The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “fringe” as the “outer, marginal, or extreme part of an area, group, or sphere of activity”. Of late, this word has been pressed into heavy use by India’s English-language media, specifically to describe the Karni Sena, a Rajput organisation that has lashed out with violence at the release of the Hindi film Padmaavat, a work of fiction based in medieval Rajasthan.
Even as the Sena rioted across several cities, the English media continued to describe it as part of a mysterious and shadowy “fringe”, though what it was a fringe to was never really explained. The Hindustan Times, for example, ran an edit asking for “fringe groups, such as Karni Sena” to pay for the destruction caused by their violence, while paradoxically reporting that “fringe runs riot across country”. (If the “fringe” has such power, imagine what a mainstream group might be capable of.) The Economic Times and the Mint said “fringe groups” were demanding an ordinance to ban the film. And, of course, the Republic TV channel bellowed: FRINGE GOES ON A RAMPAGE OVER PADMAAVAT RELEASE; ARNAB CONFRONTS KARNI SENA CHIEF LOKENDRA KALVI.
Clearly, the Indian media loves the term “fringe” when it comes to describing the violent Rajput group. But just how accurate is the use of this term given the profile and actions of the Karni Sena?
Centre, not fringe
Is the Karni Sena marginal to Indian politics? Lokendra Kalvi, the group’s chief patron, has been in both the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – he even fought on the saffron party’s ticket in the 2008 Rajasthan Assembly election. Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath met the Karni Sena on Tuesday and patiently listened to their grievances. In November, he had even blamed the filmmakers for the controversy. The film’s content has been looked at by a parliamentary panel, which also questioned its director Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Giving in to the Sena’s demands, as many as four states, all ruled by the BJP, banned the film’s screening. The bans were scrapped by the Supreme Court, but the Sena, by unleashing violence with near impunity, essentially overruled the apex court by scaring multiplex owners in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Goa enough to “voluntarily decide” against showing the film.
To seal the deal, the Karni Sena drew support not only from the BJP but a large section of the Congress as well.
Clearly then, the Karni Sena is not a fringe group. In states such as Rajasthan, with a strong Rajput presence, it is in fact at the heart of the politics. Why then does the Indian media insist on using this inaccurate term?
For an answer, we need to turn to the British writer George Orwell’s masterful 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. In it, Orwell explains the use of what he calls “meaningless words”.
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’. The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.
Thus, like “democracy” or “fascism”, the word “fringe” is not used for its literal meaning but as a signifier: it serves to soften the image of the Karni Sena. The Sena has been supported by the ruling establishment. Yet, by calling it “fringe”, the BJP and its state governments are sought to be dissociated from the violence that so appalls the consumers of India’s English-language media.
Not terrorist, not Naxal
This dissociation is driven strongly by the upper caste character of the Karni Sena. For evidence, take the case of another “sena” – the Dalit-led organisation in Western Uttar Pradesh called the Bhim Army. On May 9, the Bhim Army was involved in violent clashes with the police Saharanpur town while they were protesting an upper caste attack on Dalit homes. The Bhim Army was immediately tarred as “Naxal” by the police as well as a pliant media. While the Karni Sena’s leaders are invited to television studios to debate the finer points of Rajput honour, the head of the Bhim Army remains under preventative detention, without any charge, in an Uttar Pradesh jail.
This is a familiar template, often employed for Adivasi mobilisation as well. Adivasi political activity – even in response to violence – is often labeled “Naxal” or “Maoist”. This label, in turn, allows for disproportionate violence to be used against them without inviting much protest. Since “political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible”, Orwell writes, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism”.
In Indian media today, the most common example of such an euphemism is “terrorist”, which is directed almost exclusively at Muslims. Though its wanton violence would fit most definitions of “terror”, the media will not use this word for the Karni Sena. The one exception has been News 18 news channel, which called the Karni Sena “terrorists” on Thursday. It was not without irony, though: the terrorist tag was only used when the Sena started to directly threaten News 18 journalists. Until then, the channel was quite content with using “fringe” to report on the Karni Sena rampaging through various cities.
This act of lexical pusillanimity by the Indian media is unfortunate. Journalists covering this story should be expected to expose the Karni Sena’s connections to political parties and government. Reporters need to question power – not blindly reflect what the powerful want to read and hear by using weasel words like “fringe”.