How Big Media invisibilises the suffering of India’s poor and marginalised
Shambhavi Thakur
Opinion

How Big Media invisibilises the suffering of India’s poor and marginalised

Stories that are told only in passing or not at all illustrate best the worldviews that drive mainstream media and those who fund it.

By Kalpana Sharma

Published on :

Suddenly, beginning this week, there was so much excitement over politics that one could almost forget that India had crossed the three-million mark in coronavirus infections.

The Congress party, dismissed by many as moribund, appeared to have stirred itself when 23 of its senior leaders suggested a serious re-think about its functioning. Mainstream political parties in Jammu and Kashmir – where leaders have been detained for varying periods over the past year and some like former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti remain so – were able to get around severe restrictions and issue the first political statement on their region since it was locked down and splintered into two union territories on August 5, 2019.

And, of course, in the midst of this, we were treated to visuals of the prime minister feeding peacocks after his morning exercise routine. Evidently, the turmoil and troubles facing ordinary people in this country don’t penetrate the salubrious surroundings within which the man who leads this country resides.

But all this political and persona-building activity aside, the news cycle was barely dented by the ugly reality of India that pushed through every now and then with a story here, or a news item there.

As someone who has been a part of the media for five decades, and looks at mainstream media critically, I am always interested in the stories that are told only in passing, or not reported at all. I believe this, and not just the news that dominates, is what illustrates best the preoccupations and compulsions that drive mainstream media and those who fund it.

On the night of August 7, a Boeing 737 operated by Air India Express crash-landed at Kozhikode airport in Kerala, killing 18 people, including the pilots and co-pilot. This was big news and dominated the news cycle for days. Follow up stories on the survivors, on how local people helped, on theories about why it crashed, about the pilot, Deepak Sathe, who had previously been with the Indian Air Force and other stories appeared in most newspapers. This was to be expected.

The previous night, over 250 km south of Kozhikode, in the verdant hills around Munnar in Kerala, a huge landslide had occurred. It buried a settlement of tea garden workers. Munnar is known for its tea estates that earn millions of rupees in profits from domestic and international sales.

The disaster occurred on a night of heavy rain in Pettimudi, where workers employed by the Kannan Devan Hills Plantation lived.

Eighteen people died in the Kozhikode crash. Over 70 people were buried in the Pettimudi landslide. The media told us stories and the names of the 18 who died in the air crash. But it took many days before we even knew who the men, women and children who lost their lives in Pettimudi were.

While the Kozhikode airport was accessible by virtue of its location, Pettimudi, even in the best of times, is remote. According to some reports, the nearest BSNL optical fibre link, providing internet access, ends 30 km from the site of the disaster. Although recently some mobile towers were erected to provide connectivity to the workers who lived there, most of the time there was no electricity and therefore no network.

None of this is surprising. Yet, what is heart-wrenching is that the dead in Pettimudi remained faceless and nameless for days.

The stories emerged much later, on a couple of digital news platforms such as HuffPost India and the Lede. They inform us that these plantation workers were landless Dalits from one district in Tamil Nadu and that the conditions in which they lived had remained unchanged for decades. More than 16,000 plantation workers in Kerala live in rows of single rooms called "layam". Anyone who has visited such plantations, not just in Kerala but across India, would tell you about the huge disparity in the living conditions of the workers and the managers. The British ran these estates in the colonial era. Today, 73 years later, it is as if nothing has changed.

I give this as one example of how the reality of death, and life, in India is increasingly being tilted by media coverage to obscure one reality while giving precedence to another. What better illustration than the ongoing obsession in the media, and the shockingly misogynistic coverage of the death of an actor, Sushant Singh Rajput. The Pettimudi disaster reminds us yet again that poor people in India are dying unnoticed, and sometimes even uncounted, while the gaze of "the nation" and its media rests elsewhere.

In fact, on August 15, when the prime minister declared from the Red Fort that within 1000 days, all villages in the country would be connected by fibre optic cable, this heart-breaking story appeared in the Indian Express. It is a report from the village in Chhattisgarh from which 12-year-old Jamlo Madkami had gone to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to work on a farm growing chillies. After the lockdown, and after waiting one month for wages that were never paid, she walked back a distance of 100 km with other women from the village, only to die on the way from dehydration and malnutrition.

Her village has no electricity, no school and is 45 km from the nearest hospital. Once in every two months, a mini-truck negotiates the dirt road to bring items for sale like soap. Under these circumstances, what meaning does a promise of internet connectivity have for Jamlo's family or the survivors of the Pettimudi landslide?

Another important story that ought to have been the subject of much more discussion is a ruling of the Bombay High Court. It is relevant not just for the fact that it shows how the executive misuses laws for political purposes, but also how the media in India plays a role in this.

In its judgement on August 21, in response to an appeal by 35 members of the Tablighi Jamaat, including 29 foreigners, who had been charged under various sections of the Indian Penal Code, the Epidemic Diseases Act, the Foreigners Act and the Disaster Management Act, the court minced no words about the role the media had played in the "big propaganda" against this sect.

It’s a sobering judgement that ought to result in some introspection by mainstream media. Yet predictably, although the judgement was reported in the print media and on digital news portals, there was little by way of comment on or analysis of this important ruling.

At a time when the media has played more than just a passive role in fuelling Islamophobia in this country, the manner in which the entire episode of the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in Delhi in March and the subsequent charge that its members were responsible for the spread of coronavirus remains an ugly reminder of the depths to which our media has fallen.

While some of the "propaganda", as the court terms it, was willfully promoted by pliant media houses, even those that consider themselves somewhat independent fell into the trap of furthering the narrative. This happened by way of some of the graphics used, as well as the constant juxtaposing of the increase in coronavirus cases and the travels of members of the Tablighi Jamaat.

The price for this was paid by lakhs of ordinary Muslims, men and women who were just going about their lives under difficult circumstances but became targets of hate yet again. Who can forget the videos of Muslim vendors being chased away from middle-class colonies for no other reason than their religious identity, not to speak of the lynchings that continue to occur with frightening frequency?

The judgement ought to be required reading for future journalists, for it illustrates how laws are twisted to meet political agendas, and then how the media furthers these agendas.

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