Backstory: What the Big Media Won't Tell You About These Nine Years of the Modi Govt

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

Self-congratulations come easily to the Modi government. On May 30, the prime minister tweeted thus on his government having completed nine years: “Today, as we complete 9 years in service to the nation, I am filled with humility and gratitude. Every decision made, every action taken, has been guided by the desire to improve the lives of people. We will keep working even harder to build a developed India. #9YearsOfSeva.”

Congratulating the prime minister comes easily to the Big Media, as they enthusiastically expound on the “nine wonderful Modi years” theme. Telly thespian-turned-minister, Smriti Irani, seemed to have appointed herself director of this pageant, appearing on channel after channel to glorify these nine years. Anand Narasimhan, the anchor of  ‘The Right Stand’ (CNBC-TV18), allowed the Minister of Women and Child Development a full four breathless minutes on how proud she was about the National Education Policy, PPE production, vaccines, free food grains, toilets for 11 crore families, Ayushman Bharat cards…. As she went on and on, Narasimhan appeared stunned at the exceptional display of lung power, his face frozen in a half-smile.

Also read: Big Talk, Small Action: Modi Govt’s Work on Women’s Empowerment in the Last 9 Years

When it came to Times Now’s ‘Newshour’, Navika Kumar slyly slung a 2024 general election suggestion into the mix, ‘Nine years of Modi Govt, stage set for PM Modi in 2024?’ She then launched forth with some “hard facts” carefully cherry-picked from the garden of government propaganda, to demonstrate how the nine years of Modi rule delivered so much more than did the UPA’s laggard decade…Highway infrastructure: UPA: 9128 km-NDA 1,41,000 km; Under UPA, India was the tenth largest economy-Under NDA, it became the fifth largest; FDI inflows UPA 45 billion dollars-NDA 8483 billion. In this litany that included universities, digital transactions, etc., etc., the UPA was framed as a loser in every respect. Short of telling her audience to vote for Narendra Modi in 2024, Kumar did all she could to further the ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’ pitch.

What the Big Media scrupulously avoided telling you about these nine years of Modi rule is that the legacy of communal hatred which had manifested itself very early on, in concepts like the “pink revolution” furthered by the prospective prime minister in his 2014 election campaign, has borne strange fruit…“blood on the leaves and blood at the root”.

Today, almost a decade later, we are witnessing a civil war-like situation in one state and ethnic cleansing drives in another.

What is distinctive about the Manipur situation is the manner in which the age-old ethnic tensions between the Kukis in the hills and the Meiteis in the valley have now come to be undergirded by religious communalism. Burned down churches had never been part of Manipur’s political landscape so far, even when economic blockades and intermittent violence shut down the state in the December of 2016. Today they are very much in evidence. An estimated 130 people have already lost their lives in the state and hundreds of thousands have been left injured in body and mind.

Fire and smoke are seen against a church in Manipur. Photo: Twitter/@MangteC

The Wire did something that most mainstream media organisations did not bother to do – visit a series of relief camps (‘Manipur: Across Relief Camps, Divided Survivors Are United by the Same Anger Towards the Govt’, June 12). It discovered that the ethnic-communal divides at ground zero ran through even relief operations: “All the relief camps The Wire visited are being run by local clubs or organisations and cater to just one community.”

Meanwhile, in the northern hill state of Uttarakhand, we are witnessing scenes that recall the Polish ghetto under Nazi occupation with markings of black crosses emerging on establishments owned by Muslims (‘Cross Marks on Doors, Cries of Extermination: How Uttarakhand Became Our Hate Speech Capital’, June 12). The state has been under the grip of a campaign to drive out Muslims, who have been living for generations in this region, for a while now.

There was, for instance, a 2019 anti-Muslim campaign that fed on the insecurities of the local people in terms of land ownership (‘Is Uttarakhand Govt’s ‘Demographic’ Probe of Property Deals a Play on ‘Land Jihad’ Bogey?, December 5, 2021). In December 2021, tensions were raised by several notches when a Dharma Sansad, held in Haridwar, called openly for mass murder (‘Hindutva Leaders at Haridwar Event Call for Muslim Genocide’, December 22). Today, things have reached a point where a small incident here or there, can set a town, a district, or even the whole state, alight. A Wire ground report from Purola notes how “what seemed like a small town love story gone wrong took Purola and its neighbouring areas by storm in the course of days” (‘In Uttarakhand’s Purola, Controversial Mahapanchayat Cancelled But Tensions Still High’, June 16).

Facebook posts by young kids featuring the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in Maharashtra have the potential to set vast swathes of the state ablaze in today’s climate. The writer of a Wire article, ‘Fadnavis’s ‘Aurangzeb Ki Aulad’ Utterance Yet Another Attempt to Promote Majoritarianism’ (June 13), observes how a cluster of local issues work, or are made to work, to drive the larger narrative of ‘Love Jihad’ and ‘Land Jihad’: “Fadnavis’s disgraceful remark ‘Aurangzeb Ki Aulad’ should be located in the context of the Jan Akrosh Morchas of some Hindutva groups demanding laws against conspiracy theories like ‘love jihad’, ‘land jihad’ and the decision taken by Eknath Shinde and Fadnavis government to monitor inter-faith marriages in Maharashtra.”

The calculated silence of the prime minister to all these developments speaks loudly of his legacy of nine years. As for contemporary media, they have been so preoccupied with counting digital startups, that they have neglected to count the human bodies left behind by cow vigilantes and religio-ethnic outfits in these nine years of Modi rule.


Data and Dorsey

When Jack Dorsey, the former head of Twitter, stirred a hornet’s nest by claiming that India requested Twitter to remove tweets and accounts linked to the farmers’ protest in 2020 and censor journalists who critiqued the Modi government in their work, the Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, responded by calling these statement an “outright lie”.

However,  BOOM FactCheck went through take-down requests by the government during this period by filing an RTI and found that the Indian government under Section 69 A of the Information and Technology (IT) Act blocked 6,775 URLs in 2022, which included webpages, websites, accounts, channels, pages on social media platforms, etc., as compared to 2,799 URLs in 2018.

A year-wise break up of blocked URLs went like this: in 2018 (224), 2019 (1,041), 2020 (2,731), 2021 (2,851), and 2022 (3,417). So, who is being economical with the truth? The former Twitter CEO or the present minister? The point made in the Wire piece, ‘Jack Dorsey’s Revelations Expose Serious Threats to Democracy and Free Speech in India’ (June 13) is important to note: “The Twitter founder is an uninterested party and had no reason to lie. Therefore, his grave allegations merit our thoughtful engagement…”


Arrogance of Madam Minister

Nearly a decade of Modi’s rule has nurtured a wide and spreading impunity in his juniors ensconced within the safe confines of power. On all major issues, they mimic the prime minister and make sure they don’t deviate from the line laid down. It is in the smaller, more localised situations that they feel entitled to their own demonstrations of power. Smriti Irani’s berating of a Dainik Bhaskar stringer and his associate is a classic instance of localised tinpot dictatorship. Her parting threat that she would complain to the “malik” – a threat she actually carried out – is totally in keeping with this sense of entitlement. The consequences for the journalists were dire.  And for what? All they did was politely ask her to say a few words now that she had come to Amethi. This is something so routine that it should have caused no problems but instead, they were subjected to a harangue about how she had already talked to the media in Salon.

Smriti Irani. Photo: Screengrab via Twitter

Many journalist bodies felt impelled by her abrasive behaviour to condemn Irani (‘DIGIPUB and Editors Guild Also Condemn Smriti Irani’s ‘Threats’ to Journalist in Amethi’, June 13). The Press Club of India, as well as the Mumbai Press Club, also issued statements. The promptness with which these statements are issued is something new and to be welcomed at a time when journalists everywhere in the country are facing insecurities of all kinds, ranging from job losses to surveillance. It is significant that even a supposedly progressive state like Kerala has been witness to the state police seeking to intimidate journalist Akhila Nandakumar, for having reported allegations made against P.M. Arsho, a leader of the Student Federation of India, which is politically aligned to the ruling party in the state.

As the Mumbai Press Club statement underlines, incidents of this kind reveal the enormous pressures under which the news media is functioning today.  The pandemic saw a huge spike in this ugly trend (‘55 Indian Journalists Arrested, Booked, Threatened For Reporting on COVID-19: Report’, June 16, 2020), and the threat from this virus lingers on even after that from COVID-19 has receded.

Heady aesthetics of power

Perhaps no other news entity unpacked as thoroughly as did The Wire, the curious story of how some of our best-known artists helped further the prime minister’s pre-election propaganda when they undertook to contribute their work to capture 100 episodes of Narendra Modi’s Mann ki Baat (‘Modi’s Mann Ki Baat and Its Many Themes, as Rendered by Some Well Known Artists of the Country’, June 6). Among those who participated were the prominent artist couple, Manu and Madhavi Parekh, Paresh Maity, Manjunath Kamath, and G.R. Iranna.

Whether they were press ganged to participate in the NGMA group show titled ‘Jana Shakti’ to mark 100 episodes of Mann ki Baat, or merely went along with the siren call of power, one will never know. Some were clearly reluctant, as the piece pointed out. Take Atul Dodiya, who lives in Mumbai. He has spoken on the importance of freedom in the creation of art and has, as the Wire article points out, spent decades on capturing the Gandhi figure. He contributed a mother-and-child composition for the ‘Jana Shakti’ exhibition to illustrate the pandemic theme. However, he did not come to Delhi for the occasion and missed all the brouhaha around the Modi visit to the exhibition on May 14. Others smuggled in cultural expression that seemed to defy the governmental template. For instance, Ashim Purkayastha, from Assam, dwelling on the theme of agriculture, appeared to pay homage to the recent farmers’ protest against the three farm laws brought in by the Modi government in his work.

The piece also makes a pointed reference to the curation of Alka Pande, whose anxiety to promote the Modi persona was patent. A reference was also made to an earlier generation of outstanding artists who would have disdained this abject surrender to power. But the times are a-changing, and what is particularly worrisome for the art sector is the collapse of public institutions that had once supported art and nurtured the constitutional right to freedom of expression. Today, as the article signaled,  it is private capital that is setting the terms and this has meant that “networks of patronage lead back to the ruling party rather than providing support to genuine talent of whatever political persuasion. The demand, sometimes almost a diktat, to wear one’s saffron credentials on one’s sleeve has utterly compromised creative autonomy.” In that sense, it makes sense to read the ‘Jana Shakti’ show in tandem with the ‘Nita Mukesh Ambani Cultural Centre in Mumbai’. That centre, incidentally, was designed by the one and only Bimal Patel, better known as the architect who designed the new parliament building.

Art partnering with authoritarian politics is nothing new. Hitler’s chosen filmmaker Leni Riefensthal demonstrated its unique power to the world in 1934.


Readers write in…

Stop the violence now!

A few days ago, The Wire received a letter from Binalakshmi Nepram, Manipuri feminist activist, objecting to an interview conducted with Meitei Lipun’s chief, Pramot Singh. “I am writing today after seeing Karan Thapar’s interview of Meitei Lipun’s Chief Pramot Singh (‘Watch | Meitei Pride Group’s Threat: ‘Kukis Mainly Illegal, Modi Must Intervene or There’ll Be Civil War’, June 6).

“At this highly sensitive time when violence is still on with heavy fighting and casualties on both sides, the interview will further infuriate the two communities. The day before yesterday, a seven-year-old child was burnt alive along with his mother and another woman. A neighbour of our family was also shot dead. Every day dead bodies of both Kukis and Meteis are being brought home. Manipur is becoming the land of the dead. We are all in deep grief.

“At this critical time, we request The Wire to help us find solutions to the conflict and not further fuel the already violent atmosphere which can further hurt or harm more innocent villagers and people with programmes which can cause more violence. The interview has enraged an infuriated a lot of people.
“Karan (Thapar) is only interviewing men from Manipur and Northeast India. Please dare him to invite Kuki and Meitei women and then let him do the “hard talk” with us. “Men wielding guns” and “men wielding microphones” should not be made to be the only ones who get to represent entire communities.
“We request The Wire as a responsible platform to help us stop further war mongering by inviting only “men who peddles war” on both sides. We are tired of the violence. It must stop now.

Siddharth Varadarajan, one of the three founder editors of The Wire, responded: “Pramot Singh is undoubtedly a ‘man wielding a gun’ but anyone who watches his interview with Karan Thapar will see very clearly that the interview exposed him for what he was: an extremist with scant knowledge or regard for facts. Nor human decency.

“The interview, far from causing more violence as you fear, will hopefully make it clear to fence-sitters among the Meiteis (and others) just how dangerous and irrational these men are. As long as we ignore them and don’t question them, they remain unchallenged. But when subjected to firm questioning it becomes clear that they are nothing but chauvinists. See this post

Thanks for writing in and sharing your concerns.

Karan Thapar interviewed Binalakshmi Nepram on June 15 (‘How Dare You Keep Silent on Manipur Violence, PM Modi? Silence is Complicity, You Should Resign‘).

Justice for our wrestlers

Rakesh Raman, editor, RMN News Service, New Delhi, wrote in: “I am a national award-winning journalist and founder of the humanitarian organization RMN Foundation in New Delhi. In addition to my editorial work, I run various campaigns to protect the rights of disadvantaged and distressed people in society. These days, I am covering the protest by Indian women wrestlers who allege that they have been sexually harassed by a politician belonging to the ruling regime.

Despite regular protest, the aggrieved wrestlers have failed to get justice. Now, under the veiled threats presumably by the rulers, the oppressed wrestlers have virtually ended their protest, although in a feeble voice, they say the protest will continue.  Since it is almost impossible for these women wrestlers to get justice in India, I have been approaching different international judicial forums to seek justice for them. Since there is a surfeit of confusing information about the wrestlers’ struggle, I am consolidating the relevant information on a single web platform. You are requested to visit the web platform to know about wrestlers’ protest and help me in this selfless endeavour to get justice for them.”

Please click the following link to visit the web platform and send me your response.

Can’t blame you…

In the Backstory column of June 3, we had carried a letter from Chandramani Pandey entitled,

‘Understanding extremism’, which argued that The Wire was biased in its coverage of the violence that broke out in Leicester, the UK). Mr. Pandey got back: “Thanks for putting out my letter in your last column. Believe me, I am not part of any such campaign (that you elude to) if it exists. Won’t blame you for thinking so, given the current situation in India.”

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