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Backstory: The Media Can Learn From South Asia in These Times of Turmoil

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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An observer who took South Asia as a region very seriously was the late Pakistani economist and one of the creators of the Human Development Index, Dr Mahbub ul Haq. In 1997, he had pointed out that South Asia was the poorest region in the world, the most illiterate, the most malnourished, the least gender-sensitive, the most deprived in terms of access to even rudimentary facilities, including water and healthcare. He also argued that it was the most militarised region in the world, with soldiers outnumbering doctors in a ratio of six to one.

A quarter of a century later, his words continue to hold true. In fact, if anything, the region has seen serious reversals. Sri Lanka, which had consistently outperformed its neighbours in terms of delivering healthcare and education to its citizens, today finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy. A region comprising countries that are sometimes referred to as ‘kin states’, since they represent multiple social and ethnic continuities across their borders, is now witnessing various brands of ethno-nationalism emerge.  Also today, despite the proliferation of social media, the average South Asian knows less about the real lives of their counterparts in neighbouring countries than they did 25 years earlier, and what they do know is adulterated by communal prejudice and naked chauvinism dressed up as “national interest”.

A quarter of a century ago, the Indian media was far more invested in what was happening in Bangladesh, or Nepal or Pakistan, than they are today. All the three biggies among English language newspapers in India, The Hindu, The Times of India, and The Hindustan Times, as well as the news agency, the Press Trust of India (PTI), had correspondents in Pakistan. Even government-owned All India Radio had a presence there. Today, there are no Indian journalists in Pakistan, and no Pakistani journalists work from India. News gathering, to the extent that it happens, is conducted through international news agencies, stringers and the occasional single assignment. Of course, financial considerations have played a role in these developments, with media managements cutting back on stationing correspondents in foreign locations. At one time a stable of credible foreign correspondents posted across the world and especially in neighbouring countries was considered an integral part of media operations.

The negative impacts of this lack of free-flowing information between the nations of the region are considerable. It has led to the circulation of false and biased information within one country about the other, creating an atmosphere of mutual hostility and distrust. It has also left ordinary South Asians bereft of a basic understanding of a region that is integral to their common heritage.

India, accounting for 72% of the South Asian land mass, and for almost 1.4 billion people of the 1.9 billion living here, carries the additional baggage of a misplaced sense of national superiority – the Big Brother in the backyard. Yet, as recent developments in the region have demonstrated, India – which exults in its status of being part of the world’s largest democracy – has actually been overtaken by its neighbours in terms of basic democratic functioning.

Take the recent protests in Sri Lanka. The energy and unified manner with which Sri Lankans across ethnic, class and urban-rural divides have come out to challenge the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime for its monumental misgovernance – despite curfews, declarations of emergency and social media bans – is a reminder that if people don’t themselves fight for their right to life, nobody will do it for them. When was the last time Indians publicly defended their right to life?

The youthful fervour of the Sri Lankan protests came across in an eponymous slogan “GotaGoHome”, as also in the earthy wisdom of working class conversations on the street. The Wire article ‘Sri Lanka: President Declares Emergency, Temporarily Blocks Social Media Before Planned Protest’ (April 3) quotes S. Sunil, who makes his living mowing lawns: “I feel like cutting off my hand for marking the ballot paper in this man’s favour…” It is these voices of anger and despair that caused all 26 Lankan ministers of the Mahinda Rajapaksha cabinet to resign on April 4 and decimated the majority the ruling party enjoyed in parliament.

When was the last time you heard India’s sporting legends speak out against governmental excesses? Instead they have quietly retweeted material the government wanted them to put out. This time in Sri Lanka, those who had once headed the Sri Lankan cricketing squad, like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardena, put out strong anti-government statements, and batting sensation Bhanuka Rajapaksa even tweeted: “…The people of Sri Lanka deserve to be heard. The people of Sri Lanka deserve to live without the fear that they may not be able to provide for their families. The people of Sri Lanka deserve better.”

The Sri Lankan media have also shown more spine than their Indian counterparts in reporting upon and commenting on the current crisis. What we are seeing in Sri Lanka, as senior journalist and peace activist Lakshman Gunasekara observed in a recent blog, is the coming together of different media that has provided Sri Lankans with an intimate sense of the impact of their movement for political change.

A functioning media galvanises democratic institutions and is in turn galvanised by them. The stand of mainstream newspapers against Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s attempt to hold on to his chair was reflected in pungent editorials that hailed the Pakistan Supreme Court’s ruling on the no-confidence vote (‘A Rogue Imran Khan Has Launched a Frontal Assault on Democracy in Pakistan’, April 4). Incidentally, when was the last time that the Supreme Court in India spoke out against the many constitutional violations of the Modi government? Is it not significant that the judges in Pakistan have shown an ability to disdain post-retirement and stood up to the overweening power of the executive, unlike ours?

Finally, none of the countries in South Asia is seeing the hounding of one particular community to the savage extent that is on view right here. So the Indian media have better stop its naval gazing and penchant for using terms like “the world’s largest democracy” and try instead to  humbly learn from the lessons of democracy in action thrown up in the current turmoil that is roiling South Asia.

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Another draconian law

Notice how easily the Criminal Procedure (Identification) Bill, 2022, received the assent of both Houses of Parliament in a matter of days. Although Opposition MPs did put up something of a resistance (‘New Identification Law for Prisoners Is ‘Draconian’ and ‘Illegal’, Say Opposition MPs’, March 29) to its passage, the “brute majority” of the ruling party and its allies ensured that this country, which still does not have a credible data protection law, is being double marched into a zone where nothing grows but the steely contours of police manacles. While some serious commentary did appear in the print and digital media on the unacceptability of such a law in a democratic country, television media conspicuously and unsurprisingly avoided any conversation on it.

The new law allows the collection of biometric data of those deemed as criminals – and we know how today those “deemed as criminals”, could be you, me or anyone standing under a lamp post. The list of biometric data that can now be collected under the new law is impressive – ranging from bodily fluids including blood, semen and saliva to the irises in your eyes and the keratin in your fingernails. Those who attract the provisions of this law could be anybody convicted under any law, anyone arrested for any offence, and anyone who attracts the provisions of preventive detention legislation. Reluctance on the part of the subject to part with such personal data could attract exemplary powers of police intimidation.

Not many news reports underlined the rather striking fact that the Bill was introduced in the Lower House by none other than Union minister of state for home Ajay Kumar Mishra (Teni), better known as the father of a criminal who drove his SUV over protesting farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri. The media also failed to remember that Teni’s boss, Union home minister Amit Shah, has this penchant to reassure the nation that repressive laws put in place under his watch will not be “misused”. He did it this time too – repeating an assurance he had made when amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) were passed in July 2019 which made it applicable not just to organisations but individuals. And we know where that assurance got us. The never-ending incarceration of the Bhima Koregaon detainees testify to the hollowness of that claim.

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IT Rules as Special Purpose Vehicle

The Information & Broadcasting Ministry has just blocked 18 Indian YouTube Channels under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. The government cites dire reasons for doing so – their fake news that could compromise national security, and so on and so forth. It may well be right to make such claims, but what is intriguing and disturbing is the facile and peremptory manner in which this was done (‘In a First, I&B Ministry Uses New IT Rules to Block 18 Indian YouTube Channels’, April 5).

The Modi government had always maintained that due process would be followed before any take down move is initiated. We still remember communications minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s sonorous description of the Rules as a “softtouch oversight mechanism” when he introduced them last February. But as Medianama has pointed out, “In most cases, the government declines to reveal the reasoning behind content takedown orders… From what it looks like, the government is happy to be transparent when the content takedown doesn’t portray the government in bad light such as when it is taking action against security concerns posed by Chinese apps or misinformation spread by Pakistani operatives. But when it comes to takedowns of content that’s critical of the government or content that is politically or religiously sensitive, the government conveniently hides behind the confidentiality offered by Section 69A of the IT Act 2000.”

Also interesting is the selective way in which the I&B ministry chooses to act. Those innumerable Sanghi YouTube channels who spewfake news that could impact national security, foreign relations and public order” – the very charges it lays at the door of the platforms it has now blocked – are safe from being deplatformed.

Hindu Mahasabha’s illegal assembly at Delhi’s Burari Ground on April 5, which saw  journalists being assaulted, could never have been possible without the help of digital media, but that of course is not the I&B ministry’s concern (‘Watch | How the Attack on Journalists at the Hindu Mahapanchayat in Burari Unfolded’, April 6). That a mainstream television channel editor-in-chief, Suresh Chavhanke, was part of a gathering calling for the genocide of Muslims, is not a factor that disturbs it unduly.

The  IT Rules then are clearly a special purpose vehicle to be used in ways that fit neatly into the ruling party’s ideological framework and recent history has shown that the I&B minister himself is quite comfortable issuing rousing calls to Hindutva zealots.

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Readers write in…

Writing on media’s wall

A reader of The Wire, George Ninan,  has a long response to ‘Backstory: Islamophobia Permeates the Air But For Media It’s Business as Usual’ (March 26): “As long as our virtuous journalists are silent about the huge profitability, presence of public relations entities and their set, the media will have little credibility. Huge budgets are allotted to media management by vested interests and corporate big-cheese, and these flows through the PR industry to individuals in the media. There are journalists who pay the tuition for their progeny to study at Step-by-step, Pathways and similar pricey schools.

“…Not too many journalists from the Kerala Christian community – and they are a large enough in number — have asked why their colleagues in many congregations are overwhelmingly anti-Muslim, and identify themselves as fellow travellers with Mahasabha chauvinists. Joining them are members of the clergy, and occupants of bishoprics, who have their clergy-comrades working in congregations across the cow-belt.

“As long as we are not willing to name and shame, not willing to find the fault within ourselves, there is no point in trying to blame the Mahasabha….No general election in India has ever resulted in a thumping mandate. If democracy can be viewed as tyranny of the majority, in India, electoral democracy has since the first general election in 1951, returned a Parliament that reflects the tyranny of a dominant minority.

“That the Indian National Congress of M. K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did not have any real standing became evident in the 1951-52 General Election where 79.99 percent of the electorate did not care to vote INC.  Compare this with the 1994 general elections in South Africa where the 54.44 percent of the eligible voters chose ANC. Similar to this rejection, Narendra Modi and the BJP in 2014 failed to secure any endorsement from 79.5 percent of the electorate. In the general elections of 1999, a full 85.5 per cent of eligible voters did not care to vote BJP, despite its genial, avuncular mukhota in A. B. Vajpayee.

“The numbers for the UP elections in 2022 and 2017 have not changed significantly — 25.1 percent of eligible voters came out to vote BJP in 2022; in 2017 it was 24.29 percent. This means that 74.9 percent of eligible voters were not part of any saffron wave in 2022 that our media have made us believe has occurred.”

Denying Afghan girls their education

Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, chairperson & Dr. Roshmi Goswami, co-chairperson South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), write in: “SAHR, a regional network of human rights defenders, vehemently condemns the Taliban’s latest decision on March 23, 2022, to deny girls their right to education despite several false assurances that all girls will be permitted to go to school.

“…Although the Taliban has not banned girls’ education, they have been giving excuses to stop girls from going to school stating the need to create a safe learning environment. Their Ministry of Education issued a statement regarding the reopening of schools and assured equal access to all. Girls over the age of 11 were waiting to return to school on March 23 after the long winter break. However, yet again the Taliban’s spokesperson informed of the postponement of the resumption of schooling for girls giving the same excuse.

“Taliban’s policy of reversal is deeply worrying and casts serious doubt over their commitment to girls’ education.  SAHR believes that this blatant violation of the human rights of the women and girl children would severely hamper their chances to live a decent and fulfilling life.“… Women’s right to education is ensured in all South Asian countries including the other Muslim majority nations. Therefore, SAHR strongly urges the Taliban to reverse their decision immediately and assure that girls of all ages are allowed to return to schools to continue their education.”

A successful strike

Mail from M.D. Harigovind, general secretary, All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Bengaluru: “AITUC’s Bangalore District Committee notes that the 2-day national strike called by all the central trade unions on March 28 and 29 was observed by all the industries in the Bangalore region. The strike was called against the anti-worker policies of the central and state governments. The major demands were revoking of the four anti-worker labour codes, National Minimum wages of Rs.24, 000/- per month, abolition of exploitative forms of employment and other demands.

“AITUC believes that the joint and united action of the workers of the country should serve as a warning signal to the central government which has taken a completely anti-worker approach in its policy-making and congratulates the working class of the city for their resounding and united response to the joint call for the two-day strike.”

Broken link

David Kidwell (david.f.kidwell@gmail.com), has a suggestion:  “You have linked to the post https://www.thebalance.com/war-on-terror-facts-costs-timeline-3306300 on your page https://thewire.in/security/who-said-the-american-model-of-fighting-terror-is-the-best-model-for-india (‘Who Said the American Model of Fighting Terror is Best for India?’, January 26, 2020). However, this article is removed now (404). You can find a new, updated article on the same topic here https://edubirdie.com/blog/the-war-on-terror. It would be great if you replace a broken link with a new one to keep your content relevant. Please, let me know what you think.”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in