Over the course of this month, as the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), have been in combat with the government, a separate battle has raged within the media. This battle, fuelled by allegedly manufactured footage which suggested that some JNU students shouted pro-Pakistan slogans more than a fortnight ago, will be remembered for several firsts.
There have always been wars over TRP—Television Rating Points that determine the popularity of a programme—between television networks. But, for the first time, there was an open breach in the ranks as the language divide was trumped by ideological divisions, even as senior TV anchors and journalists appeared locked in a public spat. Hindi networks such as Zee News and the English Times Now occupied one end of the spectrum, parroting the “us versus them”, the “national versus anti-national” dichotomy. Others such as CNN-IBN and individual anchors such as Ravish Kumar from NDTV occupied the other end. In fact, CNN-IBN is the only network which announce that it would not use the unverified footage relating to the issue doing the rounds of social media. Additionally, and not for the first time,what could be seen in full measure was how the ‘outrage’ manufactured in the social media fed into the outrage created by mainstream TV networks and vice versa as they joined hands to launch a wholesale attack on JNU. This manufactured outrage was truly ‘Make in India.’ In the process, little known networks such as News X that had initially struggled with ratings, took the same stance as Times Now and finally got some traction.
On Monday, 22 February 2016, Zee news network, rattled by the resignation of one of its employees who alleged no one had shouted, “Pakistan Zindabad” in the raw footage, inexplicably dropped its star anchor Sudhir Chaudhary and invited viewers into the editing studio to explain how the video editor identified the allegedly pro-Pakistan slogan amid the din of the event. None of us emerged any wiser. Intriguingly, Pawan Nara, the Zee News reporter covering the event in JNU never took sound bites from the alleged pro-Pakistani protestors—a regular drill for any reporter. In fact, in an earlier episode that carried grainy night-time footage of alleged pro-Pakistani protesters screaming “Bharat ki barbadi” there is little to indicate the date, time or even the location of those protesting. It could well have been Pakistan. An episode of DNA—a prime-time show on Zee News that is hosted by Chaudhary—that was broadcast on 11 February, helps illustrate how the entire “anti-national” JNU narrative was cleverly manufactured by the editors. The voice-over oscillates between three distinct sets of visuals, each with different narratives that are separated both spatially and temporally. These include, the JNU students shouting “Azadi” on 9 February on the campus—the day of the alleged incident; one single still-photo of an event remembering Mohammad Afzal’s “martyrdom” at Delhi’s Press Club of India; and night-time visuals of people calling for India’s destruction with little to indicate where this was happening. But the voice-over makes no distinction and cleverly sticks to a pre-determined editorial agenda—all JNU students are pro-Pakistan anti-nationals.
Ironically, it is this footage that reportedly resulted in the Delhi police’s FIR against the students that has created a national crisis, leaving the Modi government clueless. The question to ask is whether Subhash Chandra, chairman of the Zee network, and his editor Sudhir Chaudhary—both of whom are named in the Delhi Police FIR in the alleged Rs 100 crore extortion charges slapped by Congress MP and steel magnate Naveen Jindal—are ingratiating themselves with the investigators. The tide has already turned for Chaudhary, who spent 20 days in Delhi’s Tihar Jail in 2012 because of the alleged extortion case. The Modi government has rewarded him with X category security citing “threat perceptions” that appear to have arisen out of the very same extortion case. Chandra is now a card-holding member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who has also unsuccessfully sought tickets from the party for the Hissar Lok Sabha and the Assembly seat twice. In his book The Z Factor, Chandra speaks of his long standing association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and his frosty relations with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee because Brajesh Mishra—India’s first National Security Advisor, who passed away in 2012—and Ranjan Bhattacharya—who is married to Vajpayee’s foster daughter—did not like his proximity “to the top brass of the RSS.” Chandra also blamed Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress, for conspiring to frame him in the extortion case. Chandra’s book seemed to find favour with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who unveiled the autobiography in January this year.
Once the footage went on air, events moved fast. A letter to Home Minister Rajnath Singh by the East Delhi Member of Parliament Maheish Girri demanded that an FIR against the “anti-national” students be filed by the Delhi police. Social media erupted into a frenzy with the outrage crystallising along the binaries of ‘nationalist’ and the ‘anti-nationalist’—those against and those in support of the students a stance that was already posited by television news debate shows.
Anchors with prime-time shows against their names such as Aaj Tak’s Anjana Om Kashyap took the lead—straddling both twitter and her TV network Aaj Tak in launching a witch hunt against the alleged ‘anti-nationals.’ India Today TV’s Gaurav Sawant who was panned by his followers for re-tweeting Rajnath Singh’s Hafiz Sayeed claims (that were later proven to be from a fake account) continued nevertheless, and Times Now’s reporter Aditya Raj Kaul who was angry that his sister had not been admitted for some research programme in JNU added to the rhetoric against the JNU students leftists. This was the same Kaul who had lectured NDTV reporter Bhairavi Singh on media ethics last year after she was harassed and abused by members of the Sangh while covering the ”March for India” event organised by actor Anupam Kher against the growing protests by writers and litterateurs. Others such as the columnist Suhel Seth, a regular on most English news networks, also jumped on to the ‘nationalist’ bandwagon, possibly hoping for a studio appearance which finally came his way on NDTV.
Chaudhary, whose show DNA Test is regularly eclipsed in terms of both credibility and popularity by NDTV India’s Ravish Kumar’s Prime Time, took a swipe at the latter on twitter for an episode by Kumar that made an emotional plea against the “illness affecting television.” Others such as Mumbai journalist Neeta Kolhatkar, who had tweeted regular support for the Delhi journalists who had been attacked outside the Patiala House Court were trolled endlessly for supposedly being anti-national. Kolhatkar was also threatened with gang rape for her view and subsequently filed an FIR. Those shaping the “national” narrative such as Times Now’s Arnab Goswami are clearly not as independent as they or their followers would like us to believe. The trending topics on Twitter determine what is served on prime time, and in what manner, including the cast of studio guests. A lot in this regard has already been said by The Caravan’s political editor, Hartosh Singh Bal in his piece published on 22 February.
During his speech on 21 January at JNU, Umar Khalid—one of the students charged with sedition—said, while referring to Goswami and Zee News, “what is the source of their anger against JNU students I am unable to comprehend.” What is also inexplicable is Time Now’s refusal to cover the protest march by journalists against the brutal assault on them and other protestors by a group of men in lawyer’s robes along with the BJP’s OP Sharma. Co-incidentally, the BJP has still not condemned the attack on journalists officially, though individual statements have been made by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Delhi MP Udit Raj. The journalist Swapan Dasgupta dismissed the protest as the response of journalists losing the TRP race to Goswami’s show.
This is not the only instance in which Goswami can be accused mirroring the RSS’s line by uncritically reproducing the insidiously manufactured binary of the “nationalist” BJP versus “anti-nationalist” non-BJP forces. Through the last fortnight, as the JNU incident boiled and kept opinion makers on their toes, this narrative has hardened on Goswami’s show even as BJP spokespersons such as Sambit Patra were less riled up. When the Janata Dal (United) spokesperson Ajay Alok questioned why the RSS was flying a saffron flag instead of the tricolour on its office, it was not Patra but Goswami who immediately responded with an explanation, saying that India’s first president S Radhakrishnan had said, saffron is the colour of “self-abnegation” and “purity.”
Retired army personnel and national security experts are often called onto the show and it is difficult to place their exact relevance to the issue at hand. Were a handful of pro-Mohammad Afzal students a threat to our national security? Conversely, where were the lawyers on the show? Were they kept at bay because any legal opinion would dilute the carefully choreographed rhetoric of outrage against all manner of anti-nationals, including the JNU students? Goswami’s initial attack on the alleged JNU “separatists” later expanded to include all manner of civil society groups fighting for adivasis and related issues. “Is there a lobby in this country of bleeding hearts who support Maoism and Kashmiri separatism,” he asked rhetorically? “Isn’t ‘there a link between Gautam Navlakha [a well known human-rights activist] and the JNU student who is undermining India’s sovereignty,” he said. Navlakha did not have the opportunity to defend himself since he was not present on the show. But neither was Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the Centre for Policy Research, after his widely shared and debated article in The Indian Express on 16 February, arguing that the Modi government’s threat to democracy “is the most anti-national of all acts,” came under attack from Goswami for its allegedly poor scholarship.
Goswami and the Bennett Coleman group—India’s largest media conglomerate and the owners of Times Now— may have to consider that the channel is providing the necessary ideological arsenal to saffronise universities through the fig leaf of a television debate. Will the full might of state power decide what and who is a nationalist? Is it a mere coincidence that on 14 February, in the midst of the JNU crisis, the joint general secretary of the RSS, Dattatreya Hosabale, called for a purge of universities of “anti-national” elements?
Subsequent reports after the incendiary footage of those screaming “Pakistan Zindabad” was first aired, stated that outsiders at the JNU campus were responsible for these slogans. Not one network has tried retracting the story or even making a course correction. The Broadcasters Editors Association also seems to have decided to keep quiet about this reprehensible witch-hunt led by the media, of students whose careers could permanently be harmed because of these reports.
On 8 June 2014, Goswami spoke at the Red Ink Awards—held to honour exemplary pieces of journalism in India. He said, “ Part of the problem is that our entire media is based out of Delhi and a lot of journalists and a lot of editors get too close to the people in power or want to be close.”
Physical proximity to those who are in power may not be as relevant as Goswami would like to think it is, after all. The fact that the Mumbai-based Times Now and Delhi NCR (Noida), based Zee network can speak an identical language suggests that the state power is capable of providing the requisite ideological glue irrespective of the location of these channels. As a result, powerful sections of the media have increasingly become accomplices of a rampant overbearing state looking to crush all manner of dissent.
Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.