INS Viraat controversy: how the Indian media kept discrediting itself

There are enormous dangers of misinterpretation when historical facts enter the realm of politics, and journalists should address this.

WrittenBy:Pallavi Singh
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Whichever side of the political spectrum one stands on, it’s no longer a debate that the political campaign ahead of India’s general elections this year has turned caustic and distasteful. But when the past is invoked to assail political rivals, it no longer remains an act of political impropriety; it becomes a grim reminder of the degrading use of history in a rabid political discourse for purely political gains.

On May 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused the late Rajiv Gandhi—former prime minister and father of Congress President Rahul Gandhi—of using the Indian navy’s veteran warship INS Viraat as his “personal taxi” for holidaying in the Lakshadweep islands, thereby undermining national security. The reactions flew thick and fast. A war of words ensued between the Congress and the governing Bharatiya Janata Party over Modi’s remark. Until this time, readers and observers of the unfolding drama could discern that the entire class of Indian media had divided itself into two camps, each one out to discredit the other. Top journalists diligently posted their views on social media accompanied by reports that focussed on gathering versions around the event and broadcasting them without much corroboration.

Moving away from all the noise on social media and the ideological battles, let’s focus on the coverage by major national newspapers on the controversy to understand if the media lives up to its responsibility as an unbiased and diligent chronicler of events. A careful analysis illustrates that early reportage on the controversy was by and large symptomatic of the “he said, she said” brand of journalism, focussing on conflicting versions of people who claimed to be witnesses to the event when it happened.

What’s interesting here is that while Modi accused the former prime minister of using the naval ship as a “taxi” for personal holidays, newspaper coverage followed up with versions credited to former Navy officials on whether Rajiv Gandhi and his friends and family were picnicking inside INS Viraat. Reports refuting Modi’s claim said since the former prime minister did not take his friends and family inside INS Viraat for the holiday, calling it a national security threat would be a gross misrepresentation of the event. The coverage over the next two days quietly moved to a few publications publishing reports from their 1988 archives, when the trip by the former prime minister took place.

In the analysis of the present coverage focussing on people’s testimonies to validate or discredit Modi’s claim, and of the coverage in 1988 on the then prime minister’s holiday trip, disturbing trends emerge:

First, in reporting on Modi’s claim, newspapers relied on conflicting versions made by various people, including past Navy officials, who claimed to have had an intimate view of the trip when it happened, but couldn’t independently confirm or deny the accurate details of the event important in India’s modern political history for the people involved in it.

Second, most of the coverage on Modi’s accusation hinged on individual versions. While journalists could quote them as sources privy to the said event in the past, it was clear that much of the coverage also appeared gullible to the temptation to sensationalise the event. Most journalists chose to stick to relentless reporting of statements rather than discussing the disturbing use of history for cheap electoral gains during the election campaign.

Third, the majority of the journalists on social media taking sides on the veracity of the prime minister’s claim, chose to limit their criticism to the use of the past in election campaign, by calling it a vicious and personal attack on a deceased political leader. What went missing is the broader dialogue and information campaign that was needed on the alarming tendency to shift the political narrative with an invocation of history that is often vulnerable to misuse and misinterpretation, especially in the din of elections.

Fourth, it’s been even more disturbing to note that multiple versions of the event—starkly contradicting each other—came from people who belong(ed) to the Navy, exposing the vulnerability of journalists to play into political lobbies that might be at work in a highly-charged political season. Fact-check and consulting multiple sources, which are the de rigueur of credible journalism, were conveniently abandoned.

Lastly, past reports of the event emerging from the archives of India Today and The Indian Express appeared more definitive and unequivocal in their criticism of Rajiv Gandhi’s trip, a stark departure from the confusion of media coverage today. It’s useful to remember that archival reports clearly evidence the occurrence of the holiday trip, and some of them critical of the people and state machinery used for the purpose. However, publications (barring a few) who covered it in the past in great detail, today appeared to be quiet about the issues raised by journalists then reporting on the event.

The root of the controversy

It all started on May 8. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while addressing a public rally in Delhi, alleged that the Congress party undermined national security as former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had used the naval warship INS Viraat for family vacations. The accusation was widely reported by newspapers and criticised by journalists on social media, and it soon led to “source-backed” reportage with minimal efforts to independently substantiate, confirm or validate the versions being floated.

On May 9, The Wire quoted Former Chief of Navy Retired Admiral L Ramdas refuting Modi’s claims that Gandhi misused the warship INS Viraat for a family vacation in 1987. Along the same lines, NDTV the same day quoted Vice Admiral Vinod Pasricha, who commanded the Viraat in December 1987, denying reports that the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi came on board the aircraft carrier, and that his friends and Italian mother-in-law were with him. The Hindu quoted former Navy Chief Admiral Ramdas saying that Rajiv Gandhi was onboard INS Viraat on an official visit.

Two days later, an Indian Express report quoted former Union minister P Chidambaram saying that “another lie of Prime Minister Narendra Modi was blown away”. India Today quoted Rahul Gandhi admitting that he was on INS Viraat but that it was “crazy to think it was a holiday”. Another India Today report quoted the navy officer who planned former PM’s Lakshadweep trip as saying that the senior Gandhi didn’t misuse INS Viraat. On May 10, Firstpost reported counter versions quoting two navy veterans backing Modi’s claim; in the report, the officers said that Rajiv Gandhi used naval resources on the trip.

Media coverage on the issue even reported counter-attacks by Congress leaders on Modi. The Telegraph said: “By raking up a three-decade-old incident involving Rajiv Gandhi, the Prime Minister has turned the spotlight on Canadian citizen Akshay being hosted on INS Sumitra under Modi’s own watch.” Indian Express covered Rahul Gandhi’s jibe at Modi asking him to explain Rafale even as he talked about his father. The confusion and shifting versions reported in newspapers were adequately covered in this Mint report on May 9.

Even as competing versions kept appearing in newspapers, India Today and Indian Express released reports from their archives that discussed details of the trip in 1988. While both reports from the past outlined in great detail the specifics of the holiday trip undertaken by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, the India Today report appeared critical of the manner in which the trip was conducted. It even had the writer of the report, Anita Pratap, recollect the reactions her report received at the time. Indian Express’s archival reportage, though detailed, appeared casual about the trip. Yet, when it came to op-eds, there was an unusual silence in Indian Express on the controversy.

This brings me to raise some of the questions not just about the manner in which the Indian media covered the controversy, but also the stoic silence it maintained (barring the exception of a few) in confronting versions that kept surfacing by the day and in discussing reports published by their own ilk three decades ago.

A series of stories published in 1988 in the Indian Express clearly mentions three facts: First, the Lakshadweep administration was put to task to service the needs of the prime minister and his guests. Second, at least eight foreigners joined the prime minister and his family during their New Year holiday. Third, looking after their needs were 70 persons from various departments, including nearly 1,200 policemen drawn from the Lakshadweep Police and Madhya Pradesh Armed Special Police. Fourth, security was reinforced by a 24-hour watch by a naval fleet including aircraft carrier INS Viraat, the frigates INS Vindhyagiri and INS Taragiri, and the landing craft carrier 39 INS Magar.

The India Today archival report corroborated the details and noted that movie star Amitabh Bachchan was invited to the island even as his brother Ajitabh faced a government probe for FERA violations. Another Indian Express Magazine cover story (as well as The New Indian Express) described in detail the “opulence and extravagance of the Rajiv regime” as reflected in the said holiday.

So we can broadly agree on the fact that the trip Modi referred to did happen and the resources of various parts of government machinery were called to service. However, were Rajiv Gandhi and his friends and family inside INS Viraat?

The archival reports make no mention of that except that several naval ships were called to service for manning security for the holidaying prime minister and his entourage, including INS Viraat. This, reports in 1988 lamented, was “extravagant” and “opulent” on the part of Rajiv Gandhi, but did this compromise national security? There are no past reports that suggest this. But the prevailing media coverage relying on validation from sources seemed to suggest that national security was compromised. A number of journalists questioned the coverage, calling it “propaganda”.

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While the theatrical debate continues, what has been missing is the willingness to confront and discuss the past reports, laden with pictures and details of the trip as evidence that appeared in newspapers thirty years ago. What’s clear is that the controversy may not push politicians to introspect their actions, it has seriously left enough room for journalists to question themselves.

Some important questions

If versions of Navy generals denying such a trip this week were true, were the reports carried out by credible newspapers of the day in the past questionable? If they are credible, why is the present coverage only focussed on ascertaining if Gandhi was indeed inside INS Viraat? Why are the facts of a prime minister’s private but extravagant holiday, facilitated by government machinery and the Navy, not important enough for discussion, if not to discuss the very important question of national security but surely to discuss impropriety of a high office in availing official perks for private holiday of friends and family? If the compromise of national security with discussions of such an event has been brought into question three decades later, why leave out evidence that points to misuse of naval ships and state machinery, since whether Gandhi and friends and family being aboard INS Viraat “couldn’t independently be confirmed”?

To be sure, the 1988 reports on Rajiv Gandhi’s trip made claims of the prime minister using state machinery and naval ships for his private holiday, even if to man security and facilitate transportation of people. Why didn’t the naval officials—who are quick to come up with conflicting versions of the trip today—confront the media reports then? Those who today claim that Modi’s accusation is indeed correct: what took them 30 years to finally speak up? If they chose to speak up, couldn’t they do so back then, during the governing party’s tenure? If statements released by the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force after the Balakot attacks are to be seen, it’s clear that this is not the case. What happens to the evidence in the archival reports when we place it next to the denials or confirmations being made today?

Above all, as argued earlier, why now, and why not a broader conversation on the misuse of history to deflect attention from real issues critical to this election which every party is guilty of?

The only way to tackle the intrusion of the past in the political debate of today is to discuss it—to explain the myths or facts that exist and to confront them with the right questions and a dogged pursuit of the truth. Journalists are primary witnesses of history when it’s made. There are enormous dangers of misinterpretation when historical facts enter the realm of politics. With the INS Viraat controversy, an unwelcome, opportunistic and largely immoral attempt at misrepresentation may have been made. But by harping on to conflicting and uncorroborated versions of the event, Indian media not just kept discrediting itself, it also lost the opportunity to shape the historical narrative objectively, truthfully, credibly.


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