Backstory: If the Media Fails to Read the Farm Struggle Right, Irrelevance Awaits

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

The year is barely two weeks old and it has already seen events that have made visible the dangers of the cling film of alternative reality that has come to wrap itself tightly around societies across the world.

The Capitol Hill violence in Washington D.C., US served to highlight the hubris of a president convinced that he could upend history with his tweets. In the end, Donald Trump lost not just his “kingdom” and the key to that kingdom – his Twitter handle – but the prospect of a possible return to power given a second impeachment. The take-down of Trump, as a creature created by mainstream media and social media – let’s not forget his first delusions of grandeur were incubated on the sets of The Apprentice – has also provided the world with a critique of the gargantuan material presence of social media and their capacity to cultivate and drive authoritarian politicians.

The easy camaraderie between Trump and Narendra Modi, showcased in cash-fuelled events like ‘Howdy Modi’ in 2019 and ‘Namaste Trump’ in February 2020, was no accident. The Wire analysis, ‘Modi, Trump and Democracy in the Age of ‘Alternative Reality’ (January 15) lists interesting commonalities of their personalities and political style: both project the image of the alpha male; target opponents as enemies of the state; promote ethnic nationalism; prey on the fears the majority population may have of minorities and migrants; and deliberately misrepresent facts.

The big difference between the two men, the writer points out, is that unlike Trump who personally tweeted several times a day, Modi is careful to confine himself to official protocol and the occasional tweet, while allowing the BJP’s IT cell to do “the heavy lifting”. It is another thing altogether that the multiple institutional offspring of the Sangh parivar, with their mediatised armies of trolls, influencers and vigilantes, have been left unfettered to fabricate toxic scenarios to suit their agendas. If Trump through his tweets and posts could successfully plant the idea that the 2020 US election was stolen from him, the Sangh parivar’s spinmeisters have, among many other pursuits, made the image of the lustful Muslim man luring the innocent Hindu woman into the Islamic fold such an authentic construct that no evidence to the contrary can dissolve it, especially since it now comes burnished with the gravitas of legislation.

It would be difficult then to spot the difference between a Jacob Anthony Chansley, alias ‘QAnon Shaman’, who strode into the Capitol rotunda bare-chested and ensconced in a fur hat (‘QAnon and the Storm of the US Capitol: The Offline Effect of Online Conspiracy Theories’, January 10) in opposition to Joe Biden being declared president, and a Vijaykant Chauhan, so powerfully influenced by chief minister Aditya Nath’s campaign against ‘love jihad’ in Uttar Pradesh’s Saharanpur (‘A Day in the Life of a ‘One-Man Hindutva Army’ in Uttar Pradesh’, January 7) that he conducts tuitions for women titled, ‘How to identify a love-jihadi.’

Vijaykant Chauhan. Photo: Ismat Ara

It is here that the failure of India’s mainstream media (and I use the expression advisedly, many critiques have pointed out that they are neither mainstream nor often even ‘media’ in the accepted sense of the term) to act as a strong countervailing force to deliberately engineered swirls of divisive misinformation needs flagging. Newspapers and television channels now largely function as extensions of the politically privileged, social media-fuelled narrative which is why they have for the most part failed to respond adequately to one of post-independence India’s most important movements  – that of the farmers (‘For Farmers, This Agitation Is an Issue of Survival Against Corporates’, January 7).

This is why the media came so late into this story, long after the first signs of restlessness on the streets of Punjab and Haryana had grown into palpable anger. This is why today it is beyond their capacities to make sense of why hundreds of thousands of people – braving January’s icy winds and thunderstorms, suffering over 70 deaths in their ranks – have remained intransigent while repeating their one demand, ‘Repeal the three black laws’.

The media have long disbanded their agricultural bureaus and acquired an overtly pro-corporate slant. They have also privileged the urban consumer as their sole person of interest in the newsroom. It is hardly surprising then that today they neither have the language, understanding nor inclination to interpret the present crisis for their readers and viewers. They cannot perceive why there should be concern that the laws will ensure greater corporate control over the means of agricultural production since they are now trained to look on capitalists of all stripes as benefactors of the Indian economy.

Those who argue from their editorial perches on the market being the great enabler are congenitally incapable of voicing concern over the possible dismantling of the public distribution system. The mainstream media have over the years carried stories on farmers across the country courting death by suicide, but today these are invariably framed as individual tragedies arising out of wrong choices.

Within the media, there is also the expectation that somehow Narendra Modi will be able to handle this crisis with panache, just as he had all the other ones including Pulwama and the anti-CAA movement. They have in any case tended to view dissent of any kind with alarm, and the instinctive response within the newsroom is to frame protestors as anti-national. This proved spectacularly easy to achieve when it came to the anti-CAA movement given its distinct minority character, but with farmers, things are a tad more complex since the ordinary Indian perceives them as their annadata, or provider of life-giving food.

Nevertheless, the charge of farm unions being infiltrated by Khalistani-terrorist elements has been raised whenever possible and accusations of the sexual harassment of women journalists are being circulated without proof. Many a media house is now going into overdrive over fears that the proposed January 26 tractor rally could ruin the sanctity of Republic Day and create violence.

In addition, the attempt at all times has been to paint these protests as overwhelmingly confined to Punjab and Haryana. Almost every region in the country, including the four southern states, have witnessed demonstrations against the farm laws, but reportage on them has been either missing or muted. It was only the occasional, perceptive reporter who could see how Jat cohesion, for instance, was uniting northern India’s farming communities across states, or how unlikely solidarities were being forged across caste, class, regional, location and gender lines, which in turn is allowing the movement to keep growing.

Also Read: ‘We Are One’: Why Punjab’s Landless Dalits are Standing with Protesting Farmers

The farmers have understood not just the Modi government and its arrogance, but mainstream media and their abrogation to state power. From the earliest day, the media were viewed with suspicion. The possibility of fake news and government plants circulating on social media and throwing their ranks into confusion was to a large extent obviated by the protestors themselves generating their own media and social media content –memes, songs, videos, pamphlets and, yes, a newspaper. The Wire piece, ‘As ‘Trolley Times’ Captures Imaginations, Punjab Remembers Historic Newspapers of Protest’ (January 31), describes the ineffable sense of destiny in the first headline that appeared in ‘Trolley Times’, a weekly publication that was birthed amidst the trolleys of the protestors: ‘Unite, Fight and Win’.

‘Trolley Times’ is a publication by the farmers, for the farmers, designed to energise the protestors. Mainstream media cannot play that role obviously, but they could have displayed a sincere and empathetic interest in wanting to understand the issues animating these protests. Their failure to do so may well mean that the spectre of their own irrelevance will come back to haunt them.

A group of protesters read the Trolley Times at Singhu border. Photo: Kusum Arora

A cruel year for journalism

2020 will be recorded as a particularly cruel year for journalists in India. Many lost their jobs, others faced police brutality and even incarceration. As the piece, ‘Attacked, Arrested, Left Without Recourse: How 2020 Was for India’s Journalists’ (December 26) noted, even regulatory bodies failed to protect many hapless professionals: “The Press Council had been selective in upholding rights of the journalists and ensuring they are not targeted. In instances, it did not bother to fulfil its mandate. For example, the PCI swiftly intervened in the matter of the alleged attack on TV anchor Arnab Goswami, but remained silent over the issue of police filing FIRs against three journalists in Kashmir and invoking charges under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).”

The report by the Free Speech Collective, Behind Bars: Arrests and Detentions of Journalists in India 2010-2020, takes a decadal view of the repression and the figures it presents are educative. Over the last decade, “154 journalists in India were arrested, detained, interrogated or served show cause notices for their professional work”. Of these 67 were recorded in 2020 alone; 73 of them were in BJP-ruled states, with another 30 ruled by the NDA alliance, and 29 of them playing out in UP. The Congress/UPA rule between 2010 and 2014 saw 19 cases.

Meanwhile, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), a regional network of human rights defenders, highlighted the vulnerable state of journalists in Afghanistan. It mailed in a strong condemnation of the recent targeted killings of prominent figures including journalists and rights activists in that country. According to the Afghan Journalists’ Safety Committee, at least seven media personnel lost their lives in 2020, including two journalists killed in separate bombings in November and five journalists killed in the previous two months.

“Since early November, a series of targeted armed attacks and bombings have claimed the lives of former TOLO news presenter Yama Siawash, Radio Azaadi reporter Elyas Daee, Enikass TV anchor Malalai Maiwand, Ariana News presenter Fardin Amini and head of the Ghazni Journalists’ Union Rahmatullah Nekzad. Among others in civil society women’s rights activist Freshta Kohistani, Executive Director of Free and Fair Election forum of Afghanistan Yousuf Rashid, the acting health director of the prison Nafeza Ibrahimi, and Deputy Governor of Kabul Mahboobullah Mohebi and his secretary were killed in the past three weeks.”

The phishing attack on television anchor Nidhi Razdan that occurred in 2020, should also be flagged as condemnable and part of the same continuum of attacks on women in the media over the years. Here’s hoping that Razdan gets her mojo back and goes on to bring glory to the profession!

Representative image. Photo: Karnika Kohli/The Wire

We are women, watch us sow

Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde’s remark that old people and women need not be there in the protests, betrays not just a patronising but extremely troubling patriarchal attitude. The blowback to his words came not just from feminists but farm groups and women farmers.  The piece by a woman activist in The Wire (‘CJI’s Remarks on Women Farmers Are an Assault on Human Agency and Constitutional Rights’, January 14) pointed out that the statement “takes women for granted and endorses infantilisation of labour by women…his stance portrays either ignorance or a deep sense of prejudice on the role of women in farming.” Lines from the press release of the Samyunkta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of farm unions, were also quoted:

During the Supreme Court hearing, it was said ‘Why are women in this strike? Why are women and elders ‘kept’ in this strike? They should be asked to go home’. The Samyukta Kisan Morcha condemns such statements. The contribution of women in agriculture is incomparable and this movement is also a movement of women.  It is shameful that women’s agency is being questioned. We strongly condemn this.

The CJI’s comment should come as a reminder that it’s time to recognise and reward the labour of the invisible woman farmer and agricultural worker.


Reporting on farm distress

Inderjit Singh Jaijee of Chural Kalan, district Sangrur, Punjab: The piece, ‘Hit By Indebtedness and Suicides, Punjab Farmers Worry New Laws Will Make Things Worse’ (December 29) was excellent. It was accurate, complete and fair. By seeking out many expert sources and visiting affected villages, you produced coverage that went far deeper than the usual superficial practice of three quotes and a photo.
Given the high credibility of The Wire and its wide readership, I am hopeful that this coverage will have an impact, not only on public opinion, but on those in a position to influence policy.

Rumi Samadhan: Have been ardently keeping up with The Wire’s articles and am struck by the acute sense of reporting by your team. Two articles in particular came through as markers – the uncovering of ‘Reality Belies Modi Govt Claims of Implementing Swaminathan Commission’s Report’ (December 29) and ‘Thirty Years After Liberalisation, a Look Back at the Various Pieces of the Puzzle’ (December 26). Both articles have crucially built interconnected understandings between liberalisation and the commodification of agricultural sector gamut. Cannot thank The Wire team enough for what it is doing at a time when we cannot protect our farmers, especially, from defamation and the laws untimely thrust upon them. We are living in a dark age of illusion and post-truth and seeing a dilution of media morality. Rational reporting is rare under such circumstances. These changing times require us to stand firm — and truthful.

Poor birds!

Vanshika Agarwal and Shashwat Agarwal, students at Nirma University and IIT Kanpur respectively, write in about the lack of bird control services and the apathy of the general administration of Jaipur to the plight of these innocent creatures, our birds:

We would like to draw the attention of the public towards the absence of administrative and legal clarity regarding access and utility of bird control services. This month of January is plagued with gloom for birds due to the spread of bird flu and loss of life due to injuries caused by kite strings. Multiple news outlets have reported deaths of hundreds of crows. We found ourselves faced with one such instance. A crow fell in the passageway of our house, delirious and unable to fly. Concerned at its precarious condition, we decided to call the bird control services to take it away and provide it with requisite treatment.

It is this decision of ours that led us to discover the apathy displayed by government organisations towards these creatures and lack of mechanisms to take care of such a foreseeable and fathomable situation. The first number (09828500065) we called at belonged to a bird control service, where the receiver of the call gave us another phone number. The second number (0141- 2374617) also apparently belonged to a bird control centre, where we were told that it is not the responsibility of their centre to take care of live animals and they can only do something once the bird is dead. We were again given two more phone numbers to call and see if anything can be done regarding live bird treatment. We then called the third place (9829022027), where we were told that there exists no mechanism wherein birds can be rescued and treated.

Subsequently, we called the Jaipur Collector Control Room (0141-2204475), where we were told that bird control centre does treat live birds and we were given another number to call. This number turned out to be the same number we had called in the beginning of this whole process (0141-2374617). The people at the second place and Collector Control Room jotted down our complaints but no action was taken and, anyway, they had mentioned that they don’t take care of live birds. We realised that this is an endless cycle and our requests will go in vain as there are no proper mechanisms in place to deal with such minor incidents, even though it’s been more than a week since the Rajasthan reported initial cases of bird flu. This whole ordeal reminded us of the needless bureaucracy, red-tapism, inefficiency and indifference experienced by Kanji Watanabe, the protagonist, at the hands of Japanese bureaucracy in the hugely popular film, Ikiru, directed by Akira Kurosawa. Although we don’t know if the bird is suffering from any disease or has suffered an accident, we are timid to approach it due to ongoing bird flu.

We want to draw the attention of the public towards the lack of administrative mechanisms that deal with the health and welfare of birds. It is hypocritical on the part of the government to demand observance of safety guidelines on the part of the public while it does nothing to solve the problems facing the birds.

A dead crow at Ramniwas Garden, in Jaipur, Saturday, January 9, 2021. An alert has been sounded across the country after the detection of bird flu cases in six states. Photo: PTI

The Wire In Bengali?

Dipankar Sen Gupta, from Agartala, Tripura: We have been following The Wire almost from the beginning. We lack such a portal in Bengali and are waiting for a Bengali edition. I remember the day I read, a while ago, the piece, ‘History Shows How Patriotic the RSS Really Is’ (April 17, 2017). I felt an urge to translate it into Bengali, my mother tongue. In fact, over the years, I have thought of writing to you to seek permission to translate some of the pieces published, but have always hesitated. Now The Wire comes in Hindi, Marathi and Urdu, other than in English, and I request you to start a Bengali edition. If not all the articles, two/three of your daily pieces could be translated and carried every day, apart from those written in Bengali.

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