Backstory: How Can the Media Untwist These Contorted Narratives?

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Watching Suresh Chavhanke, who within his person embodies the chairmanship, managing directorship and editor-in-chiefship of Sudarshan News, enter the studio for the first episode of his magnum opus, ‘UPSC Jihad Par Ab Tak Ka Sabse Bada Khulasa’ (The Biggest Unmasking of the UPSC Jihad) is a revelation in reality news television.

He removes his sandals, as if on sacred ground, prostrates before the images of Lord Ganesh and Shivaji, before riding the airwaves to do battle with the Mughals. The Mughals, by the way, have now been transmogrified by a flick of a fist, into present-day “jihadis”, who are attempting nothing less than to break down the doors of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC).

This would have been the stuff of pure comedy, if it were not for the scary fact that thousands of viewers have come to regard Chavhanke as a purveyor of truth and defender of community honour. The word ‘jihad’, let’s remember, is now code for Muslim aggression and conquest. It can be lazily linked with any issue of contemporary concern to demonise an entire community, whether it is with regard to the “crime” of Muslim men “luring” Hindu women in a “love jihad”, which the UP chief minister now plans to legislate against, or Chavhanke’s own grand conspiracy of a planned takeover of the Indian Administrative Service.

What we have here is an example of innovative media practices used to stir up popular emotions and replenish existing reservoirs of public anger, suspicion and prejudice, until a time comes when they ignite major communal developments. We should be grateful that the Supreme Court actually decided to scrutinise Chavhanke’s media concoctions and ask a few tough questions of him, seeing that the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had apparently seen nothing wrong with a show that had clearly violated Section 19 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. That section, incidentally, prohibits any programme that is “likely to promote, on grounds of religion, race, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, linguistic or regional groups or castes or communities or which is likely to disturb the public tranquillity.”

The show was, besides, a tissue of falsehoods (‘A List of All the False Claims Made in Sudarshan TV’s ‘UPSC Jihad’ Show’, September 24; ‘Talk of ‘UPSC Jihad’ a Baseless Attempt to Delegitimise Muslim Participation in Governance’, August 29), apart from being an ugly attack on the civil services (‘Former Civil Servants Move SC to Seek a Stay on Sudarshan TV’s ‘UPSC Jihad’ Show’, September 14; ‘Sudarshan TV’s ‘UPSC Jihad’ Episode is an Assault Not Just on Muslims but on the UPSC Too’, September 15). The UPSC certainly has its faults, but being over-accommodative of Muslims is not one of them.

Suddenly, almost like a miracle, the Government of India decided to do the right thing and issued a showcause notice to the channel to explain its various violations of the programme code and answer why action should not be taken against it. The nudging of the court obviously had a great deal to do with this dramatic shift in position, and the judges rightly observed that “if the case wasn’t heard by the court then all episodes would have been aired by now” (‘‘UPSC Jihad’: SC Adjourns Hearing After Centre Issues Show Cause Notice To Sudharshan News’, September 24).

The Chavhanke story has not ended of course, but the possibly premature end to his jihad against the Muslims of this country could serve as a reminder that if India’s constitutional – and extra-constitutional bodies like the media – had played their designated roles instead of succumbing to executive will, we may have been spared the toxic criminal justice mess we now find ourselves in. Every day we are living in the painful awareness that some of our best-known intellectuals are incarcerated on the basis of finely spun out stories of sedition; some of our promising university students – idealistic and full of hope as youth are – punished in ways that rob them of their future.

A screenshot from the Sudarshan News TV show.

In this miasma of selected, if skewed, information lies a story of a police force that is willing to use every coercive instrument it has to ensure that its narrative prevails – a narrative that unsurprisingly conforms more or less to the scenario Union home minister Amit Shah drew up in parliament soon after the Delhi violence. There are many aspects of the chargesheet that are cringe-worthy, including its propensity to paint all Muslim women “as feeble-minded morons” (‘The Idiot Muslim Woman’, August 18). In their bid to map a schema that both shocks and awes the public, the Delhi Police got a few details of its chronology of events mixed up. Nevertheless, as The Wire analysis, ‘After Delhi Police Gaffe on Trump Chronology, Riots Chargesheet Takes U-Turn on Conspiracy Date’ (September 23), points out, it has persisted with its core plot that puts Umar Khalid at the centre of the planning and execution of the riots, along with those who protested the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). As this piece points out, this was a charge first levelled by the BJP’s IT cell.

But there is a fatal flaw in the Delhi Police chargesheet, and the media should – if they were truly committed to the facts emerging – have emphasized it far more than they have. That fatal flaw is its studied lack of interest in those individuals who actually called for violence and murder. The Delhi Police chargesheet traces the inception of the “conspiracy” to cause riots to the point when students protested the passage of the CAA in mid-December. What it did not do – and what the media has failed to reiterate – was the dangerous escalation of communal hatred caused by the BJP in its “preparation” for the Delhi elections.

The Delhi Police’s incapacity to take action against the BJP’s golden lads exposes the fallacy that lies at the heart of this patchwork quilt of a chargesheet, made up of intercepts, posts, WhatsApp texts and the like. If the media has to retrieve the twisted narrative it reflects, it will first have to use its powers of memory. It will have to remember the following details: One, that Kapil Mishra was among the first to publicly articulate the murderous slogan, ‘desh ke gaddaron ko, goli maaro saalon ko’ (the traitors of the nation; shoot with bullets those b*@#*#@s), as early as in the third week of December. Two, that he was rewarded for this by getting a ticket from his party to contest the Delhi elections from Model Town, which was incidentally one of the sites of the violence weeks later. Three, that Anurag Thakur, who parroted Mishra poisonous slogan before an election crowd on January 27, is a minister of finance at the centre, underlined by the fact that he went on to preside over the presentation of the national budget a few days later. Four, that Thakur aggressively denied to the media that he had raised that slogan, taking cover under the fact that he only pronounced its first four words although any video of the event would reveal how he actively encouraged the crowd to complete this fill-in-the-blanks exercise by clapping and repeating it. Five, that another minister, Giriraj Singh, was part of this election crowd and did not feel the need to intervene. Six, that yet another BJP MP during this period sought to fuel fears about the Shaheen Bagh protest, drawing up a scenario that somewhat recalls the Delhi Police chargesheet: “Lakhs of people gather there (Shaheen Bagh) and this fire can anytime reach households of Delhi. People of Delhi need to think about it and decide. These people will enter your house, will abduct your sisters and mothers, rape them, kill them, that’s why today is the moment.”

The Delhi Police narrative is waiting for the media to pay greater attention to it in order to untangle the contortions it suffers from, just as the Delhi Police chargesheet is awaiting an enlightened court to be called out like Chavhanke’s jihadi tactics were.

Policemen patrol in a riot affected area in New Delhi on February 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

Lock ’em up, beat ’em up!

The manner in which Prashant Kanojia has been locked up in Aditya Nath’s jail from August 18, 2020,  for a solitary tweet, the context of which was elaborated in The Wire article, ‘Jailed for a Month Over Tweet, Prashant Kanojia High Court Bail Plea to Now Come Up After 4 Weeks’ (September 21), is distressing. Kanojia happens to be a freelancer, and that would perhaps explain some of this indifference from fellow journalists. But the lack of pushback on this case only goes to reinforce the legendary impunity of the UP Police. Recently, a young journalism student, Zakir Ali Tyagi, had a posse of policemen outside his home in a Meerut village. They beat him up after accusing him of speaking against “Yogi-Modi” and hauled him to the police station, according to a Quint report (‘UP Cops Called Me Yogi-Modi Critic, Beat Me Up: 21-Yr-Old Student’, September 15).

Meanwhile, in Kashmir, photojournalist Kamran Yousuf was severely beaten by security forces recently. In a public statement, he revealed what happened to him: “While I was taking pictures at MarwalKakpora, I was attacked and brutally beaten up by policemen who were accompanying a Deputy Superintendent of Police. I tried to plead with them without any success. If I hadn’t escaped, I have no doubt that they would have killed me. It was a targeted attack on a group of photojournalists and all of us were doing only doing our job.”

The Wire must speak out on disability

A reader of The Wire, Padmini Chennapragada, MS, Disability Sport Researcher, India, writes in:

Greetings. The article, ‘Not All Wheelchairs Are the Same. Our Politicians Need to Recognise That.’ (September 11), about how persons with disabilities are used as props by politicians in India and why that should stop, was retweeted from The Wire‘s Twitter handle about 31 times. In the social media world that may not put the article into the trending spaces, but that article did trend privately within the Indian disability rights community. I work in the intersectional space of critical race theory meeting disability rights centered around sporting rights. So within these three spaces, this article was forwarded through multiple Whatsapp groups and private chats. Everyone reacted to the article in a similar way: “Jo (Jo McGowan Chopra) is right on point! No fluff! No political correctness.”

“If you had the chance to see a recent Netflix documentary, The Crip Camp, you will observe that the Judith Heumanns of the North have significantly influenced many disability rights activists like me in the South. Jo’s article in simple sentences reminded people within this community, why it is important to unabashedly call out the government and its policy planning indifference towards the country’s least-spoken-about minority. I am appealing to The Wire: We (the disability rights community in India) are neglected largely within the print media spaces. The Wire, if willing, can create a powerful space for the global disability rights community (especially in the Global South) if they can create a ‘Disability’ landing tab on its homepage.”

A child in an adult wheelchair. Photo: Manik Mandal

Flaws in Jee MAINS

Ayush Jha drew attention to the flaws in the JEE MAINS result published on September 11:

“JEE MAINS has been completed in two stages, i.e. January and September. The exam is taken in six shifts in January and ten shifts in September. The percentile score is calculated by the normalisation of the shifts of January as well as of September separately. Finally, the best of the two is taken into consideration. Because of the difference in the number of candidates in the January and September attempts, there were many errors in the final results. I request The Wire to take up the issue for the sake of the future of a large number of students.”

Head of state?

A reader of The Wire who did not wish to be named wrote in: “I read the piece, ‘Narendra Modi Becomes Second Indian Head of State To Win Ig Nobel Prize’. Please refer to Article 52 of Constitution of India. The president is the head of state of the Republic of India and currently, Ram Nath Kovind is our Head of State.”

Quite right. The headline was corrected soon after it first appeared.

Satisfying read

Nitesh Mishra from – as he put it – Allahabad (lately renamed Prayagraj but thankfully, not Pandit-Deen-Dayal-Upadhyay-bad), had words of praise:

What a pleasantly sarcastic article ‘The Conspiracy Behind Amit Shah’s Illness Must Be Probed’, (September 17) was, what a satisfying read! I shared the article with at least 10 other friends, some bhakts too. It is so heart-warming to see a news article carry so much satire in it. I mean, I usually depend on The Deshbhakt™ on YouTube for such pleasures but here my Google feed just did this magic for me! Kudos to you and team for this wonderful article. Would love to read more of such pieces.

Solidarity poem

Finally, this inspiring letter from Raghav Verma, presently managing editor, Interdisciplinary Centre for Global South Studies, Universität Tübingen…

I would like to introduce Poet John Kinsella to The Wire. John is an activist-poet and often writes on environment and indigenous lives and is the author of numerous poetry and essay editions. Among other places, John’s previous works can be read at the New Yorker and LARB.

At the University of Tübingen, Germany, I have been in a long conversation with John regarding the changing dynamics of Indian politics since 2014. John has been closely mapping the environmental threats, specially the recent opening of coal allocation by Modi government, along with writer Robert Macfarlane. John’s ubiquitous observation struck with one piece in The Wire, which symbolises the non-violent but firm message of inquilab, ‘“Yeh Gulab Nahin, Inquilab Hai”: The Tradition of Protest Music in Contemporary India’ (March 4). He has penned an animating poem reflecting on the image (from this piece on the protestor-student offering a rose to the police – and the state).

A protestor offers a rose to police personnel during a demonstration against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, at Mandi House, in New Delhi. Photo: PTI

For the Protesters of India: against tyranny and bigotry from John Kinsella with love and support and peace

Rose-essence is a flame
that singes oppressors
without harm without pain
so they might know the harm
and pain they cause — they
will be turned away from violence
and they will open the cells
of their body-politic to all bodies
to know the suffering of others,
to know a rose is not simply decorative.

Laws that favour one belief
of another, that favour
the rich over poor, can never
hold water, can never transpire
and bring mountain to river
jungle to desert, city to house,
farms to village. But the rose
is an idea all can share
and a rose of any nature
handed by a believer
to a non-believer, or by a non-
believer to a believer, is a name
kept by the self and not added
to a list that serves as a taxonomy
for tyranny. NO. Your voices
will be heard laterally and vertically —
freedom is the windrose
that stirs in all directions
that stirs in all directions
that stirs in all directions.

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