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In one of India’s most chilling hate crimes, a Railway Protection Force jawan named Chetansinh Chaudhary shot four train passengers dead on July 31. Three of those people were Muslim. Chaudhary had roamed through the train he had been entrusted to protect, hunting for people who looked Muslim, asked for their names and then pumped bullets into them. In the middle of this terror rampage, Chaudhary also accosted a Muslim woman in a burqa and forced her to chant “Jai mata di”, a popular invocation to the Hindu goddess Durga.
What drove this mass killing? The answer was provided by Chaudhary himself. As a Muslim man lay writhing on the floor, having just been shot, Chaudhary delivered a speech – which he forced other passengers to record. In his rant, Chaudhary spoke of a shadowy theory of people operating from Pakistan. “Inke aqa hai wahan,” he said. Their leaders are there in Pakistan.
His source for this unhinged information, he declared, was the Indian media. He ended by invoking his Hindutva heroes: “If you want to vote, if you want to live in India, then I say, Modi and Yogi [Adityanath], these are the two, and your Thackeray.”
Chaudhary’s rant claiming a conspiracy emanating from Pakistan involving India’s Muslims might seem deranged – except that it is regular programming on the Indian media, especially large English and Hindi-language TV news networks.
Chaudhary’s reference to the Indian media as he carried out a mass killing of Muslims is a reminder of just how profoundly this hate on India’s airwaves is changing its politics and, in fact, its social structure.
What explains the incredible rise of hate on Hindi and English news channels?
In 2022, the Supreme Court, while hearing a case on hate in the Indian media, blamed the audience. “Hate drives TRPs, drives profit,” one judge commented.
There is, of course, some truth to this. Hate does have an audience. But does it have such a major viewership amongst India’s Hindi and English speakers that media channels can get away with mainly showing hate?
It is worth remembering that India’s system of measuring television audience sizes is well acknowledged to be broken. Viewership numbers for news channels are, at best, a black box. However, we have excellent data for viewership on YouTube, which is fast emerging as an alternative to traditional news channels. On YouTube, Hindi current affairs content is far more balanced.
There is hate and hardline Hindutva content of course, but there are also popular content creators who push liberal ideas and perform the more recognisable journalistic role of scrutinising the government. In fact, India’s biggest news content creator on YouTube is Ravish Kumar, a trenchant critic of the Union government. Remarkably, in just a few months of him starting his own YouTube channel, Kumar has gained almost half the following of NDTV India, the channel that he left in November 2022 after it was acquired by an industrialist seen to be close to the Modi government.
The idea that the extreme hate on news TV is audience driven has, therefore, little data to back it.
On the other hand, there is plenty of data to show that hate in Indian media is top-down, driven by the government and media owners.
To understand how this happens, we must first acknowledge that major news channels in India are closely controlled by the government. The Union government has stout sticks at its disposal, such the ability to grant (or withhold) broadcast licences for news channels.
In 2021, for example, the Modi government refused to renew the broadcast licence for a Malayalam news channel called MediaOne. In an Orwellian move, the government simply used the charge of “national security” against the channel, refusing to elaborate even to MediaOne what exactly that meant. Incredibly, the Modi government’s actions were upheld by two benches of the Kerala High Court. It was only in April, 2023, that the Centre’s order was set aside by the Supreme Court.
The fact that the channel’s broadcasts were halted for more than a year by the Centre on completely arbitrary grounds demonstrates the power of the stick the Union government can wield over news channels.
The government has some juicy carrots in its bag of tricks too. Government advertising is a major source of revenue for cash-guzzling television news channels. Between 2017 and 2022, for example, the Modi government spent Rs 526 crore on television ads. In Uttar Pradesh alone, the Bharatiya Janata Party government spent Rs 160 crore on TV ads between April 2020 and March 2021, with the biggest beneficiary being the Network18 Group owned by billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries.
To understand the strength of the relationship between government backing and TV hate, consider that the hardline Hindutva TV channel Sudarshan News also receives advertising support from the Uttar Pradesh government. The channel’s chief editor, Suresh Chavhanke, has been booked in multiple instances of anti-Muslim hate speech and had even been arrested in 2017.
The continued allegations against him are so severe, the Supreme Court has even upbraided the Delhi Police for failing to act. On August 12, another senior editor from the channel was arrested for spreading communally incendiary fake news around the Haryana riots. Yet, Sudarshan News continues to receive patronage from the highest levels of the BJP as well as its parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
The constant anti-Muslim hate on television serves the BJP’s ideology as well as electoral compulsions. As a result, the party has used its tight control over English and Hindi media to push such programming. This is a massive victory for the party, given the near-hegemonic position mass TV media occupies in shaping the public conversation. In fact, over the Modi decade, the incredible amounts of hardline Hindutva programming on television is probably the single biggest factor that has transformed Indian politics and sharply polarised the country.