Thursday, September 22, 2022

Lakhimpur Kheri: When religious identity of suspects is more important than the crime

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on September 16, 2022


The death of two Dalit girls, aged 14 and 17, in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri on September 14 is ghastly enough to invite widespread condemnation. The two girls, who were sisters, were allegedly raped and murdered, and then hanged from a tree. But what is also revolting is the way this crime has been converted into a political football being kicked between the BJP, which governs UP, and those opposed to it. 

Much of the mainstream television news, in a style that has now become the norm, has added fuel to this fire by focusing, not just on the crime, but on the religious identity of most of the accused. 

On September 14, when the first reports appeared of the girls found hanging from a tree near a village in Lakhimpur Kheri, there was little interest. Crimes against Dalits, including women, are such a regular occurrence that we are virtually inured to them. They appear as little snippets in the print media and are rarely considered noteworthy for primetime news. 

In fact, these early stories reported the local police saying there were no other marks on the bodies of these two girls except the strangulation marks on their necks, and that their clothes were intact. 

While the mother of the girls told the media that her daughters were taken away forcibly by three men on motorbikes, and that she could not stop them despite running after them, the police stated the girls had gone with these men willingly. 

Mainstream TV media’s interest in the story piqued as soon as the police announced the names of the six men arrested in this case – Chotu, Junaid, Suhail, Hafizul Rehman, Karimuddin and Arif. Most of the men are Muslim. And predictably, the story played out as “love jihad” on some mainstream Hindi news channels. The aim of such shows is not to focus on crimes against women, but to use such ghastly events to pillory minorities and somehow turn them into a Hindu-Muslim issue even when the police has not spoken of any communal angle to the crime yet.

As for the shouting matches that pass for a discussion on television, we saw much whataboutery as BJP representatives said “what about Rajasthan” in response to the Congress and Samajwadi Party spokespersons talking about the lawlessness that prevails in UP. The main issues – the crime, why it happened, the views of the family, the status of Dalits in the village, the police’s response, and why crimes against women in India are escalating – were barely touched upon. If someone raised the wider context, they were drowned out by the usual screaming match between opposing sides and the anchor lamely wrapping up with “I’ve completely run out of time”.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again: Why, even in the slightly better TV channels, has this ridiculous format continued? It does no justice to any subject under discussion, leave alone one like this that has so many aspects that ought to be considered. It leaves the viewer frustrated and uninformed. And it completely detracts from these serious social issues that reflect the state of our society, by allowing uninformed and insensitive political representatives to use the platform to hold forth and attack each other, regardless of the subject under discussion.

Have we forgotten that only a couple of weeks ago, the latest data from the National Crime Records Bureau revealed that crimes against women in India have increased by 15.3 percent in the last year? The BBC India bureau did some number-crunching of the data from the last six years and came up with a set of charts that reveal a 26.35 percent rise in crimes against women in this period. UP topped the list. 

As for Dalit women, the recorded data (and we should remember many crimes are not reported at all, or the police refuse to take cognisance of them) reveals a 45 percent increase in rapes of Dalit women between 2015 and 2020. This is the context the media needs to address even as it looks at specific crimes like the one in Lakhimpur Kheri. 

In fact, this latest incident triggered memories of 2014 when two minor Dalit girls from Katra Sadatganj in UP’s Badaun district were found hanging from a mango tree. They had gone out in the evening to “relieve” themselves – a most inappropriate term that conceals the shocking lack of sanitation in most of rural India that compels women to defecate in the open after dark. 

The two girls never returned. When their families went to the police to report that they were missing, they were ignored. Only when the bodies were found was some action taken and three men were eventually arrested. The trial drags on and the men are out on bail.

More recently, we have the horror story of the rape and murder of a Dalit woman in Hathras, UP, two years ago. Few will forget the images of the grieving family and the forcible cremation of her body in the night by the UP police. Yet here too, there has been no real closure as the family lives in fear in a village dominated by higher castes. Although the government has paid them compensation, it is dragging its feet on the other promises made, such as a house and government job. 

The Indian media’s coverage of crimes against women has revealed a predictable pattern. If a rape occurs in a metro, of a woman or women who represent the consumers of the media, it is investigated and pursued in detail. Think of the Delhi gangrape of 2012, the Shakti Mills rape in Mumbai in 2013, and the Park Street rape in Kolkata in 2012.

Compare that coverage with how the media reported, for instance, the brutal rape and murder of two Dalit women, Priyanka and her mother Surekha, in Maharashtra’s Khairlanji in 2006. It was barely reported. The media only woke up to it much later when Dalit groups investigated the case, agitated, and went to court. Without that intervention, and the fact-finding report by Dalit intellectual Anand Teltumbde, who is in jail charged in the Bhima Koregaon case, we would not have known about this atrocity. 

An additional factor today that determines how the media picks and chooses what atrocity it will pursue is the communal angle that has infected not just the media but society at large. A crime like rape is abhorrent, irrespective of the identity of the perpetrator. It is even worse when the victims are minors. And when they belonged to a marginalised group, that is an additional factor. 

Yet, for some in the mainstream media, these are not the aspects that count in deciding which crime is worth reporting in depth. It is the identity of the alleged criminals. By doing this, the media, especially the most-watched TV channels, is responsible for actively perpetrating the stereotype that has already been constructed through fraudulent concepts like “love jihad” to target young Muslim men. And of spreading a poison that has infected our society to such an extent that we fail to recognise why outrage for unconscionable crimes, like rape, is so selective.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Bengaluru, Pak floods coverage exposes gaps in media’s understanding of climate, development issues

 Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on September 8, 2022


In this season of floods, some floods matter more than others. You can see this in the amount of time and space the media accords to some floods, while virtually ignoring others.

Then we have the entrenched politics of water and land, as well as factors that transcend state and national boundaries such as climate change. We in the media should be addressing these politics and the reality of climate change, while covering the current spate of floods in the region which cannot be categorised simply as “natural disasters”.

The floods that matter, and which we report in detail, are those in the big cities. This entails minimum costs for media houses as the crisis is literally on their doorsteps. Those affected are also part of the “market” of these media houses. Floods further afield, in the northeast for instance, do not engage mainstream media in India to this extent.

The coverage of the recent flooding of large parts of Bengaluru, which undoubtedly was big news given the city’s global connections, exposed another aspect of the coverage of floods. While the visuals of upscale villas in gated communities and floating high-end automobiles might make for dramatic footage, we saw little of the devastation caused to the urban poor parked just outside the gates of these colonies.

Also, you had to look hard to find reportage explaining the backstory of why Bengaluru is in such a mess. In fact, such a disaster has been predicted for long by environmentalists and urban planners. They have exposed and campaigned against the destruction of natural lakes around the city, the construction on lake beds and misplaced urban development plans that cater to the demands of private developers. This, and an inadequate drainage system, has had a direct impact on Bengaluru’s ability to cope with excessive rainfall.

The Bengaluru flooding story has been seen in practically every major metro in India, and even in smaller cities and towns. This is decidedly not a “natural” disaster. It is the consequence of how the politics of land, inextricably linked to city and state politics, plays out. Urban development plans are made, only to be ignored. And environmental concerns go unheeded despite the campaigning of determined civil society groups. Practically no political party makes these concerns a part of its agenda. Profits, not prudence, is the mantra all of them follow.

For the media, these recent floods in Bengaluru underline not only the abysmal lack of planning and development in that city, but the gap in the media’s understanding of the larger issues behind this disaster.

For one, understanding the consequences of land use, and the politics behind it, as well as how natural resources such as water are used, or abused, needs to be the foundation for city reporting. Journalists given this beat must understand this politics to be able to report incisively not just on events, like floods, but also on why they occur.

Second, reporters need to understand that the worse-affected in these “unnatural” disasters are those with the least clout in how decisions are made in city development. So, in Bengaluru too, several urban poor communities lost everything they possessed in the floods. Once the waters recede, and there is talk of compensation, the well-heeled will recover from insurance claims. The poor will be left with nothing, especially as in many instances they either do not possess, or have lost, the documentation to establish that they are “legal”.

As urban planner and civil engineer Vishwanath S explains in this interview to Scroll:

“There are a lot of informal areas around the Information Technology hub that have been affected. These areas are not being documented or being shown. They may or may not be legal slums, which is more concerning as that means there is a good chance they would not even have the inadequate drainage systems in place. Then there is the periphery of the state which is being affected, which is not being documented and shown either. The focus has been on the apartments worth Rs 9 crore or Rs 13 crore or the villas which have been flooded.”

Equally important, journalists reporting on cities must comprehend how climate change is affecting our cities in a very direct way, not just by way of extreme weather events. It will help reporters dig deeper to understand the backstory, so that readers or viewers develop a better understanding of why such disasters are occurring so frequently.

Moving on from Bengaluru, the much bigger crisis is what has occurred in what we love to refer to as our “neighbouring country”, that is Pakistan. The scale of the devastation is hard to imagine. The visuals seen on international TV channels, and on social media, are frightening. Just visualising one third of a country under water is tough. Yet that is the reality in Pakistan today.

Although there has been some coverage of the devastation next door in the Indian media, it is not enough. The reason it needs to be much more detailed is obvious. India has not just a shared history with Pakistan, but also a shared geography. As the current director of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, Farah Zia points out in this perceptive article in Indian Express: “We’re in it together. ‘We’, as in India and Pakistan. Our weather systems like our history are joined at the hip.”

What is also interesting is how, as in India, in Pakistan too, the media ignored the early warning signs of the floods, because they occurred as early as July in Balochistan which, as Farah Zia writes,“… is not on the media’s radar anyway. It only got attention when an army helicopter on a flood relief and rescue mission, with high-profile personnel on board, crashed on August 2. The province also got the media’s attention once the death toll crossed 100.”

Historian Ammar Ali makes a similar point when he writes in this article in Jacobin that Islamabad-based political commentators were preoccupied writing about politics even as the first information about the devastation was coming through on social media. “Soon, floods began overwhelming areas in Sindh and south Punjab. The first time floods became the main headline on a Pakistani channel was August 23. By this time, more than twenty million people had already been affected, making it the worst natural disaster in the country’s recent history,” he writes.

Maleeha Lodhi, a former journalist who was also a top diplomat, reiterates that while politicians were more concerned about their political agendas, it is Pakistani civil society that stepped in to help. “The exemplary role of the public should be matched by a display of solidarity among political leaders and parties. But this continues to be in short supply”, she writes in this article that first appeared in Dawn.

Ali makes another observation that I think is relevant for us in the media in India.

“The media’s delayed response to the climate catastrophe is partly explained by the fact that the narrative around ‘natural disasters’ does not easily offer a neat categorization of heroes and villains. This turns them into a tragedy that can invoke global pity but is unable to generate political contestation. Yet, politics really is at the heart of the tragedy today unfolding in Pakistan. It is thus imperative to nominate the villains responsible for the needless suffering of millions of people.”

If you noticed, the political blame game has already begun in Bengaluru. It happens all the time when such disasters take place. Yet the real “villains”, which would include all political parties and those who benefit from political power, and the way both flout long-term plans for short-term gains, are rarely identified. That is the role that only an independent media can play, an increasingly endangered species in both India and Pakistan.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

From Bilkis Bano to Zakia Jafri, the media needs to ‘keep the pot boiling’

Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on August 25, 2022


August 15, 2022 will be remembered. Not for the flag-waving or declarations made by the prime minister from the Red Fort, but for the fact that, on this day marking 75 years of India’s independence, 11 men convicted of a heinous crime were granted remission from their life sentences.

Even as the prime minister spoke of women’s safety and empowerment, his home state of Gujarat released these 11 men from Godhra sub-jail. The crime for which they were convicted is horrific, even in the retelling today. Worse still, the survivor, Bilkis Bano, is now condemned to relive it. Yet, as these men emerged from jail, they were greeted with sweets and garlands by members of the prime minister’s party, the BJP.

The Bilkis Bano case is one that should never be forgotten. Soon after dark on February 28, 2002, a five-months pregnant Bilkis, 21, and members of her family left their village of Randhikpur in Dahod district. They hid in fields, hoping to escape mobs that had descended on the village following the Godhra train burning the previous day.

But they could not escape. On March 3, a group of 20 to 30 men carrying swords and sickles assaulted them. They raped Bilkis, her mother, and three other women; and killed her three-year-old daughter Saleha and most of the others in the group of 17. Only three, including Bilkis, survived.

The fact that we remember this case is because it is emblematic of the horrific communal violence that took place in Gujarat, where Muslim women were the targets of the most repulsive acts of sexual violence and assault.

We remember it, but not because the media continued to report it. Some journalists did persist but after 2019, when the Supreme Court asked the Gujarat government to pay Rs 50 lakh compensation to Bilkis, the media lost interest. The only reason it is still remembered is because of this woman’s singular courage and determination to continue her fight for justice with support from civil society organisations.

For the media, the Bilkis case holds out several lessons.

We remember it, but not because the media continued to report it. The only reason it is still remembered is because of this woman’s singular courage and determination to continue her fight for justice with support from civil society organisations.

We have to remember that today, there is an entire generation that has grown up since the Gujarat communal carnage of 2002. They would not have known about Bilkis or the other atrocities during that period. Thus, the significance of this particular case, and the context in which it took place, bears repeating.

If this story had been left to television channels, we would have heard a lot of noise but very little by way of factual background or context. Barring exceptions like NDTV, mainstream TV did not give the recent release of the convicts the attention it deserves. As a result, the significance of what has happened in the context of today’s communal politics, and the historical details that are essential to understand this, would have been lost to most consumers of mainstream media.

Fortunately, the print media in India is not yet extinct and hopefully will continue to survive. Mainstream newspapers, or at least the English papers I looked at, did provide explanatory stories to fill in details that many would either not have known or forgotten. It is interesting that so many mainstream newspapers are now doing explanatory journalism – it seems that there is a demand for this that is unfulfilled by reporting and commentary.

More importantly, newspapers also reported not just what Bilkis and her husband Yakub Rasool felt, but also the response of now retired Bombay High Court judge UD Salvi, who gave the original ruling in 2008 against these men. Justice Salvi also spoke to several television channels and independent YouTube channels, like Barkha Dutt’s Mojo Story. He was clear and unequivocal in all these interviews, stating as he does in this report in Indian Express, that “if it is being said that they are innocent, they did not commit the crimes and hence they are being honoured, it is defaming the judiciary which gave the judgments convicting them”.

There were also disturbing follow-up stories that need to be noted for the record. For instance, Indian Express reported on how the released convicts had been out on parole several times while serving their sentences. Several people living in Randhikpur, who had testified in the Bilkis case, had filed police complaints of being harassed and intimidated by these men during those periods when they were out on parole.

...if it is being said that they are innocent, they did not commit the crimes and hence they are being honoured, it is defaming the judiciary which gave the judgments convicting them.

Justice UD Salvi to the Indian Express

Even more disturbing is this Indian Express report about Muslim families leaving Randhikpur and seeking shelter in a relief camp in Devgarh Baria, where Bilkis Bano and her family have been living since 2017. One of the women arriving at the camp said, “None of us has the kind of courage that Bilkis has shown in the past two decades to fight. On our way here, we came across a huge convoy of the ruling party near Kesharpura and were petrified. I held on to my daughter tight.”

Clearly, this is a story that has not yet ended, not just in terms of legal challenges to the release of the convicts but also the renewed fear in Muslims in a state that is heading for an election. For them, the memories of 2002 have not faded.

Surveys have suggested that editorials in newspapers are not widely read. Yet they are important as a record of the stand a newspaper takes on a particular issue. In this instance, both Indian Express and the Hindu carried strong editorials on the release of the convicts and their subsequent felicitation by members of the BJP and its affiliate organisations. The editorial in the Hindu concluded: “With an Assembly election due in Gujarat at the end of the year, it is difficult not to read political significance into this decision. The sight of the released convicts being greeted and feted on their release will not sit easy on the country’s conscience.”

The other lesson for the media is the importance of memory, of reporters recalling what they reported. For instance, one of those who diligently covered Bilkis Bano’s case, when it was shifted at the behest of the Supreme Court from Gujarat to Maharashtra, is senior journalist Jyoti Punwani. She was able to remind us that the attitude towards these 11 convicts even in 2008, when they were sentenced to life imprisonment, was no different to what it is today. She writes in the Deccan Herald:

“It's not the first time these men, who gang-raped women and killed 14 innocents, including Bilkis Bano’s infant daughter, are being honoured. The day they were sentenced to life in Mumbai in 2008, this reporter saw people touch their feet in the trial court. The courtroom was packed with villagers from Randhikpur, the mood overwhelmingly sympathetic to the guilty. Snide remarks were made against the alleged ‘bounty’ given to Bilkis (there was none). Even others present in court for unrelated matters muttered that shifting the case from Gujarat to Mumbai was a ‘conspiracy against Hindus’. One of those sentenced even declared that he’d done what he had ‘for God’, and that it was ‘a crime in Hindustan’ to belong to the Vishva Hindu Parishad.”

The Supreme Court, in its judgement in the Zakia Jafri case challenging the findings of a special investigative team into the attack on Gulberg Society in which Jafri’s husband was killed, used the phrase “keeping the pot boiling” while referring to those who helped Jafri. As we now know, that particular ruling resulted in human rights activist Teesta Setalvad and former senior police officer RB Sreekumar being taken into judicial custody. Their bail hearing is before the Supreme Court.

I would argue that it is the job of the media to “keep the pot boiling” on issues like the communal carnage in Gujarat in 2002, the continuing attacks on Dalits and minorities in many parts of the country, the human rights violations in Kashmir and the Northeast, and much more. If the media does not do this kind of follow-up, the memory of these atrocities will fade and ultimately disappear, especially when the justice system also often fails.


Wednesday, August 24, 2022

In times of ‘breaking news’, a reminder that good journalism needs patience

 Broken News

August 11, 2022


There was a time, at least in print media, when reporters were encouraged to find what were called “good news” stories. These days, if you find one, it is entirely accidental. Even so, it is a relief to read something other than stories of political shenanigans, murders and rapes and the spread of communal poison.

The story of how a seven-year-old girl, who went missing in Mumbai in 2013, was finally found early this month is one that was a most welcome change.

In 2013, Mumbai newspapers had reported that on January 22, Pooja left home with her brother to go to school but never came back. She was the 166th girl to go missing as recorded in just one police station. By 2015, 165 had been located. But one remained, as reported in this detailed feature in Indian Express by Smita Nair.

After nine years and seven months, Pooja, now 16 years old, was reunited with her family. She had been lured and kidnapped by a childless couple living in the same area. After they had their own child, the couple sent her away to work with a family just 500 metres from her home, confident that in this period people would have forgotten about her.

In May, Deccan Herald reported on the number of missing children in India. The official figures are probably an underestimate given that reporting is not universal. But they are worrying nonetheless. According to this report: “As per the latest figures of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 59,262 children went missing in India in 2020. With 48,972 children remaining untraced from the previous years, the total number of missing children has gone up to 1,08,234.”

Every story around a missing child contains drama and pathos, more so if the child is a girl. There is always the fear that she could have been kidnapped and trafficked. She could be lost. She might have been taken in by some kind strangers who then decided to adopt her. One reads many such stories.

Yet this story of Pooja has another angle, about a policeman who wouldn’t give up. Rajendra Dhondy Bhosale – a former assistant sub-inspector from Mumbai’s DN Nagar police station, where Pooja’s case was registered – made it his personal mission to try and find her. He did this while he was still in the force, and then continued even after he retired in 2015.

It is also a story about journalism and persistence. What we would not have known is the fact that Bhosale persisted and never gave up. And the reporter, Smita Nair, who with difficulty won his confidence after he retired and persuaded him to talk to her for the 2015 article, kept in touch with him all these years, as she narrates in this podcast. As a result, she was in a position to tell the backstory of this indefatigable ex-policeman.

I mention this particular story because it is a reminder of the many aspects of journalism that are being forgotten in a time of “breaking news” and the push for exclusives.

Good stories require patience. They also need journalists to persist, and to learn to listen, even if what they are being told appears irrelevant to the story they are working on. It is often some irrelevant detail, or the behaviour of a person not central to a story, that leads you to something important.

Unfortunately, few media organisations grant reporters the time to do this. Often, reporters have to pursue stories without any assurance that they will be able to write them for the publications for which they work. For independent journalists, without the backing of a media house, it is even more challenging. Yet the most memorable stories are most often those done by journalists who have these qualities.

These are the journalists who “document the unseen”, a phrase used in a recent talk by Supreme Court Justice DY Chandrachud. Speaking at the Convocation of the OP Jindal Global University, he said, “In the age of fake news and disinformation, we need journalists more than ever to document the unseen and expose the fault lines in our society.”

One of the stories that mainstream media continues not to see is that of Kashmir, or rather only to see and report it partially. By and large, we only read what the government wants us to know about Kashmir such as encounters with militants, or the many apparent achievements of the administration. But is that all there is to report from this region?

Much has been written, including in this column, about how the media has been hollowed out in Kashmir, reducing its once independent media to a virtual cut-and-paste job of government handouts. Forcing independent journalists to either leave the region, or report only for publications outside India and that too at considerable risk. Placing many journalists on a no-fly list without informing them, thereby denying them the right to travel for work. And continuing to imprison journalists whose crime is that they were reporting what the authorities would prefer remain unrecorded.

One could not avoid noticing that on August 5, the third anniversary of the abrogation of Article 370, there was precious little in the print media on Kashmir barring a couple of edit page articles. Most surprising was the Indian Expressrunning a comment piece by the Lt Governor of Kashmir Manoj Sinha as its lead article, with nothing else to balance it. If anything tells us how far mainstream media has travelled in these last years, it is this. Indian Express used to have one of the best bureaus in Kashmir with journalists like Muzamil Jaleel writing incisive reports on developments there. Such reporting has practically disappeared from its pages and is also missing in the rest of mainstream media.

Let me end with this quote from an acerbic piece by Sankarshan Thakur in the Telegraph. He writes about why journalists want access to those in power but what it has to come to mean these days:

“On the face of it, access to those who wield power, those who take the big decisions that impact the people this way or that, is what most good journalists should aspire to. Information, remember, is ammunition. But that is not how access has come to work. It is an invitation to the charmed circle of power, but dog-collared with the omerta pledge, non-compliance to silence will bring consequences...Access no longer allows a journalist information, quite the contrary. Access purchases a journalist’s silence. It’s not remotely an exaggeration to suggest that the journalist is now being accessed by the power establishment than the other way around.”

In fact, the coverage of Kashmir, or the lack of it, is a reflection of precisely this. Thakur argues that Kashmir, or issues to do with minorities are “a handy litmus test” to determine whether media is “anti-national”. On Kashmir, mainstream media passes with flying colours because it has chosen not to “document the unseen”.

Sunday, July 31, 2022

Now that an Adivasi is president, will Big Media finally report on Adivasi issues?

Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on July 28, 2022


On July 25, when Droupadi Murmu took the oath of office as India’s 15th president, not only did she become the first Adivasi and the youngest person to hold this office, but she also introduced India to the Adivasi greeting “Johar”.

In the run-up to Murmu’s election and after, we have read reams about her life as a Santhal in Odisha, that she is a graduate who worked in the irrigation department of the Odisha government, that she was also a teacher. We also know her name was “Puti Tudu” but later changed after several iterations to Droupadi. And now, thanks to her, more people are aware that the traditional greeting amongst India’s estimated 104 million Adivasis is “Johar”, which means “salutation and welcome”.

Yet, even as there was celebration at her election, how many people in this country really know about the lives of different Adivasi tribes? Or whether they have seen any significant change in their lives in the last decades, or the challenges they face to survive as the lands they called their own are being snatched away for so-called “development”?

A few days before Murmu’s election, we read about 120 Adivasi men in Chhattisgarh being released after five years in prison. They had been implicated in an exchange between security forces and Maoists in Burkapal on April 24, 2017 in which 25 Central Reserve Police Force personnel were killed and seven injured. Subsequently, the police rounded up men from Burkapal and surrounding villages and charged them with the crime. After waiting five years in jail, a court ruled that there was no evidence to prove their involvement.

The media has reported the acquittal as well as some reports about the individual men, what they face, their anxieties about the future, and what they want to rebuild their lives. But it is not enough. A story like this ought to have been on the front page. It also deserves detailed follow-up. Readers need to get a sense of the area where these men lived, and if and how they can reconstruct their lives.

Every now and then, similar stories are reported – of people incarcerated for years without trial and eventually acquitted. But rarely is there any outrage in the mainstream media, or demands for accountability from the police and the system that allows this to happen, especially when poor people are involved.

Sudha Bharadwaj, the lawyer who has worked in Chhattisgarh for decades and is currently out on bail after being implicated in the Bhima Koregaon case, writes that this particular acquittal is “more the norm than the exception”. She quotes from a study by the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, or JagLAG, of cases between 2005 and 2012 in the Dantewada sessions court. The average rate of acquittal was 95.7 percent.

The group also found that while undertrials in other states spend, on average, around one year in jail, in Jagdalpur, it was one to five years. One of the reasons for this was the inability of jailed Adivasis to get adequate legal support. JagLAG, a group that did provide such support, was hounded out of Bastar.

Apart from Bastar, which comes into view whenever there is a so-called “encounter” between security forces and Maoists, there are struggles being waged by Adivasi groups in many other parts of the country, including Murmu’s home state of Odisha. Remember the extraordinary campaign by the Dongria Kondh tribe in Niyamgiri against the bauxite mine of the powerful business house Vedanta? Despite their success, their problems have not ended yet. Similar struggles continue in Jharkhand where local communities are challenging either infrastructure or the release of their lands for mining. Yet there is little written about these struggles except in alternative or non-mainstream media.

Murmu’s election provides an opportunity, and a challenge, for the media to dig deeper into the environment from which she emerged. The average Indian reader/viewer has little to no knowledge about Adivasis, their varied cultures, religions and beliefs, and how far development programmes have made a difference to their lives.

Interestingly, some platforms are using this “news peg”, so to speak, of an Adivasi woman becoming president of India, to probe some of these questions.

One of the more interesting pieces was this one in Scroll. It recounts the experiences of Adivasi women who come to Mumbai looking for work. They end up working as domestic help in middle class homes where they are paid next to nothing, much less than the minimum wage. They sleep in kitchens. Sometimes they are given no choice but to share the same space as male employees. They often go to bed hungry because of how little they are given to eat. And, of course, there is no concept of time off.

These women are hired because they are willing to work for wages much lower than what locals accept. In many parts of Mumbai, for instance, domestic workers are organised. Even where they are not formally organised, they have informal systems where they decide the minimum they are prepared to accept to do certain jobs. These Adivasi women are outside such arrangements and, therefore, open to the worst forms of exploitation.

The story is wrenching. It speaks, above all, to the callousness of India’s middle class that, even today, in this 21st century, can treat human beings as nothing more than slaves. Domestic labour remains one of those dark, and not hidden, realities of India’s cities.

Perhaps it is wishful thinking to hope that these subjects will be covered, given that the mainstream media caters only to its “market”. Thus, stories about poverty, deprivation or even the environment can only find space if they are linked to a disaster or, if momentarily, the poor speak up for their rights and the very size of their protests cannot be ignored. Unfortunately, even the presence of an Adivasi woman in Rashtrapati Bhavan is unlikely to change this.

So, can we describe India’s media as “free" if it is the market that governs content? We must ask this given how often there are either boasts about press freedom in India, or promises made internationally about respecting it, or reflections about the need for “independent journalism”.

The latest to publicly reflect on this is the Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana. Speaking in New Delhi recently, he was reported as saying:

“Independent journalism is the backbone of democracy. Journalists are the eyes and the ears of people. It is the responsibility of media to present facts. Media must confine itself to honest journalism without using it as a tool to expand its influence and business interests.”

He also added: “When a media house has other business interests, it becomes vulnerable to external pressures. Often, the business interests prevail over the spirit of independent journalism. As a result, democracy gets compromised.”

No one will argue with Justice Ramana that journalists must present facts, or that the media should “confine itself to honest journalism”.

The question today is, how?

How can any media do this given the ownership structure of the media?

How can any media do this given the power the State has to intimidate media houses through their business interests?

How, given the latest Supreme Court ruling on the Prevention of Money Laundering Act and the enhanced powers of the Enforcement Directorate, can any media house attempting to be “independent” or even “honest” survive in a regime where such laws and the ED have been weaponised to deal with all kinds of dissidence?

And finally how, when even those “independent” journalists who are doing their jobs of gathering facts and reporting them are either arrested, as in the recent case of Mohammed Zubair and earlier Siddique Kappan or Kashmiri journalists Asif Sultan, Fahad Shah and Sajad Gul? Or they are stopped from pursuing their professional commitments, as in the recent case of Aakash Hassan, a Kashmiri journalist stopped from going on a reporting assignment to Sri Lanka, and earlier the Pulitzer prize winning Kashmiri photographer Sana Irshad Mattoo, who was not permitted to board a flight to Paris without being given any reason.

These are questions that perhaps the Chief Justice should address, given his concern of an independent media and its importance as the “backbone of democracy”. 

Monday, July 18, 2022

Why did India's media ignore Wired story on police planting evidence against Bhima Koregaon activists?

Broken News

Published in Newslaundry on July 14, 2022


News is always “breaking" and stories are sometimes “broken”. But then you also have important stories that are “broken” but are quickly forgotten. Not always deliberately, although sometimes that is the case. Quite often because there is just too much news breaking all around us, genuine and fake. As a result, many important stories that need to be followed up are relegated to the archives.

Meanwhile, those doing the essential task of sifting the fake from the real, like AltNews cofounder Mohammed Zubair, are arrested and treated like criminals. More on that later.

But first to an important investigative story that got barely reported in the Indian media.

I refer to the remarkable story broken by the Wired magazine on June 16. Headlined “Police linked to hacking campaign to frame Indian activists”, the story describes in some detail how the Indian police were able to plant evidence on the computers of some activists that ultimately led to their arrest. This is in reference to the 16 individuals – now 15 after the death of Father Stan Swamy last year – who have been in jail for over three years without trial in the Bhima Koregaon case.

A year ago, a story in the Washington Post had also revealed how evidence was planted on the computers of Rona Wilson and Surendra Gadling, both in jail in the Bhima Koregaon case.

Now, one of the companies investigating this, SentinelOne, has released the startling finding that the hackers who broke into the phones and laptops of the activists did so on the directions of none other than the Pune police, the very people who had announced the “conspiracy” for which the BK 16 were picked up and incarcerated.

Juan AndrĂ©s Guerrero-Saade, a security researcher at the company, is quoted in the Wired article as saying, “There’s a provable connection between individuals who arrested these folks and the individuals who planted the evidence.” Although the company has identified the Pune police official linked to the hacking, it hasn’t made their details public yet. It is expected to do so at the Black Hat security conference, slated to be held in Las Vegas, United States, in August.

Such a story ought to have triggered a major response from the Indian media. After all, it was reported not by an unknown media organisation, but by a well-respected tech magazine.

Surprisingly, barring a few newspapers like the Telegraph and the Hindustan Times that reported on the investigation, the news was largely ignored by the Indian media with the exception of independent digital news platforms. As a result, this explosive story, establishing a nexus between law enforcement agencies and their actions that result in sending people who have broken no law to jail, has virtually sunk without a trace.

Why is it important even now, in addition to its obvious relevance to the Bhima Koregaon case? Because if the representatives of the state, namely the police, can use such tactics with such ease in this case, how do we know the next time an activist or a journalist is arrested, and their phones and laptops are “seized”, that the same won’t happen?

Take the case of Zubair. He was arrested on June 27 for a tweet posted in 2018 that contained a picture from a 1983 film by the renowned director Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Not only was he detained on these flimsy grounds, but his electronic devices were picked up from his home in Bengaluru.

In the meantime, multiple FIRs were filed against him in different locations forcing him and his lawyers to rush from court to court fighting for his right to get bail. In the Supreme Court, even as his lawyer argued Zubair’s bail plea in another case filed in Sitapur, Uttar Pradesh, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was representing the UP government opposing the bail plea, was reported as saying that Zubair was part of a “syndicate”. This remark is more than just a hint that before long there could be a “conspiracy" in which Zubair would be implicated.

Zubair’s "crime" was that he was doing journalism: sifting fact from fiction. But in this “new India”, journalists should not be doing this. Their job is not just to be loyal stenographers taking down the official narrative and repeating it, but enthusiastic promoters of it, irrespective of whether what they are reporting has any basis in fact.

Zubair’s case is further complicated because he happens to be a Muslim in a country where, increasingly, no Muslim, educated or unlettered, can feel safe anymore. Not even a person as highly respected as the former vice president Hamid Ansari.

At least AltNews and Zubair are well-known. They have a profile on social media. The work they are doing is talked about. And his case has garnered support in India and abroad.

There are, however, hundreds of journalists, many who are not even recognised as journalists by the very media organisations for whom they report, whose fate is even more fraught, and largely unknown.

That is the other story that ought to have drawn more attention but did not in these times of shrinking attention spans. It is a long and detailed story, one that most readers usually do not make the time to read. But it ought to be read if we really want to understand what is happening to the press, and to journalists, in this country.

I recommend this detailed and excellent report by Arunabh Saikia in Scrollabout a bunch of journalists in Uttar Pradesh and what they went through after they broke an important story.

The region where these journalists work is known for many different things, including widespread and open cheating during examinations. Three of them exposed this by getting hold of the papers that had been leaked. For this, instead of being applauded, they were arrested and sent to jail for several weeks. What is worse, the media organisations for which they reported, widely circulated Hindi papers Amar Ujala and Rashtriya Sahara, did not acknowledge their work, nor did they initially stand by them when they were arrested.

Furthermore, many of these journalists are not formally on the payroll of the newspapers using their stories. They are hived off into separate organisations so that the newspaper does not have to pay them the salary they are required to do on the scale set by pay commissions. In this case, one of them was paid Rs 450 per month and another Rs 500, less than the minimum wage paid to a labourer.

Clearly, what this story exposes about the conditions under which these journalists work in UP is not an exception. A little bit of digging would reveal that this is virtually the norm in smaller towns, places where journalists supply the gritty details so essential for well-reported stories. In 2007, Sevanti Ninan wrote a book recording the experiences of such journalists in Headlines from the Heartland. I suspect not much has changed since.

So freedom of the press involves not just freedom for journalists to do their work, and not be locked up like Zubair and earlier Siddique Kappan, Fahad Shah, Aasif Sultan, Sajad Gul and others. It also consists of journalists being recognised as professionals, paid a decent wage, and supported when they end up being jailed for no other crime than doing journalism.


Sunday, July 17, 2022

No justice for the poor in India

For more than 20 years, Srinath Yadav has sold bananas and other fruit on this pavement in Mumbai’s posh Malabar Hill.  He also sleeps in the same spot where his table with the fruit sits during the day.  He is from Allahabad district in UP, where his family depends on the little he makes in a day.


Twelve days ago, when Maharashtra got a new government, Yadav lost his place of work and the spot where he sleeps.  It is his misfortune that the new chief minister of the state, Eknath Shinde, decided to move into the bungalow across the road from his stall.

Without so much as a by-your-leave, Yadav was pushed out, to the corner of the pavement (marked out in the photograph below) while the police and multiple police vans park along the road, blocking access to the pavement.  And huge hoardings, with the new chief minister’s face adorning them, block the “Jungle Book” paintings on the wall which marks the children’s park on the other side.