How has Prime Minister Narendra Modi stayed popular, amid all that has happened in the country for the past five years?
From demonetisation and job losses to a failing economy and an agrarian crisis — a large section of the Hindi TV media has played an immense role in watching out for the government. Anchors work as cogs of a well-oiled PR machinery whose sole aim is to praise the leader, while actively delegitimising any criticism that comes his way.
Back in 2016, when the government was struggling to justify demonetisation, remember how a leading news anchor took pains to “explain” a certain “nanochip” in the new currency note and its role in curbing black money?
Now, with the country-wide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a large section of TV media is working around the clock to come to the government’s defence. Protesters are on the streets in unprecedented numbers. From Delhi to Purnia, Mumbai to Bengaluru, the images show thousands speaking up against the Act.
Universities and students have been at the forefront of this resistance. Voices from colleges like Jamia Millia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University have made it to the national media. In many ways, these colleges sparked protests that have now spread across the country. So, it’s not surprising that these students have borne the brunt of the government crackdown.
However, if one were to follow Hindi news channels’ coverage of protests over the days that followed these university protests — and the subsequent ones — the story is very different.
The coverage characterises the protests in a way that will make you question the very legitimacy and motives behind the protests. Let’s look at the two most common recurring themes across TV media coverage.
Violence used to discredit the protests
The best way to discredit a protest is to say they incited or led to violence. This competently backseats the issue being protested and, instead, colours protesters as mobs that want to take law in their hands.
If you’re a fence-sitter up to this point, you’re handed terms like “clash between state and students” and “mob damaging public property” or “protests turned violent”. For good measure, you’re given visuals of stone-pelting. Unsurprisingly, you immediately lose any sympathy whatsoever with the protesters and the cause — regardless of how much you identify with their point of view.
And that, folks, is precisely the narrative being pushed by many Hindi news channels.
On December 16, a day after the crackdown in Jamia Millia Islamia, DNA, Zee News’s flagship show hosted by editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary, selectively showed footage where a group attacked buses. Chaudhury’s intent is evident if you look at what he conveniently left out in this and his subsequent DNA episodes: videos of the police charging into the campus, throwing teargas shells in the library, while students screamed for help, the fact that the Delhi police claimed none of those shown in the video was students, and how the road where buses were attacked is miles away from the Jamia campus, where the police went on a rampage.
Zee News followed this line in other shows hosted by its main anchor. It was a template. Zee News chose to use visuals of buses being attacked to label the protest as an act of violence and rioting. It ignored visuals or clips of the police brutality against students.
Did violence break out in and around Jamia and AMU? Yes.
Is it misleading to broadcast only the story that students were beaten up, with some severely injured, including one who lost his eyesight? Yes.
Yet, channels like Zee News selectively broadcast footage of buses being burned, ignoring the violence meted out on students. It’s a clear indication that the coverage of the protest aimed at discrediting it on the pretext of violence.
This is what Chaudhary said on his show on December 16: “Jis tarah har shahar main main ek ilaka aisa hota hai jahan police bhi jaane se darti hai, theek usi tarah ye chatra desh bhar ke kuch vishvadalayon ko bhi waisa hi mohalla banane chahte hain…wahaan sirf ek vishesh samuday ka kabja hota hai.”
Roughly translated, he said, “Just like there is a particular area in the city where even the police fear to venture, in the same way, these students are monopolising the atmosphere of certain universities around India…there, only a specific community dominates the discourse.”
News18’s Amish Devgan stuck to the same story.
From Chaudhary’s “samuday” to Devgan’s “mia” — it’s obvious what community they are referring to. It’s irrelevant that 50 per cent of Jamia’s students are not Muslim, and that the protest united folks from across the city.
Then there’s Sudarshan News and its bigot-in-chief Suresh Chavhanke. Sudarshan’s bigotry is well-known; it sets out to riot-monger and fans communal passions.
Then there’s News Nation.
This is an ongoing template. Even as reports are coming in from Western Uttar Pradesh on the dozen people killed and how the police raided peoples’ homes, channels selectively focus on the provocation and incidents of stone-pelting by the protesters.
Misled, confused and mobilised by the Opposition
Peaceful protests have mobilised people at a scale that violence can’t be enough to discredit them. So, what tropes do channels use?
Two words: bhram and gumrah.
“Bhram” loosely means “confusion”, while “gumrah” means “to mislead”. You’ll hear these words constantly on Hindi news channels to describe those protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act. According to these channels, youths and Muslims have been “misled” by the Opposition, mainly the Congress.
Sadly, TV channels are unable to call the Constitution and its authors “anti-national”. Young protesters are brandishing cutouts of Gandhi, Ambedkar and Bhagat Singh, and resolving to save the Constitution. News anchors can’t criticise this, but they do their best to proclaim the protesters have been led astray.
Zee News’s DNA often has Chaudhary use the trope of simplifying complex issues only to further the Centre’s agenda. It’s as if they believe students and other protesters don’t have a mind of their own.
In this vein, ANI’s Smita Prakash was retweeted by ABP’s Rubika Liyaquat.
Hindi news channels see students the same way WhatsApp uncles do — wasting taxpayers’ money by studying in a public university when they can easily be “contributing to the economy with their labour”.
What you see above is a tried and tested tactic: a vox pop that questions people who lack articulation or clarity to explain the nuances of an issue. The channel then mocks their opinions to discredit their agency. Almost every major TV channel had bites from mostly Muslim protesters who struggled to explain their opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act. Their lack of articulation was used to make a point about them being “misled” or swayed by politicians.
For example, here’s a soundbite of director Rakesh Omprakash Mehra and actor-director Farhan Actor, broadcast by ABP, at a protest in Mumbai. Mehra clearly said he doesn’t want to add to the noise until he’s read the Act. But that doesn’t make for good TV news.
These clips aren’t just shared by news channels. Hindutva and pro-government handled are retweeted by anchors like Sudhir Chaudhury and Rubika Liyaqat. One such handle is Know The Nation, which has tweeted dozens of video in the last few days to drive home the point that those protesting don’t even know what they are complaining about.
Its followers include Amit Malviya, BJP’s IT cell head, and Priti Gandhi, national in-charge of social media for the BJP. Midday did a piece looking into the group, but the admins didn’t respond to queries.
Zee News went a step further and started a jagrukta, or awareness, campaign where those supporting the Act can give the channel a “missed call”. This is Zee News’s logic: that those supporting the Act are “non-violent”, and the media only gives space to voices that are negative or that lead to violence. This move was a follow-up to Chaudhary’s show, an episode called “Digital Riots”, where he worried about how fear and disinformation is spread online by budhijeevi (pseudo-intellectuals).
Ah, the irony!
In the middle of this drama, what’s the government saying?
Prime minister Narendra Modi and law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad called the protesters “Urban Naxals” and “tukde tukde gang”, respectively. BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra said the protests are “riots” and acts of terrorism. Amit Malviya, the BJP IT cell head, tweeted doctored videos to show AMU students raising slogans against Hindus. Cabinet minister Smriti Irani retweeted a Farhan Akhtar video being spread by channels to “prove” how protesters are clueless about the Act.
BJP MP and RSS ideologue went a step further.
Meanwhile, the BJP has released a series of ads on how “Urban Naxals” and “Islamists” have no idea what they’re doing.
The 2011 census said 700 million speak Hindi in India. You can’t wish away the reach of Hindi news channels. Flagship Hindi shows today include Taal thok ke, Aar paar, Akhada, Dangal, Halla Bol, Lalkaar, Mahabharat, and Khalnayak. They are designed to create conflict.
Are you surprised that these channels are booed by protesters, calling them “godi media”?
Yet, there are exceptions. NDTV’s Ravish Kumar, for one, who has repeatedly called out the role of his peers in spreading misinformation and bending over for the government.
For now, we can take heart in the fact that if not on BARC ratings, Ravish and the likes of Lallantop are at least making it to the trending videos on YouTube.
With research assistance from Niharika Dabral.