By Manik Sharma Sep. 20, 2020
The witch hunt of Rhea Chakraborty or Sudarshan News’ ongoing campaign of “UPSC Jihad”, are great examples of the normalisation of vilification, minus the obligation to back up claims with solid evidence. But Indian media didn’t just arrive here overnight. For years now, it has been on the descent.
On August 30, 2007, a young girl, Rashmi Singh claimed in front of the TV cameras of Live India TV – then headed by the famous Sudhir Choudhary of Zee News – that Uma Khurana, a maths teacher at the Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in Delhi’s Daryaganj area, had coerced several of her students into sex work. Things got electrified and moved swiftly from there. A day after the telecast, a mob descended on the school and almost lynched Khurana to death. Images of the woman with torn clothes, petrified for her life, shielding her face from the camera as well as the blows being rained on her by the mob… Khurana was a picture of acute distress.
Days later, a police inquiry revealed that Singh was neither a student nor a sex worker, but an aspiring journalist, hired by reporters of the channel to make the sensational accusation. Khurana had come within an inch of losing her life. Her dignity, however, she could not save.
Witch hunts are how journalists leap for the shores of exalted recognition, undeterred by the many pieces their shortcuts leave innocent lives in. But while these hunts were previously restricted to small cases or modest subjects, the model has now graduated to the mainstream. The hunting of Rhea Chakraborty, for instance – spearheaded by English-language channels – or Sudarshan News’ ongoing campaign of “UPSC Jihad” are great examples of the blatant normalisation and nationalisation of vilification, shorn of the obligation to back up claims with solid evidence.
Sudharshan TV’s Editor-in-Chief Suresh Chavhanke, telecast a show in late August, in which he claimed to have exposed “the infiltration of Muslims” in the Union Public Service Commission. The heinous argument was condemned by several civil service associations and ex-bureaucrats, and criticised for amounting to hate speech. The Supreme Court has since stayed the telecast of the piece – however, judging by Chavhanke’s bloated Twitter feed is confident of its reprisal.
Feeding the demon
Media trials and witch hunts are painfully coiled into the skeleton of India’s media industry. They became sinister and wildly more popular compared to robust journalism with the launch of several private 24-hour news channels around the beginning of the millennium. For such a vast, far-reaching format, something needed to stand out from the average news as the competition for advertising slots increased. What news television soon learned was that for ratings and traffic nothing worked better than the sight of a vulnerable broken victim, whose guilt is as predictable as their grief is deniable.
Witch hunts are how journalists leap for the shores of exalted recognition.
Not too long after Khurana’s ordeal, the Talwar family of the infamous Aarushi Talwar case, were declared criminals long before their trial had even started. The euphoria and paranoia keyed in by TV channels was a distillation of human intrigue and TRP, rather than journalistic ethics. A simple life and death story just doesn’t do what scandalous theories and dark alleys can for the numbers. It’s like deceiving and deluding the viewer into staying hooked to a story that goes nowhere except turning into furious and flatulent gossip. Even reality TV has the decency to pay and endorse the people it publicly shreds. The Talwar case was unreasonably more insidious than anything the audience had seen before. Worse, they loved it.
Things, however, were still simpler when it was only the TV screen to feed off of in the frenzy. Social media has made things worse, by carrying the sword of misguided, uncontrolled anger and hate that nobody, not even those who start such rackets can control once they let the beast out of the cage.
One of the most famous witch hunts of the social media era was the public vilification of the student protests of JNU in 2016. Such was the enthusiasm of TV channels to manufacture a narrative against protesting students that they seemed to have doctored tapes, just so the youngsters could be termed seditionists.
The likes of Kanhaiya Kumar, and the recently arrested Umar Khalid, have since had to carry the burden of proving their patriotism to a country that wants nothing less than their blood. Khalid has not only been arrested on several occasions but has had a gun pointed in his face, when it wasn’t the camera of a toxic TV reporter. All this was still, however, restricted to the fringe, isolated cases that blinked once in a while, mostly to distract or divert attention from something more important.
The mainstreaming of witch hunts
Things have since sunk to a new low. Curled around the cocktail of hate and prejudice against religious, social or political minorities, TV news no longer wastes time in spurring hysteria overnight. Stunningly, it faces neither moderation nor is it cajoled into ethical introspection. Add to that the arbitrary evils of social media and what it can pick and choose to believe and the rot now seems beyond repair. Primarily, because it is now mainstream.
This year has been unique in so many ways. But it will particularly be remembered for the mainstreaming of witch hunts, the loathsome levels to which media news has stooped.
Relevance, in fact isn’t even a prerequisite anymore.
From the extensive defamation of Tablighi Jamaat in the context of the pandemic to the public desecration of Rhea Chakraborty and her character, TV news has turned into an accusatory blowhorn, screaming one-sided volleys at hapless, voiceless subjects, now at the risk of losing not just their livelihoods, but lives. The media’s interest in a combative Kangana Ranaut’s one-sided proclamations is in the fires it might ignite. Her venomous mudslinging has become tortuous, and frankly unconstructive to the very arguments she once carried a torch for. Neither is it conducive for the redressal of more pressing issues like the economic and public health crisis at hand.
It’s important to note that Sudarshan TV’s absurd investigation into a minority’s right to “participate” in the working of the state is neither based on a whim nor is it a long shot. It’s a carefully planned template that news television has been training and testing on its audience for years. Just that it is now more blatant than ever, unshackled by the patronage of those who are prepared to spare it the deserved consequences.
Next you know we might be asked to suspect a minority’s desire to vote, hold an opinion about the country they live in or their “wilful” contamination of the air we breathe, simply by sharing it. It might sound ludicrous now, but injected with adequate sincerity, emotion and anger, anything can be made to sound relevant. Relevance, in fact isn’t even a prerequisite anymore. What matters alone is the noise this circus can generate. To a point where news isn’t even news, but a tragicomic execution of someone or something they stand for.