By Sanjay Kapoor

In its charge sheet of Pinjra Tod activist and PhD scholar in JNU, Devangana Kalita, the Delhi Police in a UAPA case calls the undertrial, Umar Khalid, a “veteran of sedition”. According to Adit Pujari, lawyer of Kalita, who was seeking bail for his client for her alleged involvement in the Northeast Delhi riots, the Delhi Police has failed to establish any links between Kalita and – hold your breath — Professor Apoorvanand of Delhi University. Indeed, has the police established the sedition charge with authentic and irrefutable evidence against Umar Khalid to call him a “veteran” in overthrowing governments, or the claim that Apoorvanand is the prime conspirator of the riots that rocked Northeast Delhi in February 2020?

Some of these bizarre charge sheets against the accused in the Delhi communal riots have been thrown out by the Delhi High Court due to lack of evidence or the failure of the police to file them on time. The police have consequently used the draconian UAPA to keep the scholars and students in jail. 

The most telling example of gross injustice and demonisation by media propaganda is how the religious congregation or markaz of the Tablighi Jamaat was accused for being a super-spreader of the Coronavirus in March, 2020. The innocent attendees of this meet that converged from different parts of the world were charged with all kinds of violations including that of visa rules, the epidemic act, and in some cases even on charges of attempt to murder.

Hundreds of Tablighis were arrested, which served in creating a flawed narrative against the Muslims as spreaders. Even the health ministry briefings to the national media mentioned separately a “single source” as the biggest spreader of the virus.

The result of this pseudo-scientific briefings that was lapped up by an uncritical media was that the minorities — especially those who wore religious markers like beards and short pyjamas—were stereotyped as super spreaders of the virus. Anyone who knows the Tablighi Jamaat would testify that its followers are innocent believers whose only mandate is to make Muslims better Muslims. They were wrongly shown as proselytizers. For months they were hounded, beaten up and many times locked up. Even those Indians who gave refuge to foreign Tablighis were put behind bars.

For many months this divisive narrative had taken hold of the psyche of the masses, which was fed on fake news provided by pro-government TV channels and social media. With its help, the pandemic was well and truly weaponised to deepen religious polarization. If it had not been for some of the High Courts of this country like the Aurangabad High Court judgment that granted bail to foreign Tablighis, which highlighted the meaning of their arrest and their stigmatization, it would have been worse.

Justice Nalawande, in his 58-page order, linked the misery inflicted by the law enforcement agencies on the Muslims as an act of retaliation for the anti-CAA protests that swept the country. Justice Nalwande said: “This action indirectly gave warning to Indian Muslims that action in any form and for anything can be taken against Muslims. It was indicated that even for keeping contact with Muslims of other countries, action would be taken against them. Thus, there is smell of malice to the action taken against these foreigners and Muslims for their alleged activities.”

The suggestion of malice is a serious observation and shows how police action against TJ is driven by communal intent. More recently, the Delhi Metropolitan Magistrate, while throwing out the Tablighi case, similarly, saw “malice” in the way these hapless lot was picked up by the police from different places — not the markaz — to prove their allegations. The truth is that many of these followers were not present at Nizamuddin as alleged by the police.

Subsequent to this discharge of 36 foreigners, some newspaper editorials demanded an apology from the government, but sections of the television media, perhaps, was more responsible for spreading this flawed and factually incorrect narrative. They gave legitimacy to government actions and did not probe or ask question that would have punctured the case long before the courts came to their rescue.

Media’s role in demonizing the Jamaat for its alleged involvement in the spread of the pandemic represents a low point for journalism in any secular democracy. Worse there was no introspection or reflection in the media, Press Council after the courts threw out bogus police charge sheets — no editorials that apologized for what they did to not just to 9,000 individuals who attended the markaz, but also to the 14 per cent of India’s population of Muslims.  

THIS DICHOTOMOUS BEHAVIOUR of making an accusation, of character assassination, of demonisation with relentless ferocity, without displaying the need to seek objective evidence, or follow up on the case with impeccable facts, suggests that the Police, or the Union home ministry, isn’t really interested in the conviction of the protestors, but is more inclined towards the extended pre-trial punishment. It is as if it is derived from a vicious urge of vengeance, or to teach the peaceful protesters a hard lesson by using the power apparatus, or, simply, by sending a message that the State simply does not believe in democratic dissent. These features indeed are more in tune with Nazi, colonial or apartheid States, not a modern secular democracy.

The fact is that the entire State apparatus and its loyal media is basically interested in establishing narratives that show that dissent against the State cannot be justified from the prism of constitutionally mandated right to freedom of expression. More so, for the State now — strengthening of democratic rights and the institutions that guarantee these rights like courts and the media — are un-important, compared to those doctrines that profess to maintain-law and order, with or without evidence or the spirit of justice.

Instead, the State uses its considerable influence to craft narratives and norms through the help of a friendly media that disseminates its anxieties and instils fear in the minds of its followers and the status-quoist middle class. Almost every evening — also during the day — populist channels like Republic and Times Now unleash a vicious propaganda against, both, known and unknown enemies, who, in their reckoning, are engaged in acts that they facilely describe as “anti-national”.

On prime time, these channels — inspiring many language TV channels too — mock agitators and dig up their past to prove how suspect their loyalty is towards the nation. With total disregard to the Constitution that grants freedom of expression and right to freedom of faith and worship, or to individual dignity and sanctity, or the basic media ethics of objectivity and impartiality of news, they have stoked hitherto long buried atavism in the masses to target minorities, dissenters, intellectuals, liberals and the depressed sections of the society.

Every time the government has been challenged by a protest that threatens to strike at the core of their carefully constructed propaganda narratives and fake news, these channels and their raucous anchors have demanded arrest and worse of the leaders, activists, intellectuals and their followers. As Glennpietro Mazzolini in his paper titled “Populism and the Media” has said, the media has been complicit in these populist campaigns. He further says that, significantly, populist leaders are an outcome of the populist media.

This is perhaps the reason why anchor/owner of Republic TV, is so important for the party in power at the Centre in Delhi. The channel has been driving a narrative generously supported by half-baked investigations in criminal cases that target political and other opponents and show them as enemies of the State. It targets individuals and entire collectives, most often, without an iota of evidence. The case in point is of the suicidc of actor Sushant Singh Rajput and the manner in which his fellow co-star, Rhea Chakraborty,was hounded for his death.

The process has been perfected in the past few years: an incident takes place followed by a carefully crafted media narrative that shows either a person from the minority community or the Congress party being behind it. As if on cue, all channels that are under the sway of a similar persuasion, repeat the same story and how the happening could undermine national interest. Sometimes the actors involved in them are painted as people who are violating national security and thereby build an environment for action or worse — lynching.

USED AS A political strategy to criminalize all opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party government that prided itself as being the great defender of freedom of expression before it came to power in 2014, it has coerced its supporters to become accomplices in its grand project to make India a muscular and authoritarian Hindu Rashtra. All the influential objectors to this grand project are either hounded out through a media and social media campaign, or threatened with punitive laws with sedition being one of them.

Objective, independent and non-partisan journalists, who are doing their job of reporting happenings on the ground with responsibility and factuality, are the worst sufferers. The party in power finds them subversives as they undermine the consensus or the farce of consent which has been manufactured relentlessly through TV debates and surveys, apart from fake news and shrill propaganda. The government also ensures that TV cameras and the print media does not show the spectacular nature of the protests on the ground, as currently in the massive farmers’ struggle, as it could de-legitimize the consent forged by the government.

That is the reason why the media channels friendly to a populist government are most reluctant to show how massive the protests are – against demonetization, opposition to the Goods and Services Tax, or, more recently, rallies in Kashmir against the abrogation of Article 370 and against the CAA. 

Columnist and academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta’s fantastic words tell this truth: “So, in some senses, what modern states have realised, to preserve the myth of their own legitimacy and consent, they have to make sure that protest is not a spectacular performance. And it is for this reason that all democratic states are making protest more difficult, denying permissions, not making protest grounds available, using police power, Section 144.”

Mehta explains with clarity the reason why police resorts to banning rallies and showing every dissenter as a criminal — despite the fact that these acts are conducted in the open and peacefully. As evidenced in the massive nation-wide and completely non-violent anti-CAA protests, student leader Umar Khalid has been accused of conspiring to organize them in Delhi. Bizarrely, his considerable intellect and scholarship has been blamed for organizing these demonstrations.

Like it happened with the Bhima Koregaon case, the supporters have been shown to have alleged links with radical Maoists organizations. Will the evidence stand in any court of law – it remains a question of conjecture. In many cases the trial itself has not started.

This tarring has been done through selective leaks that help tar academics, writers, activists and intellectuals like Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde, Varavara Rao and Stan Swamy, as subversives who are trying to bring down a well-meaning democratic Indian State. Some of them are in advanced age in their 80s, very sick and vulnerable, and in fragile health, or with serious medial ailments. The fact that they had little direct contact with the event, became a casualty of carefully crafted obfuscation by media, police and the courts. All kinds of conspiracy theories have been spawned based on what was allegedly found in hard drives and pen drives.

Subsequently, it was also reported that some of the accused were not just under surveillance by the Israeli software, Pegasus, but their information systems were compromised in a manner that allowed the cops to plant anything that could serve as evidence to prevent them from getting bail. 

The full implications of Pegasus surveillance software on dissenters and media persons were never really investigated. We don’t know whether the Pegasus software remains embedded in the phones of those who are considered suspects by the State.

These are certainly extremely challenging times for media in India that is struggling not just to remain viable, but also credible, balanced, neutral, truthful and independent. Populist parties and leaders benefit by hurting their credibility and forcing the media to use language that deepens the chasm between the manufactured narrative and what is an objective reality.

Will the reality be any different in 2021? Will the media behave with greater freedom?

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely. Indeed, hope, does not really, float.

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The year 2020 would be remembered for the manner in which a section of the media has been complicit in disseminating a divisive narrative during the pandemic
Media, courts and the malice of the State