Pandemic and Protests in India: Misrepresentation, Misinterpretation and Misinformation
As the world creeps through the biggest health crisis in a hundred years, what India has been lately appreciating and been busy with is the Great Hermit’s beard. For, that is the only thing that has grown during the pandemic in this country while everything else, obviously including our economy has nose-dived: the GDP growth rate reaching -23.9% in the April-June quarter of 2020. The last eight or so months for which we have been living with the Coronavirus have been pretty eventful. Meanwhile the Indian government has successfully maintained the killer streak of stooping to newer lows every day in moral and ethical standards. Even when thousands and lacs of farmers have marched up to the National Capital Region to protest against the three new farm bills the Government doesn’t seem bothered or even worried, to be worst.
At a time when protests against the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were picking up and growing more powerful with every passing hour in different parts of the country, the COVID-19 pandemic came as a blessing for the government. India was then seeing an unprecedented rise in socio-political activism from all the strata of the society. Even the average Indian middle class, who usually choose to remain aloof and silent on such concerns, took to the streets with banners, posters, and slogans against the acts. Since the last quarter of 2019, the minorities in India have been made to feel singled-out, threatened, and humiliated owing to these laws and the government was constantly putting out narratives about the bills which were often contradictory and hence utterly confusing and intimidating. Here in Kolkata, institutes like Presidency and Jadavpur University led rallies where professors, students, cultural performers, and common people walked together. A sit-in protest was being held at Park Circus maidan, following the one being held at Shaheen-Bagh. Delhi also witnessed a vicious communal riot that lasted for almost a week, breaking out in the midst of these protests, at the end of this February. This was also the time when China, Italy and many other countries were already experiencing huge onslaughts of the Coronavirus. However, the government was busy welcoming (read appeasing) a foreign President at a Gujarat stadium with lacs of people gathering in a mishmash. Never mind the fact that the first COVID-19 case in India was reported on 30th January and the Presidential visit and Delhi Riot both took place concurrently a month later. The government even subtly tried to play down the COVID-19 threat for quite a long time after then. It finally declared a complete lockdown on 24th March. But wait, there’s more to the story.
On 24th March, the Prime Minister appeared on live television at 8.00 p.m. to announce that from the following midnight, the country is to go under complete lockdown for the next 21 days. A buffer of 4 hours- mark this- not days, but only 4 hours- a span longer than which kids spend in their playschool. The citizens had been in a shock absolutely clueless how to manage rations and basic needs for the next 21 days. This totally ignorant, indifferent and rather callous declaration wrought thousands of migrant workers walking barefoot on the street. We saw children and old dying alike, out of hunger, exhaustion and the state-wrought humiliation while attempting to traverse thousands of kilometres, in their journey home. The executive head of the State kept mum about the migrant workers’ plight and was only found busy delivering his heart’s talks (Mann Ki Baat) on the radio where he talked about everything but real burning issues of the country. Well he knows to avoid questions and deliberations on real issues most ingenuously.
When the lockdown was relaxed from 1st June, India has tried, with pros and cons, to return to normal life as much as is possible. However, three farm bills that were (forcefully) passed in the month of September this year has again caused much agitation and unrest among the farmers, and according to me, quite reasonably so. The central government passed The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Bill, 2020, Farmers’ (Empowerment & Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Bill, 2020 and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Bill, 2020. The centre has appeared quite desperate to pass these bills and didn’t step back from turning all the stones to that end. The live broadcast and microphones were allegedly cut off for a period of about 20-minutes during which the fate of the bills were decided by vocal voting. When the broadcast resumed the bills were already passed. The opposition vehemently rose against such chicanery and now thousands and lacs of farmers have joined the protests on the ground that the farm bills actually are modelled to serve corporate interests and will put the agricultural community into further economic havocs.
It is no new fact though that the Centre is up and going for trading off public infrastructure to the corporate houses, something we called privatization, and is paving way for unbridled inflation in the next few years. From parts of Indian Railways to stakes in Coal India or LIC, we have been seeing this notorious game being played for quite some time now. As it is being thought, these bills are also a walk towards that direction.
The primary locale of the protest has been Delhi where farmers majorly from Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and also other states have gathered at all the major entry points, with huge stocks of grains (that can allegedly get them going for a couple of months). Farmers who couldn’t afford to travel to Delhi have been demonstrating protests in their own regions across the country. The opposition parties have supported all these agitations and all their farmer unions and mass organizations have further strengthened the ongoing movement. Interestingly India has seen a considerable presence and participation of left–wing farmer organisations in long rallies carrying red flags, marching towards Delhi with the age old Indian cry of ‘Dilli Chalo’. The notion that organized leftism has become irrelevant in India needs reconsideration after such visuals. Perhaps the worst and most humorous part of the whole scenario is the fact that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates Bharatiya Kisan Sabha (BKS) and Swadeshi Jagaran Manch (SJM) have supported the protests and argued that the farm bills will only serve the interests of the corporate and thus, need alterations. The RSS, the ideological godfather of the BJP, is infamous for their aggressive Hindutva politics and for inciting communalism across the nation.
In these protests recently we came across terrible scenarios where the State has been shamelessly trying to shut down the movements. We have seen farmers getting lathi-charged ruthlessly by the Police, we have seen farmers standing firmly against water cannons, we have seen farmers playing soccer with tear-gas shells, and we have seen octogenarians on the forefront of the struggle vehemently criticizing the deleterious bills.
Amidst all this a very pertinent question may arise- what is the government’s, i.e., the Prime Minister’s say on this situation. (Well, just if you don’t know, here in India, government and the PM have been on interchangeable terms for the last 6 years) So the Prime Minister has been indeed quite busy during all this agitation. He had an urgent visit to Varanasi (his Lok Sabha Constituency) where a spectacle was being put up on the occasion of Dev Deepawali. It has proved to be a magnificent exhibition of wealth, religiosity and devotion. A huge show of Chinese laser lights was arranged on the bank of the Ganges which our PM and the CM of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath supervised from a deluxe cruise afloat on the river. Well, gone are the days of Indian oil-lamps or diyas; this is New India of course and here, #BoycottChina is one of the several temporal rituals that we have! The Prime Minister also had to attend a puja at the Vishwanath Temple at Kashi where he prayed for the peace and prosperity of the nation. It is really tough to imagine for a commoner how he can manage time to think over the farmers’ agitation in between such a tight schedule. But he had been considerate enough and in a speech at Varanasi he has reassured the farmers that the farm bills have been prepared in the best interest of the farmers, which the latter are only failing to realize and understand. He has also tried in his speech to disillusionize the farmers’ community regarding the scheme that the opposition political parties are just playing petty politics and trying to fulfil their own political vendetta by misleading them and misinterpreting the bills to them. He has advised the farmers to be vigilant against being politically manhandled and misinformed by such parties. The entire speech of the Prime Minister at Varanasi smelled of his deep appreciation and care for the farmers.
That being said, for the last part, I have been particularly dumbstruck at the role played by the Indian media on these issues. In my knowledge, except NDTV, no other national news channel covered the entire farm bill protest thing. They were too busy with the array of events that followed after the untimely demise of a Bollywood actor- ranging from witch-hunting his girlfriend to ‘unravelling’ drug nexus in Bollywood. The national media was busy chasing actresses in cars asking “Mrs. X do you take drugs?” Only now they have found some time to devote for the unrest pertaining to the farm bills and they are utilizing that time to simonize the entire situation. A news presenter has called the protestors ‘khalistani elements’, while also guessing foreign connection in propelling the agitation project.
The farmers’ protests have occupied a considerable part of social media like Twitter and Facebook where hashtags like #standwithfarmerschallenge, #farmerprotests have been making rounds of the top trends. On this the media houses have made alarming comments: they have completely denied the possibility of the social media storm to have been organised by the farmers themselves. According to certain presenters, ‘it is not possible for a farmer to talk or write in English, and make hashtags trend on social media’. Disparaging notions as this propelled him into claims of foreign involvement and funding behind the protests. Another news-crier invented networks between Shaheen-Bagh protestors, Naxalites, Maoists and the farmers protesting now. On the other hand, the scene had been quite different just a few days before when the channels were getting flooded by visuals of the Prime Minister offering prayer, visiting some random ghat at Varanasi, or inaugurating some project or delivering some speech. His entire Varanasi visit has been kept at the prime focus of the cameras, while the farmers kept protesting and struggling against the acts. Many of them even boycotted certain TV channel from covering their agitation. One Karandeep Singh said, “We still want the media to cover our stories. We are simply asking that you report what you see, not what you create”. The true scarcity of news materials in present India has pushed the news media houses to the predicament of creating news! Depressing!
The standards of yellow-journalism that the better part of Indian news houses have reached can perhaps be compared with Hitler’s propaganda machinery. Even a few years back it was the government who were questioned on the national socio-political and economic issues. However, questioning is mostly directed to the citizens now and the government is often safe-guarded, praised and blindly supported by the media.
Thanks to the independent journalism houses like NewsLaundry, The Print, The Quint, Logical Indian, The Lallantop, and others who have made and are still making unbiased, and detailed coverage of the entire affair.
In all this, we must remember that we are going through one of the biggest farmers’ revolutions that have taken place in the history of this country. Besides, the seemingly perpetual fight freedom of life is on. Arundhati Roy, in the introduction to her latest book Azadi, writes “The infrastructure of fascism is staring us in the face, the pandemic is speeding up that process in unimaginable ways, and yet we hesitate to call it by its name.” India is facing an ethical challenge now as powerful communal forces are on a rise, aiming to completely obliviate the rich, pluralistic fabric of this great nation. Unfortunately, these forces have been able to introduce the fractures in the spirit of our communities and the fracture would only grow if not immediately stopped. There’s no better time to start doing our parts than now.
“Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power” ― Benito Mussolini