The sordid communalising of the Palghar lynching, and the vicious attack on Sonia Gandhi by Arnab Goswami, the co-owner of Republic TV and its prime time anchor, have made it clear that hate is a commodity that continues to be sold like an essential item during the Covid-19 lockdown. On the other hand, peace, amity and the rule of law are becoming non-essential goods. They are being junked because the silent majority is either failing to discern that it is being fed toxic propaganda in the name of news or it is gobbling up hate and spreading it knowingly.
After a spate of FIRs and defamation suits filed against Goswami by Congress workers across the country, he alleged that he had been physically attacked. The Supreme Court intervened in a short span of 12 hours and has provided Goswami protection against arrest for three weeks but allowed the hate-speech probe to continue.
Strange indeed are the ways in which courts work; sometimes the wheels of justice grind exceedingly slowly and at other times they stun with their speed. The FIRs will take their own course and action is likely to be taken against Goswami sooner or later, but meanwhile, should not the court have taken suo moto notice of his provocative broadcasts and passed strictures?
The same night, Arnab thundered repugnantly on Republic TV that the Supreme Court’s relief marked a victory for the truth and the freedom of the press, and that, equally importantly, he had also won in the “court of public opinion”. Goswami frothed with unconcealed glee. Perhaps unprecedented anywhere in the world for a “news” channel during a pandemic, the first two headlines of his nightly broadcast were about himself. These are the noxious depths to which journalism has fallen in India. Goswami’s own self-serving fantastical claims equating himself with media freedom and truth are a sardonic reality of today’s India: a super-spreader of hate and propaganda getting away again as one who espouses truth and freedom.
But the irony is not lost on anybody, as even devout right-wing trolls know very well that Arnab is a demagogue and not a journalist. The clinching proof of this is the deafening silence from the thousands of journalists who remained unbothered by his crowing “I am a victim”.
The two national media bodies, the Editors Guild of India and the Press Council of India put out a statement condemning the alleged physical assault as a matter of principle, but not a single campaign was launched by India’s journalists in support of Goswami. By contrast, the media community spoke in one voice against the intimidation and harassment of senior journalist and the editor of The Wire, Siddhartha Varadarajan, and more recently, of Kashmiri journalists Peerzada Ashiq and Masarat Zahra. Goswami did not find place in these campaigns, for his loyalties are to his political masters not to journalism or truth or media freedom.
For India’s right-wing, Sonia Gandhi as a Christian woman of foreign origin and head of the Congress party checks all the boxes to invite their vitriolic attacks. Goswami’s vitriol is only the latest addition to a string of attacks on her over the years. Her foreign origin is such an anathema to the BJP and its parent organisation, the RSS, that since 2004, when she successfully led a Congress comeback in national politics, they have used the accident of her birth to deem her unfit and even ineligible to hold public office in India. Underlying the attack on Gandhi is the discrimination based on birth that is ingrained in right-wing Hindu supremacist ideology.
The BJP government has done its window-dressing by appointing a Muslim minister here, a sprinkling of Dalits and tribals there and some women to ministerships in its governments at the Centre or states. In fact, even though the Prime Minister’s humble origins theory itself remains disputed, he does not let go of any opportunity to harp on them to portray RSS-BJP as an equal opportunity combine. However, we should remember here that even the great Maratha king Shivaji had to undergo a purification ritual by Brahmins before he could anoint himself a ‘Maharaja’.
Nearly 350 years later, the RSS and BJP retain the Manusmriti-inspired Brahmanical framework to appropriate even the most powerful leaders who belong to non-elite identities as per the traditional Hindu caste hierarchy.
What is unusual about the attack on Gandhi this time is that it has taken place right in the middle of an unprecedented global and national crisis. Also, it has happened despite the Prime Minister’s appeal to stay united to successfully fight the pandemic. But not just Goswami, who is the Bofors of the submissive mainstream media, several other leading ‘journalists’ have targeted Muslims, communists and even Christians groups over the lynching in Palghar of two Hindu monks and the man accompanying them.
This lynching’s continuing media coverage is in stark defiance of logic and facts. Though it has been repeatedly clarified by the Maharashtra government, including by Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray, that not a single accused (over 100 have been arrested) is a Muslim, Christian or Communist, media channels continue with the false narrative of “Hindus are in danger”. Such channels deliberately ignore the fact that rumours of ‘child-thieves’ had surfaced once again, which led locals to brutally beat the three men to death in the presence of outnumbered policemen. They do that because it helps their bosses within the channel help the ones outside deflect public attention from matters that are absolutely crucial to our country’s fate.
Thanks to Goswami and his ilk, a large majority of people are no longer seized of issues such as the collapsing economy, the shroud of secrecy over PM-Cares fund, the status and quality of relief being given to migrant workers, the reported diversion of funds to redesign the Central Vista including the PM’s residence, and several such matters.
This demagogic and incendiary media frenzy is being manufactured from the same strain of absurd stock lies that are the hallmark of propagandists since Mussolini and Hitler. The aim is deflection of criticism, obfuscation of facts and truth and demonisation of one minority or the other. One of the cardinal rules for such propaganda is that the more absurd the lie the more likely people will believe it. And thus it is no surprise that as the false beat of persecution of Hindus, a la Palghar, plays on, it drowns out the unspeakably tragic death of a 12-year old child walking back home due to the lockdown. Inarguably, an ideal response to hate-mongering in media would be for people to see through the grand design to keep us in perpetual ferment and prevent any dissent and critique with the force of pseudo-nationalist rhetoric.
Whether it is the hateful hashtags against Ramzan, demonising of the entire Muslim community over the Tablighi Jamaat incident or communalisation of attacks on health care personnel, the straightforward strategy is to keep feeding the flames of polarisation. It is a continuation of the same old communal motto: keep the Hindu versus Muslim pot boiling come hell, high water or Covid-19. But, let us remember that once this pot boils over it will take much longer to cool than it will for the pandemic to die down.
The author is is a journalist and author of Ayodhya: City of Faith, City of Discord. The views are personal.