Shouting fire in a crowded theatre

Time was, and that not too long ago, when there was media consensus about the facts relating to any particular story. What differed was the interpretation, the analysis. The average reader, therefore, could by reading a couple of accounts in different sections of the media get a broad understanding of the facts; he could then form his own opinions, or subscribe to the one that suited his own individual bias.

That time is long gone; we no longer even have consensus on what the basic facts are. And over the past 24 hours, nothing illustrates this problem as much as the story of AAP councillor Tahir Hussain.

Anubha Bhonsle, executive editor of CNN-IBN, in course of real time reporting from the ground, tweeted out this story:

Journalist and author Rahul Pandita, who was with Bhonsle at the time, also posted a similar story on his timeline:

The story then grew wings, with various media houses suggesting, citing Sharma’s father among others, that Hussain was likely responsible for the Intelligence Bureau officer Ankit Sharma’s gruesome murder. Other stories said vast quantities of petrol bombs were found on the roof of the councillor’s house. But in parallel to these narratives, there was this:

I have no personal knowledge of any of the above, nor have I an opinion about this one way or the other — expect that the riots that ripped apart the national capital over a three-day period need to be investigated with the full force and capability of the state, that every single person who is determined to have played a role in it, whether as instigator, or perpetrator, or abettor, needs to be punished to the fullest extent of the law.

That said, here is the inexplicable part: the story above hinges on one simple question. Was Hussain present at his home at the time in question, or was he not?

That should be easy enough to establish without all this back and forth. Those speaking in Hussain’s defence mention the name and designation of the officer who, they say, rescued the councillor when his home was under attack, and took him to safety.

How difficult could it be to ask DCP (North-East) Delhi Ved Prakash Surya to confirm or deny that he rescued Hussain from a rioting mob? One phone call, one question, one answer — is that too much to ask?

Bhonsle’s original post was at 8:54 PM last night — and the back and forth is still going on as I write this. Worse, it has metastasised on social media, with the usual suspects led by BJP IT Cell head Amit Malaviya making hay over this ‘evidence’ of Muslim perfidy — the kind of narrative that, over time, embeds in the collective consciousness and fuels the ‘righteous anger’ of those who seek to exculpate their own role in the violence.

There, in that one tweet by the BJP’s chief propagandist, is the lurking menace. In Malaviya’s hands, an unproved allegation has morphed, in the space of 240 characters, into a dangerous “iceberg”.

Surely a simple phone call will settle the issue? Surely it is the duty of the media to make the call, to verify the facts? Surely Bhonsle and Pandita, both of whom as journalists have the access and ability to make that call, could have done so? As could any of those who are speaking out in defence of the councillor?

Surely now, more than ever, the media’s allegiance should be to verifiable facts?

Elsewhere, this, from one of the most senior members of the media:

Radical Islam? On what basis does Sardesai frame this ‘versus’ narrative? And, what is worse, how does the Shaheen Bagh protest become a “trigger” for violence, for the killing of, at last count, over 27 people; for the property destroyed, the livelihoods lost, the immense pain and misery that has resulted?

Just what will it take to make members of the media — including the seniors, who should be setting the example — understand that words, the tools with which we all earn our daily bread, have meaning, and that their misuse has consequences?

What will it take for all of us whose words have reach and influence to think before we speak?

Anatomy of a pogrom

They say the toll thus far is 13 24, as of 6.30 PM this evening. They whisper that the actual toll is much higher. Maybe we will know in time what the actual human cost is or, as has happened many times before in the course of state-sponsored pogroms, maybe we never will.

Never mind parsing the numbers, though — even one life sacrificed at the altar of the cold-blooded political calculations of those who rule us (rule, not govern, because there is zero sign of governance) and of the unthinking, unfettered hate of their bigoted base would have been one too many.

That hate manifested in scenes such as this, playing out on the streets of the national capital:

Or this incident, one among the many dozens over the past three days that we will never be able to live down:

Call it by its right name — this is a pogrom, not a “riot”. Ashutosh Varshney, who has written the book on the subject, lays it out in a thread in which the money quote is this:

The cap is made to measure. It fits, perfectly. The events in Delhi over the past three days is no “riot” but a systematic campaign of elimination targeting the Muslim community. That it was planned to this end is painfully evident from the reports flooding in — including, but not limited to, this video of stones being brought in by the truckload the night before the violence began:

The Indian Express has a chilling timeline-driven narrative of thugs preparing for the attacks under the unseeing eye of the police. It goes on to document the deliberate targeting of Muslim homes and shops for violence, for arson.

As late as 9.30 last night, with Section 144 and shoot at sight orders in force, a Muslim settlement was torched by a mob acting with impunity. Police were present; they said they were “unable to interfere“.

An 85-year-old woman was burnt to death in her home. A mosque in Ashok Nagar was vandalised and torched, as were homes in the vicinity (See embedded clip earlier in this post), and a Hanuman flag planted atop its dome. 24 hours after the incident, the flag still remains in place. And a clip that has since been verified damns the police as active, willing participants in the mayhem:

The police even colluded with rioters to ensure that ambulances bearing victims were not allowed to enter the Al Hind hospital, as testified to by many including Dr Harjit Singh Bhatti. A 14-year-old boy with a gunshot wound was among those who were denied timely treatment. A doctor’s brother was among those who died while awaiting the treatment that the rioters and police refused them.

It took lawyer Suroor Mander’s midnight knock on the door of the Delhi High Court to produce a court order (the full text) asking that police provide protection to the ambulances. This clip is worth highlighting:

“Highest constitutional functionary move in Z+ security. This is the time to reach out and show that this security is for everyone,” Justice D S Muralidhar said in the matter on Al Hind hospital moved by Suroor Mander. “We can’t let another 1984 scenario happen in this city; not under the watch of this court.”

Serving and retired IPS officers pointed to the Delhi police force’s inexperience in dealing with riots — an experience that starts right at the top.

Inexperience might — might — explain why the police did not take preventive measures in time despite the signs of impending riots being painfully evident (Remember how stones were trucked in on the night before the rioting began). But it does not explain why the police participated in the stone-throwing, why it joined rioters in ‘Jai Shri Ram’ chants, why it shielded the rioters, why it indulged in actions such as in the clips above. Or the one below:

Inexperience certainly does not explain the visual below of a policeman in full gear directing rioters who are gathering stones:

Members of a Hindu mob, armed with crude weapons, begged the police to let them attack Muslims. “Give us permission, that’s all you need to do,’’ one mob leader said. “You just stand by and watch. We will make sure you don’t get hurt. We’ll settle the score.’’ Then he used a slur to refer to Muslims.

That reported quote from a New York Times story is telling. Which protestor, if he did not know for sure that the police was on his side, would actually go up to a cop — while armed — and ask for permission to attack Muslims, or anyone for that matter? Any cop worth his uniform and pay check would have immediately arrested the whole sorry lot and thrown them behind bars.

In the heart of Delhi, late night on February 25 while the Home Minister and the state chief minister and the Commissioner of Police were “appealing for peace” and “monitoring the situation”, and while Section 144 was in force, newly-elected BJP MLA Abhay Varma marched through the violence-addled Mangal Bazaar area of Lakshmi Vihar at the head of a band of supporters who chanted ‘goli maro saalon ko‘ (Shoot the bastards, in case it needs translation). Shoot at sight orders were in force at the time, for what that is worth.

The coordinated assaults across multiple locations had one significant feature in common — they were at their most virulent in the areas where the BJP had won seats in the recent assembly elections. Which is to say, where the party had numerical strength — which, in practical terms, means they were reasonably sure, particularly given the backing of the police, that there would be no real organised resistance. See the map below:

Also clear is that the first part of their mission is in a good way to being accomplished, as this video of the Muslims of Mustafabad leaving the area with their belongings shows. The second mission — clearing Jafrabad of the Shaheen Bagh-style protest that had taken root there, which was the thrust of Kapil Mishra’s infamous speech — was also accomplished, with not a little help from the police.

It is equally clear that the BJP-led thugs were aware of the illegality, the criminality, of their actions. Thus the systematic assaults on journalists who, at considerable risk to life and limb, covered the riots. One was shot; four others were brutally assaulted; rioters checked the religion of journalists they caught before assaulting them.

Ayush Tiwari of Newslaundry posted a contemporaneous account on Twitter. TOI photojournalist Anindya Chattopadhyay has a chilling first-person account, which starts with the rioter who offered to put a tilak on his forehead to ensure his safety as he headed into the midst of the riots.

“We were not allowed to shoot or record any of what was happening,” writes Runjhun Sharma of CNN-News18, adding that she and other journalists were told “Don’t take your phones out of your pockets, just enjoy the view.”

And here, with horrifying detail, is Ismat Ara, of FirstPost:

‘I was scared they would catch me for being a journalist, molest me for being a girl, lynch me for being a Muslim’

Rioters — and the brain-dead apologists that infest social media — argued that Hindus were retaliating for the killing of their own. “What about Rahul Solanki?”, several asked on my timeline. It is an age-old tactic of the Hindutva terrorists — instigate violence, then claim that it was a spontaneous reaction to the other side’s violence.

Well, what about Rahul Solanki? His father Hari Singh Solanki, sitting in the hospital beside the body of the son who died when he stepped out of his home to buy groceries, blamed Kapil Mishra — not the Muslims — and demanded that action be taken against the BJP “leader”.

“Kapil Mishra set Delhi on fire and then hid in his home. Our children paying the price, getting killed” — Hari Singh Solanki, father of the murdered Rahul.

A mob burned down a shop belonging to a Hindu that was being run by a Muslim. Here is what a trader, also a Hindu, from the area had to say about the incident, about who was responsible, about the role of the police. Also read what the Hindus of Ashok Nagar had to say about the mosque that was destroyed in their area. Elsewhere, a Sikh — a Supreme Court lawyer, no less — asks members of his faith to form peace committees, to set up langars for the victims. Hindus sheltered 25 Muslim families all through yesterday and today, until the police could rescue them and take them to a nearby hospital. And then there was this:

There is humanity still in our minds and our hearts, despite the BJP’s best efforts to stamp out all vestiges.

At the end of the Delhi election campaign, Amit Shah said hate speech maybe — maybe — cost his party. And yet, just yesterday, BJP Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh Jairam Thakur says only those who chant ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ have the right to remain in India.

While BJP leaders continued to pour fuel onto the raging flames, while the PM after three days of rioting contented himself with a word salad about the “immense warmth” — presumably emanating from a burning city — with which India had greeted Trump, and an anodyne appeal for peace; while politicians either went missing in action or busied themselves with photo-ops (like Arvind Kejriwal’s dharna at Raj Ghat, or his visit to victims in various hospitals, or his statement of a “positive meeting” with Amit Shah), or actively turned against those seeking help (as Kejriwal himself did when, late night last night, he had water cannons sweep his street clear of protestors even as thugs owing allegiance to his own party unleashed violence on the protestors at Jafrabad), it was left to the people to step up, to speak out.

There was a joint Hindu-Muslim peace march in the Brij Puri area; elsewhere people formed a human chain to ensure that schoolchildren could return home in safety. Hindus went around reassuring their Muslim neighbours that they were not alone; gurudwaras opened their doors to Muslims who were fleeing from their torched homes and the Jathedar of the Akhal Takht has asked all gurudwaras in the capital to offer all possible help to victims..

On the fringes of the cataclysm the BJP has visited on the national capital, this also happened: In Bihar the government voted unanimously in favour of an anti-NRC resolution. 70 MLAs belong to Nitish Kumar’s JD(U); the next largest group in the ruling coalition is the BJP with 54 MLAs. All of whom voted in favour of the anti-NRC resolution.

The next major election is in Bihar, in October this year, and this vote is a clear indication that even the local BJP leaders are aware of — wary of — the public sentiment, which has been gathering a head of steam thanks largely to the efforts of Kanhaiya Kumar who, as I write this, is into the 26th day of his 30-day road trip across the state and drawing enormous crowds.

The rally will culminate in Patna in five days with a public meeting demanding that the state government block the NPR/NRC; this resolution is likely an attempt to take the wind out of Kumar’s sails. From what I’ve been seeing, and from the clips of his speeches I’ve been following on his timeline, I suspect though that it is not going to be that easy — the Patna rally, unless I’ve totally misread the signs, is going to be a clear indication to the ruling dispensation that there is a right side and a wrong side to this argument, and that the people will be unforgiving of those who pick the wrong side. But we’ll see…

Elsewhere, the Supreme Court — which a wag on Twitter renamed the Supine Court recently — has yet again postponed a hearing it had scheduled in the issue of the Shaheen Bagh protests, saying “Let everything cool down first”.

Remember that when the SC was approached to intervene following the December 15 violence at JMI, its response was that it would listen to such pleas after the violence had stopped — analogous to a fire brigade responding to a four-alarm fire by saying it would wait for the flames to die down before responding.

And it is worth saying, in so many words, that the SC’s serial abdications of responsibility in cases ranging from the lockdown of Kashmir to the state-sponsored violence in JMI is a major contributing factor to why we are where we are today.

It is left, then, to the lower courts to stand up for what is right. A Division Bench comprising Justice Muralidhar and Justice Talwant Singh of the Delhi High Court heard a Harsh Mander plea into the ongoing violence in the national capital, and it was quite something (Read the blow by blow account by LiveLaw via the link).

In a cringe-worthy performance, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said he had not seen the video of the Kapil Mishra hate speech that was the proximate cause of the hearing (Begs the question: If the SG hadn’t seen the video that was central to the case before he appeared in court to respond to the petition, how incompetent is he?). He asked what the urgency was, and suggested that the hearing be postponed.

Judge Muralidhar wasn’t having any of it — after first castigating the SG, the judge ordered the video to be played in court, then asked the SG and the officer representing the police, Deputy Commissioner Rajesh Deo, to watch it, read the transcript, and respond after a break. Read the proceedings — here is a minute by minute account on Scroll, as does Live Law; it is a handy reminder of how judges function when they remember that they are there to protect the Constitution, the rule of law.

In late-breaking news just as I was writing this:

And in response to that, the Solicitor General of India, no less, argues that this might not be the best time to be filing FIRs against those BJP leaders. Painful as it is, try and wrap your head around that argument from the lawyer representing the government of India.

“They beat me till they broke me. I begged them and they beat me some more, viciously. They made communally charged slurs and took (BJP leader) Kapil Mishra’s name. I don’t remember much. I just hoped my children were safe. I can’t bear to look at my photograph, my legs shiver with pain.”

They took Kapil Mishra’s name, says the victim of the gruesome assault that is captured in the lead photo of this post. Kapil Mishra, banned twice for hate speech during the Delhi campaign. Kapil Mishra, who made the hate speech the SG and DCP haven’t had time to listen to yet. Kapil Mishra, against whom the SG is in no hurry to instruct that an FIR be filed. And again, the SG got spanked by the judge:

“You showed alacrity in registering FIRs for damages to property and arson. Why aren’t you registering it for these speeches? Don’t you even want to acknowledge the presence of a crime? Just register FIRs!”

Worth pointing out here that despite a full-scale pogrom in the national capital for three days and counting, the police has not seen fit to take one single individual into preventive custody. Unlike, say, in Kashmir where hundreds remain in custody, some under the draconian PSA, despite there having been no trouble of any kind in the lead-up to the abrogation of Article 370.

Also, in context, work mentioning that the Supreme Court collegium has recommended the transfer of the widely respected Justice Muralidhar, provoking a protest by lawyers.

It is ironic, meanwhile, that the rioting, the mayhem and all these stories on the fringes happened precisely when dozens of crores of rupees were pumped into a spectacle that was supposed to showcase the bonhomie between the world’s largest and oldest democracies.

It is typical of Modi that he skipped the press conference at the end of Donald Trump’s tour, leaving it to the US president to take questions on the CAA.

It is symptomatic of the ineptitude of this government’s foreign outreach that all that effort and money went into an event that produced nothing in the way of a substantive trade deal, or in fact a deal of any kind whatsoever.

And while on irony, the expensive spectacle staged by Modi and his minions not only failed to attract positive notice within the country and around the world, global media — both print and television — focussed on the riots that were tearing the capital apart (and more than one commentator pointed to the tone deaf nature of Trump’s statement that the US and India were committed to fight global Islamic terror, at the precise moment, and in the precise place, where Muslims were being targeted for annihilation).

Sections of the Indian media desperately kept the focus on Trump at the Taj, and Melania attending “happiness school”, and what the menu was at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan reception (more irony: the star was biriyani, the very dish the Shaheen Bagh protestors have been demonised for eating), global media was unsparing. Chris Hayles of MSNBC in fact pointed to the fact that Trump was silent about the riots:

And that comment was a gentle prelude to Hayes’ show last night, where he tore into the two leaders. Watch:

The POTUS press conference didn’t go that well, and an incident also served up a reminder of why Modi refuses to meet the press (and also makes you wish that India had the kind of media the US still has, despite Trump’s best efforts). Here:

It is easy enough for the likes of Piyush Goyal, on behalf of the government, to call publishers and editors and browbeat them into tamping down on negative comment about Modi and his minions. It is not for want of trying, though — yesterday, the government pressured Hotstar and Disney India into deleting a John Oliver segment on Modi, that had aired on the eve of Trump’s visit. The outcome? On YouTube, the video has over 5.3 million views at the time of writing this.

I’ll leave you with Oliver’s famous last words here:

It is incredibly depressing to see India heading in this direction…. Because India, the home of this enduring symbol of love (the Taj Mahal) frankly deserves more than this temporary symbol of hate (Modi).

PostScript: Events are happening at too great a pace just now to make sense of; I’ll leave this round-up here, as a document of the major events of the past 48 hours, and write around it later, once things have simmered down somewhat and there is room for meditation, for thinking it all through.

Credit: The lead image, emblematic of everything that is wrong with India today, was shot by Praveen Khan of Indian Express. And below, a little reminder of our times, for our times.

Brief break

PSA: Over the next two days the blog is on a hiatus of sorts (If something major breaks, I’ll find a way to update), since I have a narrative writing workshop coming up Saturday, and I need to put a lot of material together.

On my way out the door: Yesterday’s post was on the JMI videos and the many inconsistencies/lies in the narrative around it. By way of ensuring the documentation is complete, here are two related fact-checks:

  1. The student with the stone in his hand, used to justify the police action? It was a wallet, not a stone.
  2. The “student with the stone” was the one injured in the Jamia shooting — which is to say, the shooting was justified. Again, no.

And on this issue, read this Newslaundry piece on India Today’s extended half-hour report on the issue to see how the media spins, lies, and obfuscates to promote the official line.

Right, my workshop is Saturday, so longer posts will likely resume after that. In the meantime, will use this to record important events through short link-outs and comments.

Lies, damned lies, and then there’s the BJP…

This story opens with the line “The Shaheen Bagh shooter Kapil Gujjar admitted to the Delhi Police that he joined the Aam Aadmi Party in early 2019.” It goes on to talk of photos being recovered showing him and his father with various AAP leaders.

The story was first flashed by ANI, immediately picked up by other agencies, then flashed on TV channels, and later made the subject of much red-eyed “debates” by the likes of Arnab Goswami, Rahul Shivshankar, Navika Kumar et al.

The father and other family members have since denied any connection with the party and explained how the supposedly incriminating photos came to be – but that is neither here nor there; it is now “established” that AAP is behind the Shaheen Bagh violence. Or, as DCP Rajesh Dev says, “We have him in remand for two days and we will establish the conspiracy”. Not “we will investigate”, mind. (The earlier shooting at Jamia has been conveniently pushed off the radar by calling him out as a minor; two men on a scooter who then fired a gun at the Jamia protestors are yet to be traced, though witnesses gave the police the number of the vehicle).

So it is a he said/he denied story, right? Except for the timing – conveniently just ahead of polling date, to further underline the BJP’s argument that AAP is responsible for the violence in Delhi. (While on this, the BJP needs to make up its mind – is AAP supporting Shaheen Bagh and feeding the protestors biriyani, as Ajay Singh Bisht keeps complaining, or is it behind the violence intended to disrupt those protests? Which is it?).

But taking the story at face value, here is the problem: As per the rules governing election campaigns, official bodies are not allowed, during the period of a campaign, to name any party in connection with alleged acts of criminality. This rule is precisely to prevent parties from floating incendiary allegations against each other.

The Delhi Police – which spoke not officially, but through anonymous and therefore subsequently deniable “sources” – is in flagrant breach of that provision. The Delhi police reports to the Home Minister (NB: During an election campaign the police is officially under the control of the Election Commission – in the current dispensation, how much that is true in practise I’ll leave for you to judge); there is only one party that gains by muddying the waters, so draw what inferences you will.

Interestingly, the Delhi police report was released – or at least, leaked by “sources” – to the media in the evening. However, Delhi BJP chief Manoj Tiwari was already talking about it, officially, earlier that morning.

Speaking of probes, it is now a month since 100 or more masked thugs entered the Jamia Milia Islamia JNU complex (apologies, I mistyped, thanks all who caught it and alerted me), armed with iron rods, hammers, and bottles of acid and unleashed unhinged mayhem. Judging by this report, the special investigation team set up to inquire into the attack seems to work thus: It summons someone – actually, someone who had in a sting actually admitted his role in the attack and asks, son, what is this, why did you do this? And the youngster goes who, me, I was fast asleep at the time. To which the SIT goes, all right then, off you go.

I mean, the SIT is yet to even question Komal Sharma, the ABVP member who was identified as being part of the attack by the police themselves – “because her phone is switched off”. So now you know — if you do something criminal and find yourself the target of an investigation, switch off your phone. Problem solved.

While progress is slow to none on actual, serious, cases, the concerted attempts to demonise Shaheen Bagh continue – the latest instalment being the allegation, doing the rounds of social media and WhatsApp, that the protestors burned the national flag. Which, predictably, is a lie.

As was the earlier one – a ‘sting video’ released by BJP IT Cell chief Amit Malaviya that purported to prove that the protestors were being paid Rs 500 per day. The story was picked up by TV channels, “debated” with much heat on TimesNow and Republic, and further amplified by various official and unofficial BJP leaders. (And the BJP has a lot of amplifiers – 18,000 at the least, as per this story). Again, predictably, the video was faked.

If you are even mildly surprised/shocked, you have been living under a rock. Remember the BJP is led by Amit Shah, who as far back as 2018 had with a nudge and a wink asked his “social media warriors” to use fake news to spread the “message”:

Related, remember how Shaheen Bagh is just a bunch of pesky Muslims holding the country to ransom by blocking a major road? Women with nothing to do, just sitting there and being fed biriyani by the chief minister of Delhi? So yesterday this happened: Eight busloads of Sikhs travelled all the way from Punjab to Shaheen Bagh to stand in solidarity with them. (An open, 24/7 langar has been set up, also by the Sikh community, and has been running for the past several days and no, they don’t serve biriyani).

So, the Sikhs came, of their own volition, yesterday, and this happened:

Why? Under what law, on whose authority, on what grounds did the police prevent the group from going to Shaheen Bagh? In whose interest is it to show that the protest there is driven only by one community? And while on that, note what is now becoming a usual occurrence: “Police without name tags”.

Update, 1.20 PM: The delegation of Punjab farmers, after overnight drama and considerable negotiations with the cops for safe passage, have reached Shaheen Bagh.

In the stream of news about protests in various parts, way too numerous now to keep track of, there was this item that stood out – not for the locale, not for the turnout, but for how the Indian Embassy, located in the capital of the United States, responded:

Author and environmentalist Edward Abbey said it best:

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government.

Yesterday was a “big news day” in more ways than one. In Parliament, the Ministry of Home Affairs made an important announcement:

The framing of the story is interesting: “MHA makes it official: No plans of NRC”. Whereas in actual fact, what the MHA said in Parliament is (Emphasis mine): Till now, the government has not taken any decision to prepare National Register of Indian Citizens (NRIC) at the National level.”

Never mind that this has been the official line of the government — “Till now” – all along. Never mind that when introducing the CAB in the Rajya Sabha the Home Minister categorically, and to considerable applause from his side of the aisle, said NRC will be rolled out countrywide. This latest “official” statement was promptly used by various media channels to ask what the protestors were still going on about, since the government has, you know…

AltNews has a fact-check connecting the various dots. A related point needs to be made: Right from the outset, the nationwide protests have always been about the deadly dangerous trifecta: the CAA plus the NPR plus the NRC. The CAA is now a law, therefore a fact of life. The NPR process is ongoing, and has in fact been further funded in the latest Budget. To say the NRC has not been thought through, or to stall with weasel words like “not yet”, is disingenuous, for the simple reason that the NPR is the natural pipeline for the NRC. If there is no move towards the NRC – which makes Shah not merely a liar, it also means he breached Parliamentary privilege by lying on the floor of the House – then the NPR does not need the 11 additional questions that have been tacked on to the previous version.

But hey, the MHA released a sufficiently vague “clarification”, the media seized on it to justify the government’s stand that the protests are misguided; that narrative fills the TV channels and the media space, mission accomplished.

While on the MHA, note that both activists without, and Parliamentarians within, have begun to systematically question the government, officially, about the gaslighting it does unofficially. Thus, in Parliament yesterday, the junior minister in the MHA clarified that “no such case of Love Jihad has been reported by any of the central agencies. In fact, he pointed out that the term love jihad is not defined under the current laws.” Read this story.

Remember that no less than the Supreme Court asked that ‘love jihad’ be probed – that is to say, the top court in the country asked for a probe into an act that has not even been defined in law. Remember that the National Commission on Minorities also demanded a probe. Remember the stream of sensational stories emerging from the probe, such as this one which brought up an ISIS connection.

And finally, remember that the MHA yesterday only said what the NIA had said – after wasting money and manpower on a “probe” – back in 2018 itself: That there is no such thing as love jihad. Now ask yourself, who is responsible for so many damaged lives and reputations, for so much distress? Who pays the price?

NDTV, supposedly one of the last surviving bastions of both liberalism and good journalism among the English language channels, decided to host BJP MP Parvesh Verma on prime time. It is worth noting that the Election Commission has banned him from campaigning following a speech in which he claimed the people of Shaheen Bagh will enter “your homes” to “rape and kill your wives and daughters” – a fact the NDTV anchor Nidhi Razdan is perfectly well aware of, as this segment shows.

The BJP found a workaround by getting Verma to speak in Parliament in support of the President’s pre-Budget speech – an opportunity the MP used to make a no-holds barred campaign speech in which, among other things, he called a leading opposition MP ‘Rahul Firoz Khan’. And now a leading TV channel gives him, gratis, another platform to campaign from because that is what the show amounted to – all in the name of ‘balance’.

See how the media enables those who traffic in hate? In a stirring speech in Parliament the previous day, TMC MP Mahua Moitra had referred to Verma being asked to speak in the Lok Sabha. “You may have the constitutional authority to do so,” she told the BJP, “but what about the higher authority, the moral authority..?”

Even this may be overstated,” says the Wall Street Journal in a scathing indictment of India’s latest budget, “as the country’s official economic data has become more politicized and less reliable.” Business Standard, in a strong editorial, says the Budget – remember that, according to the hype machine, the PM had taken personal charge of the process and “big, bold decisions were expected” – echoes the WSJ line when it says the budget should have been fact-checked, and also tells you why this lack of credibility is critical:

This is, in effect, a recognition that the credibility associated with official pronouncements has been undermined, and there is a need to recover it. Such an effort is particularly important at a time when India is increasingly depending upon foreign capital to fill the gap caused by a collapse in private investment and overspending by the government.

While reading budget-related news, I came across this item: In July, the President, Vice President and Prime Minister will get to travel in spanking new special planes procured from Boeing. This story puts the estimated cost at Rs 8,458 crore.

In the run up to the Budget, I recall reading stories such as this one, which said that all three wings of the armed forces were delaying much-needed procurements because of a fiscal crunch, and hoping the former defence minister, now the finance minister, would do better this time round. It was not an alarmist piece — the CAG, no less, had in a scathing indictment questioned the government’s inability to provide proper boots and prescribed nutrition to the soldiers fighting in the Kargil sector, pointed at delayed payments to soldiers, and to other anomalies.

The same defence correspondent, writing after the Budget was presented, said the budgetary provisions were inadequate. Not enough to meet defence needs, says Business Insider. The defence budget belies all expectations, said the Financial Express. On the same site, another piece actually calls out this budget as “a dampener for national security“. Remember “national security”? The central plank of Modi and the BJP? Remember the jawans fighting on the border, who are regularly recalled to the public conversation whenever an election is imminent? Or used as props in a photo op with the PM in designer gear?

But it’s okay, says General Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff. Can’t pay pensions? We’ll just up the retirement age, he says, seemingly unmindful of the fact that he is actually saying he expects soldiers to fight on to the age of 58. Can’t buy the equipment we need to get up to speed? No problem, we will find “alternate sources” of money. And so on. Where do you even begin to point out that the financial mismanagement of the government is severely compromising not merely the education, the health, the employment opportunities of the lay citizen, but also the nation’s security — at a time when the government, through its intemperate rabble-rousing, has actually managed to make enemies out of even erstwhile friends?

On January 22nd, the SC heard the combined petitions against the CAA. It needs to be remembered that dozens of petitions had been filed in various courts around the country; the government argued that the SC should take over and hear them all and the SC agreed. And it “gave the government four weeks to answer”.

Why the government, which presumably thought it through before bringing the bill to Parliament and getting it passed, needs time to explain why it brought the bill is neither here nor there – the fact is, the SC not only gave the government oodles of time, it also refused to impose an interim stay while the case is being heard.

And so, yesterday, this happened: dozens of Supreme Court lawyers, no less, marched through the streets of Delhi protesting against the CAA, and the SC’s dereliction of duty. All this, while the BJP goes around claiming that the protests are politically motivated, and the work of “one community”.

There is so much more that is happening, and needs to be documented, but time is in short supply so I’ll leave you, for the day, with just this one story which is illustrative of so much that is wrong about the way our country is now run:

Remember how, a few weeks back, a BJP MLA posted a video of a shantytown that, he claimed, was a den of illegal Bangladeshis? Remember how, on the basis of that video, a junior official in the BBMP — with the police guarding the operation — demolished some 200 huts in the shantytown, making approximately 5000 people homeless, in an operation the BBMP claimed had no official sanction? The case was heard in the Karnataka High Court yesterday. This is what the court said:

However, the court observed that the complaints were general in nature and did not specifically point to the property. “There is nothing on file to indicate that police inspector visited the site to verify if there are Bangladeshi immigrants,” the division bench observed on Monday.

“It began with the letter of the police to the land owner to remove structures and in this situation we are of the view that the state will have to rehabilitate those who have been dispossessed,” court said in an interim order while seeking the government’s response on February 10.

The court asked the state advocate general how the police could act on mere suspicion. It said that strict action must be taken against the police inspector who issued the notice since the police had assumed the power of a civil court to issue the order.

That is all it takes today. A video making random, unsubstantiated allegations is all it takes to destroy lives and livelihoods.

I don’t have a link for this, but I remember about a month or so ago coming across a Kanhaiyya Kumar interaction in course of which he was asked the question: Why are students protesting, when they should be studying? His response, in translation, ran thus:

Education is not merely about memorising how 6 million people were killed during the Holocaust. Education is also about understanding how normal people, an entire country, stood by and watched it happen. Education is about learning the signs, and ensuring that it does not happen in your country. And that is why the students are out on the streets today — because of education.

How did we stand by, and watch this systematic deterioration, all these years?

PostScript, at 1.14 PM: On January 1, Gunja Kapoor got a New Year guest — she was “honoured” by a follow from Narendra Modi. Earlier today, she wore a burqa and infiltrated Shaheen Bagh. What she intended to do is unclear.

ANI report card: Fail

There is — there has been since the first visuals hit social media — a stench of something rotten about the gunman who, on December 30 January 30, fired on a group of students marking the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, injuring one. (Sorry about the error, thanks all who pointed it out).

Courtesy Reuters

This image, and the video of the incident, is merely the beginning. No matter how many times you watch, it is difficult to understand how police, in a hyper-vigilant state at a protest site, stood passively, some with folded arms, while a man with a pointed gun stalked barely ten meters in front of them and assembled reporters and others repeatedly yelled to warn the cops the man was armed.

As media personnel, particularly cameramen, advanced towards him and as one student walked up to confront him, he retreats towards the police — which is bizarre considering that even if your knowledge of how the police operate is gleaned from masala movies, you would know the police react immediately and aggressively at the sight of a deadly weapon.

“It happened in micro-seconds,” explained the Special Commissioner of Police (Intelligence), in the process insulting the intelligence of every single person who saw the video and knows it took considerably longer than micro-seconds; who saw, also, that even after the threat was blindingly apparent there was no signs of overt activity among the cops, with just one — unarmed — policeman walking almost casually towards him while others, some wearing riot gear, stand by and watch.

But the real what-the-fuck moment came in the aftermath. The shooter is from UP, he was not living in Delhi at the time, even if he were it is hardly unlikely that he was carrying various relevant documentation in his pocket. And yet the news agency ANI, within an hour and a half, was able to produce this:

Assume for the sake of argument that ANI, with its wide network, was able to get in touch with one of its reporters/stringers in the gunman’s home town and access this document. There are far more, and more fundamental, problems with it. On Twitter, Aparna pointed at some of them:

Link to the CBSE site giving the details

At this point, the smell of rotting fish is overpowering. And that, plus ANI’s surprising haste to put out a document claiming minor status for the gunman, prompted the tech-savvy Krish Ashok (Are you following him yet? You should — he is an all-round genius) to test the document. Here is what he found:

The Error Level Analysis tool (from Foto Forensics) shows an amplified view of contrast differences, which makes it easy to spot digital edits/additions to an image.

For instance, from the analysis above, it’s easy to see that the ANI watermark was added after the fact. Now take a look at the marks and the school details. They have the same telltale sign of having been “added in” later.

Key things to note: The black text is all perfectly rectangular, as you can see if you zoom into the ELA analysis here. This generally suggests that the text was copy-pasted/added in Photoshop using a rectangular textbox tool. If it was part of the original image, the sharp rectangular edges would not be visible – take a look at all the pink text, which is a part of the original marksheet, and you will see the difference.

Another point: In the original image, there are some folds in the paper, since the person is holding it up to take a photo. The black text, if you look carefully, does not follow these folds — another telltale sign that the image was taken, and then altered later.

ANI image run through Forensically

To make doubly sure, Krish Ashok then ran the image through Forensically, a tool that helps you do noise-level analysis, another method of determining whether parts of an image show different noise levels from other parts, thus indicating whether some parts have been added later.

The perfect rectangular images where the black text is gives it away. If that text was part of the original image, you wouldn’t see such differentiation. The full analysis is here.

One other indicator that all is not kosher: The marksheet is laminated and, typically, colours get muted when photographed through the laminating sheet. But the crucial text is perfectly dark black, not slightly greyed out as it should be if it was actually on the marksheet and not digitally added afterwards. 

Krish sent me this concluding note: I believe strongly that this image has been digitally manipulated, and all the black text has been digitally added in. However, it must be said that detecting fakes can throw up false positives, so I’d make the case that there is more than sufficient doubt about the validity of this document to merit more rigorous testing under lab conditions.

Why make such a big fuss? Because the incident with the gunman is serious, particularly coming as it did on the back of open calls to violence by politicians including a key member of the Union Cabinet.

And because a news agency with unparalleled access to the government coupled with an unsavoury record of veracity put out a relevant document intended to make the case that the gunman is a minor and therefore should not feel the full force of the law (In this connection, read this excellent deep dive into the workings of ANI by Praveen Donthi for Caravan magazine).

PS: It is Budget day. I have no pretensions to understanding macro-economics, so I’m going to move away from the blog and settle down to following the presentation, and surround-sound, through sources I trust to give me the facts and analysis without noise and spin. See you back here tomorrow.

The evil that men do…

On January 6, the day after a masked, armed mob ran riot in the JNU campus while its VC instructed the police to stand outside the gates, Arnab Goswami conducted his usual evening debate. This is what he said in his opener — and when reading that, remember that these are merely words on screen; to understand what he chose to emphasise, how he chose to escalate, you have to listen to him via the link above. I have, for convenience, underlined certain statements to more easily catch your eye. Here:

Many of you have been calling Republic and asking to know what my position is on what happened or what has been happening at JNU. And I am glad that I took my time to come up with my view. And ladies and gentlemen, while it is and it was extremely worrying to see the visuals of the masked goons in JNU yesterday, and what happened was terrible, without a doubt, most of the media once again came to a wrong and premature conclusion once again. And now that we have the proof, and now that we have visuals which show the extreme brutality of the Left, and now that we have videographed evidence of the barbaric, monstrous attack by Left student leaders, by Left student unions, leading bloody masked mobs a few days back, and now that we have the truth before us, pictures, of Left student leaders physically assaulting fellow students, whose only fault was that they wanted to appear in the examination, whose only fault is that they had entrance exams to give and they needed to qualify and sit for the examinations, we have pictures of how they were brutalised by the Left student leaders, and now that we have the evidence of how any student in JNU who wanted to be registered for the examination was the subject of bloody attacks by the Left, and now that all this evidence is out, and now that it is absolutely clear that it is the left which has not just been starting, but unleashing relentless violence on all those who want to follow the academic schedule in JNU, and now, now, tonight, this Monday evening, that those coming out in the JNU protests in Mumbai for example, with their own placards have been identified not as students but the pro-Pakistan groups, and now that these groups are also asking at the Gateway of India in Mumbai for Independence for Kashmir, and now that all this evidence is out, I am not just narrating it, I am going to show you the pictures, and now that all this hard-coded evidence is being broadcast on the Republic Media Network, the nation wants to know whether the idle mind called Anurag Kashyap will bother to tweet tonight, or whether once again he and his ilk will pretend like cowards to look the other way.

There it is, the art (if you can call it that) of the demagogue, in one easy lesson. Goswami suggests that the contemporary narrative in the media is wrong; that he has evidence to the contrary, and smoothly segues into a condemnation of the Left students and their unions, accusing them of barbarous physical assault. And not just accusing — he makes you believe that it is proven beyond doubt.

He then seamlessly links it to a Free Kashmir placard held up in Mumbai to drag in that never-failing red herring, Pakistan; from there he targets by name an individual who has been speaking out against the serial atrocities being committed across the nation.

Remember the date of this broadcast: January 6. The day after the murderous attacks on JNU. The day after the nation, in a state of shock, watched an officially-sanctioned and protected mob at work. 24 hours later, Goswami flips the story — while the attack is “extremely worrying, without a doubt”, the Left students and their unions are guilty of … “extreme brutality“… “barbarous, monstrous attack“… “leading bloody masked mobs“… “physically assaulting”… “brutalised“…

Listen to that monologue as a viewer of that channel would — passively, just taking in what is said. And think of what you would take away, what you would conclude:

That while a “worrying” incident did take place, too bad, so sad, the fault, dear Brutus, lies with the barbaric “Left”…

Remember that after Goswami “proved” that the Left had indulged in unimaginable violence prior to the January 5 attack — which was his way of amplifying the then official line that the attacks of January 5 were in response to acts of vandalism by the Left union on January 1 and January 4, an RTI inquiry revealed that in fact there was absolutely no instance of vandalism, by the Left or anyone else, on either of those days.

The RTI story appeared on January 20 — 14 days after Goswami had sowed the fertile minds of his listeners with his own patented brand of poison and moved on. That is how this works — plant the lie, move rapidly on to other things before the truth has a chance to catch up.

In passing, this is your periodic reminder that the police have CCTV footage of the violence (though they claimed otherwise), that leaders of the armed assault have been identified, and the identification acknowledged by the police themselves, and yet there has not been a single arrest in the case thus far.

But Goswami says it was the Left, Goswami says he has proof, and Goswami is an honourable man…

Two Davids, Edwards and Cromwell, founded and run the site Media Lens, which is dedicated to tilting at the Goliath of propaganda in mainstream media (You can follow the site on Twitter). In 2018, they released their third book, Propaganda Blitz, to break down the tools and techniques used by media to sell the official line. They set up the premise of the book thus:

A regular feature of corporate media manipulation involves the launching of what we call a propaganda blitz, attacking and discrediting the ‘Official Enemies’, often preparing the way for ‘action’ or ‘intervention’ of some kind. Propaganda blitzes are fast-moving attacks intended to inflict maximum damage in minimum time.

Here, watch the various stages of a propaganda blitz, as laid out by David Edwards and David Cromwell, in action. The sequential images are courtesy this excellent thread by Vasundhara Singh Sirnate, co-founder and director of research at The Polis Project:

Step 1: A propaganda blitz begins with the propagation of some dramatic new “evidence” to support an oft-touted conclusion. In this instance, the government and its water-carriers in the media have been touting the line that the protests in Jamia, in JNU and Shaheen Bagh are violent and must be ended. Republic starts off with this: a dramatic picture, circling the perpetrator with an arrow ominously pointing to him, and states as fact that a Jamia protestor turned violent, and “uses gun”. Think also of the Goswami “debate” linked to at the start of this post, and how it opens with full-throated claims of new evidence that is going to be shown to prove a falsehood.

Step 2: The tone adopted during a propaganda blitz is always vehement, even hysterical. “Claims of dramatic new evidence of alleged horrors committed by ‘Official Enemies’ are invariably followed by deep moral outrage,” say the authors. “The rationale is clear enough: in ordinary life, outrage of this kind is usually a sign that someone has good reason to be angry. People do not get angry in the presence of significant doubt. So the message to the public is that there is no doubt. Listen to Aishwarya Kapoor, political editor of the Republic TV channel, in the clip above. Below, the text:

“Will they fire gun? Will they brandish illegal weapons on the streets of the national capital of India? It cannot be allowed and it should not be allowed. That is why I ask those political leaders in this democracy… in this democracy, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal should answer how they are supporting. Under which condition, under which kind of pressure are they supporting this kind of violent people? Because in the name of CAA, this is happening….”

There is more, in the same barely literate, hyperventilating vein, including a repeat invoking of Gandhi and Kejriwal, but you get the idea: The ‘Official Enemies’ are called out, to the accompaniment of deep moral outrage, and there is no ambivalence about what the evidence on screen shows.

On similar lines, listen to Goswami’s opener the same evening, where he opens by blaming the “over 40 days of provocation in Shaheen Bagh” for the terrorist’s actions. This is a journalist (allegedly), a man with a powerful megaphone, setting out his evening “debate” program with the suggestion that women peacefully protesting in a corner of Delhi is justification for attempted mass murder. In the interests of “balance” he says he has questions for both sides but then makes clear which side is right:

“Let me say this, this is a dangerous fall out and consequence of non-stop provocation.”

Those are the words that justify murder.

There are other tropes that are used to fan the propaganda fire. As the authors list them, these are: (3) The appearance of informed consensus (Note how convenient sound bytes from friendly politicians are used to further the various conspiracy theories); (4) Damning condemnation of anyone daring to question this consensus (Where is Rahul Gandhi? Will the tukde tukde gang speak up? Anurag Kashyap? Lutyens? The Lobby?); (5) Often generated with fortuitous timing (Remember that a few days before this incident, “dramatic new evidence” had surfaced that the PFI is funding the anti-CAA protests — an evidence, and accusation, that has quietly been buried since, but only after the damage was done); (6) Accompanied by tragi-comic moral dissonance — as, for instance:

See the chyron? “They wanted this to happen”. This is at the start of the “debate”, the screen is frozen at the point where Goswami says “We have questions for both sides tonight, but let me say this, this is a dangerous fall out and consequence of non-stop provocation”

See the whole package. In what is ostensibly the scene-setting for a debate, Goswami starts with his prefabricated conclusion: It is not about the terrorist, it is about the provocateurs — which, by the way, is a vast grab-bag that includes but is not restricted to Shaheen Bagh alone.

In his worldview, the terrorist has no agency — “They”, the ‘official enemies’, wanted this to happen, the terrorist was a helpless leaf swept along in the murky currents of a deep conspiracy.

The authors refer to this as “tragi-comic moral dissonance” — but when weaponised to the extent that Goswami and his ilk have done, it is neither comic nor even tragic; it is, pure and simple, the criminally irresponsible, deadly dangerous language of genocide.

The whole is overlaid with calculated cynicism; with the belief, based on the channel’s experience, that people can be fooled all the time. Having run with their prefabricated storyline for most of the evening (Vasundhara Srinate meticulously tracks the channel’s criminal distortions here), they then reclaim the high moral ground with an apology (Except there is no suggestion of an apology, merely a claim that it was “immediately” corrected):

In the heat of the moment, anyone can make a mistake, no? Anyone can, in the rush of events, mistake a terrorist for a protestor. Anyone can, when the adrenalin is flowing and lives are at risk, mistake the terrorist for someone who was sent on the mission with the personal blessings of Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal, no? Oops!

The terrorist named himself as he was being taken into custody. Within minutes of that, his full identity was revealed. Yet, as Vasundhara Srinate outlines, Republic continued with their tissue of lies for over two hours before issuing an “apology”, the effect of which is nullified by the continued insistence — repeated in both header and chyron — that the terrorist was operating under extreme provocation.

In a thoughtful piece on Goswami, Kunal Kamra, and what contemporary incidents are telling us, Pragya Tiwari (follow) cites the German writer and playwright Bertolt Brecht — who, it is worth noting, had fled Nazi Germany to escape persecution for his views — on art and propaganda:

“Human beings go to the theatre in order to be swept away, captivated, impressed, uplifted, horrified, moved, kept in suspense, released, diverted, set free, set going, transplanted from their own time, and supplied with illusions” and warned against the dangers of art that enables this…”

“Art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it,” said Brecht.

That is what Goswami’s dark arts of demagoguery are all about — a hammer he wields every night to shape reality to the needs of his political masters. Here is the sad part, though: The damage he has done, and continues to do each night, is not restricted to the effect his diatribes have on his audience, but reaches far deeper.

An editor sets the tone of the newsroom he heads; whether they admit it or not, the rest of the editorial staff take their cues from the editor and, consciously or unconsciously, shape their work to fit the editor’s worldview. (It is one of the biggest challenges for an editor — to free the staff of this Pavlovian reflex, to ensure that individuality is not erased, because you have to fight human nature, the worker’s basic survival instinct).

Consider that piece-to-camera where Aishwarya Kapoor rants about the Jamia protestor having a gun, and drags in Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal — what is that but a manifestation of the Goswami influence on the next generation of newsroom leaders?

Consider Deepti (I am not sure of her surname; Goswami introduces her as his news editor at the start of the clip above), and her behaviour with Tejaswi Yadav. What is that but a direct consequence of the hectoring, heckling, privacy-invading, obnoxious style of “journalism” Goswami has instituted as the gold standard?

Consider too that in the intro Goswami refers to a politician as “Lalu’s brat”, and imagine the influence on impressionable young journalists when a newsroom leader institutionalises such language, not only in the privacy of the newsroom where it would be bad enough, but when facing the camera.

Consider the pressures on other channels — as, for instance, TimesNow. When Republic surged ahead in the ratings immediately after launch, TN was forced (not in the journalistic sense so much as in the financial sense) to follow suit, to mimic Goswami’s motormouth hectoring. And then to try and go one better: Thus, they split Rahul Shivshankar and Navika Kumar, giving them individual, back to back slots and thus managing to extend the chosen propaganda of the day; then they elevated Padmaja Joshi to get a third bite of the cherry.

See how the virus spreads?

Finally, consider this: Sooner or later (and it looks like it will be later), this circle has to end. This bigoted government will come to the end of its life cycle. And these channels and their reprehensible anchors will have to reshape themselves to fit whatever the new political ethos turns out to be. But it is not going to be easy to turn this ship around. A whole generation of young men and women are growing up in newsrooms shaped by the venomous propagandists who lead them; a generation that thinks this is the way journalism is done; a generation that knows no better.

They will in turn grow into the next lot of newsroom leaders and, knowing no better, will pass on this poison to the young ones who come to work with them.

That, in the ultimate analysis, is the damage the bigot, the fascist, does: He poisons not merely the air he breathes, but the atmosphere future generations have to grow up in; the damage he inflicts is lasting, and well nigh irreversible.

That damage, this image: A young man, part of a group of students commemorating the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, wounded by a terrorist empowered and egged on by the hate-spewing men who run this country and by apologists and enablers like Goswami, having to clamber over a police barricade so that he can get a gunshot wound treated.

Via a Faye D’Souza tweet

What do they — Modi, Shah, Thakur, Bisht and others of this hate-filled lot, and the likes of Goswami, Shivshankar, Navika Kumar, Sudhir Chaudhary, hope to gain? What in this world do they think is worth infecting a nation, particularly its young, with murderous hate?

The nation wants to know.