July 31, 2023. That is a date we need to remember. What happened that day has already been relegated to the inside pages of most newspapers and has vanished altogether from our shouty TV channels. They are currently obsessing over the violence on the doorstep of India’s national capital, and the debate in Parliament over the no-confidence motion tabled by the opposition parties.
Yet, while the media must address the latest drama, there are several reasons why the event of July 31 needs to be followed up and analysed in much greater detail.
On July 31, even as the Jaipur-Mumbai Superfast Express was speeding through Gujarat towards Mumbai, a Railway Protection Force jawan decided to make use of the loaded weapon he was carrying. Chetan Singh first shot his own senior after an altercation. He then walked through the train, picking out bearded men and shooting them at point blank range. He shot three such men. They were all Muslims.
It is not just the act of shooting Muslim men, whose identity was evident from their beards and clothes (in one instance, he asked the name of the man to be sure). It’s Chetan Singh’s rant, recorded by several passengers on their phones, that is chilling. Here is what he said according to a report in The Wire:
“Pakistan se operate hue hain, tumhari media, yahi media coverage dikha rahi hai hai, pata chal raha hai unko, sab pata chal raha hai, inke aaqa hai wahan...Agar vote dena hai, agar Hindustan me rehna hai, toh mai kehta hoon, Modi aur Yogi, ye do hain, aur aapke Thackeray.”
Loosely translated: “They operate from Pakistan, this is what the media of the country is showing, they have found out, they know everything, their leaders are there...If you want to vote, if you want to live in India, then I say, Modi and Yogi, these are the two, and your Thackeray.”
Singh was apprehended before the train reached Mumbai. Most of the early reports in print media focused on his mental stability rather than his deliberate targeting of Muslim men.
Television news coverage was a different story altogether. According to this episode of TV Newsance in Newslaundry, Times Now reported that the men were killed in “crossfire”. By this, one presumes they thought that Singh and his senior were firing at each other with loaded guns and three Muslims, sitting in different compartments just happened to come into the line of fire!
After this first, brief, and mostly inaccurate reporting of the train killings, television news moved on to the communal clashes in Nuh just outside Delhi. The follow-up was done mostly by Mumbai’s local newspapers.
Mid-Day, for instance, reported that the investigators had concluded that the man knew what he was doing and admitted he hated Muslims. He also said, according to the paper, that he would have shot many more people had the train not stopped before reaching Mumbai. Singh has now been charged under sections relating to hate crimes.
Apart from follow-up reports, there was also little by way of comment that questioned why Singh had such a deep hatred of Muslims that he would go about shooting them without provocation. An exception was Ajaz Ashraf who writes a column in Mid-Day.
Ashraf’s op-ed is worth reading because it questions the talk about mental illness and this kind of targeted killing.
“We would be deceiving ourselves in case we think Chetan’s killing spree was merely because of his mental illness, which might also be a condition waiting to be diagnosed among a substantial segment of Indians, given the increasing frequency with which hate-driven violence is perpetrated. Certainly, the impulse not to hurt has weakened over the last nine years. There is a post called Chief Statistician of India. We desperately need to have a Chief Psychiatrist of India, who could measure India’s growing sickness.”
“India’s growing sickness”, as Ashraf terms it, is the visceral hate of Muslims that has been planted in our minds. Of course, political parties, specifically the BJP and its family members like the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, are primarily responsible. But their hate-filled narrative would not have found purchase to this extent had not the media amplified it.
Whether you watch Indian TV news channels or not, look at the episode of TV Newsance mentioned above to get a sense of the poison emanating from them every night.
There have been instances in the past where the media has been held responsible for spreading hate. For instance, after the 2002 Gujarat communal carnage, the Editors Guild of India had sent a team to look specifically at this aspect.
Their report makes interesting reading today, more than two decades later. Although TV news was not as ubiquitous as it is now, Gujarat 2002 is often referred to as the first “televised” riot because by then there were private television channels not beholden to the government. Journalists from these channels were stopped and even attacked by Hindutva groups, accusing them of only giving the Muslim point of view. This is unlikely to happen today.
Print media was still dominant and several leading Gujarati newspapers were questioned about the headlines on their front pages, and the news that they chose to emphasise. But the report also mentions pamphlets distributed by groups like the VHP that played a role in spreading misinformation. A parallel today would be social media that is all pervasive and much more dangerous.
Clearly, we need a detailed study on how and to what extent all media, television, print and social media, have amplified the narrative of hate, especially since 2014.
How is this deliberate spread of hate to be checked? No one in the media will recommend government censorship. There are already rules and regulations in place that could, if they are used, offer some checks.
But ultimately, the responsibility lies in the hands of those who finance these media houses, the owners, as well as those who support them by way of advertising.
There is little doubt that the deterioration in media content has coincided with the corporatisation of the media from the early 1990s. Since then, media professionals running these organisations have to find ways to make their companies profitable. And what better way than to sensationalise and play up sentiments that echo what the majority believes? The combination of this is deadly, as we can see.
This daily dose of poison has not just been seeded in the minds of millions of people but has begun to bear fruit. Chetan Singh’s hate-filled killing of Muslim men is a telling example of this.
Can our media introspect? Will it? I personally doubt it so long as people continue to buy and financially support the peddlers of hate. Even tighter regulations will not suffice if there is a “market” for these ideas, which there is, and so long as the dominant politics supports it, which it does.
July 31 and Chetan Singh’s targeted killing are a warning that we must heed, as media, but also as citizens of a country that seems to be hurtling down a precipice of hatred and violence.
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