Monday, April 06, 2020

This crisis has exposed much about our society

My column for Mathrubhumi (translated in Malayalam)

Appeared on Sunday March 29, 2020

 She lies on the pavement, every part of her body covered with a thin sheet. I pass by her every day.  This is Uma, a child of the street, who will turn 18 next month.  At the age of 16 she gave birth to a little girl, who will turn two next month. 

As our world staggers with the reality of a deadly virus that is crossing borders and regions, spare a thought for those like Uma and her child.  She has no walls that can provide her social isolation.  She has no water with which to wash her hands. And she has no confidence to approach a health provider for fear she will be turned away.  And this, in India's richest city, Mumbai.

The crisis the world, and India, face with the steady spread of Covid-19, has exposed much about our societies.  In India, above all it has exposed the callousness of the entitled and the weakness of our public health system.

The fact that the virus came to India because those with the money to travel abroad brought it in has still not sunk in.  Every day you read stories of people who have travelled refusing to accept that they should voluntarily stay at home and not infect others, that they should get tested when required, and that they should accept isolation if tested positive.

Instead, what we witness is many who are simply not following this protocol.  As a result, even though so far we are being told that there is no community spread of the virus, do we really know?  Already in Mumbai, a domestic help tested positive because she works in a house where the owner, who had just returned from the US, tested positive.  Multiply such instances and you get the picture.

And then, the women who work as domestics live in over-crowded urban settlements, where dozens occupy tiny spaces, where water is scarce and sanitation inadequate.  The idea of  "social isolation" in such a place is unimaginable. 

How long before the infection spreads, if it has not already done so?

I ask because even as we concentrate on limiting the spread of infection, and increasing our capacity to test for Covid-19, we also need to address the unchanging reality like the living conditions of the urban poor that make the spread of infection virtually inevitable.

The most vulnerable are those without any shelter, like Uma.  She is part of a family of waste pickers.  Every day, they sort dry waste.  They touch paper, cardboard, plastic and other forms of waste that would have been touched by many hands, including those with the infection.  I haven't heard of any plan to keep these citizens of our cities safe from infection.

Instead, middle class housing societies are talking of ways to shut the poor out, in the belief that they are the ones who carry the infection. Typically, they refuse to accept that it is their class that has contributed to the spread of the infection. Not just accidentally because they happened to be in the countries that had already been stung by Covid-19.  But by refusing to take the necessary precautions, such as social isolation and testing to ensure that no one else gets it.

If there is anything I wish at this time of death and disease it is that those with wealth realise that if we have a system that works for the poor, it will work for everyone.  On the other hand, no privatised health system can prevent the spread of a deadly virus because it will automatically exclude those who are the most vulnerable, people like Uma.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Why the media can’t let Delhi 2020 slip off its radar

Broken News

(Published on March 12, 2020)

The aim of the carnage was to send out a message to Muslims that there’s no space for them in the public square. We, as journalists, can’t afford to miss such a message.
The violence that convulsed North East Delhi in the last week of February might have slipped off the front pages of newspapers and disappeared altogether from television news channels. Yet the story about Delhi 2020, as the violence over those days is now being called, is far from over. In some ways it is just beginning.

Unfortunately, a major weakness of the media in this country is its unwillingness to follow up on issues. Only a few dogged reporters persist, often struggling to get their stories featured in mainstream media.

At such a time, it is gratifying that some digital news platforms, even those struggling to stay afloat financially, and a few newspapers are doing detailed reporting from the ground of what exactly happened over those three days. And the stories are horrifying. This, this, this and this are just a few such reports. They are important because they inform us about what could happen in the future. And theres little doubt that there is a future for such conflagrations given that there has been no word of sympathy for those who suffered from the governing party at the Centre.

The most chilling of the recent reports from North East Delhi after the killings ended is the one by Arunabh Saikia of Scroll titled “‘I coloured my sword red’: Meet Delhi rioters who say they killed Muslims. Saikia managed to speak to several men, including one who boasted about killing three Muslim men. Heres an excerpt that gives a flavour of the article:

At around 10 am, Kumar said he got his first hit. “The Mohammadan was running,” he recalled. “The Hindu public was chasing him. I was leading the pack.”

“I was the first to catch up with him, and hit him with my rod on his head,” he continued, his voice turning shriller and his hands mimicking the strike. “Then he fell down, and the public pounced on him after that…de dhana dhan dhan.”

The story illustrates why what happened cannot be viewed as an aberration, a one-off that will not repeat itself. It underlines that such violence is not the result of one provocative speech, even if the BJPs Kapil Mishra has to be held to account for the outright provocation in his speech of February 23. It tells us that the seeds of such visceral hatred that can send a man to kill strangers, men he does not know, only because they are Mohammadan, were laid over time. And the fruits of that effort are now evident.

A tangential but important detail in the story is the reporter acknowledging that these men spoke openly to him because they identified him as a Hindu by the thread he wore around his wrist.

Should journalists use their religious identity in such situations to gain access? This is not to say Saikia deliberately wore the thread around his wrist. But should journalists reveal their affiliation or identity, and use it to their advantage in certain situations? During the Delhi violence, many journalists were questioned about their religious identities. Others were simply attacked because they were journalists, irrespective of whether they were Hindu or Muslim, as reports on Newslaundry and other platforms have confirmed. But reporters covering communal conflict often face this dilemma.

Another reality that is only just emerging is the impact of communal conflict on women. The stories of what they face often take time to emerge. Women do not speak easily about this, particularly when entire families and neighbourhoods are traumatised and displaced.  But the stories emerge over time as this report suggests.

The details recounted in these reports filed after the violence ended allow us as mediapersons, and readers, to place Delhi 2020 within a larger perspective. For it is not the period of time over which the killings and arson took place, or even their location, but what the pattern of violence tells us about this particular conflagration and what it portends for the future.

Another vexing question that journalists, and media houses, face is the terms that should be used to describe what happened. In Delhi last month, as in several other conflagrations around India, it is virtually impossible to arrive at a definite term. It takes scholars and academics time to study the developments and then decide whether what happened should be described as a “riot”, “communal violence”, or a “pogrom”.

The discussion has already begun and many different perspectives have been articulated even as terms like riot, or pogrom, or sectarian or communal violence are used, often interchangeably, in the same piece.

Ashutosh Varshney, writing in the Indian Express, suggests that the first day of Delhi 2020 was a clash between two groups, pro-CAA and anti-CAA, and thus could be termed a riot, while day two and three “look like a pogrom, as the police watched attacks on the Muslims and was either unable to intervene, or unwilling to do so, while some cops clearly abetted the violence.

The sociologist Satish Deshpande, on the other hand, in a powerful piece in The Hindu argues that what happened was neither a “riot”, nor “communal violence” nor a “pogrom”.  He writes: “The truth is that we do not have a single word or phrase yet that can name this phenomenon because it is really the newest stage of an ongoing project rather than a standalone event.”

By ongoing project Deshpande is referring not just to the period immediately before the violence erupted, but going back to when a justification started to be created for demonising and attacking a particular community, in this case Muslims.

Apart from finding the right term – it’s important and likely to be the subject of considerable debate and difference for some time to comeit is essential that the media unearths all aspects of those terrible three days in Delhi. Given that there are reports that the Delhi police appear to be actively discouraging reporters, and even relief workers, from visiting the worst-affected areas as reported here, theres more reason to continue digging.

We also have yet to find a reasonable explanation for that strange action by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting against two Malayalam television channels Asianet News and Media One for reporting what they saw during the violence. These channels made no bones about explicitly stating the nature of the structures that were attacked, such as mosques. They also reported that the police stood by and did nothing, a fact noted and reported by several others, including the BBC. But by doing this, the ministrys order stated, the two channels apparently violated “Rule 6(1)(c) of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, which says that no programme should be carried...which contains attack on religions or communities… and Rule 6(1)(e) that says no programme should be carried...which is likely to encourage or incite violence…, according to a report in the Telegraph.

The I&B minister, Prakash Javadekar, claims the decision to suspend the two channels for 48 hours was taken without his consent. One of the channels, Asianet News, is owned by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a BJP Rajya Sabha member, who is better known as the owner of Republic TV. After Javadekar’s intervention, both channels were restored.

But who gave the order? An overzealous babu? Why was it done in the first place? To send out a message that if the government chose to act in this way, it had the power to do so?

Delhi 2020 is a story that is far from over. From the reasons for the visible civic neglect as reflected in the drains where dead bodies were discovered to the unplanned manner in which such areas grow and flourish even as the rest of the city receives the munificence of tax funds, there is much more to investigate apart from the actual events over those days in February. 

As Satish Deshpande has emphasised, this is not a one-off event. The media needs to be conscious of this. If this is the one lesson to draw from Delhi 2020, it is this. That those days in February might well be the precursor to the days ahead, as the political mood in the country shifts perceptibly towards accepting that the aim of creating a Hindu Rashtra might already have been achieved.

When I asked an elderly Muslim taxi driver in Mumbai who had come to the city from Bihar in the 1980s what he was feeling after hearing about the violence in Delhi, he said, “Behen, what can I say? The Hindu Rashtra is already here. People like us have no place in it. 

To me, that was the aim of Delhi 2020. To send out that message to Muslims, especially those who had found the courage to take to the street to protest against the CAA. That there was simply no space for them on that street. We, as journalists, cannot afford to miss such a message that speaks to us during and after such tragic events.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Can ordinary women who have occupied ‘public’ space ever be the same again?

From March 8, I have started writing a fortnightly column in Mathrubhumi.  It is translated into Malayalam and appears in the print edition and in English online. Here's the first one and the link:

Rituals lose meaning when we follow them blindly. And so it is today, International Women's Day.  Few will know when March 8 was designated thus, or even why.

Instead, each year we hear platitudes from politicians about "empowering" women, and respecting them. Even as they mouth these words, millions of women in this country continue to barely survive burdened as they are by poverty and by deprivation of basic services.  They are treated as second class citizens and suffer unspeakable violence.  One day of celebrations will make no difference to the grim realities of their daily lives.

Businesses and industry are not far behind in their fake concern for Indian women.  For them, the woman is ultimately a consumer. So she must be offered special deals on this day.  The more she spends, the more "empowered" she will be, they believe.

Getting away from these fake sentiments, how should we mark this day, if indeed there is any need to do so?

I would suggest we celebrate the emerging image of the Indian woman-- as that of the protestor.  If anything stands out in these last months, especially after December 15 and the unjustifiable and brutal attack by the Delhi police on the students of the Jamia Milia Islamia university, it is the leadership that women of all ages have provided.  They are at the forefront of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC).  We have seen them on social media, on television screens, in photographs, fearlessly leading protests, shouting slogans, confronting the hostile police, lustily singing songs about freedom, about ending patriarchy and about citizenship.

We have seen them at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi and at multiple other similar protests around the country.  They have established a new norm for protest -- one that is peaceful, creative and determined.

Also, by occupying a public space, these women have asserted another right -- apart from their right to citizenship which anchors their protests.  It is the right of women to occupy public space, something that is constantly denied to them.  Most public spaces in India are dominated by men. They can hang about, gossip, drink tea, smoke cigarettes, relax, occupy benches, straddle the pavement. You rarely, if ever, see Indian women doing this. They use public spaces for transit, not for pleasure. Now they are using the "public" space, so called because it should be accessible to everyone, to protest.

Another difference that should be noted is that the protests are not centered on their rights as women, but the rights of every person to equality as citizens of a free nation. These women have established that while insensitive and unequal laws and policies, such as the CAA, disproportionately impact women, they also affect anyone who is marginalised.

We don't know whether these protests will shift the policy of a government that appears tone deaf. But there is another aspect to consider. Have the women who are protesting, tutored as they are to accept a limited role in public life and in public spaces, changed? Can they ever revert to the way things were before they stepped out on the street? Once you have shed inhibition and come out to protest, can you go back to being the person you were? Or does something shift in you radically, change your perception of yourself, and also alter the way others see you?

The answers to these questions are not evident today. But it is possible that the anti-CAA protests have triggered another women's revolution, one that asserts their rights as equal citizens. That is surely something we can celebrate today.

Wednesday, March 04, 2020

Why is India’s media shying away from identifying targets of selective arson in Delhi?

Broken News

(Published on Feb 27, 2020)

It has been a tumultuous three days. The American president flew in and out of India. He and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugged each other and spoke at the “world’s largest cricket stadium” in Ahmedabad on February 24. The media, as expected, gave it wall-to-wall coverage. The rest of India disappeared, momentarily.

And then it appeared, in all its viciousness, not in a remote part of the country, but under the noses of the most powerful men in India and probably the most powerful man in the world.

Let’s just speculate for a moment. If the Trump-Modi jugalbandi, or “bromance” as some people have called it, had not occupied almost the entire media space, is it possible the media would have paid heed to the early warnings of the violence that has convulsed a part of the national capital?

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kapil Mishra gave an open call to arms on Sunday, February 23. He did it before the media and cameras and with a senior police official by his side. The latter watched and listened even as Mishra issued an ultimatum to the police to clear the anti-CAA protesters at Jaffarabad.

Given that the Delhi police are only too willing to arrest all manner of so-called “anti-nationals” for provocative utterances, it is beyond belief that Mishra’s statement did not warrant any response. But we also know why it did not.

But what if the police had acted on that day? The tension around Jaffarabad would not have disappeared but a clear message would have been sent out that no one can take the law into their hands.

That, however, was not to be. Instead, weapons were gathered, and men armed with lathis, iron rods and sacks of broken bricks were ready to begin their assault. They could not wait until Donald Trump had left. Even as the US president obfuscated at his press conference about what he thought of the CAA, and continued to lavish praise on Modi for his commitment to religious tolerance, the lanes of North East Delhi exploded into vicious communal violence.

By then the media, mostly headquartered in Delhi, simply could not ignore it. In between reports of what Trump did, what he said, what he ate, we began to see visuals of the ugly side of religious intolerance being played out barely 14 km from the pomp and luxury of Lutyens’ Delhi.

In many ways, the contrast that we saw on television screens on February 25 is India’s reality. The bluster and bombast of the rulers, who are but men placed in power by ordinary people, and the bloodlust and hate let loose by these very men and their followers as it translates into targeted and vicious violence on India’s minorities.

The media’s role at such times becomes even more important. In the past, the media has been blamed for inflaming passions. And rightly so. At the same time, given the pattern of such clashes, should the media cover up what it sees, or report it for what it is?

I refer specifically to incidents of arson that have been reported. Journalists have seen young men with petrol bombs that they fling with impunity into houses or shops. But are these just random targets? 

Clearly not. In 1984, during the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi that raged for three days following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Sikh homes, shops and gurudwaras were specifically targeted and firebombed.

This pattern was repeated during the 1992-93 riots that took place in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid’s demolition in Mumbai. There, Muslim-owned shops and restaurants were picked out for arson, standing out as black holes in a row of other establishments left untouched.

In Gujarat 2002, this was amply visible in many cities. And in major communal conflagrations since then we have noted this.

Therefore, why would journalists shy away from pointing out the targets of the selective arson? On NDTV, for instance, even though arson was mentioned, the reporters were at pains to either cover up the target – a religious place or a building – or went to great lengths to suggest the issue was not who owned the place that had been firebombed but the commercial value of what was lost. 

The explanation that giving specific details would inflame passions does not pass muster. We are not reporting who did it until it’s confirmed, but surely we can see who owns these places, and also note the pattern.

This report in Hindustan Times also alerts us to this pattern.  According to it, in some localities, saffron flags were placed on Hindu homes and shops a day before the violence, clearly leaving out those owned by Muslims.

A phrase that crops up with regularity when such violence is covered is “senseless”. How is this violence “senseless”? It has been planned and instigated, with some future benefit in mind.

This time it is clearly to put fear in the hearts of Muslims, who are already terrified at the prospect of the National Register of Citizens being pushed through. It is to make it clear to them that they cannot come out and protest, a right guaranteed every citizen. Justice P Nandrajog, who recently retired as chief justice of the Bombay High Court, reiterated this in an interview with the Indian Express, “Everyone has a right to protest against a government policy…people have the right to support it as well. Both sides are entitled to project their views…As long as it is a reasonable view, the government cannot say that it will not let certain people project their view."

The one aspect that stands out as different so far in the Delhi violence is the way the media has been treated. In Gujarat in 2002, for instance, journalists were beaten up by the police on one occasion as this report records, and there were reports of intimidation. A Muslim journalist wrote about his near escapes from mobs while reporting in Gujarat at that time.

In Mumbai in 1992, some journalists faced threats but nowhere close to what journalists have experienced in Delhi. For journalists to be asked their identity, for their phones to be snatched, to be beaten by rods, to be shot – this is a new and worrying development.

Not so, I must point out, for journalists in Kashmir. In fact, even as we in the media protest about what our colleagues have had to go through in Delhi, let us pause and remember our friends and counterparts in Kashmir.

It is so easy to forget Kashmir. And we continue to do so.

For more than 200 days, journalists in Kashmir have had to struggle to do their jobs, to find ways to access information, to upload their stories and photographs – a herculean task in their circumstances with painfully slow internet. Little by way of solidarity for their struggles emerges from the Indian media.

They have also faced intimidation, not from rightwing mobs as in Delhi, but from the security forces as this report by the Free Speech Collective documents. They are being bullied into revealing their sources and they have been detained for what they report. Nothing is “normal” for a Kashmiri journalist. 

Remembering their plight will offer us some perspective on how journalists are prevented from doing their jobs in multiple ways. In Kashmir, the establishment uses the security forces as an instrument of intimidation. In Delhi, it uses its rabid followers to do the same.

Let me end with where I began, the visit of Trump to India, which he said was “great” so many times that the adjective has lost any meaning. At the press conference, before he went to Rashtrapati Bhawan for his last engagement, he was asked a question by a CNN reporter. This network and Trump have had a long and combative relationship. Thus, not surprisingly, Trump went into attack mode even as the question was asked, accusing CNN of lying. To which the reporter responded, “Our record on delivering the truth is a lot better than yours.”

Just speculate for a moment: could this ever happen in India if, even though it’s highly unlikely, the prime minister holds a press conference?

Friday, February 07, 2020

India is facing an environmental crisis. But you wouldn’t know from reading papers and watching TV

Broken News
There’s a country beyond Delhi and news beyond social media outrage. If only our media realised.

Let me begin by stating the obvious: India is not New Delhi. For the moment, at least for the media, it is.  Not so for the rest of the people in this vast and diverse country.

So even as India's capital heats up with the impending election to the Delhi Assembly, and is already on fire with the determined and seemingly unflappable opposition of the women of Shaheen Bagh to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens, there is much else happening in the rest of India.

And by that I don't mean the current fracas over comedian Kunal Kamra's monologue with Arnab Goswami on an Indigo flight between Delhi and Lucknow. The anxieties of private airlines to prostrate themselves before the Ministry of Civil Aviation will be a story long remembered.

The closest I can get to that incident and what I plan to focus on is this tweet:

 Yes, reducing your carbon footprint in the light of global warming, (not to be confused with the political heat in Delhi) requires some attention from the media. This should not be reduced to reproducing agency copy with statements by the very serious and determined Greta Thunberg, who recently told off the world's top businessmen meeting at Davos.  Or even the mention of the devastating bushfires in Australia that destroyed an estimated 16 million acres in that country.

A combustible political climate should not be an excuse to take our eyes away from the processes that could destroy the very ground on which we stand. And this could happen sooner than we anticipate as is evident from what happened in Australia. Forest fires in that country are an annual event.  But successive extremely hot summers have made parts of Australia a virtual tinderbox, and much of it went up in flames this time.

We have lessons to draw from that. Not just how we prevent the same thing happening in India, something that would be much more devastating considering the size of our population, but to pay attention to other changes occurring because of the heating up of the earth's atmosphere.

We actually have a central ministry that has appended climate change to environment and forests.  But we have still to hear any sensible plan or strategy emerging from it that relates to heeding the warnings.  A plan is in the making, we hear, but when it will be ready, and thereafter operationalised, is anyone's guess.  Meantime, an estimated 600 million people in India are at risk from the impact of global warming.  That, one would have thought is a big enough number to make the media jump to report on it.

There are always exceptions, of course, and usually these happen to be digital platforms.  IndiaSpend, for instance, did an excellent seven part series on the impact of climate change. Each of the stories was centred on people, ordinary people who are already paying the price.

Awareness about climate change has also resulted in some "good news" stories.  Yet these too are generally ignored by mainstream media.  Forests, for instance, are precious for many reasons, but more so today because they play an essential role in carbon sequestration, literally absorbing the carbon that otherwise accumulates in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming.

A charming story about how some villages in West Bengal's Purulia district got together and literally grew a forest on a mountain appeared on the website Mongabay.  This website has established itself as the go-to place for well-researched environmental stories.  These villages took the help of a local non-governmental organisation and over time reforested a mountain. This has replenished underground water aquifers, provided easier access to biomass for fuel, and restored biodiversity.  It's a story worth reading in these bleak times.

Apart from climate change stories, well-researched environmental stories have virtually disappeared from our mainstream media. There was a time, not so long ago, when many newspapers, and even some television channels, had environmental correspondents. They were given time and financial backing to investigate and write stories on the environment. And such reports do require time, as well as money. They cannot be written at a desk in an office, looking at online reports and academic studies.

During the heyday of environmental reporting, journalists also became aware that environmental stories were not just about forests and rivers; they also meant looking at government policy in terms of location of hazardous industries.  This was brought home in December 1984, when an estimated 3000 people in Bhopal were killed in just one night after the terrible accident at the Union Carbide factory. The so-called accidents in industrial plants using hazardous chemicals were the direct outcome of the indifference of both owners, and those in government designated to enforce safety standards, to the lives of workers who operated such plants.

Despite that, today we see regular reports of industrial accidents, especially in chemical plants, but there are practically no follow-up stories about why these happen with such frequency, or the cost to the workers, most often poor migrants.

Many of these stories do not require the kind of investment in time and money that stories tracking the impact of climate change do.  These are routine follow-up stories that mainstream media ought to do.  Yet, with the nature of news having been redefined to be news that sells the product, clearly the depressing tale of the dangers facing poorly paid workers in industrial estates is a non-story.

Here's a recent example. On January 11, just two hours outside Mumbai, in an industrial estate managed by the Maharashtra Industrial Development Corporation (MIDC), there was an explosion in a chemical unit.  Eight workers were killed, another seven seriously injured. The story ran for a couple of days; the government closed down the unit, and then all was forgotten.

Only two papers, as far as I could see, did the obvious follow-up stories. Indian Express sent a reporter to the industrial estate.  He found that there were 1,100 units in the complex of whom 500 manufactured chemicals. Eighty per cent of them were small-scale units with a poor safety record. Since 2015, there had been 582 accidents in this very complex, and just in the last two years, 21 people had died, and 70 injured.

A safety auditor told the reporter: "Memory in the government, industry and public is short.  No one cares about the lives of the workers. They go to work at chemical factories everyday to feed themselves but there is no guarantee of what will happen to them at work or whether they will return."

This remark is heart-breaking, indicative of the callous indifference to human lives, especially when they are poor. To make matters worse, there is an acute shortage of safety inspectors.  So even if the government planned a safety audit in the future, as it has announced it will, there are not enough trained personnel to carry it out. 

The Hindu Business Line follow up story was even more worrying as it reported that three workers die, and 47 are injured every day in some factory in some part of India.  Data provided by the Labour and Employment Ministry reveals that between 2014-2016, 3,562 workers had died and 51,124 injured in factory accidents in India. Gujarat led in the number of fatalities followed by Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, all three being the most industrialised states.

Politics in India has become so volatile that much of the media feels compelled to keep their eyes peeled on the constantly breaking news. But in the process, we are neglecting our role of covering everything that is happening in India, including the silent processes that will lead one day to enormous natural catastrophes. 

Monday, January 20, 2020

Why India Today’s JNU sting did more harm than good

Broken News


By attempting to be balanced and condemning all sides equally, the media is simply reinforcing the narrative of the state. That is not our job.

From the swirl of accusations, viral videos, injured students and teachers following the attack by a group of masked men and at least one woman in Jawaharlal Nehru University on January 5, several questions related to the media have arisen.

There is already considerable analysis of the way TV news channels have covered the JNU violence, including on Newslaundry.

What has not been talked about is the ethics of the sting operation conducted by India Today, what the news channel calls the “JNU tapes”. On January 10, even as a Delhi police spokesperson was telling the media that an investigation into the violence had begun and nine students had been identified (seven from the Left groups and two from the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, although the spokesperson inexplicably failed to mention this fact), India Today reported that it had identified two of the “assailants” from January 5.  And that both these students were with the ABVP.

The tapes showed a young man, a first-year student in French named Akshat Awasthi, boasting about what he did on the evening of January 5: how he beat up a man with a beard he thought was Kashmiri, how he trashed parts of the Sabarmati hostel, and how he was responsible for rounding up another 20 students who joined him.  With him was another first-year student named Rohit Shah, who said very little except that he had given Akshat his helmet to prevent him from being injured. 

The sting also included a short statement by Geeta Kumari, from one of the Left groups, who admitted that they had shut down the server room to prevent students from registering for the new semester. In fact, students from Left groups had already admitted this publicly and were openly squatting in front of the server room to block access. 

So what did India Today achieve by this sting? Predictably, the ABVP denied that Awasthi was a member or office-bearer of the group.  Not much was heard about the other student. Alt News, the diligent fact-checking website run by Pratik Sinha, however, did establish Awasthi’s association with the ABVP, something that India Today did not do. 

The sting reiterated what was already known by the time it was shown, that the ABVP was responsible for the violence that occurred in the evening on January 5. In fact, even the police acknowledged this when they named two people from the ABVP, Shiv Mandal and Vikas Patel, amongst the culprits.  Despite the absence of footage from CCTV cameras, which the police claim did not work because the server room had been shut down, they could zero in on these men because the media had posted photographs and videos of them from which they were easily identified.

Yet, why did the police name more people from the Left groups, including Aishe Ghosh, president of the JNU Students' Union, who suffered a serious head injury? That is a story that’s still unfolding.  In response to a petition by three JNU professors, the Delhi High Court has instructed the police to identify the people on two WhatsApp groups – Friends of RSS and Unity Against Left.  Within a day of the violence, print and online media had already broken this story and reported the messages being exchanged on these groups just before the violence. The court has asked the police to confiscate their phones. If and when the Delhi police do this, the number of ABVP members named ought to exceed the seven from the Left.  But for that we must wait.

The question that needs to be asked about the India Today sting is that if the involvement of the ABVP had already been exposed by the story on the WhatsApp groups, and two of their members had been identified by the media, what did their exposé achieve?

The main problem, in my view, was the false equivalence the channel sought in the name of being “balanced”. The public acknowledgement of a member of the Left about the server room was juxtaposed with a video that had been posted by an ABVP member on social media. This showed Ghosh and some hooded and masked students, none of them carrying sticks or any other potential weapon (with the strapline “masked mob”), running towards one of the hostels. There is nothing in that video to establish that this so-called "mob" was responsible for any violence.

Meanwhile, the anchor, Rahul Kanwal, asked this question: “Was this the trigger for violence on January 5?” This was clearly an attempt to suggest that both sides were equally responsible for the violence later that day.  And as if to confirm this, when Awasthi is asked on hidden camera why they went about beating up people, he says, “It was a reaction to their action.” Where have we heard this before? The man who said words to this effect in Gujarat in 2002 is now the prime minister of India.

Thus, there are basically two troubling questions about the India Today sting. One is the sting itself and the old debate on whether this is journalism. It is a question that has been discussed in India and elsewhere and the jury is still out. The Poytner Institute has four basic precepts it suggests should govern those deciding to use this method.  They are:

     The information revealed should be of profound public interest or prevent harm to individuals.

     A sting should be used only as a last resort – a recourse after all other means of reporting have been exhausted.

     The journalist and news organization methods should reflect excellent journalistic practice and commitment to truth.

     The value of information revealed through subterfuge should outweigh any harm caused by the act of deception.

Those who wish to read more on this and can do so here.

The Readers’ Editor of The Hindu, AS Pannerselvan, also argues, “Apart from the ethics and accepted norms, I also feel that this technique exposes only the gullible, who are not at the top of the political pyramid.” This is relevant in this instance as the sting exposed two young men, lightweight members of the group responsible for the violence. No one from the ABVP is going to come to the aid of Awasthi or Shah. One of them is reportedly absconding for fear of being arrested. Meanwhile, the real masterminds have still to be exposed.

The other is that of false equivalence in the name of balance. India Today kept repeating that what happened on January 5 was not a question of “Left vs Right, but Right vs Wrong”. Such a formulation is not just disingenuous but also dangerous. It leaves open the question of who decides what and who is wrong and what and who is right. Not surprisingly, in Mumbai, this was picked up by the BJP spokesperson Shaina NC and displayed on a banner outside her office on Marine Drive.

It is unfortunate that some in the media are linking the violence of January 5 in JNU to the events of the previous days. While the latter establish the long simmering tension between ideologically opposed student groups (nothing new in JNU), the violence on the evening of January 5 speaks to a planned attack by students and outsiders, of a university administration that failed to intervene, and of the police that just stood by and allowed the mayhem to continue. There is simply no equivalence between the two. 

By attempting to be balanced and condemning all sides equally, the media is simply reinforcing the narrative of the state. That is not our job.