The Anatomy Of A Protest

The Delhi protests raise a number of questions – on TV coverage, unrealistic expectations & human rights.

ByAbhinandan Sekhri
The Anatomy Of A Protest
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Delhi saw a mini-explosion of rage at India Gate and Raisina Hill over the weekend. It received wall-to-wall coverage on TV news channels (unnecessarily, some protested). So extensive was the coverage that even Sachin’s retirement from ODIs was a secondary story, although a couple of channels tried valiantly to make it the lead.

What’s the story, some journalists argue and tweet in rage?

The 23-year-old rape victim battling for her life in hospital? The protests? The government inaction to the protest? Or the crackdown on the media itself which Headlines Today and Times Now gave air-time to while NDTV and IBN journalists tweeted disapprovingly about, saying the story is not about the media.

Isn’t the girl battling for life in Safdarjung hospital, “the story”? Yes, she is. And thanks to wall-to-wall coverage and the campaigns channels have initiated, I’m optimistic such things won’t go unnoticed or unreported any more. In fact, I do believe we might just come out of this episode to a safer Delhi, and even if there is a small chance of that happening, the campaigns and coverage have been worth it.

What’s The Story?

Now coming back to the question of – What’s The Story? In the world of TV, that which can provide visuals is the story. That’s not a good or bad thing. It’s the nature of the beast and that’s just the way it is. It would save people a lot of heartburn and rage to understand that reality. A story getting TV coverage, and how much, depends on the following criteria of which it must fulfill at least a couple.

  1. Adequate visuals. If you can’t get a camera there it won’t be a story.
  2. Close enough to get OB (outdoor broadcasting) vans and several reporters to for live coverage. This will ensure extensive coverage.
  3. Has confrontation and drama. Preferably a good side and bad side.
  4. Challenges power the way we know it. Strikes at the fundamental power dynamic or engagement.

None of these four aspects can be underestimated. A journalist, Thangjam Nanao Singh, was shot and killed in police firing during a protest in Imphal on Sunday. There too, the protest was a reaction to the molestation of a lady. There were no visuals. Just a ticker for some, and an anchor-mention in some cases.  A footnote of a story. No wall-to-wall coverage. It’s not that news networks love the sprained-ankle-afflicted-while-being-chased-by-cops/student here in Delhi more than one of their own killed in Imphal. It’s logistics. Cursing TV news networks is pointless. And since print journos do much of this, rather than waste column space in trashing TV news, print is in a position to step in and give these stories the real estate they deserve. And they should. But did they?

Rise Of The Logic-Seeker

One of the criticisms of the Delhi protest has been that logic-seekers can’t see the sense behind the protest. Typically, this mindset is sympathetic to the government. What’s the protest for? What’s the demand? What do they want? All the accused have been arrested. Now there will be a trial like in any civilised country and punishment will follow as prescribed by the Indian Penal Code.

What the logic-seekers fail to understand is that this outpouring of grief and anger is a story too and soon can be “the story”. This story scores very high on all criteria listed before and unusually high on criteria number 4 which is going to shape the government-public as well as news narrative as we go forward. And will be part of the larger discourse of a disengaged, complacent and pampered ruling class.

Sure the protests were vague yells of anger. It was a Rang De Basanti moment for many who’ve just sprouted facial hair. It was an exciting time for school-kids who showed up in uniform. It was an opportunity to feel fearless and the rush of adrenalin when a lathi-wielding-khaki-uniform doesn’t make you shit your pants but you find yourself shoving back. There was no specific demand and just a collective rant, or angst-ridden cry. Matters came to a boil on Sunday evening. The buildup had begun on Friday. Yet, many have unrealistically tall expectations of maturity and nuance from crowds of youngsters, and ridiculously low expectations from a complacent, ineffective and disconnected governing class. Old and experienced who have taken the reins of the country in their hands but are unable to rise to the demands of leadership – a very important aspect of which is to be able to engage and diffuse standoffs and prevent a crisis. Expectations from a 42-year middle-aged Rahul Gandhi are less than those from 16-to 22-year-old students. Welcome to the self-indulgent world of people like us.

Why The Public Hue And Cry? Why Not?

Okay, so the kids were illogical and had no plan. Did anyone get out there and engage when there was the chance? Congress leaders who trooped in and out of TV studios to defend Robert Vadra, had nothing to say or do or even try and get in the middle of the action? Act as a release pressure valve. Maybe they would’ve been shoved around a bit. They’d get over it. I’m sure Sharad Pawar has recovered from that looped and televised slap and is neither devastated or a “zinda lash”.

Nehru would barge into the middle of a rioting mob. Bapu’s mere presence turned the mood of a gathering. Even mere tokenism could have dissipated the situation. But when you have hundreds and thousands of poorly trained and under-equipped sub inspectors and constable level cops who can be used as fodder, why face the heat yourself? Constable Subhash Tomar is in hospital in a critical condition.  Meanwhile, “leaders” – invisible and ineffective – waited it out a stone’s throw away in the Lutyen’s bungalows the taxpayer maintains for them. A self-indulgent out-of-touch leadership has no expectations from itself. And many of us too have internalised that.

Looking For Leadership? Don’t. 

What can Manmohan do? Going by history, this particular leader can do nothing unless it’s economic or political jugglery required for a nuclear deal. But any other leader could do or pretend to do the following.

  1. Announce on day one, as the tension built, that security cover for VIPs will be reduced and per capita police force will increase in Delhi. Claim to be working on a memo to send to all states to do the same. Give targets of freeing up personnel from VIP security to be deployed for common folk. The Planning Commission gives targets all the time which usually find a place in the wastepaper basket of most ministries. Do the same here. It could have prevented injuries to kids and cops.
  2. Announce with the usual sidekicks in the background who can clap on cue that resource allocation in terms of vehicles and police posts will increase while permanent deployments in homes and in VIP areas will go down.
  3. Tell the celebrated young Turks very early in the protest to get into the crowd and act as buffers and, if necessary, punching bags for the venting public. They’re strong lads and can take a hit in the jaw. That would save much and build their image.
  4. Make a really big proclamation like. “Effective today, we withdraw SPG/ Z category cover to the following – Robert Vadra, Amar Singh, Pri…” you wouldn’t have to list anymore. The crowd would’ve lovingly said, “You had me at Vadra”. That itself would impress the washed masses, more stunned by this than water cannons. And if the intention is insincere and just a preventive measure, re-instate the security to the blue-eyed boys after a couple of weeks or months (like they re-instated Ajit Pawar and Vilas Rao in Maharashtra once the heat was off them). Job done. Much hurt and misery averted.

These are merely four specific possible actions. Accomplished and brilliant minds can come up with more. But only a complete dullard will come up with the plan – Let’s sit on our ass and see what happens.

Our leadership is unused to engaging with the public or being accountable. Thus, the discomfort with RTI and Lokpals.

More likely Manmohan solutions would be.

  1. Privatise police force. Break Delhi into 12 blocks. Each zone is allocated to corporations by a bidding process. A PPP model where competition will decide which bidder gets to take over blocks that underperform. Every 3 months a crime audit will determine whose licenses get cancelled and who gets more blocks for better performance. CAG will not do the audit.
  2. Privatise courts to clear the backlog of pending cases. Set up PPP model where the government auctions courts. The rate of property will be merely notional since such grand old buildings can’t really have a price, so zero loss will be ensured. The market mechanism is optimised for fair outcomes since courts that provide bad justice will be edged out of the market by those that provide good justice.

Human Rights For Some, But Not For Others?

There is one big point of concern that the horrific rape case has also thrown up. The feeling that because of the ghastly nature of the crime, what constitutes human rights or one’s stand on death penalty can momentarily be shifted. I’ve seen hardcore human rights supporters easing up ground. The thing is that human rights and the death penalty are black and white positions. There isn’t space for compromise or grey areas. You either believe in human rights or you don’t. If one claims one does, then it applies to all.

Here is the human rights charter as prescribed by the UN.

No matter how appalling or beastly the deed, if one forsakes the human rights stance once, it can’t be reclaimed. It’s gone forever. Then any debate on torture, public hangings, dismembering of bodies or lynching has to be on how necessary it is in that particular case and argued as a cost-benefit analysis on a case-to-case basis, on technicalities. The human rights argument once abandoned is abandoned forever. Therefore, it’s wise to think long and hard before saying human rights don’t apply to someone no matter how inhuman the act. There is no – “I believe in human rights except in this case.”

You can’t not believe in God, “except” Hanumanji. Well then you do believe in God. One can’t say the glass is full except for the top half. Well then. The glass is not full.

I can’t say this column is over…expect for a few more things I want to say. Well then it’s not over, is it? It is now. Theek hai?

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