It’s the age of contrivance and the temptation to blame it all on America is overwhelming. If it hadn’t been for American television news shows coming up with the idea of turning news into entertainment, we wouldn’t have the splatterfest of stupidity that fills primetime on our televisions today. Instead of news, we get debates and these are, as critic and historian Daniel Boorstin termed it, “pseudo-events” – events that take place for the sole purpose of being reported. “We begin to be puzzled,” Boorstin wrote in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America , “about what is really the ‘original’ of an event. The authentic record of what ‘happens’ or is said comes increasingly to seem to be what is given out in advance. More and more events become dramatic performances in which ‘men in the news’ simply act out their script. The story prepared ‘for future release’ acquires an authenticity that competes with that of the actual occurrences on the scheduled date.”
If America spawned the problem, it’s also nurtured critics who have tackled it. Boorstin wrote The Image in 1962, after the first televised presidential debate in 1960 cost Richard Nixon the election. His insights remain on point even today, as the election of President Donald Trump proves. However, while American media has pushed back against Trump with admirable zeal, the Indian media’s reaction to what’s happening around us has been largely callous.
Yesterday, the headline-maker was Gurmehar Kaur, a 20-year-old student of Lady Shri Ram College who has been targeted by irate Right-wingers, especially after cricketer Virender Sehwag and actor Randeep Hooda thought it would be entertaining to ridicule her on social media.
After the first round of violence at Ramjas College, Kaur put up this post.
She wasn’t the only one who alleged Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) had started the violence, but Kaur became the chosen one. Not because of what she was saying or how she said it, but because of her online history. She had something in her past that could be used to deflect attention from ABVP members turning into stone-pelters. (A moment’s silence for the vicious irony of Right-leaning students taking a leaf out of the playbook of Kashmiri protestors.)
About a year ago, Kaur, who describes herself as a “peace activist”, had put up this video:
It resurfaced after the clashes at Ramjas College and Kaur protesting against ABVP, which happens to be affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. What followed was a concerted campaign to conflate Kaur’s old video with the Facebook post she put up after last week’s violence. A screenshot of Kaur started circulating in which she’s holding up a placard that says war killed her father, not Pakistan. (Kaur’s father died defending a Rashtriya Rifles camp that came under militant attack in Jammu and Kashmir in 1999). The similarity between this image and the photograph of her #StudentsAgainstABVP message are superficial. Kaur herself looks very different in the two, but possibly because Kaur is seen holding a piece of paper with a handwritten message in both, the public fell for the propaganda. Enter Sehwag, with this post, which should have been seen as an exemplary display of his searing intellect and either ignored or taken apart.
Instead, it was lauded and Kaur became a target.
It’s worth noting that Sehwag isn’t known for making any political statements. Neither is Hooda, who cheered Sehwag on (and has since offered this explanation).
Why Sehwag picked this particular issue to make a stand is something only he can explain. Did he just have some free time and Kaur’s tweet surfaced in his timeline? Did someone convince him that he was witty and egg him on to put that attempt at humour on social media? Sehwag’s tweet is accompanied by a hashtag that is equally perplexing: #BharatJaisiJagahNahi. Fair enough, but what does that have to do with a 20-year-old asking for peace in South Asia? Who or what convinced Sehwag that the nation needed him to soldier ahead and tweet to set the record right?
Perhaps, as we type, he’s getting an explanation Photoshopped on to the placard he’d used previously.
The bottom line is that Sehwag, swamped by a hormonal rush of humour and nationalism, was one of the first celebrities to notice Kaur. He’s responsible for the tweet that has played an important role in casting Kaur as ‘anti-national’. From there, things quickly spiralled downwards. While some prominent journalists, like Barkha Dutt, have supported Kaur, others have contributed to the campaign to vilify her.
Indeed, one should not be blind to fact — and the fact is that the question is not who is responsible for her father’s death, but whether the attacks on Kaur are justified. Another fact is that if anyone should have the right to decide the narrative of Captain Mandeep Singh’s death, it should be his family. How he died is not being questioned: he was killed when fidayeen attacked a Rashtriya Rifles camp, in Jammu & Kashmir, in 1999. If his family’s way of dealing with his untimely death is by not blaming Pakistan, then that’s their decision. They could well argue what exactly is the Pakistan that Kanwal holds responsible for Singh’s death when everything is so transient? The government of the time? The entire population, which has inevitably changed in actual terms since 1999?
Kanwal’s pronouncement that Kaur is “wrong” about her father’s death was not just insensitive, but also irresponsible when he’s well aware of the kind of online harassment Kaur is facing.
Also, freedom of speech does indeed give Sehwag and Hooda the leave to crack their tasteless jokes. They’ve just got to be able to take the criticism that follows, especially since they’d like Kaur to be thick-skinned enough to weather their attacks upon her.
Kaur has been receiving messages that lash out at her for ‘using’ her father’s death for publicity. She has also been threatened with rape. Politicians like Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju joined the fray yesterday. Evidently, there’s not much work for the Home Ministry when its minister of state has the time to weigh in on a random student’s random social media posts. Either that, or we’ve got Big Brother watching us, which is far from comforting as a thought.
Curiously, BJP’s immediate response to a disagreeable opinion is that it is the result of brainwashing. Whether this is because the party is intimately familiar with the process or because the patriarchal mindset struggles with the idea of a woman (that too, young. Gasp) thinking for herself, is hard to tell.
Under these circumstances, a great deal of responsibility rests upon the media’s shoulders. This is a golden opportunity to score ratings — last year’s sedition scandal at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) kept viewers glued to the television, much to advertisers’ delight — but there are also the duties and expectations of journalism. The Indian media owed its audiences some facts and clarifications. It needed to untangle the situation. Instead, television news chose to lie back and think of ratings.
Not a single channel made an effort to distinguish between what’s happening to Kaur with the arrests at JNU last year. Rahul Shivshankar on Times Now mocked the idea that a college seminar titled “Cultures of Protest” could be purely academic. Not only does that make one wonder about his college years, it’s also a strenuous attempt at suggesting the Ramjas College seminar was the same as students gathering to voice their political views. It isn’t. One is academic, the other is political (and just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with either. Both should be encouraged). To give credit to Shivshankar, he also said, “We aren’t talking sense here, we’re talking sedition,” which is perhaps a lot more honest a statement than he intended it to be.
Kaur has no political connections. Her college is not even affiliated to Delhi University Students’ Union (DUSU). Her stand is against violence on campus, which she believes was ABVP’s doing. Even in her statement to the press, Kaur stressed that she was not making a political point. She just wants students, particularly young women like her, to be safe and not face assault and threats of gang rape. That her old posts have been hijacked and are being politicised without her consent is an added violation.
Yet, on India Today, Gaurav Sawant declared, “In 2016, it was Kanhaiya Kumar. In 2017, it’s Gurmehar Kaur.” The only thing the two have in common is that they’re students and even in that, there is a difference because she’s an undergraduate while he was a postgraduate. For Sawant, though, the shallow similarity was enough. He smoothly clubbed a female student protesting against physical violence and online harassment with male students charged with sedition, as though they’re the same. He saw no contrast between Kumar’s practised politics and Kaur’s apolitical stance. He noted no difference between Kumar stepping into the limelight with confident ease and Kaur struggling with her viral ‘fame’. It’s as though our television journalists have been told so often that history repeats itself that they don’t notice when new patterns emerge.
The paranoid (or insightful, depending on your point of view) will interpret this as the journalists having ‘sold out’ to the Right-leaning establishment. Equally crippling is a more bland but worrying explanation: complacency and lack of preparedness.
Keep in mind that prime time shows are in premium slots. In theory, the channel is supposed to work extra hard on them, both editorially and in terms of marketing. And yet, Tarek Fatah, was on the Times Now panel during the debate on violence on college campuses. Fateh’s qualification for being on the show? That he has faced online threats. This is lazy. Combined with Shivshankar shouting down panellists he disagrees with, it’s just bad journalism and worse TV.
The most disappointing prime time offering, however, came from Rajdeep Sardesai. His producers pulled off a coup when they got Kaur to appear on the show. Earlier, Kaur had said on social media that she wouldn’t be speaking to the media and would only make a statement during a protest march to be held on Tuesday, February 28.
Yet Sardesai was woefully under-prepared for this show. Seconds into his interview with Kaur, it became evident that Sardesai was unaware that there were two social media posts of Kaur’s that were floating around on the internet. He actually asked Kaur how she could claim she wasn’t using her status of “a martyr’s daughter” when she had raised how her father died while protesting against the ABVP. In her reply, Kaur clarified to Sardesai that the video about her father’s death was from a year ago.
The impact of Sardesai’s limited research was felt most piercingly a little later when Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue and Delhi University professor, Rakesh Sinha, started talking. Sinha said Kaur was “trolling” her father and “cashing in” on his death. It was an ugly and disgusting attack. Obviously flustered by Singh, Sardesai described the RSS ideologue’s allegations as “serious”. The accurate word would have been “offensive” and it’s appalling that Sinha managed to surprise someone as seasoned as Sardesai.
Instead of asking Sinha to give some concrete logic to prove his allegation that Kaur was dishonouring and exploiting her dead father, Sardesai asked Kaur to respond, using the shield of objectivity to hide how little background information he had.
Had Sinha been asked to explain the basis of his allegations, he would have been exposed. The basis of Sinha’s claim is that Kaur has allegedly evoked her father’s death and criticised ABVP in one social media post when in fact they are two, unrelated posts. Sardesai could have pointed out to Sinha that even if Kaur wanted to exploit her father’s death to accrue fame, it hadn’t worked since the video is a year old. It’s only become famous now because some Right-leaning trolls have unearthed it and are circulating it. But Sardesai had come unprepared, armed with a different script and few facts, and he floundered rather than taking a stand. He scrambled to recover and ultimately, put up a Facebook post to articulate his stand and lament the loss of his twenties. Because a prime time show isn’t enough of a platform?
Some of the complacency we saw on air yesterday comes from the conviction that the public doesn’t actually care about journalism and all one needs to do is ride trends and feed the hashtag-hungry beast that is the audience. Increasingly, the news depends on catchphrases — rather than insight or reportage — to make an impact and engage the viewer. Perhaps the laziness we saw on television yesterday is also the fallout of the exhausted jadedness that comes from being immersed in the world of hard news, with its own machinations and internal politics. Whatever the reason, it’s worrying when journalists will, wittingly or unwittingly, help fabricate a pseudo-event rather than unravel it for the audience.
It’s also worth wondering that if propaganda is targeted towards social media and journalism takes its cues from the virtual world instead of reporting on the ground reality, then what are the stories we’re missing because our media is too busy with these pseudo-events?
Ironically, while the business model is broken and there’s widespread distrust at the media, journalism has never had as wide a reach or as many tools at its disposal as it does today. It should be an exciting time, full of possibilities, rather than one that fills us all with despair. Boorstin foresaw this too. “Our progress poisons the sources of our experience,” he wrote. “And the poison tastes so sweet that it spoils our appetite for plain fact.”
Meanwhile, here’s Kaur’s last public statement: