These last few months of media reporting in and on India are sounding ominously like the media climate in America in the period between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the invasion of Iraq. There is blood and fire in the air and on the ground, and a gloomy atmosphere of even more death and destruction to come. There is a sense of righteousness and justice at work in the passions that these media narratives arouse and stoke, too. But most of all, there is the utter lack of credibility, balance and a sense of honor for truth in all of this idealistic talk.
All the outrage in America (and the cause of that outrage was no illusion, it was one of the worst terrorist massacres in history) was leading up to one disastrous invasion of a country that had nothing to do with it; and almost no one questioned it. Not just the triumphalist Fox News, but even the so liberal and supposedly sane New York Times too. Until the invasion turned into another disaster for the invaded and invader, for more than a year, the so-called serious news media in America went along with the WMDs myth. Some did it brazenly in the name of patriotism, others in the name of supposedly professional reporting. The end was the same. An angry and war-stoked populace, nearly 90%, according to opinion polls at that time, bought the story. After the bodies began to fall, the retractions, mea culpas, and documentary films and exposes emerged. The disaster has not ended. The fantasy show of the old American media has been followed by the reality show of the new Iraqi media visionaries who behead and burn with great flair all those who are even slightly different.
In India, in the last few years, we have been spared the horror of an act of mass violence, or of any of the numerous violent riots that we fearfully huddled from when were children in the 1970s and 1980s. Just two personal examples; in 1984, one afternoon, the smoke suddenly came rising over the horizons of the old city of Hyderabad near the Charminar . Many were killed, and a beloved institution, the A.A. Hussain Bookstore burned down. Why? The simple answer was Hindu-Muslim riots. The sharper answer, the politics of course, was that the riots were intended to keep the crowds at home while the deposition of democratically-elected Chief Minister N. T. Rama Rao by a Congress party backed defector could be consolidated.
In the early 1990s, it happened again, this time a vicious and bloody riot, many days of curfew, just because of an internal power struggle in the state Congress party. This is not to say the Hindu Muslim factor was non-existent in India. There was the Rath Yatra and the Babri Masjid riots and curfews too. I wrote my exams spread out over two months because of the curfews. I remember the feeling. Being trapped at home, going out hastily for a short while, worrying about which person in the crowd mobbing the vegetable shop might come out lashing with knives. Teenagers today have no idea how many curfews we lived through, and the fear, which for many in India, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, have tragically proved real time and time again.
For all of the problems that exist in India today, we have not seen that scale of violence again in recent times.
And yet, the media in India and the West has been in an aggravated and now near-permanent state of war about what is happening in India. It is ominous, and I will say it with some conviction because the history of media has been deeply enmeshed with violence and war. Driven by ratings, agendas, and often by ignobly self-serving interpretations of noble ideals like freedom, media have time and again gone along with forces chomping at the heels of sanity and restraint; forces thirsty for blood, money, and power. Usually, these forces involve the collusion of media and governments. In India, it seems to be quite the opposite, which is all the more reason why a healthy suspicion and fair criticism of a ruling regime cannot be equated blindly with the sort of brazen distortion and exaggeration marking the commentary on India today.
On the face of it, there is truth to the violence that has scarred the lives of people in India. No one can deny it. A poor Muslim father and son were attacked viciously in Uttar Pradesh over a cow. A number of activists and intellectuals were attacked and killed for their comments about religion (to understand the way this tragedy was distorted in the New York Times, see my response here).
These were the stories we have been hearing about from India, but there have been other attacks and acts of violence too. These, the major media completely ignore because they do not fit their convenient identity-calculus of Hindu assailants and other victims, and in the social media mills they circulate freely, madly, mixing fact and rumor, creating a parallel world that has acquired powerful credibility among many today. What is the nature of media responsibility at a time like this? Is it more important for the supposedly mainstream, professional media and their experts to respect truth, and condemn violence without appropriating it for their own convenient discourses which might well be serving a major push for some terrible bloodlust far worse than these few killings?
To put it simply, is the news culture today trying to start a riot, or maybe even a war within, in India?
I do not blame intentions, or individuals. The intentions behind these dramatic, name-calling articles are mostly noble, about principles like equality, freedom, dietary pleasure, whatever. The individuals, many of them, are writing about what they fairly see as the increasing amount of intolerance, one-upmanship, and violence in Indian life. But the question they are evading is simply this : is the violence and ugliness really as one-sided as they make it out to be?
In the last few months we have seen too many examples of media sensationalism, all so pointedly one-sided, all so self-righteously preset to some bizarre logic of an identity menu printed far from the reality of how diverse people coexist and interact and live in India. "Are Muslims Safe in Modi's India." "Saving the Cows, Starving the Children," "Hindu Mob Lynches Muslim," "As a Christian, Suddenly I am a Stranger in My Own Country," "Enough, say Wary Christians" (see Rupa Subramanya's analysis of the sensational "church attacks" headlines here)
And then, suddenly, for an "un-named" crime like "Elderly Nun Raped in India" where the religion of the criminals was somehow deemed not nameable (Hindus didn't do it), some other wit contrives a headline like "India Nun Rape is Part of Christian Culture Says Hindu Nationalist Leader."
There are occasions when identity may be relevant to a story, but there are also times when respect for the dignity of a community demands that criminals and murders are not somehow turned into symbols of the demographic they happen to be born into. After all, we heard a lot about how terror had no religion after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and we must respect that.
But what is happening with the discourse on India, from abroad, and most egregiously, from within too, is a blind capitulation to a worldview that has truly run its course in credibility and dignity. The game of screaming headlines and third page retractions is now being regularly exposed on social media sites, and a good part of the news audience today does not take the big world of big reporting seriously. Just think of "Indian Village Orders Gang Rape of Two Sisters" and where that led (this widely sensationalized "news" turned out to be baseless)
Where all this madness is coming from I do not know. But where it is heading is indeed disturbing. We are witnessing the near extinction of empathy for suffering, both on the ground where real acts of barbarism do take place, and in the world of predetermined noble ideological causes, where suffering is secondary only to what the latest South Asian concern registry prescribes as accepted outrage points.
I sincerely hope that this period in Indian media history will not be put up there someday in the curriculum on par with the great war-mongering media disgraces of history, a case-study in propaganda for our brutalized and dazed future generations to study.
The choice between humanity and violence will be made only after we have made a choice between humanity and the news culture as it exists today.