve as an inspiration to others.”



Readers write in…

Leicester violence

Kamal Joshi has sent in a rather delayed response to a piece published last September: “Good day The Wire. I found several objectionable aspects of the piece entitled, ‘At the Heart of the Leicester Unrest Is Not Religion But Chauvinist Community Politics’ (September 21, 2022).

  1. According to the writer “peace can be shattered when ‘new’ factors emerge. That new factor is the ascendant global Hindutva which in itself is protean…” My objection to this line is that this is biased and false allegation against ‘Hindutva’ because there is no evidence in any of the Leicester Police’s official tweets that these incidents were caused by ‘Hindutva’. Rather all the evidence, arrests and official police’s tweets and report prove that it was fake tweets and fake news on social media that caused the violence. To support my argument please read follow the BBC link below: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leicestershire-62965416
  1. The author or the editor took outrageous liberty of publishing an image in their article of a person brandishing pointed object/weapon. I object to it because nothing like that was brandished in Leicester or carried by Hindus. That image is out of context and does not bear any truth to it.
  2. The author has written and I quote again ‘…. Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh (HSS) in the UK and has been playing a crucial role in community mobilisation in British cities including Leicester…’ I object to this sentence because again there is no evidence.”

My response: While I don’t want to comment on the veracity or otherwise of Kamal Joshi’s observations, it has been reported that during Leicester  violence a rally had been taken through a Muslim neighbourhood by processionists shouting slogans like ‘Jai Shri Ram’, which seems to suggest that Hindutva elements were active in that campaign. However, I do agree with Joshi’s objection to one of the images carried with the piece, depicting an angry mob brandishing trishuls. It is indeed out of context and does not reflect the events at Leicester. I would in fact want that image to be removed from the piece.



An alert reader responded to my last column to point out a mistake: “Just wanted to bring to your notice that a sentence in a tailpiece carried in ‘Backstory: What They May Not Have Taught You at Journalism School’, February 25), referred to Tanzil Asif, editor, Main Media, and introduced him as an engineer by training who is now handling a news portal in the Seemanchal region of Uttar Pradesh. Asif works in Seemanchal in rural Bihar, not rural UP.”

My response: Thank you for the correction, which is regretted and has since been rectified.

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