Tractor Rally

Prejudice on show in the media coverage of farmers' rally on Republic Day

Print edition : February 26, 2021

At the Red Fort on January 26, when a group of protesters tried to fix a religious flag along with a farmers’ union flag. The Indian flag flew stately behind, but a section of the media portrayed it as supplanting the national flag with the others. Photo: DINESH JOSHI/AP

The emphasis in the media coverage of the untoward incidents on Republic Day was on drama, histrionics and hyperbole.

Republic Day 2021 was unlike national day celebrations in earlier years. As Indians sat in front of the television to witness what is essentially a nation’s show of strength, many people were left squirming in their seats by the oft-repeated exhibition of majoritarianism. State after State preferred to showcase their saints and temples in the procession of floats, leaving many wondering where the national tricolour fit amidst them all. The uneasy feeling soon gave way to unmitigated rage as visuals emerged, soon after the Republic Day parade ended, of alleged farmers driving their tractors to the heart of the city at ITO junction in the capital. NDTV 24X7, which had maintained its well-rehearsed equilibrium all morning, suddenly came alive with the breathless narration of the anchor and correspondents of farmers in colourful headgear occupying the road where the police headquarters stood a year ago.

As the farmers marched, walked, and drove their way to the historic Red Fort, the electronic media lost all semblance of equanimity, justice and fair play. Times Now, Republic TV, Zee TV and India TV vied with one another to be louder than the others, each channel happy to pronounce a judgment on the men who had “taken over the Red Fort” and forced the “police to escape”.

The most vociferous of them all, Arnab Goswami, was as usual angry and judgmental on Republic TV. ArnabGoswami outdid himself in his relentless bid to project the farmers in a bad light. There was not a word about the farmers who had kept their promise and stuck to the pre-decided route arrived at in an agreement with the police, the thousands of men and hundreds of women who held a peaceful protest, and those who took as much pride in their tractors as the tanks on display on Republic Day. Instead the focus was on the men who had gone astray, much like the commentators talking of a lapse by a wicketkeeper ahead of some incisive bowling.

Also read: The BJP government's Goebbelsian campaign against the farmers’ agitation

Talking about the tractors at the Red Fort and some men attempting to fly a community’s flag there, Goswami said, “What happened at the Red Fort today was an absolute and utter disgrace. For all the bleeding hearts who seek sympathy in the name of the farmers, these people whom you call farmers, disgraced my tiranga [tricolour]... today. On a day that the country honoured 455 of its bravest, a group of rioters displayed their cowardice by replacing the tricolour with their own flag… the same tiranga for which 25,000 soldiers of the INA [Indian National Army] gave up their lives before Independence. Why did we give these anti-nationals such a long rope, why did we become weak, why are we allowing it, you and I? There is an open conspiracy against Bharat Mata today. India is the target.”

Of course, the fine details of the tricolour not being supplanted by any other flag did not matter. The Indian flag flew proud and stately at the historic fort. The religious flag was put up on a pole near the fort, not at the fort. Goswami urged the viewers, “You will have to speak.”

But no question was asked on how on Republic Day a group of goons and errant spirits was allowed to reach the historic Red Fort? The Delhi Police comes under the Home Minister of India. Yet no questions were asked about the Home Minister’s competence.

Things were not much better in other media. Sudhir Chaudhary of Zee News stepped out of his studio. For his show with the hashtag “Lal Quila Hamara Hai”, he stood in front of an audience of bored, tired, frustrated policemen in a semicircle to tell viewers that the Red Fort was built by the Mughals, “by Shah Jahan in 1647”, before saying that “the Mughals ran away, the British then ran away”. But history says that the last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah Zafar, was the titular leader of Indian kings, queens, soldiers and common men and women who took on the British might in 1857, before being exiled to Burma; he was buried in Rangoon. This poor knowledge of history was backed up by jingoism and the “othering” of a section of the population.

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He called the farmers’ parade “shameless parade”, dubbed the protesters as “those who sided with the Mughals, and when the British came, they sided with them, and opposed their own”. He said: “So far we had fought the Mughals and the British, now our own are fighting us.” He soon drew a parallel between the invaders Ahmed Shah Abdali, Nadir Shah, Timur the Lame and the men who drove their tractors to the Red Fort. Invaders, dissenters, and goons were all the same for him.

He failed not to draw inferences with Pakistan and China. “Have they come from Pakistan or China?” he asked about the agents provocateurs. Earlier, he was happy to anchor a show, “Andolan mein Khalistan” [Khalistan in the protest]. Stating falsely that the tricolour had “been thrown” and a “Khalsa flag hoisted” at the Red Fort, the reporter and the anchor in that media strived to fill each breath with maximum possible words. Even as the Zee anchor claimed otherwise, the visuals in the background showed the tricolour flying elegantly.

News bulletins went on with “policemen being gheraoed” and “attempts being made to thrash them”. Like Arnab Goswami, Chaudhary too thought it wise not to ask questions of the Delhi Police for its lapse. Same obfuscation was on display when it came to the identity of the rioters, the men who attacked the police. Were they farmers or some miscreants who had intruded into a peaceful protest? Neither Zee nor Republic bothered to ask the simple question. Even when it came to dastardly attacks on the policemen, the channels did not go into the details of the nature of injuries. While some policemen suffered fracture, others were hit with iron rods on their chest and face. None of this interested the breathless anchors and their foot soldiers on the spot. The emphasis was on drama, histrionics and hyperbole.

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Much the same was repeated on Times Now in the evening. In a show titled The Newshour Agenda, the anchor, Padmaja Joshi, said, “Today, on Republic Day, a saffron flag was hoisted on the flagstaff. Alleged farmers were seen running amok across the Red Fort… brandishing their swords, sticks and clubs.” With visuals of “alleged farmers” gone astray, she said reeking of sarcasm, “We were assured that this is the true spirit of democracy... peaceful citizens will march peacefully.”

She talked of “rampaging mobs” and how “alleged farmer leaders had undertaken that the protest will be peaceful”, and the policemen who were under instruction not to use force. Predictably, the channel did not deem it necessary to give space to farmer leaders criticising those who indulged in violence or those who strayed from the decided route to go to ITO and the Red Fort. It was left to a farmer leader to sneak in a sentence that “99 per cent of farmers stuck to the route decided with the police, and that it is for the government to say how these people reached the Red Fort”.

Print dailies

Hindi print dailies did not do any better. Often happy to toe the official line, and never too far from being the cheerleaders of Hindutva forces, they did not make any pretence of neutrality. The widely read Dainik Jagran talked of a communist red flag in the tractor rally. Dainik Bhaskar did not hold its punches in blaming the farmers for the violence in its headline, “Farmers first break promise, then respect”.

Navbharat Times, though trying to find the root of the violence, reported that there was a discussion about the change of route by a section of farmers on the evening before the tractor rally. Otherwise, little attempt was made by others to differentiate the protesters from the Singhu and Tikri borders (between Delhi and Haryana) from those in Ghazipur (between Delhi and Uttar Pradesh), just as no effort was made to trace the roots of those accused of violence. Even leads provided by portals, like the presence of the actor Deep Sidhu, who is said to be close to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), at the site were ignored.

Semblance of professionalism

Predictably, it was left to Ravish Kumar of NDTV India to bring in a semblance of professionalism to the Red Fort incident. In the programme “Major violence in farmer protest: Who is responsible?”, he said: “Dozens of videos are in circulation. In some videos, policemen are seen beating the farmers. In others, farmers are seen beating the policemen. There is a debate on Deep Sidhu.”

Also read: Farmers' agitation: The setback and then the surge

He showed photographs of Sidhu with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah and asked, “If a similar photograph had been seen showing Sidhu with Rahul Gandhi, what would have our godi [lapdog] media done?” The channel spoke too of how Sidhu talked of changing the agreed-upon route on January 25 evening itself while the majority of farmers did not.

An editorial in The Hindu talked of “chaos and mindless violence unleashed on the national capital by a section of protesting farmers” and called it “abhorrent”. The editorial talked of fixing the responsibility of the farmer leaders too, and talked of the “disparate individuals” who “broke barricades, thrashed and tried to mow down police personnel”. But in a country where not everyone can read and write, and where fewer still read English newspapers, the damage had already been done by the Hindi channels with their unrestrained commentary and barely a thought for the consequences of giving adulterated accounts of current events. Prejudice rather than fair play reigned supreme.

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