A debate on TV9 Bharatvarsh made news for all the wrong reasons over the weekend. The reason? Retired Major General SP Sinha’s abhorrent remarks during a debate that was pegged to columnist Sunanda Vashisht’s comments on Kashmiri Pandits at a US Congressional hearing on human rights.
The debate included 30-40 Kashmiri Pandit families who shared personal tragedies from the exodus. About three minutes into the debate, Sinha, who was a panellist on the debate, said: “Maut ke badle maut, balatkar ke badle baltkar (Death for death, rape for rape).”
Sinha, who was introduced as a defence panellist, joined the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2013 — one of 300 retired Army officials to do so at a function in Patna. As his comments received widespread condemnation on social media and from retired Army officers, TV9 Bharatvarsh removed the full video of the debate from its YouTube channel.
Ifra Jan, a Kashmiri columnist and one of the other panellists with Sinha, told Newslaundry the debate got “really emotional and hateful”. “SP Sinha was already cribbing about being given the last chance to speak on the panel,” she said. “He said he’s the senior-most and should have been allowed to speak first.”
Jan said the panel was already “partial” to begin with. “From the Left ideology, there were only me and Nishant Verma. The remaining were from the Right.” As a result, she said, the debate became one-sided. “The audience was close to turning into a mob.”
That’s when Sinha made his comment. In response, Jan said, the crowd began chanting: “Maut, maut (Death, death).”
Newslaundry reached out to Sinha to ask him about what he said. Sinha blamed the emotionally-triggering stories of the families. “I regret what I said, but imagine if people have not got justice for 70 years. What should be the way out?”
When asked if killing people and raping women in the Valley can be seen as justice, Sinha seemed unremorseful, “The justice should be a deterrent. People have stopped running red lights because of the heavy fine. Similarly, extreme punishment is a must. People who oppose me might never have had any person killed or raped and they don’t want to understand.”
Sinha subsequently apologised to TV9 Bharatvarsh. His letter reads, “On hearing the various stories from various Kashmiri family, I was deeply moved. In that disturbed state of mind, I have made remarks which were inappropriate. I regret and offer my apology in the entire issue.”
But this isn’t the first time Sinha’s in the spotlight. He was blacklisted by India Today for reportedly spewing hatred and disrespecting other panellists. “There was a debate after the controversy of Kulbhushan Jadhav’s wife being asked to remove her shoes,” said a journalist, on condition of anonymity. “India Today had SP Sinha as their panellist. Amidst the debate, he started calling the Pakistani panellist a ‘chappal chor (shoe thief)’. It sounds trivial but you don’t do that in a debate.”
Jan remembered an instance of Sinha targeting the Muslim community on another debate. “It was a discussion on the economic slowdown,” she said. “His answer was: how will the economy ever be in good shape if a certain section of the society is producing 7-8 kids?”
Why, then, is Sinha invited on TV debates at all?
Smita Sharma, an independent journalist and former consulting executive editor of TV9 Bharatvarsh and former deputy editor of India Today TV, says it’s because the TRP-driven media has “forgotten” what news should be.
Sharma, who had tweeted about the controversy, told Newslaundry: “I don’t have a problem with ideology. There should be fair representation in the panel. My problem is with people who are rude. SP Sinha has always misbehaved with other panellists. He has been personally abusive to them. If you are driven in your ideology with a certain logic, it is okay. If the ideology is all about propagating hatred, that is not acceptable.”
Sharma said it’s important that senior anchors take a call in this regard. “Anything on India and Pakistan — why are SP Sinha and GD Bakshi called immediately?” she asked. “There are people with diverse views who are also decent on air. But TV channels want to inevitably rope in the shrill voices because they do not want meaningful debates anymore where panellists talk to each other instead of at each other. This kind of crass, abusive behaviour on air helps grab eyeballs.”
Sharma said there are basic criteria when it comes to selecting guests for TV debates. “You should have certain experience or knowledge and you should be able to present yourself,” she explained. “The louder and more energetic you are, the better it is. In a newspaper, it is okay if the person is calm and composed as far as the person has knowledge about the subject.”
Another journalist, on condition of anonymity, told Newslaundry that Sinha’s core competence seems to be his ability to shout: “There are some retired officers and generals who have become fixtures over a period of time. They can yell, they can shout, and they can say obnoxious things and literally launch a war from the studio. This behaviour suits some channels. In terms of competence, Sinha’s only qualification is that he’s a retired major general, he can shout and he can speak on any subject under the sun.”
It’s worth noting that Sinha does not have any anti-terror operations or anti-insurgency experience and is a former major general of the Ordnance Corps, which is responsible for providing material and logistical support to the Indian Army during war and peace.
Despite the backlash from Army veterans following Sinha’s remarks, retired Lt. General Haracharanjit Singh Panag doesn’t think this will impact the image of the Army. “The Army has over 100,000 retired officers and a couple of people can’t do anything to the Army’s image,” he said. “This person [Sinha] is from the ordinance force which doesn’t take part in fighting. He has been a headquarters-bound officer all his life. Towards the end of his service period, an enquiry was ordered against him for corruption. After that, he joined the BJP. He has been making extreme right-wing statements but this time he has gone bonkers.”
The outcry has also reignited a discussion on the need for a code of conduct for retired Army officers. Panag said this is unnecessary. “Even ministers make controversial comments. What stops people from making controversial comments?” he said.
TV9 Bharatvarsh told Newslaundry that their anchor, Sumaira Sheikh, had tried her best to control the situation. “We have already made it clear that the panellist’s views are personal. Still, we condemned this statement,” said Hemant Sharma, the channel’s news director. “He issued an apology but we have decided to boycott him from our debates. There is only so much we can control in an on-air debate. We didn’t expect this from a person who has served in the Army for more than 30 years.”
Sinha may have to add TV9 Bharatvarsh to the list of TV channels boycotting him, but it will be interesting to see if his career as a TV news expert continues to flourish.