Bulldozing the idea of India

Media sellout: List of TV news anchors toeing the government's line grows

Print edition : May 20, 2022

Local residents, mediapersons and security personnel during MCD’s demolition drive at Jahangirpuri in New Delhi on April 20. Photo: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

The list of TV news anchors seeking to outdo one another in propagating the government’s line is growing. The purpose of journalism seems to be to paint the government in golden hues, turning a blind eye to the absence of the rule of law.

AS THE BULLDOZER BROKE THROUGH THE tin shed of a fruit cart at Delhi’s Jahangirpuri, and there were visuals of a mobile repair shop outside a mosque collapsing like a pack of cards, the television anchor was beside herself with joy, terming it as “historic action against illegal encroachment”. The accent was clearly on speed, almost like the final couple of overs of a T-20 match where commentators are often breathless in anticipation of the next delivery. Here, the Hindi media anchors could barely conceal their joy at what was unfolding before their eyes. As the bulldozer razed a portion of the front gate of the mosque moments after reducing a juice corner to rubble, the anchor screamed, “Whether it is the mosque or the juice corner, if it is illegal, it will be demolished”. Mosque and juice corner, and not mosque and temple were the new parallels. The words could as well have been that of a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesman except that here were “godi media” anchors doing their job with aplomb.

The BJP’s Sambit Patra, not known for subtleties, and not above taking digs at the Muslim community, came to the small screen only in the evening of April 16, the demolition day. Asked by Anjana Om Kashyap on Aaj Tak to respond to the allegation that only Muslims were targeted for the Jahangirpuri violence, he took bigotry to a new level, unabashedly saying, “If Ajhar (sic) and Abdul make bombs and throw stones at Shobha Yatras, why would Sharma ji and Gupta ji be arrested?”

Of course, the dutiful anchor did not deem it necessary to point out the provocative slogans raised in the Shobha Yatra, the flashing of naked swords and knives, pistols and tridents. Instead, she reminded the viewers thrice during the live telecast of the demolition, “Yehi wo masjid hai jahan char din pehle Shobha Yatra par pathrav hua thha” (This is the very mosque from where stones were thrown at the Shobha Yatra four days back). Of course, she did not remind her viewers that at this very mosque Hanuman Jayanti processionists raised provocative slogans and attempted to plant a saffron flag at the mosque.

Concotion of lies

Sambit Patra got a free run to add to his concoction of lies, half-truths and innuendoes on various Hindi news channels. From Aaj Tak to News 18 to Zee and India TV, each channel provided ample opportunity to the BJP not just to state its stand but to cast aspersions on its political opponents, and even turn Muslims into socio-political pariahs. As Patra shamelessly asked Sanjay Singh on News 18 Aar Par show anchored by Amish Devgan, “Do you stand with Amit Shah or Amanatullah Khan?” His insinuation followed a brief clipping of the Aam Aadmi Party leader, Raghav Chadha, saying the bulldozers should be moved to Amit Shah and other BJP leaders’ residence for turning a blind eye to encroachments for years. Instead of responding to Chadha’s allegation, Patra chose to bring in the name of Amanatullah Khan in a desperate ploy to turn every debate into a Hindi-Muslim issue.

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Like Anjana Om Kashyap, Amish Devgan too gave him a free rein to have his say, not interrupting his jaundiced views even once or asking him to respond why the demolition had to come within a couple of days of the riot. Devgan, it seemed, was trying to make up for the lost time. Anjana Om Kashyap was all over social media since the morning as she rode on a bulldozer as it went about its demolition spree. For her it was a new high in on-the-spot journalism, one where the journalist is ready to stake her life and limb. For those able to see through the dramatics, it was a new low with a well-known news anchor happy to parrot the government line of only “encroached shops, houses and other places being demolished”. Not once did she question the legality of the action, why the alleged encroachers were not served a notice, why a Supreme Court order against the demolition was not respected for a couple of hours by the MCD [Municipal Corporation of Delhi] running under the BJP for the past 15 years.

Blurring of distinction

As Anjana Om Kashyap ran from a demolished shop to a destroyed cart, from the gate of the mosque to the parapet of a building, microphone in one hand, the other adjusting her frequently unruly locks, her voice resembled that of an Olympic marathon runner. She seemed elated if breathless. By the time she finished, the veneer of distinction between the government and the media had vanished along with the shops in Jahangirpuri.

Amidst all this there was a voice of sanity. It came from the Left leader Vivek Srivastava who said in Halla Bol on Aaj Tak, who sifted through the pile to state, “It is not about encroachment. It is about sending a message to Muslims that if they fly high, Baba’s bulldozer will come, but we will stop every such bulldozer.” Incidentally, the addition of the word ‘Baba’ as a prefix to bulldozer by the media was akin to conferring honour to a machine meant for destruction. ‘Baba’ is a revered title used for Hindu saints, and even used by some sections as an address of respect for the father. Bulldozer has become a new weapon in the hands of right-wing governments to punish the minorities who either dare to stand up for their rights or react to the march of Hindutva forces. And Hindi news anchors were enthusiastic about selling the destructive bulldozer as a Baba out to dole out justice.

As Amish Devgan said on his show Aar Paar, “In Khargone, the houses of stone-pelters were demolished”. His words were no different from that of the Madhya Pradesh Home Minister Narottam Mishra’s who claimed in a chat with the seasoned journalist Barkha Dutt on Mojo that only the houses of rioters were demolished. Among those accused of pelting the police and the Ram Navami procession with stones was Wasim Sheikh, whose hands were amputated in 2005. He ekes out a living by running a small corner shop. He needs to be fed and requires help for his daily ablutions. Yet he was dubbed a stone-thrower, and his shop demolished. The anchors chose to look the other way. As they did when a woman pointed out in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, that her house was built under the PM Awaas Yojna, yet it was demolished.

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Amish Devgan’s fellow parrot-in-prejudice campaign, Aman Chopra, facing the heat for his remarks about the Karauli violence, turned on the attention to Hanuman Chalisa outside the residence of Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, screaming, if loudspeakers are allowed to extend azaan invitations, why cannot Hanuman Chalisa be allowed on the road. Again, instead of going by the Constitution and various court rulings, the focus was on accentuating the ‘we’ and ‘they’ divide, if one community can give azaan, why cannot the other do Hanuman Chalisa. He had a long run as did the BJP spokespersons. No questions asked, no arguments countered.

It took the Congress spokesman Pawan Khera to stop them with his sharp counter to their irresponsible allegations. He took Sambit Patra to the cleaners, saying, “They want to change the rituals and practices of Hinduism. I will not allow them to. You want to recite Hanuman Chalisa, do so at your home. What’s stopping you? You want to do it on the road only because another community gives a prayer call.” He was even more fierce on Anjana Om Kashyap’s show on Aaj Tak, ripping apart Sangh Parivar’s Akhand Bharat campaign, “You cannot tolerate 15 per cent Muslims in India. You want to add Muslims from Bangladesh, Pakistan, even Afghanistan. How will you tolerate 45 per cent Muslims? You stand outside a mosque and abuse Muslims. Is that the way to celebrate Ram Navami.” Amidst this vociferous attack, Anjana Om Kashyap was left stunned, but did not deem it appropriate to ask Sambit Patra to respond to Pawan Khera’s allegation. Some questions were best left unanswered.

With Amish Devgan and Anjana Om Kashyap hogging much of the limelight, Sudhir Chaudhary, often the favourite of the rightwing lobby, had to dig deep into his reserves of bile and prejudice to stay in the race. The stocks did not fail him. Unlike Anjana Om Kashyap and Amish Devgan, who steered clear of discussing at length the illegality of the demolitions in Delhi and Madhya Pradesh without serving eviction notices or allowing the respondents to seek legal redress, Sudhir Chaudhary began his show, DNA, with a sarcasm-laden line, “Today, we shall bring to you those fortunate and powerful people of Delhi who approach the Supreme Court first thing in the morning, and the court also leaves everything aside to hear them and gives a stay on the ongoing bulldozer demolition in Delhi’s Jahangirpuri. You would have heard of demolition drives in so many cities and towns, even villages, but has the court ever taken such an action?” Later on the show, he referred to local residents of Jahangirpuri shutting the gates of their lanes in the evening, and insinuated, “That means within our country a new country has arisen where nobody can go or come”.

Clearly, he has never been inside any gated community in middle class India. Interestingly, in the same DNA show, he alleged that this was the first time people were seeing religion in a demolition drive and went on to warn, “Don’t consider this to be limited to Jahangirpuri. It will have an impact on the whole nation. Today’s events will prove to be a turning point.” The much smaller show News Nation in the same television channel, meanwhile, lunged at the crumbs, “Hinduon ko sataya to chalega bulldozer” (If Hindus are harassed, then bulldozer will swing into action).

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Nobody deemed it necessary to ask why the government and the local administration did not follow rules in eviction or demolition drives, why the residents or shopkeepers were not allowed to approach the court, and why, as Vivek Srivastava asked, “the government chooses to ignore massive encroachments in the upmarket Chhattarpur and Sainik Farms in South Delhi and chooses to focus on the much poorer Jahangirpuri.”

Times Now Navbharat’s Sushant Sinha tried to keep the heat on with his programme News ki Pathshala. One evening, he wondered, “If Bal Thackeray had been alive, what would he have said on Hanuman Chalisa?” Clearly forsaken by his political gods, he searched in vain for a new deity. The list of news anchors seeking to outdo one another in propagating the government’s line seemed endless. The purpose of journalism seemed to be to paint the government in golden hues, turning a blind eye to the absence of the rule of law, the suffering of the dispossessed, the deprived, the displaced.

Listening to the victims’ voices

Amidst the din, cacophony, prejudice and naked bigotry stood the calm, composed Ravish Kumar on NDTV India. On his prime time show, suitably titled, “Sabka Bharat ya Ektarfa Bharat”, he gave space to victims with a colleague even speaking to a bulldozer driver who revealed his human side in the conversation.

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Despite the windscreen of his bulldozer being smashed by a stone hurled by an evictee, he stated, “If your house is demolished, you won’t sit quiet. You will do something.” In that one sentence lay the essence of the argument. Of course, Kumar’s colleague Nidhi Razdan had similarly acquitted herself with much credit in her interview with Narottam Mishra, where, without once raising her voice, she dissected Mishra’s claims of demolition in Khargone being according to the law. “Under which law? Which Act?” she asked a visibly floundering Mishra. He had no answers.

That was a rare occasion when the electronic media worked as media are supposed to, asking pertinent questions, responding to wild allegations with facts. Otherwise the media was happy to tell the world that the government’s action was non-partisan. With their untamed energy, their relentless bid to outdo each other in furthering the official propaganda, they rendered the ruling party’s spokespersons nervous about the security of their jobs. The loss was entirely that of the common viewer looking for dispassionate news coverage.