Backstory: Words That Made 2022 the Year It Was

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

Words flow like sand grains in an hourglass, each marking experiences, moods, feelings that marked a year destined to extinguish itself before the week is out. 

In many ways, 2022 was a year that lay like a Tomb of Sand, the title of Geetanjali Shree’s much-celebrated novel. Many lives ended, many hopes died, and many fears were lit. Vladimir Putin’s war raged throughout the year, as missiles punctured gaping holes in apartment buildings and hollowed out city centres forcing terrified residents to flee to an uncertain future in rain, sleet, slush and snow. The rest of the world could only look on and worry about what the inevitable rise in the prices of fuel and wheat would do to their own lives. But who said wars were kind? Ask the Palestinians who have lived over seven decades under the jackboot of Zionism and are today bracing for the worst as yet another Netanyahu government launches yet more bombardments. 

The world was in goblin mode, declared Oxford Dictionary – adopting a way of life that “rejects social norms or expectations”. Merriam-Webster disagreed. It preferred gaslighting as the term that more appropriately described a year when people felt subjected to psychological manipulation in ways that led them to “question the validity of their own thoughts”. In India, certainly, there was a great deal of gaslighting, as fake narratives and hate narratives unleashed by serried ranks of the Sangh made their way, online and offline, to hearts and minds. They claimed that the Taj Mahal, Mumtaz’s deathless mausoleum, was actually Tejo Mahaliya, and Delhi’s iconic Qutub Minar needed to be rechristened as Vishnu Stambh. The attempt to cleanse Indian history of its Islamic past took on several ugly turns in 2022, as the carts of Muslim vendors were overturned, school history texts rewritten, cultural practices banned, love jihad laws passed, and the most revered figure of the faith reviled. The tragedy of the year was that those who could have checked this insentient madness chose an eloquent silence instead, with electoral compulsions trumping moral and leadership obligations.

The impatience on the part of national and state leaders to capture the political landscape was so overwhelming; the drive to ensure an opposition mukt Bharat was so intense that nothing was allowed to stand in the way. Call it a centralising vista, but Raisina Hill was made to bow to the doyen’s yen for rearrangement, as Raj Path meekly gave way to Kartavya Path, and the Sarnath lions of the Ashoka era were given additional musculature and extra snarl to keep up with the imaginary of rising power.  Any threat to the supreme overlordship of the central government invited retribution with even the Congress Party’s Bharat Jodo Yatra (journey to unite India) framed as Bharat todo yatra (journey to divide India). 

The event manager extraordinaire came up with several stratagems to capture eyeballs and future elections in 2022, from ensuring a tricolour in every home (har ghar tiranga) to importing Namibian cheetahs; from celebrating 75 years of independence through an Amrit Mahotsav that laid claim to the national movement, to sneaking in his party’s symbol into the logo of G20 under India’s presidency. Nothing could arrest this public relations juggernaut, not even the collapsed Morbi bridge that claimed at least 135 lives.

Meanwhile, the saffron-clad chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Ajay Singh Bisht, known for his partiality to rough and ready justice, found his formula of bulldozer justice such a hit that he began to be called Bulldozer Baba and his compeers in BJP-run Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka quickly adopted these unwieldy metallic behemoths for political avengement. Most of the structures brought down so cruelly were, unsurprisingly, owned by Muslims – some of them so poor as to be rendered without even a tin roof over their heads. In time, the bulldozer emerged as a symbol of Hindutva, to the extent that during a Dussehra procession this year, a man dressed like the UP chief minister bathed in saffron light, came riding on a JCB excavator. Meanwhile, on the site of another demolition, that of a mosque which had taken place exactly 20 years earlier, a magnificent temple is taking shape and is expected to be completed before the 2024 general election, even as mosques in other parts of the country faced incipient threats, whether it is the Gyanvapi Mosque at Varanasi, the Shahi Idgah Mosque in Mathura or the Jamia Masjid in Srirangapatna. 

The Gyanvapi mosque. Photo: Paul Simpson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Democratic backsliding was more than evident in 2022. Operation Lotus took on many a bloom, as the BJP brought down, or attempted to bring down, governments ruled by the opposition. In Maharashtra, Eknath Shinde got together a team of Chalis Gaya Rams after dumping the MVA alliance in the Arabian Sea.  Throughout the year, the ED, IT, CBI – the three jamayi (sons-in-law) of the BJP in the words of RJD’s Tejaswi Yadav, who became deputy CM of Bihar in 2022 thanks to chief minister Nitish Kumar’s move to divorce his political partner– were systematically unleashed by the Modi government against opposition leaders and dissenters of all stripe. 

The use of Pegasus for surveillance that this news portal had reported on last year, kept figuring in public conversations throughout 2022, but the government stoutly refused to reveal whether it had or had not deployed the Israeli spyware. It always had a creative explanation for any reversal. In a year that saw the rupee on the ventilator, the Union finance minister reassured us saying that it was not the rupee that was weakening but the dollar that was strengthening. There were also very innovative ways in which executive orders became the order of day. One fine morning before the monsoon session of parliament, MPs discovered that they had to conform to the stipulations of a new booklet that prohibited the use of “unparliamentary” terms like jumlajeevi, baal buddhi, Covid spreader, Snoopgate among many others, in fact, any word that could potentially embarrass the Modi government was suddenly verboten. It was a year that saw censorship of online media, as well as new VPN rules, came into force, and a bill to supposedly protect personal data but could end up protecting the government’s right to acquire personal data, is on the anvil. Yet, there was no remedy in the offing for crimes like the deliberate planting of evidence on devices, signs of which kept surfacing especially with regard to the Bhima Koregaon detainees who are now spending their third straight year in jail. 

From the courts, it was a mixed bag. We had several bizarre verdicts like the one delivered by a judge of the Madhya Pradesh high court that showed leniency to a rapist because “he was kind enough to leave the rape victim alive”; while the Bombay high court pronounced that “Asking a wife to do housework is not cruelty”. The Supreme Court actually decreed executive action be taken against Teesta Setalvad; that a Saturday hearing be instituted to cancel G.N. Saibaba’s release from jail; and that a hefty fine be imposed on Bastar human rights activist Himanshu Kumar for filing a petition seeking an investigation into alleged massacres of tribals in Chhattisgarh. There were some welcome moments of respite from the courts too – the pushback against sedition, for instance, or the release of noted Dalit scholar and Bhima Koregaon detenu Anant Teltumbde. Towards the end of the year, Siddique Kappan, who spent two years behind bars for a news story he never wrote, got bail. Several gender-sensitive verdicts also emerged. The recognition that women, whether married or not, had an equal right to abortion was one, and it came in a year when the progressive norms set by Roe vs Wade got unmade by the US Supreme Court. Etymologically, the term “woman” itself underwent a subtle shift in 2022, with the Cambridge Dictionary expanding the term to encompass transwomen.

It was a circular sort of year with events of the past coming back in strange ways to haunt us. Satanic Verses resumed its satanic spell with a murderous assault on Salman Rushdie; last year’s Omicron virus now created anxiety as the BF.7 variant; a Cold War between Russia and the West which had been confined to the refrigerator all these years got warmed up once again with the east European war; Babri Masjid came back as Gyanvapi; if the bullet that ended the life Al Jazeera’s courageous journalist Shireen Abu Aklekh was a reminder that the Israeli armed forces were as vicious as ever, the release of those involved in the Bilkis Bano atrocities underlined that Gujarat’s Hindutva lab was still fully functional. Then there was the case of the bikini murderer Charles Sobhraj, whom we thought was locked up safely. He got to take a flight to freedom. But what must be the biggest redux of them all was the return of the Neanderthal Man with a little help from palaeogenomics! It was also a year when Benjamin Franklin’s words came alive with a twist: In this world, nothing is certain except death, taxes and climate change.

The battle for zan zendegi azadi (women, life, freedom) triggered by the death of Mahsa Amini, waged by the courageous women of Iran against dress codes imposed by a misogynist, patriarchal political dispensation, helped to paint 2022 in freedom’s colours; even as the Sri Lanka Janatha Aragalaya, which began with a few dogged youth intent on binning the Rajapaksha regime, demonstrated the power of neighbourhood protests. It was a year when Elon Musk bought Twitter while Gautam Adani got to grab NDTV. While the first put a corporate cat among fluttering tweeters; the second could well conclude as EndTV. 

Yet, fortunately, this was also a year of fun and games. The super-energetic Naatu Naatu dancers of the Telugu film RRR stomped their way into the Oscars’ shortlist for Best Original Song, while Argentina went on to win the Football World Cup in Qatar. Who can ask for a more Messimerising conclusion to a year that will soon be history?

Argentina’s Lionel Messi kisses the trophy as he celebrates winning the World Cup. Photo: Reuters/Hannah Mckay


Readers write back…

Where are the independent media?

A long-time reader of The Wire Sumanta Banerjee wrote in: “The back story titled, ‘Backstory: 4 Big Concerns Independent Media Needs to Keep Flagging Till 2024’ (December 10) was interesting but where are the ‘independent’ media channels existing, whether in the press or television? Whatever was left of the television channels of “independent media” is being gobbled up by the Adanis of the country. The few alternative internet portals have a limited reach and are hardly influential in shaping public opinion. It is a rather depressing scenario for journalists like us from the past generation.

“The recall of the Press Club’s seminar on the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition in this column, and the experiences described by journalists who covered the event, were very moving. They also reveal an important episode of “independent media” reporting. I hope the new generation of young journalists read this column and imbibe the courage to undertake objective reporting of present events, even at the risk of harassment by the ruling powers, that their predecessors faced.” 


A question for The Wire

T.G. Ajith Kumar has a question for The Wire: “Recently, the mainstream media was full of news carrying the comments by Salvatore Babones, an associate professor at the University of Sydney, directed at intellectuals that maintained that Indian intellectuals were anti-India and were responsible for the poor global rankings of India, including the democracy and freedom index. I was expecting The Wire to carry some commentary about this and critique these claims. I would like to see a point-by-point rebuttal of these claims by someone senior in the editorial team of this news portal.”


Journos in prison

Kunal Majumder of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) sent in this compilation of the CPJ’s Prison census 2022:

  • India, with seven journalists in jail, continues to remain at a record high for the second consecutive year since CPJ began its prison census in 1992 (Aasif Sultan, Siddique Kappan, Gautam Navlakha, Manan Dar, Freelance journalist, Jammu and Kashmir, Sajad Gul, Fahad Shah, and Rupesh Kumar Singh). Since this report came out, Kappan has been granted bail. 
  • India continues to draw criticism over its treatment of the media, in particular its use of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act, a preventive detention law to keep Kashmiri journalists Sultan, Shah and Gul behind bars after they were granted court-ordered bail in separate cases.
  • Six out of seven journalists are being investigated under/charged under terrorism-related Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).
  • Three journalists have been in jail for more than a year. 


China’s health crisis

Dr Vivek Pinto wrote in to alert readers to the health crisis in China (source: Sammy Westfall’s piece in The Washington Post, December 18): “On Friday, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), a global health research institute at the University of Washington in Seattle, projected that China’s covid-19 death toll would spike to more than 322,000 by April. An analysis of the report by Reuters found that China could see more than 1 million coronavirus deaths in 2023 — up from an official toll now of just 5,235.

“Other estimates have been even bleaker. Also in November, epidemiologists led by Zhou Jiatong, the head of the Center for Disease Control in China’s Guangxi region, estimated that more than 2 million people could die if the country suffered a covid-19 surge similar to the one that hit Hong Kong in the spring.”


Little devils

A special thanks to Kalyani Menon-Sen for her keen eye:

Thank you for laying down those four tracks for the media to follow. There were a couple of small devils in there, but they were trumped by a true howler: “discrete” appears instead of “discreet” in the headline to Neera Chandhoke’s piece on AAP: ‘The Discrete Charms of Ideology (and Why AAP Needs One)’.

My response: Well, the word ‘discrete” could be considered misplaced if you go by the title of Luis Bunuel classic 1972 film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. But it may just be possible to defend the word used in the headline to define the individual and separate nature of political ideology.

Wishing all the readers of The Wire a very happy new year. Let’s keep the bridges of communication going in 2023!

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