Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Lifetime Achievement of L. K. Advani

Lal Krishna Advani, the Prime Ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is generally believed to be a Hindu hardliner politician largely liable for polarizing India on communal lines. Leaving behind trails of blood and communal passions, his infamous Rath Yatra had created a sort of hysterical upsurge of the Hindutva forces during the Ram Janmbhoomi movement that lead to the eventual demolition of the Babri Masjid. His Rath Yatra is also credited to be the pivotal force behind the speedy and almost smooth rise of BJP as an alternative of the Congress Party in different parts of the country. Advani believes that the shrewd construction of the Hindutva hysteria is one of his most important contributions to the country and its people. Though the Hindutva card along with its chief architect has apparently lost its original shine and luster, the revered television media group New Delhi Television (NDTV) has considered giving him a face-lift by bestowing a Lifetime Achievement Award in their fourth ‘Indian of the Year’ award ceremony this year (see video here). Keeping aside NDTV founder and chairman Dr. Prannoy Roy, the juries of the award selection committee comprising Fali Nariman, Shashi Tharoor, Anu Agha, Rahul Bajaj, Harsha Bhogle and William Dalrymple reportedly did not select Advani. They were actually unaware that such an award was going to be bestowed on Advani in the function. According to the media watchdog Hoot, two of the juries were uncomfortable about the choice and particularly one among them later said that ‘he would not want to be associated with any award which gave prizes to communal hatemongers.’ Clarifying the selection process, Prannoy Roy later said that NDTV always reserves the right for its editors to select and present one or more non-jury awards. This clarification made it crystal clear that Advani’s selection was done by none other but entirely by the NDTV coterie.

Founded on 1988, NDTV started out with just one weekly programme called The World This Week in the state owned Doordarshan channel. Later in 1998, it bagged the ‘prestigious’ contract to produce a 24-hour news channel for Rupert Murdoch's Star Network. Today it is the largest independent private television production house in India. Its flagship news channel NDTV 24x7 holds the biggest market share among English news channels in the country. It is the only Indian channel which broadcasts in Pakistan, has launched a 24 hour NDTV Arabia for Middle East and North Africa and broadcast programs in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Maldives, Nepal, Middle East, Mauritius, South Africa, Europe, US, Canada & New Zealand.

In the year 2002, NDTV (then the producer of Star News) had invited the ire of Hindutva forces particularly for its coverage of the Gujarat riots. Though widely credited for airing un-biased, courageous, insightful, and comprehensive news that had unmasked the State Government’s role in the pogrom, Star News was severely criticized for ‘indulgence in gossip’, for insisting that the Army’s deployment was unduly delayed during the riots and for interviewing the Ahmedabad police commissioner in an ‘arrogant and hectoring tone’. The channel “carried some graphic footage and interviews in the thick of the riots – in Ahmedabad and along the Vadodara-Godhra highway where a number of industrial establishments and trucks were burnt” and also broadcasted an extremely moving interview with the intrepid activist of communal harmony Professor J.S Bandukwala – whose house was attacked and torched by vicious Hindu mob in Vadodara during the riots. Star’s behind the news stories by correspondence Shikha Trivedi portrayed the “trauma and alienation of the Muslim communities and individuals who returned to their villages on sufferance, and in the ways in which tribal communities have been co-opted into the Hindutva fold”. (Subarno Chattarji: Media representations of the Kargil War and the Gujarat riots, Sarai Reader 2004) Obviously, pro-Hindu outfits and under the cloak communalists from the affluent middle class harshly condemned the coverage as biased and ‘full of white lies’. Its ace reporter Barkha Dutt’s car was surrounded on a Gujarat highway by fanatics armed with swords and asked “what’s your religion?” NDTV crew had to cry ‘Jai Sri Ram’ before their vehicles were allowed to move. (Editors Guild Fact Finding Mission Report on Gujarat Riot, May 3, 2002) Barkha Dutt’s reporting on a violence hit 90 km rural stretch where not even a single police constable was found to be present infuriated the authorities at Gandhinagar and New Delhi. Accordingly, orders were issued by the Gujarat government to district headquarters to block the Star News channel. On March 2 the channel was blocked for several hours. Lal Krishna Advani was then the home minister of the country. The coverage of Star News was termed by his party as ‘pseudo secular’.

It is therefore almost bizarre to see that the same NDTV which in 2002 had helped to expose the Gujarat pogrom perpetrated by Hindutva fanatics under a fully supportive state BJP government and a partly supportive NDA government at the center is honoring the ‘one and only’ Advani in 2009 with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in the field of politics! What would have changed in these seven years that obliged NDTV to hand over the award to Advani is a perplexing question to answer. One of the supposed reasons is that the award was bestowed to Advani to make sure that he attends the award ceremony. But this cannot be the only reason.

After receiving the honor, the ‘intelligent, thinking and unpredictable’ Advani (as Prannoy Roy has described him) said that “One of my positive experience, which many in the country seem to see as a negative, was my Rath Yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya. I really think that by that Rath Yatra, I was able to convert the nature of the debate that was taking place before those years, which was that my party is communal and other parties are secular. I just converted the debate to genuine secularism versus pseudo secularism.”

Public memory is short and needs to be refreshed time after time. From NDTV’s award ceremony dais Advani was in fact bloating about his original Rath Yatra of 1990 that began from September 23 to ‘unite Hindus’ on an anti-Muslim agenda. The decision to launch the Rath Yatra was Advani’s anxious response to the threat of the then Prime Minister V. P. Singh’s decision to implement the Mandal Commission recommendations and was obviously attempted to grasp the influential but drifting voters of the backward classes. Jointly planned with the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) leadership, the Rath Yatra eventually caused deep polarization of the Indian society by inflaming communal passion and had incited people to trigger brutal and violent communal outbursts. Until it was stopped at Samastipur by the then Chief Minister of Bihar Laloo Prasad Yadav on October 23, thirty-nine places through which Advani’s Ram Rath had passed were affected by communal violence. Nearly 275 people were killed in these clashes.

In an interview with The Sunday Times of October 14, 1990 Advani characteristically remarked that “I am sure that everyone knows that it (the Rath Yatra) has provided a healing touch; it has not caused any tensions or has not inflamed passions” (Emphasis added). The jubilant Advani then went on saying that his Rath Yatra has ‘manifested and articulated’ the sentiments of the Hindus in ‘a powerful fashion’. The following media reports will undoubtedly prove this manifestation and articulation of the ‘Hindus’ Advani was so proud about. An editorial in the October 5, 1990 issue of The Times of India remarked that, “Communal riots have already broken out in Baroda and Banaskantha. It is difficult not to see the connection between the Rath Yatra and the Ram Jyoti campaigns on the one hand and the heightening of communal tensions in different parts of the country… If Mr. Advani is concerned about the unity and integrity of the country and stands for the defence of law and order, he should reconsider his course.” An article in The Sunday Observer, dated October 14, 1990 had reported instances of mounting tensions in Mysore, Mangalore, parts of Bangalore city and North Karnataka. It had also expressed deep concern that communal violence has ‘succeeded in penetrating the villages’ like in Chennapatna where an entire hamlet of Muslim farmers were burned and in Kolar district where “Muslim houses in several villages have been reported to have been attacked by unknown outsiders.” The report also stated that, “There is no doubt whatsoever, that the Muslim community bore the brunt of the rioting, both in terms of lives lost and property damaged – of the 17 dead, 13 were Muslims.” The Telegraph dated October 14, 1990 reported about the Rath Yatra impact on Uttar Pradesh stating “…even before Mr. Advani’s rath has entered the state, the death toll in communal clashes has gone up to 44.…When the rath moved into Maharashtra from Surat, the armed Bajrang Dal activists were less prominent – but the speeches of the BJP leaders were as full of venom…” The same report described how at Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh, “… Mr Pramod Mahajan, the BJP leader in the course of a fiery speech asked the Muslims to either have faith in Lord Ram or else leave the country. Mr. Advani all the while nodded in acquiescence and the hundreds of youths who surrounded the podium brandished their swords and trishuls and hailed the speech. The result, of course, was inevitable: communal clashes broke out in Raipur” (Emphasis added). On November 2, 1990 The Independent reported that the pre-planning of the communal riots in Indore were “…evident from the large haul of stored arms and weapons from several houses …” On the October 28, 1990 issue, The Telegraph reported how communal flare-up rocked Jhalda in Purulia district of West Bengal “…claiming 9 lives, is a direct fall-out of the rathyatra of Mr. LK Advani which passed through the town on October 20.” (Source: Communalism Combat, April 2001) These are some of the fantastic examples of ‘genuine secularism’ for which today Advani is swollen with pride.

The champion of Hindu communalists, the lauh purush (ironman) of BJP has recently assured his henchmen that “the party had not forgotten Ram”. The Indian Express reported from Nagpur that Advani asked his party men: “Ram ke janmasthan mein Ram ka mandir kyon nahin banna chahiye (why should there not be a temple at the birthplace of Ram at Ayodhya?)” This reveals the true face of Lal Krishna Advani – communal to the core and notoriously devious. His entire intellectual jargons including terms like ‘pseudo-secularism’ or ‘minorytism’ are in fact not his invention at all but copied from the lexicon of the parental Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangha (RSS). As pointed out by A. G. Noorani, “Advani can never be original. He needs intellectual crutches.” His essentially manipulative vocabulary is deceitful to its core and is extremely dangerous to trust.

What truly sickening and disgraceful to see was how a culpable crime committed against the pluralistic Indian society has been publicized as a ‘positive instance’ from the ceremonial dais of a media house that distinguishes itself as a champion of secularism.

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Sunday, February 1, 2009

The megalomania of Barkha Dutt

Ms. Barkha Dutt, the Managing Editor-English News of the ‘highly influential’ Indian news channel New Delhi Television (NDTV) is surely an honorable person. She is striking, concerned and caring, widely acclaimed as an impressive and intrepid journalist and certainly a celebrity. During the Mumbai terror attacks, she positioned herself with a broken voice on ground zero to dispatch continuous news bytes for her channel. It was the filmmaker Shyam Benegal who had to remind her about the class biases of her coverage that has surprisingly forgotten the ‘insignificant’ victims of CST railway station. To clear her conscience, she brought Shameem, a man who has lost six members of his family at the CST in her talk-show ‘We the People’ and with a teary eye and clogged voice sensationalized the viewers by interviewing this hapless man. On the same show her conspicuous guest Simi Garewal disgorged this irresponsible and stupid remark: “…look down from the top floor at the slums around you. Do you know what flags you will see? Not the Congress’, not the BJP’s, not the Shiv Sena’s. Pakistan! Pakistani flags fly high!” By turning emotional in her own show, Ms. Dutt in a melodramatic voice revealed that during the terrible three days she did not find anyone who was not acquainted with a victim of the terror strikes. The victims she had mentioned about were evidently not the massacred ones in the CST railway station but mostly high society elites from the Taj, Oberoi and Trident. She later tried to clarify that the hotels were focused as ‘sites of the live encounters’ and was not a ‘deliberate socio-economic prejudice’. Indeed, some of her prejudices are so deep-rooted that she fails to recognize them.

Soon, her coverage of the audacious attacks started to instigate extensive criticism in social networking sites like Facebook and Orkut for too much sensationalism. The criticism was mostly sappy reactions by Indian Internet users who were naturally outraged by the appalling atrocity. Barkha Dutt was accused for ‘broadcasting sensitive information about the position of hostages and security troops’ and for ‘sensationalizing the news coverage’. Newswatch, a media watchdog based in New Delhi had carried out a survey on the television news coverage of the incident and found that “Barkha Dutt of NDTV was thought to be the most theatrical/worst anchors/reporters”. Though Subir Ghosh, editor of Newswatch portal has clarified that “since this was an online survey the results would also mean the opinion gathered was that of India’s Internet users only, and not that of the people as a whole. The survey results, unfortunately, leave out rural India from its ambit. In that sense, this survey is as elitist as the coverage ….”

On 27 November 2008, Chyetanya Kunte, an Indian blogger living in the Netherlands wrote a post ‘Shoddy journalism’ in his blog and harshly accused Barkha Dutt for breaking ‘every rule of ethical journalism in reporting the Mumbai mayhem’. Though the post was perceived by Ms. Dutt as a ‘hate’ campaign against her, it was actually Kunte’s personal views which had erupted out of agony, frustration and anger while he was viewing the coverage of the on going mayhem on television. Kunte found the coverage careless and repugnant. He felt that it was actually helping the terrorists with vital information that might have jeopardized the lives of people trapped in the occupied buildings and remarked that, “You do not need to be a journalist to understand the basic premise of ethics, which starts with protecting victims first…” He had also cited a Wikipedia reference about allegation against Ms. Dutt’s channel for ‘giving away locations in her broadcasts, thus causing Indian casualties’ during the Kargil war. Kunte’s allegations are debatable but he was not the lone accuser in this occasion. Along with him, thousands of television viewers were similarly upset by the numb coverage of the Mumbai carnage by Indian news channels.

Shockingly, Kunte’s emotional fury was picked up by Barkha Dutt as comments by ‘a certain Mr. Kunte’ who has targeted the ‘character, morality and integrity’ of herself and her channel. NDTV promptly issued a legal notice against Kunte which was confirmed by Ms. Dutt in Facebook where she wrote that, “Mr. Kunte has been served a legal notice for libel by NDTV. That should give you some indication of where we and I stand. The freedom afforded by the Internet cannot be used to fling allegations at individuals or groups in the hope that they will then respond to things that aren't worthy of engagement.” Can we ask who is Barkha Dutt to decide how ‘freedom afforded by the Internet’ should be used? On 26 January 2009, Kunte was forced to publish a post captioned ‘Unconditional Withdrawal of my post “Shoddy Journalism” dated November 27th 2008’ in his blog where he has tendered ‘an unconditional apology to Ms. Barkha Dutt, Managing Editor, English News, NDTV Limited and to NDTV Limited, for the defamatory statements’ and stated that he has ‘agreed with Ms. Barkha Dutt and NDTV to publish this statement as a means of settlement’. Subsequently, the original post was deleted from the blog. Chyetanya Kunte became an unfortunate victim of the megalomania of Ms. Dutt and NDTV.

The incidence is startling. Not only because it has exposed the malevolent side of the imposing face of NDTV, India's largest private television production house but also because the incident has exposed how a prime television media house and its famed Managing Editor can easily become prickly about venial criticism. It is similarly startling to observe how arrogant a television news channel can be when confronted with uncomfortable questions from its very own audience. It looks more odd when the same NDTV adopts the role of conscience-keeper and become instrumental in arousing public anger against the government and politicians, invites stupid guests in serious looking talk-shows to deliver stupid lectures on matters of public concern, interviews hapless relatives of the victims to make ‘story’ out of their mental anguish. All of these were plainly, as Miss Dutt explains in the NDTV website, to ‘touch upon the human dimension’ to the story. As if the people of India needed to be spoon-fed by her channel about how callous their politicians are and how sad and hopeless one feels when a near and dear one is held hostage by brutal terrorists. In capital letters Miss Dutt has clarified that ‘they WANTED to talk’. How is she so sure about that? If it was important for her to cover the views of those who WANTED to talk rightly or wrongly, in a similar logic it must also be important for those who rightly or wrongly wanted to criticize her role. She had also tried to assure her viewers that “…it is important to understand that in the absence of any instructions on site and in the absence of any such framework we broke NO rules.” Here, she has assigned herself in a duel role – both as the law breaker and the law maker.

In recent times, the Internet has provided independent voice to individuals who in the past were rarely capable to express and exchange their views and opinions on issues of public concern. Accepting this wonderful opportunity, many laypeople have started expressing themselves through social networking sites and personal weblog. This development has made the large media houses like NDTV and their standard form of journalism increasingly nervous about the future of their absolute authority on public psyche and exposed the fragility of their empire.

By putting a gag on Chyetanya Kunte, what example does Ms. Barkha Dutt and NDTV wants to set? Is it in fact a warning for all bloggers to think twice before expressing their personal views? Do all bloggers now start gulping their emotions to avoid legal notices? The Mumbai incidence was definitely a serious matter of public concern. Every Indian has a right to express his/her views on this subject. If fingers can be raised against politicians, bureaucrats, judiciary and security forces, fingers can also be raised against the holy cow journalists and media houses.

Freedom of speech cannot be selective. As Noam Chomsky had said, “If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.”

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