#Cobrapost sting and Hindutva in the newsroom

The environment is quite conducive for hardline Hindutvavadi organisations to make inroads in the media.

ByTejas Harad
#Cobrapost sting and Hindutva in the newsroom
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The lines between editorial and marketing departments are more blurred than media organisations would like to acknowledge. This has been well established by documentation of paid news cases. The Cobrapost sting reinforces the fact that media’s business model is advertisement-centric.

Newspapers are sold at a much lower price than the cost of newsprint and news gathering. News channels cannot manage to run operations only on subscription revenue, considering the very low subscription charges in India. Advertisement revenue is supposed to ensure that media organisations not just recover their costs of operations but also make profits.

Government is one of the major sources of media organisations’ advertisement revenue. The Bharatiya  Janata Party government has just launched a marketing campaign with the tagline ‘Saaf Niyat, Sahi Vikas’ (Clean Intent, Right Development) to celebrate its four years in office. According to a reply to an RTI query, the central government spent about Rs 4,300 crore on advertisements and publicity through different media over the past four years. The expenditure on advertisements will increase progressively as the general elections of 2019 come closer. Ideally, government advertisements needn’t influence media organisations’ editorial decisions. Practically, this isn’t always true.

While marketing and editorial departments of media organisations are supposed to function separately, the Cobrapost sting proves that that is not always the case. Most officials caught on camera were talking about running advertisements, advertorials and other promotional content that is demarcated from news and opinion. But there were also those hinting and sometimes explicitly saying that they wouldn’t mind running editorial content demanded by the client.

In one of the clippings, Ayan Bhattacharya, Senior Manager (Sales) at ETV, purportedly tells the undercover journalist, Pushp Sharma, that his channel “supports BJP only” and that efforts towards propagating the party ideology will increase from “80 per cent to 90 per cent.” When Sharma asks for rival parties to be “thrashed”, he says, “We are thrashing anyway.”

Sharma then meets Network18 group’s Sales and Marketing Head, Harsh Vardhan, in Delhi. In the course of the conversation, Harsh Vardhan wants to win Sharma’s confidence and in that context, describes himself as “a strong Hindu man who talks about nationalism from the heart.”

The interesting thing about Cobrapost’s sting is the role of ideology. Pushp Sharma posed as a functionary of the Shrimad Bhagwat Geeta Prachar Samiti, and approached all media officials under the fake identity of Acharya Atal. He asked them if they would run Hindutva propaganda material that would help RSS and BJP win 2019 general elections.

It is no secret that media organisations are ready to make editorial compromises in exchange for money. But, here, one wonders if media officials were more receptive towards and less suspicious of Acharya Atal aka Pushp Sharma because their own prejudices aligned with his.

Like all other private sectors, India’s media has a predominance of upper castes. The current big names in media such as Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Arnab Goswami, N Ram, Raj Kamal Jha, Ravish Kumar, P Sainath, Siddharth Varadarajan, Rajat Sharma, Malini Parthasarathy, and so on, are Brahmins. Others are non-Brahmin upper castes.

The upper castes of India are socialised into Brahminism from birth, which is sold to them as Hinduism. In an article for Round Table India, Obed Manwatkar observes that in his show for The Wire Jan Gan Man ki Baat, “Vinod Dua [in the show] talks about the presidential elections and some emerging youth icons in politics. This show was shot in his house. He starts the show mentioning that he is at home and that the Ganesha pictures in his background were paintings presented to him by Mr Lakshman. Later on, in the show, he mentions the list of the Presidents of India. He gives an explanation that Mr S Radhakrishnan as a scholar went abroad and inspired the world about ‘Hinduism’ and not ‘Hindutva’. This brings us to the question: What is Hinduism and what is Hindutva? And how does Hinduism differ from Hindutva? Why confuse people when it’s one and the same thing?”

The hardline upper castes extol the virtues of Vedas, Gita and other ancient Sanskrit texts and never tire of praising the greatness of ‘Hinduism’, which they also call as Sanatan Dharma. The liberal upper castes, while liberal in their demeanour, never question the basic tenets that are supposed to define Hinduism.

In an interview with Barkha Dutt, Shashi Tharoor says, “What was Gandhiji’s secularism? It was, I am a Hindu, but Hinduism absorbs and accommodates all. See, he will have a bhajan saying ‘Eeshwara Allah tere naam’, so that Raghupati Raghava Rajaram sounds very Hindu and the second line brings ‘Allah’ into it. That is Gandhiji. That kind of Hinduism is the Hinduism of the Indian state.” Barkha Dutt doesn’t question Tharoor equating Gandhi’s Hinduism with the Indian state.

Liberal upper castes differ from hardliners in one major respect. They do not define themselves in opposition to Muslims, staunchly believe in ‘secularism’ and, at least in theory, criticise the caste system.

But they too never let go of the Hindu–Muslim binary. Since they are obsessed with secularism, religion is the primary identity through which they see the Indian society; caste comes later. That is why stories of marriages between Hindu–Muslim couples regularly make headlines like this and this.

Secularism in India is understood as tolerance of all faiths and the line that we are made to hear so often in school — unity in diversity. This understanding puts Hinduism in the same plane as organised religions like Islam, Christianity and Buddhism. There is hardly any difference in how upper caste liberals define Hinduism and how upper caste Right-wing defines Hinduism. Both want to repackage Brahminism as Hinduism with its roots in Vedic and post-Vedic literary corpus, and skirt the difficult questions of caste.

Jyoti Punwani in an article titled “’Not my Hinduism’ should be our slogan” writes: “The cow is sacred to many of us, but these killings [of Muslims] are definitely not part of the Hinduism we know and practise. Yes, physical ill-treatment of Dalits is part of some Hindu texts, but today, few Hindus would justify it.” Punwani makes her stand clear against religious violence but doesn’t have anything concrete to say about everyday caste violence that is inherent to Hinduism.

She makes it seem like the caste violence is only part of “some Hindu texts” and not woven in the social fabric of the so-called Hindu society.

When criticised for his tweet hailing the appointment of two politicians from his community to the cabinet, Sardesai wrote: ““GSB” refers to the Gaud Saraswat Brahmins, a tiny, but a highly progressive community of fish-eating Brahmins that I belong to which nestles along the Konkan coast, across Maharashtra, Goa, through to parts of Karnataka. In his valuable book Saraswats, Chandrakant Keni traces the history of the Saraswat community, of the migration from Kashmir, of how they faced oppression from the conquering Portuguese, how they zealously held onto their family traditions and village deities, and placed a premium on education as a path to upward mobility.” Here, the all-powerful Brahmin community becomes a victim in Sardesai’s narrative. Barkha Dutt’s view on reservations makes it clear that her liberalism is elitism and she doesn’t understand caste.

The only difference between upper caste liberals and upper caste Right-wing is that liberals don’t condone the use of ‘Hinduism’ for electoral politics and the Right-wing’s use of violence and propaganda against other communities, especially Muslims, to achieve its political ends. Right-wing, on the other hand, doesn’t have compunctions about using violence against Muslims and have based their whole politics on the demonisation of Muslims.

Since all upper castes take Hinduism as a given and agree on its tolerance, it becomes easier to portray Hinduism as the religion of majority in the country and not just the Brahmins and other upper castes. They do not agree that caste is the defining feature of Indian society that pervades other religions too. Even though liberals circle of elites are dominated by Brahmins and other Dvijas, upper caste Muslims, Christians and Sikhs too find a place there. Militant Hinduism ensures that the focus remains sternly on religion, while the hold of upper castes over power and resources remains unquestioned. Upper caste liberals refuse to acknowledge that militant Hinduism is nothing but Brahminism on steroids. They think the answer to militant Hinduism is not an annihilation of castes but ‘real’ Hinduism. If you ask them to define what this real Hinduism is, they will resort to Vedas and Puranas just like the Right-wingers. This ‘real’ Hinduism of liberals is incapable of stripping upper castes of their power and material wealth. There is only a marginal difference between ‘real’ Hinduism of liberals and militant Hinduism of the Right.

The environment has always been quite conducive for hardline Hindutvavadi organisations to make inroads in the media. This was evident in media’s sensational reporting around Babri mosque in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Gujarat riots of early 2000s. So, on the one hand, media is hungry for money, on the other, its upper caste showrunners are ideologically not much away from the party in power and its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

One interesting fact that needs to be noted is that just like the media, Right-wing organisations’ top leadership also primarily consists of Brahmins and other non-Brahmin upper castes. Though Cobrapost’s sting operation was, well, just a sting operation, nobody with any conviction can say that the real-life Acharya Atals aren’t already fixing deals with media organisations.

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