Gaurav Sawant aired a CRPF constable’s hate speech. But here’s what he didn’t tell you

Where do you get journalists like this?

WrittenBy:Ayush Tiwari
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“This comes from the heart of those who have been battling Pakistan state-sponsored terror and an entire ecosystem created in Jammu and Kashmir.” That’s how India Today anchor Gaurav Sawant concluded a segment on Central Reserve Police Force constable Khushboo Chauhan on his show India First on October 4.

Sawant’s segment broadcast a part of a speech Chauhan delivered at a debate competition organised by the National Human Rights Commission and the Central Armed Police Forces on September 27. The motion of the debate was “Terrorism and militancy in the country can be tackled effectively while observing human rights”. Chauhan, who spoke against it, argued that it was not possible to have human rights if they tied the hands of the armed forces. 

Towards the end of her five-minute speech — which was widely shared on social media — Chauhan advocated extreme violence. “We won’t let those wombs be that spawn Afzals,” she said, referring to Afzal Guru, who was hanged for his role in the 2001 Parliament attack. “Stand up brave jawans, you must roar like lions. And pierce a tricolour through Kanhaiya’s chest [a reference to Communist Party of India leader Kanhaiya Kumar].” 

India Today even tweeted out the segment, which, in Sawant’s words, “exposes the tukde tukde gang”.

India TV and Zee News also broadcast parts of Chauhan’s speech. While India TV advertised the speech as a “direct attack on the tukde tukde gang,” Zee News editor-in-chief Sudhir Chaudhary said on his DNA show that Chauhan’s speech exposed the agenda of “politicians, intellectuals, English-speaking celebrities and designer journalists”. 

“In this speech, she has shown a mirror to those who dream of restraining the power of the armed forces in the name of human rights,” Choudhary said.

However, Chaudhary — whose brief as a journalist involves a picnic in prison and sins like this, this, this, this, this and this — chose to cut out the most incendiary bit from Chauhan’s speech. He did train his guns on the “anti-nationalist ideology of JNU students”, but probably thought that beaming an open call to kill Kanhaiya Kumar was a step too far.

India Today and India TV had no such qualms.

Sawant, senior executive editor at India Today, is a known culprit in the fake news department. In December 2017, when a 21-year-old youth’s decomposed corpse was found in Karnataka’s Uttar Kannada district, Sawant picked up social media rumours of the victim’s supposed mutilation and castration, and gave it primetime legitimacy. India Today eventually took down the story, but it took a rebuttal by the Karnataka police and a fact-check by Alt News.

That year, Sawant also passed off historians as terrorists on his show. In 2016, he discovered ISIS attacks in Assam that weren’t. He promoted spurious rumours about tensions along the India-Pakistan border in May 2018 and whipped up digital nationalism. The Army had to deny his claims. 

One can argue that even the most diligent can err on social media and make honest mistakes. But Sawant has broadcast old videos as “breaking news”, claiming that they were obtained by his reporters on the ground. In January 2018, he packaged a 2016 video, showing the Pakistan Army firing mortars in North Waziristan, as cross-border attacks in Jammu and Kashmir. This blatant lie was sold as “coward Pakistanis targets Indian civilians” on Twitter, with a bonus and bogus question on whether it was time for another surgical strike. This war-mongering tweet hasn’t been taken down yet.

He’s done this before. In 2016, when tensions erupted in the Kashmir Valley following the death of the militant leader Burhan Wani, Sawant aired an “exclusive video” of a stone-pelter’s confession. The video turned out to be from 2008. Sawant’s colleagues had to suffer the consequences of his less-than-credible reporting. “We have our credibility at stake here,”an India Today staffer told Newslaundry at the time.

Sawant’s track record hasn’t dented his career, though. To this collection of Pokemon badges, he can now add the charge of broadcasting a speech calling for gruesome murders.

Sawant, who refused to comment on the broadcast when Newslaundry contacted him, has for years marketed himself as a brow-beating patriot who is a fan of the Army. Citizens, even in the garb of journalists, are free to take these positions. But it is relevant to ask whether healthy patriotism has any room for bloodthirst, especially the brand endorsed by Sawant that calls for eliminating citizens perceived as “deshdrohi”. If it does, should a journalist be allowed to push it beyond their personal space and onto television? 

The answer to this cannot be in the affirmative. Kanhaiya Kumar’s associate, Umar Khalid, was the target of a murder attempt in Delhi in 2018. His friend Gauri Lankesh was murdered in Bengaluru in 2017.

It’s worthwhile to revisit the Code of Ethics of the National Broadcasting Association which say the impact that news channels have makes it “all the more necessary that channels exercise restraint to ensure that any report or visuals broadcast do not induce, glorify, incite, or positively depict violence and perpetrators, regardless of ideology or context”. The document adds that channels must take specific care “not to broadcast visuals that can be prejudicial and inflammatory”. 

In any case, if Chauhan spoke against human rights in a debate, why did India Today, India TV and Zee News not broadcast the speeches by those who spoke for human rights?

We’ll do that for you.

The other side

Speaking for the motion at the September 27 debate, Ashutosh Rana, a sub-inspector in the Central Industrial Security Force, argued that the cause of the security forces was no cause if it omitted considerations of human rights. Rana went on to win the third prize in the Hindi vertical of the debate.

“My opponents speak of national security without the weight of human rights,” he began. “When citizens don’t have rights, then what is the point of national security? I ask my opponents, what is this national security that they talk of? Detention and death in police custody, the Unnao case, farmer suicides, sexual exploitation in Bihar’s shelter homes: is this national security? National security is not just security at the borders, but also the security of those people who live within the borders. But those who are supposed to provide security label people as naxalites or terrorists when they assert their rights. They’re arrested for sedition and killed in fake encounters.” 

Rana mentioned the rape and murder of Manorama Devi in Manipur in 2004 and the anti-Army protests by women in the Northeast, pointing out that “we armed forces have misused the Armed Forces Special Powers Act”. He also said that any additional powers in the hands of the armed forces would be akin to the colonial Rowlatt Act.

Another contestant, Mayank Bhati, spoke for the motion and won the second prize in the English vertical. Bhati, an Assistant Commandant Executive in the CISF, argued that observing human rights would not only contain terrorism and militancy, but also create a “police-public model of security”.

Bhati said: “What my worthy opponents fail to realise is that the non-observance of human rights by the state and the security forces is one of the chief causes of militancy. Man did not enter society to have fewer rights than he had before, but to have those rights better secured.”

Bhati said the examples of the American War of Independence, French Revolution and Indian freedom struggle prove that law and order “cannot be maintained only through the fear of punishment”. “The concept of human rights might be a relatively new one to the Western world,” he said. “The idea of human rights has been a part of India’s cultural, moral and religious traditions that predate and transcend national identity.”

In the context of the heavy military presence in Kashmir and the Northeast, Bhati said terrorism has successfully destroyed democracies when a nation state, under the cover of national security, “arrests without warrant, detains without justification, spies without reason and kills without conscience”.

He concluded: “Honourable chairman, the need of the hour is not more sophisticated weapons but more sophisticated hospitals, the need of the hour is to not detain children in jail but to send them back in schools, the need of the hour is better training and equipment to the security forces and creating a people-centric approach to security, the need of the hour is not geographical domination alone, but winning over the hearts and minds of the people.”

CISF’s Assistant Commandant Executive S Devesh Tripathi, who spoke against the motion, won the first prize in the English vertical of the debate. ITBP’s Inspector Pawan Kumar spoke for the motion and won the corresponding prize in the Hindi vertical.

Two questions remain. The CRPF chose to distance itself from its constable’s speech, stating that some portion of the speech “should have been avoided”, and that the personnel of the paramilitary force “respect human rights unconditionally”. Why couldn’t India Today and India TV do the same? Rather, they celebrated what CRPF seemed to condemn.

Second, if faking videos of protests at JNU in 2016 was exceeded by calling its students anti-nationals, and then constructing them as terrorists, to now endorsing their murder, what is next for TV news channels in India?    


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