It’s election season and Indian media has put on blinkers. As usual

Where’s coverage of the Covid surge, the Myanmar crisis, and the refugee influx into the Northeast?

ByKalpana Sharma
It’s election season and Indian media has put on blinkers. As usual
Shambhavi Thakur
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In the polarised times in which we live in India, every election has become, literally, a do or die battle. The “Battle of Nandigram” is only one of the many warlike headlines that accost us each day as the long-drawn out process of elections to four state assemblies and one union territory proceeds. But is that the only story in town?

The pandemic has crept back into the headlines with a spurt of fresh coronavirus infections, and the very real worry that India is now facing a second wave. This ought to be headline news. But the media should also be asking why this has happened, how much of it is a failure of policy and how much of the blame lies with the public.

For one, how is it that the government has permitted large gatherings of Hindu pilgrims and the recent Holi celebrations, yet, when asked, officials blame ordinary people for not observing Covid protocols.

And what about the gatherings during the ongoing elections? Visuals clearly indicate that masks aren’t being used as thousands crowd together at rallies and smaller meetings. Has any political party tried to emphasise to its followers the importance of observing these minimum precautions to prevent the spread of the disease? No official, or politician, is willing to admit that there has been a failure of leadership and absence of clear messaging. Instead, we keep hearing them talk about how ordinary people are undisciplined. And the media, unfortunately, is not asking the tough questions that need to be asked at this time.

Apart from elections and the pandemic, what are the stories that need to be told but are barely reported?

We need to tear our eyes away from TV screens and the endless election coverage to think of what is happening in Myanmar, a country with which India has historical ties. The people's resistance to the military regime that took over the country on February 1 has been one of the top stories in the international press. Yet, in India, although stories from international newspapers are routinely reproduced, the democratic struggle now underway in Myanmar – which has already taken many lives – hasn’t found much space in our media.

Myanmar shares a 1,643-km border with India that touches four Northeastern states – Mizoram, Manipur, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh. This reality dawned once there were reports that people from Myanmar had crossed into Mizoram, seeking refuge from the daily confrontations between the protesting citizens and the military.

Mizoram’s chief minister, Zoramthanga, has urged the central government to allow the refugees to enter, emphasising the "humanitarian crisis" as well as the shared ancestry with people on the other side.

While Mizoram has taken a sympathetic stance towards the refugees, the Manipur government issued a circular that stated, “People trying to enter/seek refuge should be politely turned away.” Fortunately, the circular has now been withdrawn. Yet in both states, the future of these refugees remains uncertain given that India does not have a refugee policy.

The lack of reporting on this crisis on our borders is emblematic of the neglect of reporting on the Northeast in mainstream media, or "mainland" media, as people in the Northeast call it. The region has remained in the periphery of consciousness in most of India, only springing into the spotlight when there is a natural disaster, an act of insurgency, or an election. Even the latter is covered spottily unless a mainstream Indian political party is central to it. Thus, Assam gets much more coverage than the hill states of the Northeast.

The news that refugees from neighbouring Myanmar were walking across the porous international border into Mizoram would have surprised most readers who are unaware of the history and the geography of much of the Northeast. They would not have known that the border exists on paper but that, in fact, there has been free movement and interaction between people living on either side who are, often, from the same ethnic group.

On market day in the village of Longwa in Nagaland's Mon district, I observed this fluidity as people I spoke to said they had walked across from the other side to shop. The house of the village headman, the Angh, straddles the line that officially divides the two countries. There is a check post at the top of the hill but no one checks. This is a lived reality in just one of several such villages stretching across from Arunachal Pradesh to Nagaland, Manipur, and Mizoram.

The story about the welcome that the government of Mizoram and its people want to extend to the refugees from Myanmar gives us an essential insight into that state. The fact that even this story is being barely reported illustrates the continuing indifference of mainstream media and people in India towards this region. It is this absence of reporting that reinforces ignorance and prejudice, the price for which has been paid by the thousands of Northeasterners who study and work across India but are constantly asked to prove that they are Indian.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule: these stories by Krishn Kaushik who reported from Mizoram, for example. Not only do we learn about the trickle of people crossing over but also the reason Mizos believe they ought to be helped.

The other story is the absence of a gender perspective in reporting, something I pointed out in my last column with reference to the coverage of the migrant exodus of last year. Here I must commend the Indian Express as the only mainstream newspaper that not only did a two-part feature looking at the impact of the pandemic on women's jobs (read here and here), but also reiterated the points in these articles in an editorial. Furthermore, both stories were carried on the front page.

In the digital version of print media, the importance of this isn’t apparent. But traditionally, newspaper editors make a conscious choice each day when they choose the stories they want to place on the front page. These are carried "above the fold" as broadsheet newspapers are folded when they are sold and distributed. An important story is placed just below the masthead of the paper. Both these reports were given that position.

Also, when editors want to emphasise certain stories, they write editorials around them. Although not many people read editorials, they are an indicator of the importance a paper gives to an issue. Hence the significance of an editorial on the gender crisis in the Indian Express.

The gender issue remains relevant in the light of the latest global ranking by the World Economic Forum. India has slipped 28 places in the gender gap and now stands at 140 out of 156 countries surveyed, as this story points out. Its neighbours in South Asia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, and Bhutan are ranked higher.

There is, of course, a gender angle in election coverage too, and not just because India's only woman chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, is at the centre of the story of the Bengal election. She has had to face many crude remarks made by her opponents that essentialise her being a woman.

Misogyny surfaces constantly during election campaigns, and it has this time too. Some of it is called out; much of it goes by without comment. I leave you with this story by Kavitha Muralidharan about the rampant sexist rhetoric in Tamil Nadu before and during this election. A salutary outcome of sexism being called out is the Election Commission’s decision to bar A Raja of the DMK from campaigning for 48 hours.

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