On Tuesday, the Pune police raided the homes of 10 human rights activists across the country, arresting five of them. The activists – who live in Mumbai, Ranchi, Hyderabad, Delhi, Faridabad and Goa – are being investigated in connection with a public meeting held a day before caste-related violence erupted at Bhima Koregaon near Pune on January 1. As several commentators as well as the Delhi High Court have observed, there seems little evidence to justify the arrests. Yet, the Pune police have defended their action by labelling the activists “urban Naxals”, supporters of Naxalites waging war against the state in the jungles of some states.

Urban Naxal is a neologism coined on social media to attack mostly leftist activists and intellectuals seen as being opposed to the current Hindutva dispensation. The term has been given currency by a few TV news channels. That it has now made it to the vocabulary of law enforcement agencies illustrates how closely the media has come to be linked with rightist politics and state excesses in India. This link was first on display in February 2016, when TV news channels conducted a media trial of some Jawaharlal Nehru University students alleging that they had shouted seditious slogans at a commemoration event.

Spreading misinformation

The media’s job is to report on events and interpret them. Yet, in the Jawaharlal Nehru University case, sections of the media went beyond being observers and inserted themselves in the story as actors. The media watchdog Hoot even accused the Hindi channel Zee News of “fuelling state action” against the university’s students. Recounting how the Delhi police came to register the first information report against the students, the website noted:

“The short point is that the police were present when the groups were clashing and shouting slogans, they stayed on the campus until the two sides dispersed, they saw no reason to register any complaint on the basis of the slogan shouting they heard. It is the Zee video which gave them actionable evidence. The implication is that Zee did their recording by being there in time for the action, did it at length, and showed the ‘anti-national’ parts the next day. How did the police come to know of the programme shown? It does not say. Did the channel bring it to their notice?”

Zee News was also accused of misrepresenting the slogans shouted by one of its producers who subsequently resigned in protest. He said that the slogan “long live Indian courts” was portrayed as “long live Pakistan”. It later emerged that Zee News, along with NewsX and Times Now, had gone so far as to air doctored videos of the slogans.

The purportedly doctored video aired by NewsX.

While Zee News allegedly directed the police’s action, other channels played up unsubstantiated reports to smear the accused students. Umar Khalid, apparently because of his Muslim name, was particularly targeted, with NewsX calling him a “Jaish-e-Mohammad sympathiser” on the basis of an “Intelligence Bureau alert” that the agency later described as a “figment of someone’s imagination”. NewsX went on to claim that Khalid had visited Pakistan ­– an impossible feat given he did not have a passport. The ABP News website ran the unsubstantiated accusation of “Umar Khalid’s group” trying to “stick naked pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses”. Of course, none of the allegations were proved, or even pursued by the authorities.

So, over two years later, no legal action has been taken against the students. The media trial, however, was enough to make them guilty in the eyes of millions of Indians. Earlier this month, Khalid was set on by an armed assailant. Brazenly, the two men who orchestrated the attack released a video saying the assassination attempt was an “Independence Day gift” to Indians.

Damp squib

Still, there has been no let-up in TV news tirades. Rather than admit to making unfounded allegations, news anchors such as Arnab Goswami of Republic TV have doubled down. On January 4, Goswami coined the phrase “tukde tukde gang” – literally, the “pieces gang” – to target people he alleged were out to balkanise India. This was four days after Dalits at the Bhima Koregaon rally had been attacked by a group of people carrying saffrom flags. The phrase was perhaps inspired by a book titled Breaking India, co-authored by American Hindutva enthusiast Rajiv Malhotra.

It was a seamless transition from Jawaharlal Nehru University to Bhima Koregaon for Republic TV. Two days after the Bhima Koregaon violence on January 1, Goswami declared that the Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani was backed by the “Bharat ki barbadi [destroy India] brigade of Umar Khalid”. Mevani and Khalid had addressed the public meeting theday before the violence.


New bogey

In May 2017, Vivek Agnihotri, a filmmaker popular on right-wing social media, wrote an essay in Swarajya magazine defining the concept of “urban Naxal”, the title of his book released two days later.

“Urban naxals are the ‘invisible enemies’ of India, some of them have either been caught or are under the police radar for working for the movement and spreading insurgency against the Indian state. One common thread amongst all of them is that they are all urban intellectuals, influencers or activists of importance.”

Agnihotri offered little by way of evidence to back up his claim, but the term soon became quite popular among Hindtuva supporters. In June, it found its way into the Organiser, the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which heads the network of Hindutva organisations of which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is a member. On July 4, Republic TV claimed it had obtained a letter proving a “direct link between urban Naxals and Kashmiri separatists”. The news channel alleged that letter was written by Sudha Bharadwaj, a lawyer at the Chhattisgarh High Court and prominent human rights activist. Bhardwaj promptly denied the allegation but pointedly asked how evidence of such a serious crime had first reached Arnab Goswami. She also sent a legal notice to the channel. Bhardwaj was one of the people arrested on Tuesday.

A month earlier, the Pune police had arrested five leftist activists in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence. Two days after the arrests, Times Now aired news of a letter that purportedly spoke of a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi and implicated the arrested activists. Like Republic TV, Times Now did not say how such an important piece of evidence had come into its possession.

As in the Jawaharlal Nehru University case, there seems very little substance in the allegations against the arrested activists. It is, therefore, remarkable how well some media outlets are bolstering the police case and, by extension, the ruling party’s politics. They all seem to coordinate closely; a statement by a group of activists on Tuesday accused the Delhi police of waiting for the Republic TV crew to arrive before taking Bhardwaj to court. They statement added that the arrests were “incomplete without the accompanying sensationalist media propaganda to demonise activists, human rights defenders and intellectuals”.