Backstory: It’s a Season of Words… Words of Unity, Dissent and Inspiration

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

Come and hear the words on the streets, we who as journalists use words for a living. At this historic juncture, this twining of oppositional politics with the incandescence of words is creating a new popular imagination. That this is a historic moment cannot be doubted: “At no time since 1947 have we seen such an inspiring show of democratic dissent” (‘Three Observations From India’s Past to Contextualise the Present Struggle’, January 10).

History is being created in the everyday, and the placard that read, “My parents think I am studying history, but I am creating it” absolutely nailed it. The piece, ‘Have the Bullies of Yesterday Become the Bigots of Today?’ ( January 1) has an apt quote from 1963 Bob Dylan:

“Come mothers and fathers/Throughout the land/And don’t criticize/What you can’t understand/Your sons and your daughters/Are beyond your command/Your old road is rapidly agin’/Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand/For the times they are a-changin’…”

It is not just parents that these words should be addressed to, but the present political dispensation.

Watching/hearing these words emerge from old chrysalises to flutter over our heads, with resplendent wing, is nothing short of magical. Look at how the trisyllabic  term, “azaadi”, which began as a cry for liberation, mutated into a slogan of the South Asian women’s movement, had its moment in 2016 JNU campus and now reverberates in an India threatened with divided citizenship.

The more the authorities try to net these tormenting winged creatures, the more they spring to life in new ways and habitats. As committees are appointed to rule whether Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s ‘Hum dekhenge’ is anti-national (‘IIT Kanpur Panel to Decide if Faiz Poem Sung at Protest Is ‘Anti-Hindu’,’ January 1),  the words acquire new life in a corner of Bengaluru, in Kannada – “naavu nodo na” or light up a corner outside the Indian consulate in Cape Town.  They become fungible and signify new forms of opposition, they go viral in response to the boycott call issued against Deepika Padukone’s new film Chhapaak. Now they become, ‘hum dekhenge’, we will see the film, make no mistake.

In Mumbai the resistance lyric, ‘Hum Kagaz Nahi Dikhayenge’, quickly became a slogan on a placard, a chant at a protest, and another way to bait the government for its stand in not revealing the Swiss bank account details of Indians. Suddenly one placard emerges from a forest of placards with the clearly enunciated words, ‘Free Kashmir’, in Mumbai. Soon another one surfaces with the very same words in faraway Mysuru, and yet another thumbs its nose at the khaki squads in Dilli. Three placards, and it is construed by the government of the day and its supporters as a conspiracy against the nation, an evil intent to threaten the integrity of the country, a “crime” demanding the strongest, swiftest action. “Sedition!” roars the Queen of Hearts, in furious passion, stamping about and shouting “Sedition!” about once in a minute.

By the way, the National Crime Records Bureau has just reported that sedition cases have doubled in two years – from 35 in 2016 to 70 in 2018. The sedition count taken along with India’s world record on internet shut-downs, indicates that this government is seized by ‘PPP’ (Pattern of Perpetual Paranoia). It’s a paranoia that is palpable and sometimes borders on the homicidal. What do you do with mutinous words that slip, slide and tease? You send in your police and goon squads to pulverise the mutinous bodies that breathe life into these words; label them as anti-nationals; clamp down on spaces where ideas deemed dangerous proliferate; threaten withdrawal of state funding, and the like.

Through its reportage and commentary, The Wire has been able to map the many mutations of state paranoia. A white bed sheet with some scribbles condemning CAA and hung outside a flat as home minister Amit Shah comes visiting the locality is enough for an angry mob of BJP supporters to gather and swear revenge (‘‘We Feared for Our Lives’: Women Who Protested Amit Shah’s Lajpat Nagar Rally Evicted’,’ January 8). The subsequent statement of these two women was remarkable for its clarity: “When we became aware of Shah’s pro-CAA rally, we exercised our constitutional and democratic right to protest. As a common citizen, this was the perfect opportunity for me to register my dissent in front of the home minister. I believe that if I had failed to do so, I would have failed my own conscience.” Punishment was immediate – a notice to vacate the rented accommodation.

The banner erected by the women in Lajpat Nagar. Photo: Twitter video screengrab from Manorama News

India’s scientists who are all-too-often reluctant to emerge from their laboratory-ivory tower, are suddenly displaying enough spunk to invite the state’s ire (‘Scientists Who Signed Anti-CAA Letter Come Under Government Scanner’, January 9).

Jawaharlal Nehru University inevitably emerges as the proximate site of state violence. Within 20 months of the Modi government coming to power, it was set upon by twin malign forces – a Union HRD minister completely subservient to the PMO, and a newly appointed vice chancellor with the added credential of being sympathetic to the RSS – and quickly emerged as the laboratory the Modi government, where its pet project of turning students into enemies of the state was first tested. In the process, it quickly became a lightning rod for alienated students in campuses across the country, with the tragic suicide of Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula having taken place just a few weeks earlier.

Today, it has once again brought into focus not just what was happening within its campus roiled by fee hikes and an opaque, biased and uncommunicative vice-chancellor, but the unprecedented agitations against CAA-NPR-NRC sweeping the country, from the women-directed, women-peopled Shaheen Bagh uprising (‘Shaheen Bagh Heralds a New Year With Songs of Azaadi’, December 31) in Delhi to big demonstrations in small towns like Koderma, Malegaon and Gaya.

Decoding the violence at the JNU campus on January 5, when goons were allowed in by rightwing forces to deliberately terrorise the student body legitimately voted to power – which taken with the assault on Jamia Islamia earlier represented a naked consolidation of police and state power to crush student opposition – required both reportorial detail and editorial assessment. 

The Wire report could capture the terror shortly after the incident: “We heard some loud voices and footsteps, and some shouting. Then someone started banging on the door, saying ‘Baahar aao (Come out)’. We just huddled inside until they left” (‘They Were Banging the Door With an Iron Rack’: Students, Teachers Describe JNU Violence’, January 6). The essential nature of this university was unpacked: “This is the new JNU, where thousands of students from lower and working-class economic families from across the country come chasing a dream to study, to obtain a degree in one of the country’s finest universities” (‘JNU Violence: When Knowledge Becomes a Signifier of Dissidence’, January 7);  “Over the years, JNU has been able to successfully break three types of hierarchies – that of identity (gender, caste, and religion); of disciplines; and the hierarchy between teachers and students” (‘JNU Violence: When Knowledge Becomes a Signifier of Dissidence’, January 10).

The commentary, ‘It’s Time to Tell Amit Shah and Narendra Modi, “Hum Sab JNU”’ poses questions that go to the kernel of the issue: “Regardless of where you work, study or live, are you safe? Do you feel safe enough to speak freely about political matters outside the confines of your home? Do you trust the police to keep you safe? Do you trust the government to keep you safe?”

What makes the answers to that question so ominous is that over the last five and half years so vitiated has the social and political environment become that such attacks have not just become normalised but now come backed by majoritarian approval. The article, ‘How Did the State Come to Legitimise Vigilante Action?’ (January 9), with reference to the state terror unleashed in Uttar Pradesh, has an important note of caution: the on-going protests should not delude us that there is no support for the police action.

Large sections of the media have in this interregnum directly assisted in buttressing and expanding such support. It is only when the commercial gain in piping the Modi music gets undermined by a groundswell of public opprobrium (and the anti-CAA protests are important in this context), can we even hope for incremental changes in the mainstream media narrative. India Today’s expose of ABVP participation in JNU’s night of masks, rods and lathis, countering the elaborate mask of the police investigation that largely exonerated this RSS-linked student body, may be an early hint of the possibility of such a shift.

Meanwhile, those platforms that don’t have the comfort of describing themselves as “mainstream” should carry on using, and listening to, the power of words.


Spiritual spin

The piece, ‘An (Un)Enlightened Sadhguru in King Modi’s Court’ (January 1), was a careful dismantling of the attempt of a spiritual leader, going by the honorific ‘Sadhguru’ Jaggi Vasudev, to purvey half-baked information, and outright misinformation, as some form of unassailable truth. In fact, Vasudev’s misinformation borders on disinformation and the difference between the two is that while the first may not have an ulterior purpose and may be a genuine error on the part of the speaker, disinformation is used with deliberate intent for propagandist purposes.

As the writer of this piece points out, here was a spiritual guru who self-admittedly had not read the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) but nevertheless felt impelled to defend it for 22 long minutes at a time when innumerable protestors were condemning it on the streets of the country. If there was any doubt that it was nothing but an attempt to further the government narrative on the CAA that was quickly removed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s emphatic endorsement of it.


Suggestions, comments, observations

An irate reader, Shreya Devaki, writes in: “I was wondering whether the articles that you publish on your website are edited. An article written by a senior editor-journalist misspells the name of a state: Telangana appears as Telengana. I have noticed the same error occur repeatedly in many of the articles that are up on your website. I respectfully request you to correct the same. It is enough that several people mispronounce the names of south Indian states, please do not add insult to injury by spelling it the way you incorrectly pronounce it.”


Dr Mostaid Ahmed, an assistant professor of mathematics from Neotia University, 24 Parganas, introduces himself a regular and avid reader of The Wire. He adds: “I feel, however, that there is a dire need for a section on your webpage that works like a ready reckoner on the pieces carried, functioning like an archive, which will help me access all the news articles in one section, classified along lines of date, month and year of publication.”


A reader, going by the pseudonym ‘Zoho Zoho’, is a regular at trolling The Wire. One of the recent complaints was this: “When 900 academicians raised anti CAA protests with half-baked knowledge you were the first one to report that. But when 1000 academicians raised in support of CAA I didn’t see a single article.  You are b….y biased, shame on you…”

In another missive, he berates this platform for “always promoting negative news”.


Meanwhile, another reader, D. Alagesa Pandian, also accuses The Wire of bias over its coverage of economic affairs, which the mail argues “seems to be skewed towards pro-liberalisation positions instead of balanced or broader coverage”.

Recent examples are cited: “1) All most all interviews by Karan Thapar, except the one with Jayati Ghosh, were all done with economists who are either pro-market/pro-liberalisation ideologues. 2) The interview by Happymon Jacob on RCEP is also very tilted towards a free-trade ideology. 3) The on-going series by Mithali Mukherjee is also on the same path. Almost all these interviews converge around the so-called reforms on land and labour or loosening the laws in favour of corporate welfare, which have wider implications for the general population.”


Finally, A. Kundu writes in: “Dear Wire, your reporting is good. It’s mostly unbiased genuine journalism in my observation. But why is it that your YouTube channels only focuses on Hindi speakers? Your captions are in Hindi with few English words forced in for search engines to track. Why not stick to one language? Either write captions and report it in English or stick to Hindi completely. There must be a reason for your name is ‘The Wire’ and not ‘Bijli ke Taar‘. This “hinglish” concept of yours is ridiculous and mars your image as a professional organisation. You are one of the very few sources for genuine news, without doubt. But please be a bit more professional in the use of the language of reporting. It should be either Wire Hindi or Wire English.”

The mail ends with the words, “Please keep up the good work and thank you for keeping journalism alive.”

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