This week, India Today’s intrepid lead anchor Rahul Kanwal abandoned the glitz of the studio for grit on the ground. He walked, crouched and ducked bullets while on an expedition with the commandos of the Central Reserve Police Force deep inside Maoist-controlled territory in southern Chhattisgarh. Every move was captured to near-cinematic perfection – edgy handheld shots interlaced with aerial sweeps over the lush jungle canopy.
All along, Kanwal kept shooting off questions. “What’s that?” he asked as the commandos unearthed a landmine buried in the ground. He did not stop even when the unit came under fire from the Maoists. “Do the Naxals have advanced weapons or basic weapons?” he asked an officer, over the crackle of walkie-talkies and the rattle of gunshots, while they took cover behind a tree. Unhesitatingly running to the other side of the battleground, with not as much as a bullet-proof vest on him, he asked another officer: “Tell us how are you launching this attack.”
When an injured Maoist was found lying in a ditch, groaning in pain, the commandos decided to evacuate him. Kanwal lent a hand, helping them carry the stretcher. A chopper landed and took the injured men away.
For his heroism, Kanwal earned an interview with chief minister Raman Singh, who in turn got an opportunity to boast of his government’s success in tackling Maoists, days before voting gets underway in the state.
Embedding with government security forces to cover a conflict is a questionable but increasingly common form of journalism around the world. So are puff interviews.
Except that what Kanwal did was not journalism by any stretch. “Representative Video” and “Simulation Exercise” flashed on the top left corner of the screen every few minutes. But not once in his commentary did Kanwal feel the need to tell his viewers that it was all staged – the gunfire, the injured Maoist, the evacuation.
In fact, Kanwal did everything possible to convey the action was for real.
“Battling Naxals is one of the most difficult jobs in this country,” he announced at the start of the show, striding purposely in a jungle opening. On hand was the Inspector General of the Central Reserve Police Force, who had a piece of crucial information ready to share: the specialised CoBRA unit – Commando Battalion for Resolute Action – was “planning an operation” against Naxals. “Would you like to join?” he asked, failing to suppress a smile. “That’s exactly why we are here,” said Kanwal. The IG warned, smile intact: “But it’s a risky business, with a lot of precautions.” Kanwal declared he wants to give his viewers a first-hand sense of the challenges involved in fighting Naxals. Said the IG, “Let’s do it.”
Why would India’s largest paramilitary force, which is perpetually overstretched, waste its men and resources on simulating an operation complete with a rescue helicopter? As recently as 2014, choppers were missing in action when the CRPF needed them to evacuate its injured personnel. All the show does is trivialise the challenges faced by security forces in Chhattisgarh, as well as the complexity of the conflict.
Still, disturbing as it is, governments are known to push propaganda. A state election is underway. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which is in power both at the Centre and in the state, would like to wrest a victory in Chhattisgarh ahead of the national election in 2019.
The question is why would a journalist – and one who claims to be an investigative journalist – take part in a fabrication?
Just days ago, a Doordarshan journalist was killed when Maoists opened fire on the motorcycles of the security forces the crew was travelling with. A parody after a tragedy is not what Indian journalism needs.
Scroll.in emailed Rahul Kanwal about the show but he had not responded by the time this article was published.