Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi held forth on Balochistan from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, hundreds of Dalits and their supporters were marching to Una to protest mounting atrocities on them by caste Hindus in the state of Gujarat.
While echoes of Modi’s statement on Balochistan continue to reverberate across sundry media platforms, the 500-kms-long march from Ahmedabad to Una – aptly termed “Azadi Kooch” (“march to freedom”) spread out over 10 days – is already a distant memory.
A near black-out by the all powerful television media, barring odd exceptions like the Indian Express and NDTV India who reported the march and filed regular follow-up reports, should not perhaps be a surprise.
“There was no other national media as far as one can remember – though there were some local newspersons, both print and television,” said senior NDTV India reporter Hridayesh Joshi, who travelled with “Azadi Kooch” for the last two days of the march.
A local journalist of the local paper Gujarat Mitra in Surendranagar spelled out the reasons for this on the condition of anonymity. “Gujarati media, barring one or two do not report anything unfavourable to the BJP government,” he said. “They are scared that advertisements will be stopped”. But that was not the only problem he mentioned. “In 2014 one leading regional language newspaper was shut down for around a month soon after Modi came to power for carrying anti-Modi stories,” he added.
To be sure the Dalit march had both drama and news value – elements central to television news. And this was no studio drama comprising hysterical anchors and studio guests. These were real people with real issues of exclusion and everyday oppression, which makes atrocities against Dalits in Gujarat one of the highest among all states.
Dalits marched in large numbers, wrote Joshi, chanting “gai ni puchdu tami rakho. Amey amari jamin aapo [Upper castes, keep the cow’s tail. Give us land instead]”. The protesters sang songs of liberation and held small meetings all along the way.
The march had a mix of Ambedkarites, activists of the Kabir Kala Manch and Dalit Panthers who had come all the way from Maharashtra, and even a sprinkling of Gandhians. “The presence of Muslims with the possibility of an emerging Dalit-Muslim political alliance is, I think, a development whose significance can hardly be overstated,” Joshi said.
All this drama in Modi’s backyard and that too less than a year before Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, indicating a palpable political churn, was of course not worthy of coverage for large sections of the mainstream media who chose to stick to Modi’s agenda of Pakistan bashing, this time on the back of the Balochistan issue.
A combination of fresh line-up of panelists along with the usual “foreign policy” experts, not to forget exiled Baloch nationalists, were paraded as the new cast of characters in prime time circus. The India Today TV, in fact, went a step further and aired an undated Al Jazeera ground report from Balochistan province. The only time the Gujarat Dalit issue got traction was when top political leaders from Delhi landed up in Gujarat to meet the victims of the public flogging by caste Hindus.
On August 15, Joshi filed a longish story, running to about 10 minutes. “As a matter of fact at least four, 8 to 10 minute stories were carried on successive days on prime time including some in Ravish Kumar’s news show,” Joshi said.
But the story remained missing from most networks.
In the continuing battle of wits between Modi and the mainstream, largely the English language media, about who sets the “national agenda”, Modi appears to have won. And not for the first time – despite the continuing targeting of media by the Modi government.
On August 10, at a meeting jointly organised by the Press Club of India, the Indian Women Press corps and the Editors Guild, a call was given to resist attacks on press freedom, especially attacks on the Rajasthan Patrika and Outlook magazine. A Google search will indicate that the well-attended protest went unreported in the media.
Ever since Modi has come to power, Gujarat has fallen off the news map. Una is only the latest in the long list.
One instance of media’s capitulation has been the virtual disbanding of the Ahmedabad bureau of almost all the news channels, barring the NDTV. The Times Now, the most popular English language network, for example, does not have a Gujarat bureau. A reporter is flown down from Mumbai each time something big happens in the state. Trawling the Times Now website threw up this 16-second clip read out by the anchor in the “Speed News” format.
India Today TV, which previously had a full-time English language reporter in Ahmedabad, has no one now. There’s only one reporter for India Today’s Hindi network Aaj Tak. When Modi assumed power, the ABP News moved out its Ahmedabad reporter to Delhi in the hope that he would manage access to the PMO. That reporter is now back in Ahmedabad as the head of the ABP group’s regional Gujarati channel. Clearly reportage on incidents like Una rub the state government the wrong way, something a start-up can ill-afford to do. A search of the ABP News portal for the Una march yields only a two-minute clip in its prime time bulletin.
Contrast this with the so-called reportage in December 2014 when BJP President Amit Shah was exonerated by a CBI court.
This 2014 Times Now clip could well be considered a template for reporting on Gujarat across news networks, as it pretty much anticipated the manner in which Gujarat and especially the 2002 riots would be reported by mainstream media in the months to follow.
The reporter, who was earlier stationed in Gujarat, can be strangely seen "reporting live" from Haridwar, parroting pretty much the arguments the Central Bureau of Investigation presented in court as reasons for exonerating Shah. There were no questions about the U-turn by the CBI in its stand after the change in government, nor any questions with regard to whether or not the agency wanted to appeal the verdict. The issue never figured in Arnab Goswami’s super prime time “newshour”.
The Gujarat Mitra journalist put it in perspective. “Most of what was reported in the national media about Gujarat’s Dalit unrest was purely accidental. TV journalists happened to be in Ahmedabad at a time [August 4 to 7] when the new leadership was being chosen in the state. For them, this was the side story.”
When it comes to the prime minister’s home state, reporters across TV networks – and even print – have little or no editorial say in the matter. “The decision to follow the Azadi Kooch for two days was entirely my editors’ idea,” Joshi said, admitting that his story would not have been possible without editorial backing.
Even a news agency whose business it is to objectively purvey information – in this case news footage – has been caught napping. A look at the ANI’s Twitter timeline and even Google search for August 15 yields virtually nothing on the Una Dalit congregation, though the agency took all the trouble to send its cameraman to cover Modi’s air dash to Sarangpur in Gujarat to pay his last respects to a departed Swaminarayan sect leader.
At a time when news organisations have shoe-string reporting budgets, ANI fills in a huge gap. It is the only source of news feed from the more remote corners of the country. When asked about this editorial oversight, Editor Smita Prakash, who happens to be part of the owner's family, defended ANI and blamed social media sites for not throwing up the relevant material. “Google doesn’t show up ANI live feed. Twitter is not even 20% of our live feed. We do about 70-80 bites/interviews in a day which run on live,” she said.
A former ANI staffer, however, provided an entirely different perspective. “ANI has been on the gravy train ever since Modi came to power,” he said. It is the only news organisation other than PTI to travel with the prime minister on his official trips abroad. “This gives ANI both access and revenue,” he added.
With the blurring of lines between editors and owners, mainstream media has itself become the establishment. The media and its practitioners are increasingly deriving their powers from proximity to political and bureaucratic structures rather than as interlocutors for the poor and the discriminated.
The task ahead for Dalit warriors of Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh or anywhere else is a dual battle – fighting caste Hindus and a tone deaf media feasting on the agenda dished out by the government.