Backstory: Had the Media Done its Job, Wrestlers Wouldn't Have Had to Go Through This Ordeal

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

One of the most iconic sequences from Coppola’s The Godfather is when the high seriousness and sacredness attached to the baptism ceremony of Connie’s baby is interspersed with sharply contrasting frames of clinically executed murders of those Michael identifies as his enemies. He thus becomes a godfather in a literal, metaphorical and criminal sense.

Anyone who watched the inaugural ceremonies of the new parliament building would be struck by the parallels. At 9 am, on May 28, as priests and pundits conducted prayers in the new parliament building on Delhi’s Sansad Marg, the police arrive to arrest protesters a short distance away at Jantar Mantar. In an hour, women activists, like Jagmati Sangwan, are rounded up, even as the city’s borders are sealed and the police brutalise women and farmers attempting to break their cordon.

By 12 noon, the inaugural ceremony officially begins in the spanking new sandstone edifice that now symbolises India’s parliamentary democracy. Around the same time, police swoop down upon protesters at Jantar Mantar and despite their tenacious struggle, manage to force them into police buses headed for various police stations.

By the time the inaugural ceremonies wound down around 2 pm or so, the police had removed the tent, bedding and posters that marked the protest site at Jantar Mantar where the wrestlers had demonstrated day and night, under the sun and rain, since April 28, after their campaign, which began on January 18, was resumed.

Through it all, the Narendra Modi government maintained a cynical silence even though, by this time, the state had mounting evidence of its MP from Kaiserganj having sexually harassed and assaulted wrestlers training under his watch as chief of the Wrestling Federation of India. This silence amidst the soaring prime ministerial rhetoric on display during the inaugural ceremonies will remain an enormous blot that no words like “Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao” can wipe away.

Also read: As Modi Inaugurates New Parliament, Police Detains Wrestlers Including Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat

The manner the media covered the two developments were markedly dissimilar. The inaugural got fawning coverage – Aaj Tak even dispatched a reporter to talk to the pontiffs from the Thiruvavaduthurai Adheenam mutt as they were being transported to the inaugural venue. It’s another matter that almost everything expressed in that interaction got lost in translation somewhere between the Tamil Nadu coast and the Hindi heartland.

The wrestlers’ protests, on the other hand, were treated as a series of dramatic episodes, almost as if a wrestling match was being reported. The larger perspective that here on the dusty road were some of the country’s most admirable women fighting for their human right to bodily integrity – perhaps one of the simplest rights to understand – was completely lost. Instead, the coverage shifted from the sensational – ‘Jantar Mantar par Delhi Police ka bada akshun| Aaj Tak LIVE’ to the overtly sentimental: ‘Pehalwan beitya Ganga ghat per roti, kya Brij Bhushan Sharan par hoga action?’

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. Photo: Twitter/@b_bhushansharan May 26, 2023.

If the media had done their job, the wrestlers would not have had to go through this ordeal. One just has to recall the media coverage accorded to the Delhi gang rape episode in December 2012 to understand the cascading impact of aggregated, 24X7 media attention. There was much that could be criticised about that coverage but consider its impacts: within weeks, an important government-appointed committee was set up under a former Supreme Court chief justice; within a year, a brand new political party emerged and went on to come to power in the Delhi assembly election; within one and a half years, the Congress, which was in power when the gang rape and murder happened, was defeated in a General Election; within seven years, the four men convicted of gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh were hanged (an unconscionable form of punishment for a democratic system but one that is seen to have served the ends of justice).

Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh has been accused of grave charges of sexual molestation against women wrestlers, including one who is a minor. If even a tiny fraction of the media outrage that was on display in December 2012 was in evidence this time, he would have by now been facing the due process of law. Instead, the media accorded him ample space so that he could not just flex his muscles and strut about the politico-religious space in the country’s electorally most important state, but allowed him to emerge the injured party.

Also read: Even Brij Bhushan’s Arrest Will Not Make Narendra Modi Change His Mind

Statements like “Friends, the day I introspect on what I gained or lost, and feel that I no longer have the strength to fight; the day I feel helpless, I would wish death as I won’t be living a life like that. Instead of living such a life, I would wish that death takes me in its embrace,” hold the real possibility of influencing investigations. He was also allowed to freely throw barbs and pass snide comments against his accusers. Even when he was supposedly grilled by the media, it was he who ultimately triumphed. On May 3, when India TV conducted an interview with the man, he was allowed to shout down his interlocutor and berate the media for being against him.

As for the Delhi Police, it conducted itself like a puppet manipulated from behind the scenes, not as an independent force mandated to protect the lives of citizens and bring the guilty to book. Surely the police knew that one of the cardinal recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee Report was that they were duty-bound to file FIRs in charges of a sexual nature. Instead, we saw in this case deliberate prevarication. It needed the intervention of the Supreme Court to get this institution, controlled directly by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs, to file those two crucial FIRs (including the separate one dealing with offences under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences).

Such inertia contrasted sharply with the alacrity that marked police action against the wrestlers on May 28. Vinesh Phogat nailed it when she posted, “Delhi Police takes seven days to file an FIR against Brij Bhushan for sexual harassment but did not take even seven hours to file an FIR against us for carrying out a peaceful protest. Has the country slipped into a dictatorship? The entire world is watching how the government is treating its players. A new history is being written.”

The media should have called out the police inaction consistently and rigorously. They failed to do this, just as they failed the larger story.

There were honourable exceptions though and let’s consider four of these.

First was the constant and ever-alert pushback against the false media narratives promoted by professional trollers. Calling out the altered images of the detained wrestlers which showed Vinesh and Sangeet Phogat smiling while being carted away in a police bus was a striking example. The tweets using this image to discredit the wrestlers piled up within an instant, but the gathering campaign quickly dissipated when the fakeness of the image was exposed.

Second, there was some exceptional commentary from experts – including a brilliant exposition of how some of India’s most successful athletes resisted their persecution with their bodies, but always with physical restraint. It matters that its writer, Sharda Ugra, is not just a renowned sports journalist but someone who could perceive these developments through a feminist prism.

Third, there were some fantastic ground reporters who could far outstrip the heavy-footed mainstream television news media. Among them was Mandeep Punia, a Haryana-based freelancer, whose coverage of the events of May 28 was riveting and who was attacked by BJP workers in Haridwar for his pains.

Finally, I cannot but salam the intrepid television journalist who chased Meenakshi Lekhi, Minister of State for External Affairs and Culture, with just one question: “Ma’am, wrestlers are sitting in protest, what do you have to say about that?” It was a scary question for a representative of a prime minister who has so far been in complete denial on the issue. No wonder the honourbale minister chose to break into a sprint to escape it.


No space for journalists in the new architecture of the parliament

Amidst the inaugural ballyhoo that attached itself to the new parliament building, here are some questions to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has emerged as its chief initiator, designer, promoter, executor and inaugurator.

Will this structure of 64,500 square metres have space for the media? Will it enhance interactions between journalists and parliamentarians or inhibit them? If Parliament is meant to be the ultimate forum for political debate and discussion in the country, will the media be allowed to play its constitutional role in facilitating this process?

These questions may appear naïve and it is, of course, unlikely that the prime minister or his aides would even be interested in answering them. Then there is a larger structural problem. Parliamentary democracy in India has been progressively emptied of significance, especially in these much celebrated nine years of Modi rule. A grand new edifice ostensibly dedicated to it is unlikely to alter this trend.  In fact, the architecture of the new parliament building has excised a striking feature of the old building – the Central Hall – where the transfer of power from the British Raj had taken place and which had long functioned as a space for ideation between political parties and groupings, even those strongly in contention with each other.

General-secretary of CPI (M), Sitaram Yechury, in a piece he wrote last year for the Deccan Herald, observed that “the Central Hall is not just integral but crucial in a situation of crisis…This is why I find it absolutely impermissible when I heard that there will be no Central Hall in the new Parliament building. It deprives the space that is required to make democracy functional.” Central Hall had, besides, provided a space where journalists – before they were kept out by governmental fiat – could meet MPs and ministers.

Coomi Kapoor, senior journalist and author of Emergency: A Personal History made a striking reference in a recent piece she wrote for the Indian Express, on how, during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, journalists were similarly told that “they were no longer welcome in what Sanjay Gandhi termed as “a den of gossip’”. Today, that ‘den of gossip’, no longer exists. It has been replaced in the new parliament building by a slick art gallery with accounts of potted history on its walls and a 22-metre-long Foucault’s Pendulum.

In 2021, journalists requested that the COVID-19 restrictions on their access to Central Hall be lifted. The Press Club of India (PCI), among many other journalists’ bodies, had petitioned the government thus: “We believe that the media provides an important interface between the people and the Parliament…By reporting on the happenings in both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha they make the government, our representatives more accountable and lend our democracy greater meaning”.

They renewed that demand more recently: “As the new Parliament building is being inaugurated on May 28, 2023, we would like to draw your kind attention towards the continuous and unrelenting restrictions imposed on the entry of journalists and reporters covering Parliamentary proceedings over the last several sessions.”

The PCI volunteers to suggest that the reason for this: “Could these curbs be part of a wider agenda aimed at controlling the media and restricting freedom of the press in order to impede the free flow of independent news stories and information to the people of the largest democracy of the world?”

Truly, if we had access, we could have gazed at the new Foucault’s Pendulum swinging from side to side from the rooftop of the Constitution Hall of the new building, for an answer.  


Readers write in…

Understanding extremism

In this column of March 11, we carried a letter from Kamal Joshi, titled ‘Leicester violence’ (Backstory: It’s Media Information That Keeps India as a Country Together – or Apart), and we are now carrying one from Chandramani Pandey. Both responses are to a piece that was published in September 21, 2022 titled, ‘At the Heart of the Leicester Unrest Is Not Religion But Chauvinist Community Politics’. That we should receive two rather similar letters on the same piece published in September last year would seem to point to a campaign of sorts. But never mind, here is Mr Pandey’s mail which he avers he sent 100 times to the Wire editorial team. I edited the letter to conform to editorial standards that preclude the targeting of any particular community:

“As you are the Ombudsperson, I am reaching out to you after I have sent more than 100 of emails to the Wire editorial but haven’t got any reply. Could you please look into this? Since this is a very important issue for our country and thewire.in is one of the most influential news portals, I want to bring this to the attention of readers. Our country can only progress if the combined consciousness of our people has all round perspective. It’s time that everyone genuinely tries to understand the other’s perspective. As for me a human can be truly intellectual if they can have multiple perspectives for the same subject.

“The subtitle of the article, ‘At the Heart of the Leicester Unrest Is Not Religion But Chauvinist Community Politics’, is misleading and one-sided. The author of the article has very clearly stated that the reason for the violence is both Hindutva and Islamist chauvinism but the sub-title only blames Hindutva for inter-community tensions.

“I too used to believe that Islam is not responsible for terrorism. But my eyes were opened by the ‘Ex-Muslim movement’ going on in the country. Now I understand how there can be violent protests in more than 20 cities of India on a single day.

“I urge TheWire.in  to get out of its leftist mindset and see the extremism on both sides — especially the extremism in Islam.”


Telling the truth is a crime

J.B. Dash, development journalist and scholar, writes in: The Wire story with the title, ‘In India, Telling the Truth Can Be a Crime: Australian Lawmakers, Activists on BBC Documentary on Modi’ (May 24), made me ask myself when was telling the truth not a criminal offence. In 1992, when I published a story on an IAS sub-divisional magistrate who was on a spree of corruption, he misused his office by slapping a series of criminal cases against me; misused courts of law for years to silence me. The outcome was nil.

As long he remained in that post, the harassment continued. Once he was transferred everything ended. Challenging his misuse of office, I went to the Lokpal and fought a long battle. The hon’ble Lokpal castigated his acts, ordered some recovery for causing losses to the government, but he neither appeared before it nor cared for the directions made! Now he has started taking his revenge through an officer in his coterie who has suddenly sent a contingent of police to raid (?) our home on 52 occasions in the last five years on flimsy issues. Is this democracy, is this the rule of law and order? How can two so-called civil servants, drawing seven-figure salaries, do this to an honest citizen like me? My experience says, rules, laws, tenets of democracy, are acts of whim. Every ruler loves a broken, vulnerable divided citizenship.”


Elections ONLINE, great effort, but…

Reader Ramana Murthy was appreciative of ‘Elections ONLINE’, the election analysis programme put together for the Karnataka election results by a collective of news and media portals (‘The Power of the ‘Alternative’ in Election Analysis’, May 13): “Elections ONLINE was a bold, much-needed initiative and I wish it all the best. However, unfortunately, people in India read newspapers and magazines that support or validate their views, and not those that provide a critical perspective. The Wire, Scroll.in, The Hindu, etc, are not read by people who ought to read them — the person on the street, the hardcore Modi voter. They are read and appreciated by people like me who are already converts. Anyway, Karnataka has provided us with a pleasant surprise. Hope it will not prove to be a one-off case in 2024, which might be the last chance to save the nation from a Russian style autocracy.

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