Backstory: Police Control the Interpretation of Violence. We Must Question This.

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Bad man Vikas Dubey is dead, having bled into the soil of the bad lands of Uttar Pradesh from whence he sprang. The gasps his story evoked briefly animated reporters, before they got another juicy bone to chew on: whether Sachin Pilot crash lands or takes off, there’s enough suspense in Rajasthan to keep the news media busy for a while.

Meanwhile, all questions about the nature of this death, choreographed by the UP Police, are today as dead as Dubey. As The Wire piece, ‘Adityanath Leaves Amit Shah Far Behind as Modi’s Heir Apparent After Kanpur ‘Encounter’‘ (July 12), puts it “Lawlessness…will not be tolerated; but the officially empowered can take the law in their hands…”

Before long, this encounter too will be buried under a tome produced by a Special Investigation Team – and a very qualified investigation team it is this time, with one of its members having himself been charge-sheeted for a fake encounter of an innocent person (‘Yogi’s SIT Probing Vikas Dubey Killing Has Officer Charge sheeted by CBI for Fake Encounter’, July 13). Imagine the UP government’s enviable library of SIT reports on its famed encounters, all glistening in their Rexine covers and stunning cover-ups.

The Dubey book, as the writer of the piece, ‘The Real Story is Not Vikas Dubey’s ‘Encounter’ but the Chapters His Killing Has Closed’ (July 11) tells us, “had unopened chapters…That the dead do not speak is a big source of relief for all those who had their nexus with him and were worried about getting exposed were he to survive.”

In other words, journalists may please note, Dubey’s excision is at one level an exercise that they are familiar with: editing. It amounts to a neat deletion of inconvenient information achieved by the politician-police machinery. The situations may vary – it could be an encounter here or a riot there – but controlling the narrative is vital for the perpetuation of ruling class agendas, whether in the killing fields of UP or the burning homes of northeast Delhi.

Vikas Dubey after his arrest. Photo: Handout by Madhya Pradesh police

US-based political scientist Paul Brass writes about how “capturing the meaning of a Hindu-Muslim or any other intercommunal, inter-religious, inter ethnic riot in a particular way” after it has occurred serves multiple functions. It is through the control of information that illegitimate violence is legitimised; that the planning and organising, that preceded the violence, is concealed; that the persons, groups and organisations most deeply implicated in the violence are protected, and that its principal perpetrators are allowed to escape punishment.  State and non-state actors are involved in this process of post-facto interpretation and information control, and the media are very much a part of this category.

Post-violence framing by the state through the agency of its police was clearly in play in the Bhima Koregaon cases. The manner in which rightwing Hindu leaders like Milind Ekbote and Sambhaji Bhide came to be absolved of all responsibility for the violence that broke out on January 1, 2018, even as left-wing human rights defenders found themselves incarcerated on terrorism charges, has a great deal to do with the post-violence narrative created in concert with the police, state and Sangh outfits, along with effective media messaging.

Journalists in general failed spectacularly in their role as interlocutors in these cases, with a large section actively playing along. Terms like “urban Naxals” got bandied around, and preposterously far-fetched allegations, like plots to assassinate the prime minister, made their way into police allegations.

There may come a time when the country looks back on this dark chapter and blames itself for having allowed it to play out. Today we can only rue the fact that elderly, much respected intellectuals and political activists, all of them extremely vulnerable to COVID 19, are locked away in crowded, infected jails – bringing one of them to a point of serious illness (‘As Varavara Rao’s Health Worsens in Jail, Family Alleges Severe Negligence by Authorities’, July 12).

Much as in Dubey’s extinction, there is in these cases a complete upending of the criminal justice system for political ends along with the manipulation of public information. If the media have understood this, they have done precious little to expose it – spooked perhaps by the fact that they may be seen as sympathisers of “Naxalites”.

The same strategy of promoting a state-directed narrative has been adopted by the Delhi Police in its “investigations” into the northeast Delhi pogrom; the same perpetration of arbitrary arrests and the selective leakage of information. Here the print media, at least a few important entities that remain committed to reportage – like the Indian Express, occasionally The Times of India and The Hindustan Times, magazines like The Caravan (to name some English language ones) – have been able to unravel the Delhi Police’s elaborate knitting in its preliminary “charge sheet”.

Some of the most revealing news reports emerged from court hearings. Last week, for instance, there was this report of the Delhi Police complaining to the judge that the tweets put out in defence of Devangana Kalita, a feminist activist now in prison for having participated in anti-CAA demonstrations, would bring “damage to our country”. Apart from the fact that this doesn’t say much about their opinion of the resilience of this country, it also indicates their unthinkingly punitive mindset.

That the Delhi Police is now driven to leaking information selectively to the media through its WhatsApp group, in order to buttress its case, indicates a lack of confidence in allowing its own facts to speak for themselves. Such desperation may driven by the diktats of political masters, but it also indicates that the Delhi Police has a great deal to hide about its handling of the pogrom — including selective inertia, communal bias, and the failure to anticipate and respond to the burning and bloodletting.

Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal. Photos: Twitter/@SfiZhdc

A five-part series on the Delhi violence, carried in The Wire (‘Delhi Riots 2020: A Critique of Two Purported Fact-Finding Reports, ‘Delhi Riots 2020: What Were Amit Shah and the MHA Doing When Violence Raged in the Capital?’, ‘Delhi Riots 2020: The Curious Case of Tahir Hussain and Ankit Sharma’,  ‘Delhi Riots 2020: A Chronicle of Double Standards, and an Unending Witch-Hunt’, ‘Delhi Riots 2020: There Was a Conspiracy, But Not the One the Police Alleges’, July 6 to 15) teases out important aspects of police conduct during this interregnum, including the wrongful filing  of FIRs against students that had “no averment, let alone proof, that any of them have committed a single violent act.”

How are the media to understand why the Delhi Police have been singularly unsuccessful in taking some of its own evidence to its logical conclusion? The Wire analysis, ‘Delhi Police Affidavit Shows Muslims Bore Brunt of Riots, Silent on Who Targeted Them and Why’ (July 16), points to a disturbing pattern of undercounting of deaths and damage to property that the police’s own records revealed, when it came to Muslims. Why is it that despite identifying WhatsApp groups like ‘Kattar Hindut Ekta’ calling for the killing of Muslims, and which had references to enthusiastic support for Kapil Mishra (Scroll.in report: ‘#I-stand-with-Kapil-Mishra’: BJP leader features prominently in WhatsApp group of Delhi rioters’, July 4), the Delhi Police has not considered it important to even interrogate the man, let alone arrest him (‘Delhi Riots Began With Kapil Mishra’s Speech, Yet No Case Against Him’: Minority Commission Report’, July 16)?

For the media, the Delhi violence of February is a subject that demands a many-layered, independent investigation, even as a concerted attempt is being made by the Delhi Police to capture the narrative on it.

Who’s afraid of journalism?

Journalism, it appears, is on the verge of being outlawed in this Republic of Thin Skins and Inflated Egos. Minor functionaries have now taken it upon themselves to see themselves as synonymous with the majesty of the state, going on to impose heavy penalties on mediapersons who dare to expose their wrong-doing.

From Kodugu, Karnataka, comes this intriguing tale of a deputy commissioner filing FIRs against two local journalists for their reporting that was critical of her, arguing that it was intended to “disturb peace and tranquility in the district” and promote “ill will, hatred and enmity between classes” (‘In Coorg, News Report Critical of DC Leads to ‘Provoking Riots’ Charge Against Journalists’, July 13). The sheer audacity and sense of entitlement this action radiates would have been laughable if it did not have extremely serious consequences for the targets of her ire.

Textbook case

When state bodies decide what should go into school textbooks, they typically overlook the opinions of the students themselves. When the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) arbitrarily and cunningly excised the syllabi for Classes 9-12 by a third, it followed this general template.

The piece, ‘A Class 12 Student on Lessons He Learnt From the Chapters Cut by CBSE’ (July 13) upended that paradigm by getting a response from a young person who had recently been through the old syllabus. While he, like his classmates, would always welcome the easing of their workload, he explains cogently why, for instance, he finds the axing “important topics under Indian Political Theory” a loss: “These topics have been immensely crucial in helping me understand social policy by arming me with a theoretical lens to be able to see what is happening around me.” Will the CBSE even bother to respond to curious minds like this?

Student despair in COVID-19 times

A student from the Department of Economics, IIT Kharagpur, writes in: “The administration of  IIT Kharagpur has set July 27, 2020, as the deadline to pay the fees for the Autumn semester, as it wishes to commence the new semester from August. They sent out a circular on July 13, communicating this. What it has conveniently forgotten is the fact that a large number of students apply for waivers/loans and scholarships which require tedious and time intensive Income Tax filings, which in itself take a week to get processed even after being submitted. Next comes the processing of these documents by IIT’s own administrative department. It has not indicated how it expects students in such a short time to pay the fees and arrange for the relevant documents in this hostile Covid 19 situation.”

Another, who wishes to be anonymous, had this to say: “In view of the UGC’s decision to carry on with the examinations for final year students, all universities have started asking for examination and convocation fees. Many of our families are finding it difficult to afford this. I cannot understand when, without  even the certainty of the examinations being held in September is not there, how these institutions can demand a convocation fee. Our university – NITTE Institute of Communication, Mangaluru — has asked us to pay Rs. 8200, which includes a convocation fee of Rs 4,500. We will be very grateful if the authorities waive the examination and convocation fee for this semester, given the dire situation we are in.”

A clarification

Meanwhile, Dr. Mathew Jacob, a post-graduate medical student has a clarification: “In the article, ‘Many Frontline Workers Have Been Left to Fend for Themselves in the Pandemic’ (July 6), it was reported that post-graduate students of St.John’s Medical College, Bengaluru, have not been paid their stipend for the month of May. I am a final year PG student and would like to inform you the facts. The month of May was the last month of our course. Our examinations were postponed, which resulted in us having to stay back for two months longer than expected, which obviously resulted in additional dues, like hostel fee/mess fees, etc. So in order to account for these expenses, the last month’s salary was withheld and were to be transferred to our accounts after our examinations got over, with the dues deducted from this amount. This was done with our knowledge.  So kindly consider reviewing the published article.”

Rule by the majority, for the majority

We also received a response to the piece, ‘15-20 Men in an Upscale Jaipur Restaurant Saw My Long Beard and Almost Lynched Me’ (July 1), from someone who prefers to be anonymous like the writer of the said piece: “I believe everyone should be treated equally and feel safe in their own country, irrespective of the caste and creed. But when in India has there been equality? We say that we are secular country, but have different laws for different religions? Why? And if it’s allowed, I would like my own set of laws as well. I come from a business background, I have had talks with tax officers who openly say that they were instructed by the previous regime to not ‘harass’ the minorities. Everyone knows that minorities were favoured in vote bank politics. You would find a lot of Hindu families voting for Congress, but how many Muslim families have ever voted for the BJP? Forget Modi now, what about Atal Bihari? Or are people going to say he was undeserving as well? India has always been a playground of caste politics and for once it’s working the other way and people are wary. The wariness should have come a long time ago. Treating any part of the society with special favours is a recipe for disaster. India is a democracy. In a democracy, the majority rules. So we either accept the public mandate that the majority have decided upon and live with it, or accept that democracy is flawed in a country like ours.”

Word of caution to journos

Finally, there was this mail from another reader, Ramana Murthy: “With reference to ‘Backstory: Reading Between the Headlines in Times of Almost-War’ (June 20), I appreciate The Wire’s bold anti-government stance. Very few newspapers and magazines dare take on the establishment now, considering that the current government is also behaving like the one in the Emergency. In the context of the FIR filed against Supriya Sharma, I was wondering if she had kept a record of the conversation she had with the woman who filed the case against her? Similar incidents are happening in Andhra Pradesh (my state) and I would advise reporters to be extra careful now.”

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in