The dastardly ambush of a Congress party convoy by Maoists in Chhattisgarh on May 25, in which 28 people including the founder of the Salwa Judum movement Mahendra Karma perished, led to the by-now ritual witchhunt of human rights activists on television—and their ostracism by newspapers.
On one level, in a Pavlovian sort of way, the media randomly accused “Naxal sympathisers” of staying silent. On another level, the media was accused of allowing them to speak. (In fact, one former IAS officer even goes so far as to say that he “almost felt like taking a gun and shooting these people, as also the TV anchors who gave them time and space.”)
Lost in the noise is nuance—and balance.
Here, Nandini Sundar, a professor of sociology at the Delhi school of economics, provides perspective on how the media is distorting the debate with its shrill “us vs them” tone.
I am sick to death of TV panel discussions which ask whether human rights activists are soft on the Maoists, romanticise the Maoists and so on. Why doesn’t someone ask if our honourable politicians and security experts are soft on police torture and extra judicial killings?
Television is not interested in a serious discussion – all they want are whipping boys.
The sight of Arnab Goswami mocking Prof Haragopal for giving an “academic analysis” was especially nauseating, compounded by his showing off about “Emily Durkheim” (sic).
Why bother to have a panel at all, if only hysterical calls for the army to be sent in to wipe out the Maoists count as ‘analysis’, and every other viewpoint is seen as biased?
The media’s vocabulary is also very limited.
I remember a particular excruciating interview with Binayak Sen where he said he “decried” violence and the anchor repeatedly asked him if he “condemned” it. As far as I know, the two words mean roughly the same thing.
Nowadays, even before the media asks me, I start shouting “I condemn, I condemn.” I wake up in my sleep shouting “I condemn.” I am scared to use other words to describe complex emotions, because the media is unable to understand anything else.
The only reason why I agree to participate in any TV discussions at all or give interviews to the media, is because I have such limited space to express my views. Most of the time the media is completely unconcerned about what happens in places like Bastar, and when there are large scale deaths of civilians, no-one runs non-stop news or panel discussions.
Perforce “human rights activists” have to speak in unfavourable circumstances, because that’s the only time when the media is interested in our views; and that too, not because they want to hear us, but because they need a “big fight” to raise their ratings.
That’s what is called ‘balance’.
One can almost see visible disappointment on the anchor’s part when panelists who should disagree actually agree on many issues.
Since May 25 I have been inundated with calls from journalists asking for my views. But when I want to write, there is little space. A leading national newspaper refused to publish me on the killing of Mahendra Karma, till they had enough pieces which promoted a paramilitary approach.
Even when I do get published it is under strict word constraints. I wrote the first opinion piece ever written in the national media on the Salwa Judum in 2006, but was given 800 words, under the fold. In the first year of Salwa Judum, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of articles on Salwa Judum.
I personally met several editors and showed them photographic evidence; and begged TV editors for panel discussions, but no-one was interested. If they had been interested then, perhaps things would not have come to such a pass.
I am unable to write my own book on Salwa Judum because of the court case and all that it takes.
I have been wanting to write on it since 2005 because I am, above all, an anthropologist. In any case, my mental space is so clogged by the media noise and the strain of being confined to “opinion pieces” that keep saying the same things because no one is listening, that I can’t write.
I am almost glad the IPL has taken over again, and we can all forget about Bastar and the Maoists till the next major attack.
I reproduce below an extract from my article, Emotional Wars, on the public reactions to the death of the 76 CRPF men in April 2010. This was published in Third World Quarterly, Vol. 33, No. 4, 2012, pp 1-17:
“Government anger was directed not just at the Maoists but at their alleged ‘sympathizers in civil society’, whose verbal and written criticism of government for violations of the Constitution and fundamental rights, was morally equated with the Maoist act of killing in retaliation for those policies.
“Within minutes then, given the government’s role as the primary definer of news, whether the alleged sympathizers had adequately condemned and expiated for the attack, became as critical to the framing of the news as the attack itself.
“The largely one-sided government and media outrage – the targeted killings or rapes of ordinary adivasis rarely, if ever, invite direct calls upon the Home Minister to condemn each such incident – easily summon to mind Herman and Chomsky’s distinction between “worthy and unworthy victims” as part of what they call the media ‘propaganda model’.
“While news coverage of the worthy is replete with detail, evokes indignation and shock, and invites a follow-up; unworthy victims get limited news space, are referred to in generic terms, and there is little attempt to fix responsibility or trace culpability to the top echelons of the establishment.
“…In times of civil war, the emotions performed by the state range from the inculcation of fear to a calculated display of indifference to the exhibition of injured feelings, as if it was citizens and not the state who were violating the social contract, and that the social contract consisted of the state’s right to impunity.”