Will the Channels That Demonised Umar Khalid Feel Responsible For the Attack on Him?

Social Commentary

Will the Channels That Demonised Umar Khalid Feel Responsible For the Attack on Him?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Bullets were fired at Umar Khalid two days before Independence Day, when the country is under maximum security, just a kilometre away from the Parliament, and outside the Constitution Club, named after the document protecting free speech in our country.

While the JNU student-activist managed a narrow escape, the same could also be true for the person who shot at him with absolute impunity in broad daylight. In the days to come, the act will be rationalised. The bizarre logic that will be applied to it is that Khalid is part of the “anti-national tukde-tukde-gang,” a moniker given to him by TV journalists baying for his blood. Men and women on our screens who claim Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar, Shehla Rashid, and anybody else who questions the government is an agent of Pakistan, who wants to partition India a second time.

It might be difficult to pinpoint who was behind the attack – but it has been easy to see who is upset with the fact that the bullet missed the mark.

Shehla Rashid’s tweet condemning the attack was received with a barrage of hate and even claims that the attack on Khalid was concocted. This only confirmed the aggressive mindset that has developed toward anyone with a liberal outlook. The same vitriol was seen last year after veteran journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead at point-blank range outside her home. It was also seen when Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, and MM Kalburgi were assassinated for their non-conformist views and rejection of tradition.

Self-proclaimed “nationalists” hailed Gauri Lankesh’s death as a victory, and called for killing other “pseudo-secular presstitutes” like her. Fake news being spread via WhatsApp has fuelled aggression that continues to claim the lives of people. The attacks on activists like Khalid and Kumar via traditional news media is another version of what is being done via WhatsApp – but very little is being done, if at all, to control it.

Branding young students and activists as a threat to the country paints them as such in the eyes of the audience.

Any writer, activist, journalist, or ordinary citizen seen at odds with the government’s train of thought is viewed with utter suspicion. The media, which is supposedly entrusted with the responsibility of being neutral and conducting informed debates, has resorted to fear and hate-mongering, and has demonised those who question the authorities. The criminalisation of Indian citizens by national news platforms needs to be recognised for the slander it is, and the journalists and their organisations should be held accountable.  

Channels which routinely run prime-time debates on the allegedly seditious activities of activists like Khalid did not bother sparing even 15 minutes of on-air time after the attack to let people know that their character assassination could have led to an actual assassination. Arnab Goswami has gone on to term Umar Khalid “more dangerous than Maoists”. Gurmehar Kaur was trolled by Union Minister Kiren Rijiju, actor Randeep Hooda, cricketer Virender Sehwag, and many others when she said her father was killed by war, not Pakistan. Branding young students and activists as a threat to the country paints them as such in the eyes of the audience. And how this faceless mass reacts to the perceived threat is dangerous and unpredictable, as the events at the Constitution Club show.

It is worth asking why the Editors Guild of India, which has strict guidelines for journalists, has not rapped any publication – print, television, or digital for their divisive statements on citizens. While news media cannot control what the panelists and government functionaries appearing on their shows say, they have a duty to the people to present moderated discussions, which inform rather than polarise the public.

While these jingoistic channels seem to have no qualms in demonising student-activists fighting for freedom of speech, their excitement for holding a trial by media dies out when it comes to covering actual crimes. Much like ideologically charged right-wing bodies, certain media houses have also begun treating domestic terrorism as a non-entity. When it comes to reporting on religiously motivated acts of violence, like the Rajsamand murder or the many lynchings captured on mobile footage across the country, these outlets uncover an untapped reserve of journalistic restraint, making every effort to avoid referring to the incidents as saffron terror.

Under the present government, the conduct of some journalists is nothing short of sycophancy. Those who dare to defy power are shunned and silenced, as we saw with the recent departure of Punya Prasun Bajpai and co from ABP News. “They asked you to bend, you crawled,” were words famously uttered by LK Advani, condemning the conduct of journalists during the Emergency, which still holds true today as certain sections of media pander to communal sentiments. Their behaviour is a symptom of the state’s willingness to look the other way on instances of saffron terror: Jayant Sinha’s garlanding of Ramgarh lynching convicts, for instance.

This breathless prime-time hounding of Umar Khalid and co, has made terms like “anti-national” and “traitor” part of common parlance. It’s no surprise that common people speak the language of internet trolls when it is what they are shown on the news every day. It is also not surprising that people question the motivations, allegiance, and nationality of their fellow citizens when they see their MPs and politicians using their public platforms to do the same. When members of civil society are unsafe because of internal elements, when free speech can cost someone their life, surely we need to examine the state of our democracy.

If this is not an Emergency, why is the space for dissent shrinking?