It doesn’t take much for a viral video to make it to mainstream media news these days. Ditto for all news pertaining to soldiers at the border.
Oddly enough, a news item with both these elements did not receive the attention (and resultant outrage) one would have expected.
A soldier with the Border Security Force (BSF), Constable Tej Bahadur Yadav, from the force’s 29th battalion based in Jammu and Kashmir, put up a video on January 8 on Facebook, alleging poor living conditions at the post he lives in. Explaining the difficulties under which soldiers operate in snowed-in areas, Yadav says in the video that they are on duty for about 12 hours and are provided inadequate and poor quality food. He says on certain days, soldiers go hungry.
Yadav asserts the problem is corruption in higher ranks. According to him, the government organises enough provisions but they don’t reach the soldiers because senior officials siphon them off. Yadav is evidently aware what this exposé could do to his career, but he wants the media to pay attention to soldiers’ plight and he wants action.
His hopes from the media aren’t misplaced, one would imagine, given how “soldiers at the border” have been a rallying point for the better part of news in 2016. However, if front-page displays and prime-time discussions are anything to go by, Yadav’s appeal did not resonate with large sections of the media, even the self-professed nationalist TV news channels.
Authenticity of the video cannot be the reason for the limited coverage Yadav has received. Remember, just last week, the media played up a viral video of a case of alleged molestation in Bengaluru, and indeed does so routinely.
Even if the idea was to exercise due diligence, Yadav’s video certainly merited prominent play at least in the form of allegations.
Times Now and Zee News
These two channels pride themselves at being the upholders of the nation’s collective nationalism, which was best exemplified early last year when they made a case for the arrest of Jawaharlal Nehru University students, often linking the sedition row to the Pathankot attack on January 2, 2016. They have been conspicuously silent on the subject of the appalling conditions that Yadav alleged.
The BSF jawan’s video made it to Times Now’s 9 am headlines today, but did not qualify for last night’s prime time. A brief report put forward the soldier’s claim, stating that the BSF had rejected his claim.
Compare this to when an attack on an air base or an army camp occurs and everyone from Karan Johar to Om Puri are dragged into debates to keep the outrage lamp burning.
This is not to say the coverage of a terrorist attack on an army base is not newsworthy, but the channel’s scant coverage of Yadav’s video sends the signal that a soldier’s life matters only when he dies.
Zee News, the Rashtravadi channel, which is currently obsessing over one joker attacking another on one of its classy prime-time affairs, barely mentions the video in one bulletin. More than 24 hours after the video was released, there is no Sudhir Chaudhary doing a ‘dna analysis’ of Yadav’s claims.
The fact that Yadav’s video appeal evoked no prime-time discussions with #WeStandBySoldiers-type hashtags suggests neither channel is interested in the Indian jawaan, but in the nationalist agenda that can be promoted using these soldiers. It’s worth noting that Yadav’s video did not attack the Centre, but his critique of life at the border seems to have disqualified it from prime-time coverage because it doesn’t quite fit in Zee News’ patriotic scheme of things. Remember Chaudhary’s report from Tawang?
NDTV and India Today
These shows are carefully choreographed and their aim is not to show the operative realities of life at the border. Yadav’s video would have been a good peg to look into that – instead all we got was a brief report with claims and counter claims. By way of prime-time discussions, Left, Right And Centre and Buck Stops Now are yet to discuss the import of Yadav’s claims.
India Today, with its anchors in battle fatigues, brought the war into TV studios last year. Every time the armed forces were in the news, the set turned into a “war room”, but when there was no question of attacking Pakistan or being under attack, there was little enthusiasm. The channel carried a report on the video this morning asking the question “Disrespect Or Cry For Help?”. Anchor Padmaja Joshi hosted a 3 pm show on the issue in which she spoke to, among others, a retired BSF soldier who said he found Yadav’s allegations entirely credible.
The channel is the only one to give Yadav’s video prominence. From 8pm last night, the story has appeared regularly and was one of the Big 5 @ 10 stories, in Bhupendra Chaubey’s show. The channel has since the morning today run the story on loop and it got in touch with Yadav, whose interview has been aired. This evening’s prime-time show with Zakka Jacob will be on Yadav’s video and the conditions in which our soldiers live when in border areas.
So far, no other major channel has mentioned the topic as one of its primetime subjects.
Meanwhile, the BSF, in an official statement has said that Yadav has discipline issues and dubbed him a “bad hat”. Though it has not explained why a soldier with “bad entries” for “intoxication, AWL, fighting with seniors, offending their orders” was posted at a forward post in Jammu and Kashmir. This is not to suggest that Yadav’s viral video should be treated as gospel truth but surely it provides enough meat to initiate detailed reporting.
Despite the fact that the video was uploaded on Sunday, television media proved to be far less responsive than one would expect, that too on a slow news day. Indeed the video became a more decisive talking point after Indian Express carried Yadav’s video as the anchor page story today, giving it the importance that it deserves. IE was the only English daily of the Big Four – IE, Hindustan Times, Times of India and The Hindu – to do so.
While HT did not carry a report on Yadav’s video on the front page, it had another story based on an Army report that points to “50 gaps – ranging from body armour, night-vision gear to flawed fuel storage – that pose a threat to soldiers’ life”. This damning report that points at more real threats to the Army’s safety than Fawad Khan has predictably evoked zero discussion or even a follow-up in the TV news.
Clearly, even nationalism won’t fly if it doesn’t come with the promise of TRPs.
Update: After this story went up and about two days after Yadav’s video was posted, Zee News did two shows on the issue on Tuesday. Along with its show, Taal Thok Ke, Sudhir Chaudhary discussed the video on his primetime show, DNA, and explained that he verified every angle to the story before deciding to present it. Before playing Yadav’s video, Chaudhary reiterates BSF’s assertions that the soldier had been pulled up earlier for indiscipline issues, including “sharaabkhori” (“alcoholism”). His show goes on to present Yadav’s claims and BSF’s counter-claims. Unlike, say, the JNU row, there are two sides to the story and no clear villains or heroes in this episode of DNA. Times Now continued to ignore the story on primetime.
NDTV’s Barkha Dutt also hosted a prime-time segment on the issue on her show Buck Stops Here, titled: ‘Empty Stomach, Biting Cold’: Soldiers Let Down In Age Of Hyper-Nationalism? She began the show questioning our ‘pop patriotism’ and whether we let soldiers down when they need us the most. Notably, Dutt had former Subedar Ranbir Singh of the Central Reserve Police Force on her show. He says he has served at forward posts from Ladakh to Nicobar and offers a compassionate view of why Yadav took recourse to social media to register his complaint.