Media

Backstory: Ram Mandir and Kashmir – A Tale of Two Forms of Media Control

A fortnightly column from The Wire's public editor.

Decoding headlines is a useful exercise.

This very essential tool of journalistic writing has been defined variously as a succinct summing up of the content it marks; a way to signal the importance of a story; a device to attract the reader/viewer (“if it bleeds, it leads”). What I find intriguing are the hints that every headline provides of newsroom confabulation and editorial discretion.

On July 30, for instance, two national dailies ran headlines using the same figure of speech in diametrically opposite ways to define a report on the Rajasthan assembly being convened on August 14. While the Times of India had a headline that ran, ‘Gehlot blinks, guv has his way on 21-day notice’, the Indian Express’s went, ‘Governor blinks, says yes to Gehlot proposal for House from Aug 14’. 

How is the reader to interpret this?

Suffice it to say that headlines are also crucial markers of editorial stances and never perhaps have they altered more drastically than in the context of the Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Masjid story.

It is not just that the mandir-masjid hyphenation has been erased for all time through an act of mass vandalism; the headlines too have shifted drastically in the dusty winds from the demolition site. The morning after the mosque was set upon by mobs on December 6, 1992, the Times of India carried an editorial under the headline: ‘The Republic Besmirched’.

On July 30, a report in the same newspaper on the bhoomi pujan of the Ram Mandir to be held on August 5 had a headline that exuded jaunty celebration: ‘Rendezvous with Ram: Ayodhya gets spruced up ahead of big day’. 

Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust chairman Nritya Gopal Das chairs a meeting with trust members and chairman of the Ram Temple Construction Committee Nripendra Mishra (unseen), in Ayodhya, Saturday, July 18, 2020. Photo: PTI

August 5 was the date chosen for the bhoomi pujan. Perhaps it was found to be auspicious, but clearly its political significance was the factor that clinched it for the BJP.

That one date reflected the achievement of two of the party’s prime agendas: the reading down of Article 370 and the construction of a magnificent temple at the site of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. For the ruling party, this is a moment overflowing with triumph, signifying as it does the forward march of Hindu nationalism. It comes as the perfect antidote to the COVID-19 spectre and Chinese tents sprouting at Pangong. 

This triumphalism can be expected to be unfurled along with the Tricolour at the Red Fort on Independence Day, and the media – already swooning over the five Dassaultmade “birds” flying into Indian skies just in time for the ceremonies – will strike the appropriate background score. 

What is conspicuous about the Ram Mandir story, on the one hand, and the Kashmir imbroglio, on the other, is the prominent way the media figures in the management of both. In the first instance, there is the exuberant, aggregated deployment of media use, what one writer in another context described as “creating a din that just drowns out any other point of view”. In the second, there is the deliberate silencing of media voice through official order and fear of incarceration.

The campaign for the Ram temple from its very inception drew on a multitude of media resources, from the humble poster and handbill to a televised serial of epic proportions and mainstream newspaper support. That process of mediatisation continues today and its latest chronology is revealing. 

As the piece ‘Ramanand Sagar’s ‘Ramayan’ Has Once Again Helped Televise BJP’s Ram Revolution’ points out:

“On March 25, the same day India went into lockdown, Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath travelled to Ayodhya and moved the idol of Ram Lalla from a tin shed to a temple-like structure made of fibre. ‘The first phase of construction of the grand Ram temple was completed today,’ tweeted the CM. Two days later, Javadekar announced the telecast of Sagar’s Ramayan.” 

On August 5, the widest possible projection of the bhoomi pujan is on the cards. The Shri Ram Janmbhoomi Teerth Kshetra, the institution hosting the event, aims to ensure a glocal reach. It has tweeted an invitation to “pujya Sant-Mahatma and Shri Ram bhakts across the globe” to do “Samuhik Pujan & Bhajan-Kirtan with their family, friends & the society, between 11:30 AM to 12:30 PM”, even as local Ram bhakts are exhorted to make arrangements for the live webcast of the programme “in a large hall or auditorium”. 

Loudspeakers being installed in Ayodhya ahead of the August 5 bhoomi pujan. Photo: PTI

While this media exuberance is on display in Ayodhya, Kashmir’s silence is just as loud.

All the broad elements of media control – one of the first steps taken before the abrogation of Article 370 – largely remain in place. This despite official claims of normalcy and outright falsities presented to the court, which in turn has said all the right things in its judgment on Anuradha Bhasin but has ensured that little has been achieved in actual terms.

Even while there is recognition that access to the internet is a fundamental right, the Kashmiri – now brought under the Indian Constitution – continues to stand deprived of that right in any meaningful way. This also exposes the Modi government’s pretence that J&K has been integrated with India. That claim in fact has “never sounded hollower”. The grip of police-military industrial complex on the Kashmir valley is so unyielding that only occasionally are we afforded a glimpse of the “The horror! The horror!”  (Joseph Conrad in The Heart of Darkness).

One such moment was captured in The Wire piece, ‘Saifuddin Soz Case Is the Latest Example of J&K Govt ‘Lying’ in Court on Detentions’, when an 83-year-old man cried out from behind the walls of his home ensconced in concertina wire:

“Did you see how they stopped me from speaking to the media so that the world would know about their lies in the Supreme Court that I was not under house arrest?” 

His words underline the inestimable value of the media when they seek to translate the fundamental right to free expression into a living thing. One of the ways it does this is to peer under the barbed wire of a carceral state. Or ask difficult questions such as the authenticity of the prime minister’s claim that his government’s management of COVID-19 was sound.

But, in this age of variable headlines, how many media organisations do this anymore?

People queue up to go online at a government set-up internet cafe in Budgam, Indian-administered Kashmir on December 24, 2019. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Athar Parvaiz

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Manacles in Sri Lanka

While we in India are only too aware of the repressive apparatus at work in our own country which has seen fit to confine some of our best and brightest behind bars, a timely report, ‘Sri Lanka: Human Rights Under Attack’, on the repression playing out in Sri Lanka has just come in. It is authored by 10 international human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, CIVICUS  World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.

Some excerpts from the report on the state of the media…

“A campaign of fear has intensified since the 2019 presidential election, and has cast a shadow over the 2020 parliamentary election campaign….Numerous civilian institutions, including the NGO Secretariat, have been placed under the control of the Defence Ministry. Serving and retired military officers have been appointed to a slew of senior government roles previously held by civilians. The authorities have recently established military-led bodies such as the Presidential Task Force to build “a secure country, disciplined, virtuous and lawful society,” which has the power to issue directives to any government official. This represents an alarming trend towards the militarization of the state. Many of those in government, including the president, defense secretary, and army chief, are accused of war crimes during the internal armed conflict that ended in 2009…

“Journalists and those voicing critical opinions on social media, have been arbitrarily arrested. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression, including the 1 April announcement by the police that any person criticizing officials engaged in the response to Covid-19 would be arrested. It is unclear whether there is any legal basis for such arrests…Media rights groups have condemned the targeting of journalists since the presidential election, with threats of arrest, surveillance, and lengthy police interrogations linked to their reporting. Dharisha Bastians, former editor of the Sunday Observer newspaper and a contributor to the New York Times, her family, and associates, have been persecuted by Sri Lankan police in retaliation for her work…

“On 9 April, a social media commentator Ramzy Razeek was arrested under Sri Lanka’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act and the Computer Crimes Act. He approached the Sri Lankan police for protection following online death threats linked to his social media posts condemning all forms of extremism. Instead of receiving protection, he was jailed and denied bail….The targeting and repression of journalists and human rights defenders is not only an assault on the rights of these individuals, but an attack on the principles of human rights and the rule of law which should protect all Sri Lankans. These policies have a chilling effect on the rights to freedom of expression and association, which are crucial for the operation of civil society and fundamental to the advancement of human rights. Those working on ending impunity and ensuring accountability for past crimes, and especially victims, victim’s families, members of minority communities, and networks in the Northern and Eastern provinces, are particularly at risk of intimidation and harassment.”

The statement ends with a call to the Sri Lankan authorities to end all forms of harassment, threats, and abuse of legal processes and police powers against lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists.

File Photo: People maintain the one-metre distance between each other in Colombo, Sri Lanka, as they stand in a line to buy groceries during the break in the curfew imposed to tackle the new coronavirus in the country, March 24, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Dinuka Liyanawatte/File Photo

From Kashmir, with anguish

Hadaitullah Pampori writes in:

“The continuous suspension of the mobile internet service has impacted everything in J&K. Students in particular are desperate and in a state of depression. The education department has started online classes for students across Jammu and Kashmir since March 26, but high-speed 4G internet, snapped on August 4, 2019, still remains elusive across the Union Territory. On January 24 this year, the UT administration had restored internet connectivity, but with the “obsolete and archaic” 2G network. This is like a cruel joke being played on hundreds of thousands of students across the region given its low-speeds. Students here have only one demand: Restore 4G immediately!”

Hardik Batra, as student BA LLB (Hons) at the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata, writes in:

“I respect the independent journalism of The Wire.  With regard to the story, ‘Andhra Pradesh: Dalit Man Dies After Being Beaten by Police for Not Wearing Mask’ (July 22), while the violence perpetrated on Atcherla Kiran Kumar is terrible and those guilty must be punished, I cannot understand why his identity as a Dalit was highlighted. Is there any proof that the violence he experienced was only because he was a Dalit? This leads me to another concern: I have observed that The Wire is so committed to a pro-reservation policy, that it has never carried articles critiquing reservations. Why does your platform only support the discourse of one side? Surely you are aware that a large section of society wants the abrogation of reservations on the basis of caste, and their views also need to find space in your portal.” 

I would appeal to Hardik Batra, as a student, to read more on the structured discrimination that Dalits have faced in India from times immemorial to the present day. It is entirely legitimate for a media organisation like The Wire to take a stand against caste discrimination and in favour of reservations.

I do agree with him, however, that the article he cites does not reference sufficiently the Dalit identity of the victim.

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One of our young readers drew attention to a “minor mistake” in the article ‘The Poet In The Republic’ (July 19). The sentence beginning, “While The Republic is Plato’s most commonly cited work….” has the following words: “he is can be truthful“.

It should read: “he can be truthful.

I was touched by this close reading of the piece, and yes this is an example of what is commonly termed in journalistic parlance as a “typo” and should be corrected.

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A mail came in under the pseudonym ‘Voice of a common man’:

“We want to thank your organisation for playing a crucial role in empowering citizens of a country with the latest and reliable political, social and economic news. We now request your support on spreading awareness on the issue of friendly neighbourhood ties. Over the recent past India’s relations with its neighbours have been deteriorating.

“We urge you to showcase past political ties in order to spread positivity in the neighbourhood and emphasise the historical and cultural fraternity countries in the region have shared. We need to realise that trade between governments take place after prolonged engagement, and in that sense such trade is more than just financial relations – it is also the sharing of cultures.”

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A file image of Varavara Rao.

I end with this statement of support from Greek academics, activists, journalists, writers and students, on saving the life of Varavara Rao.

While we have received petitions like this from the UK and the US, where the Indian diaspora has a strong presence, this mail from Greece was unexpected and showcases the universality of human solidarity.

We can only express our gratitude to each of these individuals for their concern.

“Varavara Rao, poet, writer, activist and advocate of democratic and social rights for decades against the arbitrariness of Indian governments, has been jailed for almost two years along with ten other activists, lawyers, academicians and journalists.

“They are all accused of inciting violent incidents in the Bhima Koregaon case, under charges that are considered false because the government has failed over the last two years to prove them to start the trial. The conditions in the prisons where these prisoners of conscience are being held are said to be unhealthy and infected by the COVID 19 virus. Rao, who is over 80 years of age, has been tested and proved to stricken by the disease.

“His condition reveals the absolute neglect of his health by the prison authorities. We join our voices with academics from all over the world, intellectuals, journalists, members of the Indian Parliament, international humanitarian organisations, the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) and others, and we demand the immediate release of Rao and the other pre-trial imprisoned activists of the same case.”

Aggeli Dialekti, Journalist; Aggelidis Dimitris, Journalist; Arkolakis Manolis, Historian, Member of Collaborating Teaching Staff, Greek Open University; Choumerianos Manolis, Academic, Panteion University, Athens; Daskalopoulos Antonis, Journalist; Daskalopoulou Ntina, Journalist; Droukas Giorgos, Journalist; Gerotziafas Grigoris, Academic, Université Pierre et Marie Curie, Paris; Gravaris Dionisis, Academic, Panteion University, Athens; Grollios Giorgos, Academic, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Groui Eleni, Journalist; Kafaraki Eleftheria, Board Member of the Students’ Union of the Film School, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Kaltsonis Dimitris, Academic, Panteion University, Athens; Kandilioti Kostoula, Lawyer; Kimpouropoulos Giannis, Journalist; Kouzis Giannis, Academic, Panteion University, Athens; Manos Dimitris, Teacher, Author; Mavridis Heraklis, Academic, Panteion University, Athens; Michalakis Kostas, Teacher, Historian, Author; Mpaskakis Giannis, Journalist; Nikolaou Alkaios, Board Member of the Students’ Union of the Film School, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Nitsa Zoi, Board Member of the Students’ Union of the School of Architecture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Papageorgiou Stavros, Board Member of the Students’ Union of the School of Physics, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Papatheodorou Christos, Academic, Panteion University, Athens; Papavasileiou Nikos, Teacher, Member of the Executive Secretariat of the Prefectural Department of ADEDY Samos; Pavlidis Dimitris, Economist, Member of the Solidarity Committee, Thessaloniki; Rousis Giorgos, Emeritus Professor of Panteion, Athens; Sakellaropoulos Spiros, Academic, Panteion University, Athens; Smirlakis Giannis, Journalist; Tessi Giota, Journalist; Triggos Michalis, Board Member of the Students’ Union of the School of Psychology, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Tsakiroglou Tasos, Journalist; Tsiaras Giorgos, Journalist; Tziantzi Afroditi, Journalist; Tzima Stavroula, Board Member of the Students’ Union of the School of Medicine, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki; Zafeiropoulos Kostas, Journalist; Zormpala Tina, Academic, University of the Aegean.

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