• Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing….

    "A fair description of Times Now and Republic TV’s treatment of dalits commemorating the Bhima Koregaon battle"

    Geetha Seshu

    January 4, 2018

     

    While fake news has understandably dominated the digital noise all of 2017, how do we deal about the malaise of lies and alternative facts that advocate blatant bias?

    All of yesterday, Times Now and Republic TV channels worked themselves into a frenzy to pinpoint the blame for the violence that broke out in parts of Mumbai in the wake of the attack on dalits who visited the Bhima Koregaon battle memorial in Pune on January 1 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle of Bhima Koregaon.  

    Of course, there was little or no reference to the violence against the dalits, many of villagers and youths who gather at the site every year. This year, a conference, the "Elgaar Parishad", saw a massive gathering in Pune for the anniversary. The battle is marked by dalits as a defeat of the Peshwa rule by the British East India Company with the help of Mahars fighting for the British.

    The Elgaar Parishad had been debated extensively in the local media. The commemoration of a battle that defeated the Peshwas and helped the British secure their hold over India is juxtaposed with recollections of the oppressive Peshwa rule and its extreme practices of untouchability.

    The call of the Elgaar Parishad was to overthrow the "naipeshwaii" prevalent in society today. The Akhil Bhartiya Brahman Mahasangh, a right-wing organization, initially opposed the event but with drew its opposition, seeking an open debate on "casteism".  The Maharashtra government, ruled by the BJP-Shiv Sena combine, maintained a studied silence.  

    The Elgaar Parishad drew support from several organisations and hosted a galaxy of speakers, including P. B. Sawant, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, B.G. Kolse Patil, a retired judge of the Bombay High Court, dalit scholar Raosaheb Kasbe, newly elected Gujarat MLA Jignesh Mevani, Radhika Vemula, the mother of student leader Rohith Vemula, and JNU student leader Umar Khalid.

    A day after the Elgaar Parishad, dalits went in large numbers to visit the site of the memorial (an obelisk constructed by the British two years later to commemorate the 500 Mahar soldiers who died in the battle). They were attacked and the resultant violence left one person dead and several injured. Police had to impose prohibitory orders, internet access was stopped in some areas, and it took till evening for law and order to be restored.

    "Who were these protestors? What were they protesting about? For the anchors of both these television channels, that was not an issue"

     

    There was initially little or no coverage of the first day’s violence till news filtered in by the afternoon. The infamous tyranny of distance was hardly an excuse. Perhaps dalit commemoration of a 200-year-old battle was just not a story worth covering. In contrast, there were visuals aplenty on the violence in Mumbai, complete with shots that played out in a loop of youth in saffron flags waving their sticks and flag poles at traffic, smashing vehicles.

    Republic TV had a report by their own correspondent who was forced, on air, to switch off his camera by a mob that kept shouting at him to stop filming the violence.

    Who were these protestors? What were they protesting about? For the anchors of both these television channels, that was not an issue. Instead, the channels competed with one another to portray the violence as a caste war. The headlines on Times Now said "Violent caste clashes erupt" while Republic TV used ‘#MahaCasteClashes’.

    The other common ground was the "focus" on dalit activist Mevani and Khalid. Times Now began by putting the Khalid-Mevani duo under the lens and asking Did Mevani-Khalid stoke the fire? Republic TV echoed this with "Rahul aide Mevani’s role under the lens? And "Day after Mevani, Khalid speech at event".

    Republic TV went a step further to state that "Republic TV accesses Umar-Mevani video", as if it was a secret document that it had managed to lay its hands on. Times Now decided to interview Bharatiya Republican Paksha leader Prakash Ambedkar to ask why Khalid (who, the channel alleged, supported terrorists) was invited to the event.

    In the absence of any decent analysis – even a halfway reference to the event –  viewers were left clutching at straws to get some NEWS of the actual violence. Republic TV didn’t get its staffer on the ground back on later to tell us. How bad was it, which parts were affected, was it safe to travel, have police moved quickly enough to get the situation under control, will the Maharashtra bandh call issued by Ambedkar have any impact and what would it be?

    Several questions but with the single-point Khalid-Mevani focus, we are none the better for an answer.

    Happy to be openly partisan 

    For most viewers, the channels are pretty clear in their priorities and completely unabashed about it. Over the years, there has been much discussion over how Times Now, under anchor Arnab Goswami and now in his new avatar at Republic TV, changed the rules of television coverage of the news. Successive clones of the anchor play judge and jury as they hold night-time television nations accountable to their brand of truth.

    The constant reference to the caste clash completely polarized the debate, providing little or no context, either historical or political. There was no effort to examine the current debate over the commemoration of a 200-year-old battle and its growing relevance to dalits who gather in large numbers in Bhima Koregaon each year.

    "In the absence of any decent analysis – even a halfway reference to the event – viewers were left clutching at straws to get some NEWS of the actual violence"

    Writing in the Economic and Political Weekly (Contesting Power, Contesting Memories – The History of the Koregaon Memorial, October 20, 2012 vol xl viI no 42), Shraddha Kumbhojkar, historian and head of the history department at Tilak Maharashtra University, Pune, states that:

    Those wishing to commemorate the greatness of Peshwa rule – a symbol of high-caste supremacy – either choose to ignore the Battle of Koregaon or create the pseudomnesia of a Peshwa victory. It is also an imperial site of memory that has been largely forgotten in Britain. However, the monument has undergone a metamorphosis of commemoration, as it no longer reminds the public of imperial power, except for the former untouchables whose forefathers shed their blood at Koregaon.

    It serves the purpose of providing “historical evidence” of the ability of the untouchables to overthrow high-caste oppression. Considering that Indian society is still dominated by a system of caste hierarchy, the Koregaon memorial also reminds us that present-day contestation for hegemony is often manifested in contesting memories.

    Indeed, it is a contestation only furthered and reinforced by the blinkered rabble-rousing on night-time television that, in recording present day narratives of conflict, only reinforces caste and communal prejudice.  


     

    First published in The Hoot.

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