You don’t need a five-star political analyst to tell you that the Indian media has never been as divided as now. Few journalists and op-ed writers—or, for that matter, even “objective” historians like Ramchandra Guha—now bother to hide their political inclinations or affiliations. You are either “secular-left” or “communal-right”—either with “us” or against “us”. There is no neutral space, and that is not as bad as its sounds. Between a media that maintains a pretence of neutrality and one that openly declares its political inclinations, one should prefer the latter, as it at least brings underlying biases out in the open. You know what to discount. The joke is really on the mainstream Lutyens English media, which is still claiming neutrality when its sympathies are obvious to everyone and the dog at the lamp-post.
If one were to name names, one would put NDTV and India Today TV in the anti-Modi, anti-BJP/RSS side of reportage, while Republic TV and Times Now veer towards the other side; CNN News18 is somewhere in the indeterminate middle, swinging both ways. The polarisation sometimes happens within the same media house, with the likes of Rajdeep Sardesai and Rahul Kanwal on one side, and Gaurav Sawant on the other, in India Today TV.
When it comes to newspapers and digital publications, the Times of India is probably somewhere in the middle, happy to swing both ways, while the Indian Express, Hindustan Times, Hindu and Telegraph remain firmly in the anti-Modi camp. Similar divisions are happening in the Hindi and regional media too. In digital media, Wire, Scroll, Newslaundry and Print are seen to tilt to one side, while Swarajya (where I officiate as editorial director) is seen as partial to the Modi regime. This division also exists among the fact-checkers: AltNews sees its job as exposing fake news emanating from BJP-RSS handles even while doing the token expose on fake news generated by its own ideological brethren; Opindia goes hammer-and-tongs to expose the fake narratives and biases of the Lutyens media.
The division is so strong that even the foreign media, from the New York Times to the Washington Post and Economist, have abandoned all pretence of neutrality, buying the Lutyens English media poppycock hook, line and sinker. The only Indian media writers given space by Washington Post are Barkha Dutt and Rana Ayyub, and we know where their sympathies lie.
There is a good reason why this polarisation has come out in the open now rather than earlier. Until about a decade ago, only one side controlled the media. Even during Atal Behari Vajpayee’s tenure (1998-2004), the media was by and large anti-BJP. There were no counter-narratives. Most media—both TV and print—were controlled by interests politically aligned to the Congress-Left ecosystem created after Indira Gandhi’s fateful alliance with the left in the second half of the 1960s. This ecosystem’s stranglehold in both media and academia ensured that there was only one dominant narrative about India. With digital taking centre-stage over the past decade, new voices sprang up to question the mainstream narrative. Today, even if you are an editor with pro-Congress views, you cannot stop other journalists in your own organisation from blogging differently. The tyranny of controlling the narrative from the top of the editorial hierarchy is dying, if not dead. Today’s media polarisation is a direct result of the smashing of the monopoly on narrative-setting by Lutyens Delhi, which has not taken kindly to being challenged repeatedly by upstart journalists from the right.
The more one side pretends to represent the “idea of India”, the harder is the pushback from the other side on the “idea of Bharat”. The more fake secularism is pushed down our throats, the bigger the critique of “sickularism”. This creation of alternative narratives is being aided by the rise of new academic historians who are not beholden to the secular-left worldview of Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, who dubbed pre-1960 history writing as “communal”. Giant historians such as R.C. Majumdar, Jadunath Sarkar and Nilakanta Shastri were junked, and till recently the right did not produce counter-history. But the left view of history is being robustly challenged by a new breed of historians, including some from abroad, by the likes of Meenakshi Jain, Vikram Sampath, Michel Danino and Koenraad Elst. Non-historians such as Shrikant Talageri and Arun Shourie, and the late Ram Swarup and Sita Ram Goel, provided intellectual ballast to right-wing narratives. One reason why the Supreme Court was found in favour of the Hindu side in the Ram Mandir case was the exposure of left historians as “unreliable” guides to history. Even on Twitter, young history buffs are challenging mainstream narratives. True Indology is one such handle.
In the current political context, the battle for supremacy among rival narratives can best be illustrated by how the two sides have chosen to debate the Citizenship (Amendment) Act of 2019, which seeks to fast-track citizenship to persecuted Hindus, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Parsis from three Muslim-majority nations in the neighbourhood (Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan). Any truly “neutral” media would have chosen to examine both sides of the argument on CAA. They should have been doing stories on the extent of persecution of these minorities in the neighbourhood, and explored alternatives for protecting the persecuted in their homelands instead of just incentivising them over to cross over and settle in India. Is that what happened? No. The Lutyens media completely ignored the human side of the persecution of Hindus by Islamist regimes just as they refused to mainstream the plight of the ethnically cleansed Hindus from Kashmir Valley. They shed crocodile tears over how Muslims were sought to be excluded from CAA, even though they are not among the persecuted people of the neighbourhood, and the issue is not discriminatory treatment of Indian citizens, but setting entry rules for illegal immigrants.
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Similar biases operate in all Hindu-Muslim or Hindu-Dalit issues. The Lutyens media highlights bigotry only when directed against minorities in India. Thus, Mohammed Akhlaq’s murder over alleged possession of beef is prime-time news for months on end, but not that of Kamlesh Tiwari, who allegedly blasphemed against the Prophet. Junaid Khan’s murder, possibly a dispute over a train seat, got CMs rushing to console his family. But no major politician came to condole V. Ramalingam, who was murdered by Muslims for seeking to prevent conversions in Tamil Nadu.
The hypocrisy of the Lutyens media was most apparent when it chose to ignore the openly Islamist slogans heard at the start of the anti-CAA protests in Delhi, including the blockade of a major arterial road in Shaheen Bagh. But Anurag Thakur’s incomplete sentence that began “Gaddaron ko…” (which the crowd finished with “goli maaro”) was given top billing. The Islamist slant to the anti-CAA agitation (with slogans of “Jinnah waali azadi” and “tera mera rishta kya, la ilaha ill-allah” renting the air) was sought to be whitewashed by pious readings of the Preamble to the Constitution and conducting an uncalled-for “havan” at Shaheen Bagh. These token moves were enough for the Lutyens media to paint the entire movement as “secular”.
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It is possible to make too much of this polarisation. It may seem like the gap between the two sides is unbridgeable, but polarisation always precedes compromise. It is only when rival positions are articulated without excess political correctness that the polity can decide where the truth may actually reside. What has changed is that you now have two sets of arguments to help you decide what is right. And that is always a good thing. The polarisation will ultimately provide the basis for a new synthesis that is closer to the truth than now. The one-sided fake narratives of yesteryears will find themselves consigned to the dustbin of history.
(Views are personal.)
R. Jagannathan, Editorial director, Swarajya magazine