Backstory: Media Takeaways From a Capital Election

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

The assembly election that has just ended was not war minus the shooting; it was shooting minus a war. It also indicated a new determination within the ranks of India’s ruling party to win elections by any means possible, now that the law of diminishing returns has set in and victory gained by drawing on the prime minister’s verbal pyrotechnics no longer seems as certain as it did in 2014 or 2019. The much-feted Modi election machine now needs to be mounted on tracks like a military tank, as it makes its steady and ominous way to the voter.

What was remarkable about this development was the complete lack of outrage over the violence and threat of violence in mainstream media. The occasional voices expressing distress at Minister of State for Finance Anurag Thakur’s cheerleading of a rabid mob threatening those protesting the citizenship law with murder, did little to offset the general attempt to paper over the discomfort. Some channels even went as far as to hold those attacked as having provoked these unhinged responses and therefore responsible for them.

When real bullets flew, the initial attempt by Republic TV was to manufacture a fake narrative that the anti-CAA protestors were behind them (‘Firing on Jamia Students: From Falsehood to Victim Blaming, Republic TV Spins a Yarn’, January 30). 

The analysis, ‘Delhi Elections: How BJP and Its Leaders Are Trying to Fan Communal Sentiments’ (January 23), terms it “dog-whistle” politics; while another points out that “At its simplest, it is the attempt to frame the desires of the majority as the interests of the country, without regard for the legal and constitutional order” (‘When Bullets Are Aimed at the Constitution, Who’s the Patriot and Who’s the Traitor?’, January 31).

Several BJP leaders made openly communal remarks during the election campaign: (L-R) Kapil Mishra, Amit Shah, Adityanath, Anurag Thakur and Parvesh Verma. Photo: PTI/The Wire

Then there was Times Now giving the Union home minister as major platform to defend his record, often marked by spontaneous applause from the spiffy audience that heard him, during the Times Now Summit. He went on to exonerate himself, claiming that the party had “distanced itself from those comments immediately”. Yet real time reporting done by The Wire belies this so-called “distancing”. The piece, ‘Despite Jamia Shooting, Amit Shah’s Divisive Rhetoric Continues Unabated’ (January 31) notes that “although Shah said that “strictest action” (over the firing at Jamia) would be taken and that the “guilty will not be spared”, he kept raising the protests at Shaheen Bagh during his rallies”.

This violence and threat of violence, as The Wire editorial posited, is a “logical step forward in a sequence of mob lynchings, the unprovoked beating of students by storm troopers, heavy-handed police action against peaceful protestors and the like” (‘Editorial: Jamia, Hindutva Radicalisation and the Currency of Bigotry’, January 31).

The big concern is that if such violence is sought to be unleashed for a tiny, relatively inconsequential, state assembly like Delhi with its modest 70 seats, what awaits us when the big players like Bihar, Bengal and Uttar Pradesh go to the polls in 2020, 2021 and 2022 respectively?

Media silence on violence is lethal because it ends up perceiving such violence as an inevitable outcome of elections and therefore condonable. It also allows electoral narratives to degenerate into malevolence (‘Delhi Election Video Makes it Clear the BJP Wants to Harvest Your Hate, Not Your Love’, February 5) and creates a political type that feeds on the endless creation of it. A prime example of just such a type is Tajinder Bagga (‘Tajinder Bagga, BJP’s Go-To Man for Spreading Hate, Stirring Controversy’, January 22). The Wire profile on him carefully plots his evolution from troll, a troll whom Modi followed, to a purveyor of BJP-friendly merchandise and finally to being Candidate Bagga. As the piece observes, “At a different time and age, the likes of Bagga would have had no chance in politics.” No longer. Such politics first creates, then incentives and finally politically monetises figures like Bagga.

Against this background, the AAP’s victory was perceived as crucial (‘For the Sake of India, Arvind Kejriwal Must Be Re-Elected in Delhi’, January 16 and ‘By Rejecting the BJP, Delhi Voters Have Busted Three Important Myths’, February 12). The fact that it was an emphatic one, notching more votes than the BJP did during the general election of 2019 when it won all seven seats in Delhi, was also seen as reassuring (‘AAP’s Big Victory: Here’s What the Polling Data from Delhi Reveals About Modi vs Kejriwal’, February 13). The fact that the so-called “freebies” the party offered was universal, and not targeted, was seen as a contributing factor (‘The Fruit of AAP’s Labour’, February 11).

Arvind Kejriwal (C) addresses supporters after the party’s victory in the state assembly polls, at AAP office in New Delhi, Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Photo: PTI/Ravi Choudhary

But it also raised its own trail of questions, the most important being whether this party – often described as a post-ideology formation, stands for anything at all apart from “good governance” and “social welfare”; that its politics is so fluid that it takes on the contours of the shape of the moment.

Two sharp contending views on the AAP emerged in The Wire opinion pieces. On the one hand were those advocating a more critical assessment of the party, which the piece, ‘Debate: AAP May be Only Numerically Feasible Alternative to BJP but It’s no Great Liberal Hope’ (February 7), broadly reflected. It observes that “it bears mentioning that AAP’s approach to civil liberties and constitutional values is problematic in ways which go beyond the alleged inner party autocracy that forced out the few members of the party with a well-developed constitutional sensitivity”, adding that its attitude to secularism “has largely been within the spectrum of acceptability in India”, and remains “deeply rooted in the imagery and rhetoric of the middle-class, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh-supported movement that spawned its birth”. 

A sharp counter to this view emerged in the opinion piece, ‘Why Kejriwal Shouldn’t Be Criticised for Not Running an Ideological Campaign’ (February 13) which argued that “in many ways, direct and indirect, the Delhi chief minister is being made out to be a closet Hindutva supporter. It seems to matter little that when the opposition all over the country is running helter-skelter in its attempts to beat back the BJP, Kejriwal has managed to defeat them in a vicious electoral fight”. 

The fact that weighs most for the writer of this piece is that the AAP has displayed a “greater capacity to be open to debate and change than most political parties”, despite having taken “objectionable, uncomfortable positions in the past” and holding “on to ideas of nationalism that many of us, myself included, would be skeptical of”.

No matter where one stands on this divide – and I would certainly be more inclined to the first – there can be no denying that against the backdrop of the larger Hindutva project that the ruling party is assiduously promoting, we need a more granular and open engagement with politics within the media and the quintessence of such an engagement is informed debate.

Internet shutdown in J&K

Any credible critique of judicial verdicts benefits greatly from a familiarity with the nuances of judicial language and an understanding of case law. It is the lack of these two aspects that explains why journalistic reporting on court verdicts can go so badly wrong. 

The Supreme Court verdict of January 10, for instance, dealing with the internet issue in J&K, gave rise to plethora of interpretations partly because it was “inaccurately reported” as having upheld the right to the internet as a fundamental right. The Wire analysis, ‘SC Judgment on Kashmir’s Internet Shutdown Ignores Both Rights and Remedies’ (February 13), points this out, going on to say that while the judgment carried “a semblance of hope”, it had no concrete remedies; it laid down the law but provided no relief. Therein lay its fatal flaw.

As the piece argues, “The Supreme Court could have held that access to internet was a fundamental right, given clear orders to the Centre, and constituted a panel to look into Kashmir after the internet shutdown. It did none of this.” Its other disturbing aspect, as the piece goes on to point out, was the unconscionable delay at a time when “millions of conflict-ridden people, who were denied access to communication, hospitals and right to move around looked up to the court for justice”. It notes that although the petition was filed on August 10 – within five days of the annulment of Article 370 – it was listed six times without relief.

One cannot but agree with the conclusion reached in this piece that “the spectre of ADM Jabalpur once again haunts the institution whereby the error of the past is reinventing itself in a new shape through repeated delays and deference to the wisdom of the executive, even though it fails to produce orders. The self-correction that the institution had to undergo along the lines of the dissent of Justice H.R. Khanna in the controversial 1976 ADM Jabalpur case may be endangered by this path.”

The impact that internet shut down has had on the journalist community in the Valley is an important aspect, and it was underlined by local journalists to the second batch of visiting envoys. Sumanta Bannerjee, well known human rights activist and author of several books, sees himself as a journalist too. In a response to the piece, ‘Backstory: The Kashmir Model of Humiliating Journalists for Media Control’ (February 8), he wrote: “As a one-time journalist, I felt my blood boiling while reading the exposure of the humiliating plight of the present generation of media personnel operating in Kashmir.

“We need to protest. I have to stand by my journalist fraternity. What’s the journalist fraternity – IFWJ, Delhi Journalists Union, the press clubs in the state capitals – doing? Don’t they realise that tomorrow they’ll face the same threat to their profession?

Journalists use the internet as they work inside a government-run media centre in Srinagar January 10, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

“In Kashmir, the journalists may soon have to seek alternative avenues of underground media communication, as we did during the Emergency period by circulating secretly printed news reports. Let me share one such experience of those days. While underground in 1974-75, I got in touch with an ex-colleague of mine in the printing press of the Statesman newspaper in Calcutta (where I had worked in the 1960s). He agreed to open up the printing machines after midnight (by which time the latest edition of The Statesman had been printed). He then pushed out our reports through the press and brought out the copies, which we distributed the next day through our secret channels.

“When even the judiciary fails to protect – or chooses to ignore – the rights journalists hitherto enjoyed through conventional media channels, shouldn’t we journalists seek alternative avenues of circulating  news?”

I’m grateful to Sumanta Banerjee for having shared that personal vignette on media resistance.


Then there was a delightful missive from Dr Ruha Shadab, a Public Service Fellow and Master in Public Policy (MPP) Candidate, 2020, of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, accompanied by an equally delightful photograph.

“As I wrapped up my penultimate semester at Harvard, I headed to Chile on a study trip for the month of January. Although, I was excited about exploring South America… my heart was elsewhere – closer to where Indians were fighting for their values and beliefs. Landing in Santiago, however, I saw another people fighting against what they thought as injustice. Chile has been in the throes of a protest for the past four months. Protestors in Chile are branding their fight as the ‘October of 2019’, in nostalgic reference to the ‘May of 1968’ student revolt that began in a suburb of Paris and which was later joined by 10 million workers.  

Every Friday, Chileans gather at the iconic Plaza Italia: ground zero of the protest. The vibe there is more of a celebration, with food stalls, music bands, and people decked up brightly. By sunset though, violence does rear its ugly head. One Friday, I saw people jumping on moving cars, trying to stop them… But at no point did I feel concerned about my safety. These sights strummed inside of me. I could hear the reverberations in the void I had: a void that had germinated because I was spending a month so far from any Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) activities. 

There’s a world map that marks locations of all anti-CAA protests. This map had no dot marking a South American city; until now. Chile has a population of 18 million, but with less than 2000 Indians, the lack of a CAA protest so far was not surprising. As my study schedule made me meet Chilean policy makers, doctors, students, and civilians, I felt that this engaged citizenry would be interested in learning about the protests in India. I organised a ‘teach-in’ about the Citizenship Amendment Act in Chile’s capital, Santiago, which was attended by medical residents, protestors, and academia. At the end, I requested for those who believe in the values of the anti-CAA protestors – secularism, freedom of expression, liberalism, compassion – to come together for a photograph. Every attendee stepped forward, barring one, who was a bureaucrat and for professional reasons could not take a political stand, although personally, they (singular) supported us… 

There are a remarkable number of similarities between the protests of two countries, 16,000 km apart. For starters, like the metro fare was a trigger for Chileans, so was the CAA for Indians, reflecting the progressive alienation of Muslims across India under the Modi government. Chilean President Piñera also, like the Indian prime minister and home minister, painted the protestors as anti-national. While conversations on the streets of Santiago seemed like there is unanimous support for the protests, however, in this unequal country, the rich support the presidency. In India, there isn’t unanimity either…The governments has cracked down hard in both countries. Protestors in Chile have suffered physical harm. There have seen 359 pellet eye injuries; 980 allegations, mostly for torture and cruel treatment; 137 sexual violence; and over 3500 other injuries. Indians too have paid a heavy price, with over two dozen deaths during the protests.

A former political prisoner under Pinochet, said in November, “They took away so much, they even took away our fear.” 

The Modi government has been chipping away at the fabric of the India. Will CAA be the straw that broke the camel’s back? Regardless of what happens tomorrow, the mass Indian protests of 2019-20 will be a source of hope for a new generation of leaders. We, the people, scribbled down a few words some time back. It is poetic timing, that 70 years later, Indians from Shaheen Bagh to Santiago are standing up to defend them. Those words will not be erased. Not in letter, nor in spirit, PM Modi.

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