India’s media doesn’t dare violate the “Modi-fied” code of silence
By Saurav Datta
Siddharth Varadarajan and Nandini Sundar stand out as examples of the consequences of seeking accountability and justice.
Step back to 23 February. In Delhi, the caretaker of Siddharth Varadarajan’s house was roughed up by goons who left a chilling threat. “Ask your employer to hold his tongue on television,” they thundered. Professor Nandini Sundar, Varadarajan’s wife, wasn’t spared either. A threat was left for her, because she had taken a state government to court for its use of militia against its own citizens.
“Where we needed investigations, we made announcements,” lamented veteran Indian journalist P. Sainath. His stinging rebuke was against the mainstream media’s deafening silence in the face of one of the worst agrarian crisis India had faced, back in 2008. In light of this code of silence, the reasons for the incident of 23 February become clear.
Compare the Indian media’s coverage of that incident with the blitzkrieg of apoplexy which greeted Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s threat to jail journalists whom he considered to be corrupt (sold out to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – against whom he has launched an all-out war), and things fall into perspective. In case of the former, there were the usual noises and clichéd responses– condemning growing intolerance, bemoaning the rapidly shrinking space of freedom of expression, so on and so forth. The latter — Kejriwal’s threat — was greeted with a vehemence and unanimity rarely seen in the Indian media.
Both Varadarajan, former editor of The Hindu, one of India’s most respected newspapers, and Professor Sundar, sociologist, academician and civil liberties activist, have earned a considerable degree of notoriety and opprobrium, which only seem to be increasing of late. The choicest invectives are reserved for them, especially for Varadarajan. Anti-national, traitors, and shameless espousers of terrorism — the list goes on. The reason? They have been trenchant critics of the aforementioned “announcement”, as well as of proclamations of innocence by the government of Chhattisgarh state, and by the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and his humongous band of acolytes.
Chhattisgarh, a state in central India, has been the hotbed of insurgency, the causes of which are too many and complex to be addressed here. However, the BJP-ruled government had a novel solution — raise a band of state-sponsored militia, arm them to the teeth, grant them carte blanche powers to kill, rape, maim, plunder, and unleash them on the insurgents.
Sundar has been a vocal critic of such “atrocious” “counter-insurgency measures” and in 2011, acting upon her petition, India’s Supreme Court outlawed the government’s policy. The court did not mince words in its censure of a government killing its own citizens in cold blood.
The government has not taken too kindly to such strictures — while continuing to subvert the court’s order, it has also accused Sundar of complicity with the insurgents.
What I’m about to write is grisly but it’s based on reality and on war. And the word needs to get out. It’s about how wars distort the truth and how gender becomes a fancy topic to throw in when convenient.
Imagine. You are in Gardez, Afghanistan. You are celebrating the joyous arrival of a newborn - a little baby - in your house. You all speak Dari, one of the most beautiful languages spoken in Asia. There is music, there is dancing; All to welcome the birth of a child. You are happy. At midnight, a raid is carried out by US forces in your house because their (flawed) intelligence agencies claim there’s a meeting going on to prepare a suicide bomber. They don’t double check, they don’t verify but they carry weapons that can put holes in your bones so they go on anyway. They carry out a massacre in your house. Five people are killed. Three are women. One of them is pregnant. One of them is a senior Afghan police officer. One of the men is zip-cuffed up and watches in horror how US soldiers dig bullets out of his dead wife. They cover the entire incident up. It never reaches the news. When it does, it’s a quick flash. Most of us don’t even remember.
After the US soldiers - the Joints Special Operations Command members - raided that house, they take the remaining men into custody and interrogate them through barbaric means trying to get them to indicate that the family had a connection with the Taliban. Men who had nothing to do with the Taliban. In international press, the report is presented as: “US Forces stumble upon the aftermath of what looks like a Taliban honor killing.”
Honor killing. Feminists in the world roar. Liberal feminists want justice for these dead women. “Religion is oppressive! Those men killed these women for dancing, didn’t they? Those monsters!” Little do they know, the same saviors that were in the region to “rescue” women were the killers. But we see no link between dogma and gender when we look at the US Military; We are taught to see them as saviors, as warriors of justice. And so the leader of the JSOC, Vice Admiral William McRaven enters that village post-raid with scores of Afghan soldiers and American soldiers and offers a sheep to sacrifice - a tradition in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is done to gain one’s forgiveness after misconduct - in front of the family. A photographer snaps a photo of the reconciliation that is offered to the grieving family. All is well, all is good. At least according to selective media reports.
But it is never found out whether those soldiers were disciplined for killing innocent people. Whether they were held accountable for murder. Yes, murder. Call it what it is. And it goes on. A journalist who tries to present this brutal incident in public is instantly demonized and hushed. Similar to the case of the Yemeni journalist who was jailed - at Obama’s order - for exposing a US missile strike in Yemen that killed civilians.
The truth is obscured and distorted during war. It is presented in bits and pieces understated and overstated at will. But what is horrifying is how easily it is fed into a consumer’s mind. Imagine how many massacres have been hidden from us to keep a war going on and on and on.
Click the link.
An Open Letter to Maya Khan - P2 - Hindu conversion case
What hurts me the most, Maya, is how you have – like many others – used my faith for consumerism, for shoddy attempts at gaining more ratings and ravings. It hurts me when a friend of mine – a Christian – confides in me that she knows that most of the Muslim population in Pakistan would be extremely outraged had a Muslim been converted on TV in a country where they were a minority. It hurts me when I read how people instantly start defaming Islam, my faith that has inculcated in me a profound respect and harmony for non-Muslims, despite knowing that it was not Islam that taught you to run a talk show on a live conversion but your greed for more hits and your insensitivity to the fact that minorities in Pakistan are already isolated and marginalized, that people of non-state religion already know when to keep their mouths shut, that these people will never know that there are people like me who resent you for you irresponsibility – people who are Muslims – and will never, ever condone such a blatant misuse of faith under the guise of ‘spirituality’ on a cheesy TV show. You hurt and maim what you claim to love – a faith that does not encourage relegating minorities into public objects for viewership. That their conversions are utmost private. That their forced conversions are utmost inhumane. Your idea has again, subsequently, backfired.
[full letter here]
Maya Khan did a morning show on a Hindu boy converting to Islam. The idea was not only controversial, and I say this as a Muslim, but deeply disrespectful to the marginalized minorities in Pakistan.
Oprah’s magical mystery tour of India: You still eat with your hands?
Yesterday I had the dubious pleasure of watching Oprah’s Next Chapter: India on TLC. The name of the programme is pretty self-explanatory. And I’d already heard of her series, Oprah’s Next Chapter in the US where she “steps outside of the studio for enlightening conversations with newsmakers, celebrities, thought leaders and real-life families”. I’ve never been a great fan of Oprah’s – and the fact that she truly follows and believes everything that Deepak Chopra and Dr Phil say has nothing to do with it. I do think though, that she’s a good interviewer, she’s well-informed, an easy conversationalist and is well-travelled. But all that has changed after watching Oprah’s Next Chapter: India.
Myopic, unaware, ignorant and gauche. This was Middle America at its best worst.
Two episodes make up the India episodes. The first being the one I saw and which I think was shot during her visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival this year. This was Oprah’s first visit to India. Now whenever an American or a British TV show host visits India, he or she is always accompanied on his travels through our very exotic land by someone living in India, a sort of cultural friend, philosopher and guide.
So was Oprah. She was taken on a guided tour through a slum in Bombay by the prince of poverty tourism – Gregory David Roberts. He of Shantaram and deplorable sentence construction fame. Who has anointed him tour guide to the slums of India? Oprah seemed quite happy to have one of her ilk show her around through the by-lanes of the slum. And the slum is where Oprah’s “oh-my-god-how wonderfully-pathetically-quaint-to-be-so-poor” avatar stepped out in full glory.
So Oprah trooped into one of our vintage slums to meet a family – parents and three children – who live in a 10 square foot room. Now I’m not surprised that Oprah was surprised to see an entire family living in such tiny quarters. Although I’m sure she could find cramped ghettos in the States. What surprised me was the amazing lack of sensitivity to the children’s feelings or the feelings of the parents who’d opened up their home to her. All the children go to school, and were extremely well-mannered and seemed happy and quite carefree like children their age are meant to be. They didn’t seem to realise that their home was smaller than the homes of others. Or that their father didn’t earn as much as he could.
But not for long. Once Oprah got through with them, they must have committed seppuku.
She asked the children how they could live in such a “tiny” room and actually wanted to know, “Don’t you feel it’s too cramped?” She also asked the six-year-olds whether they were happy. Which must have made them wonder why they shouldn’t be. She then interrogated the father about whether he was happy and satisfied. He got teary-eyed and said that he wished he could earn more and provide for a more comfortable life for his children. After making him weep in front of his family, Oprah said that she knows how awful it is for children to see their father weep.
She did look for a shower head in the toilet and seem amazed to hear they bathed with a bucket. And she marveled at how all their clothes fit onto a small shelf. She pointedly avoided any mention the massive LCD TV which adorned their wall. That would have killed the sob story. When their older daughter told Oprah that she’d like to go to London to study further, Oprah also played her role as American ambassador to the hilt and said, “No. Come to America, it’s a lovely country. It’s the best”.
After visiting the strange exotic “slum people” who seemed to live on top of some magic faraway tree, she immediately proceeded to the home of one of Bombay’s richie-rich families. And then displayed her ignorance there as well.
The joint family which was dressed in full Indian regalia served her a meal on silver thalis and katoris. She looked at the food and then made her best statement of the entire episode – “So I hear some people in India STILL eat with their hands”. I don’t know what people in America are eating their hot dogs, pizzas and tacos with but perhaps Oprah’s home has evolved cutlery for all that. Then she told her viewers that ALL women in India live with their mothers-in-law and extended family.
Then to totally wash away all that grime of the slum, she got togged out in a Tarun Tahiliani sari to go and visit the home of the “Brad and Angelina of Bollywood”. Which if you didn’t realise, are Abhishek and Ash or as O puts it, Aaaarsh and Abheeeshuk whose child she said was “lit from within” whatever that means. I think it’s a condition that happens to children in Deepak Chopra’s homeland. Then she went to a party thrown in her honour by billionaire socialite Parmeshwar Godrej which was the first accurate description of a person in the entire episode. She did marvel at the paparazzi outside the Bachchan home, which is quite impressive on any given day. And then we got to see her say hello to Piggy Chops, Shiamak Dawar, Anil Kapoor and all the Bollywood glitterati. She interrogated A R Raman – as she calls him – and spoke to him about how even he lives with his mother and whether he loves his wife who he had an arranged marriage with. And after I barfed a little in my mouth, it was the end of her journey to Bombay.
The second episode will have her visit Taj Mahal – as she and every foreigner must. And I will watch the episode. Maybe she’ll tell some more unsuspecting people how poor and wretched their lives are, and also state how she’s heard that many Indians STILL don’t use toilet paper to wipe their bums. The possibilities are endless.