How Biased Media Is Undermining Human Rights and Democracy in India

It is election time in five of India’s states. In at least two of the five, it’s a telling time for the regime at the center, headed by the autocratic Narendra Modi. Not only will his much-hailed charisma and direct connection with the voters be evaluated when the results are finally declared on March 11, but the disastrous de-monetization move that crushed India’s informal, cash-driven economy, took over 150 lives and raised serious questions of the economic salience of Modi’s policy making, will be tested.


Today, Modi’s party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is the political face of the supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It does not control the government of Uttar Pradesh, which determines sugar cane prices, education and health policies that are the source of many local woes. The much-touted ‘development dream’ that Modi ‘sold’ to significant sections of India’s electorate has fizzled out into just that—a pipe dream.

In May 2014, backed by powerful corporate-driven media interests, including television channels selling his persona on ‘news and views’ programs, his party had won a large chunk of the Parliamentary seats from the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. This is one of the states where a seven-phased polling exercise is currently underway and whose population of more than 200 million accounts for one in six people in the country. If Modi can win here, he will control the upper house of Parliament, which gives the supremacist RSS the leverage to amend India’s egalitarian and republican constitution. Already, citizenship laws have further pushed India away from its republican fundamentals toward the theocratic ideal of a ‘Hindu state.’

Both in 2014 and now, the professionalism and non-partisan conduct of large media groups will be tested. Two polls in January this year have already shown Modi’s BJP in the lead, although one suggests the political alliance marshaled against him is experiencing a last-minute surge that has it in a statistical tie.  A Times Now-VMR survey conducted in late January gave the BJP 202 of the 403 state assembly seats, compared with 147 for an alliance of the state’s ruling Samajwadi Party with India’s former ruling party, the Indian National Congress. But an Axis-My-India poll for the India Today Group showed the BJP in a statistical deadheat with the alliance, suggesting its opponents have surged in recent weeks.

Last September, 10 days after the patriotic brouhaha generated by India’s ‘surgical strikes’ against Pakistan, figures showed the Dalit party, India’s Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) headed by four-times chief minister, the redoubtable Mayawati, to have re-grouped large sections of its lost voter base. This made her and her party the real challenger to the majoritarian onslaught.

Until a few days ago, Mayawati did not figure much in media assessments or analyses, and it is only over the past week that reports have started creeping in about her success in the first two rounds of Uttar Pradesh state polls (February 11 and 15). Dalits have always complained that India’s media, laden as it is with sharp upper-class and caste biases, fails to read the mind of the Dalit voter. In Uttar Pradesh, Dalits constitute 27 percent of the voter base, and Muslims close to 20 percent. Mayawati’s campaign has been crafted carefully to project an alliance of the troubled and oppressed, Dalits and Muslims, both segments of Indian society under brute and violent attack under the present RSS dispensation.

Powerful players within India’s media have had something to say, however. In late January, Dainik Bhaskar, arguably one of India’s largest circulating daily newspapers, actually displayed a hoarding in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, openly rooting for Modi’s party and quite shamefacedly showing the two major challengers to Modi, the regional parties of the BSP and Samajwadi Party (headed by Akhilesh Yadav who is currently chief minister of the state) as ‘villains of the piece.’ Critical comment compelled the newspaper to pull this hoarding down. This newspaper boasts of a circulation of 3,812,599 in Hindi, India’s largest spoken language (also ‘national’ language).

That the Hindi media was going to be manipulated even further became evident this week when another newspaper in the same language nakedly defied the Election Commission guidelines. Dainik Jagran newspaper carried out an exit poll in favor of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh, even though six more phases of polling are still left. The newspaper, often accused of being pro-BJP, carried the exit poll by using a sample of 5,700 voters who cast their votes in the first phase of elections on February 11. Its ‘finding’ said, “The BJP will become the numero uno party in the first phase. The Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) will be at second position while the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance is not likely to get a positive response from the voters. The findings were first published by Dainik Jagran website.”

It further added, “The region is crucial to the BJP because it swept all the 12 Lok Sabha seats in Western UP in the 16th general election. The other important thing to be noted is that BJP-led NDA government has three Union Ministers from the region – Mahesh Sharma, Retired General VK Singh, and Sanjeev Baliyan.”

The Election Commission of India (ECI), both a statutory and constitutional body, is bound by a set of laws and guidelines to prevent the obvious influencing of the voter during poll-season-directed criminal cases against the editor, and the editor was even arrested. There has been since demands however that action should be directed against the owner/proprietor of the newspaper. But what made the newspaper do what it did?

Was it pressure that made the Dainik Jagran go ahead with the 'exit poll'? Or was the aim securing future prospects with the ruling party at the Center? In section 126 A of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, the Election Commission “prohibits the conduct of any exit polls and publishing of their results for the elections that will be held between February 4 and March 8.” The ban on exit pollshas been upheld by Bombay High Court.

It is an age-old marketing ploy. Win-win for the winner. Exit polls not only influence voters to herd towards the party they think is winning already, for a relatively more secure future with less communal incidents after the polls. They also tend to prevent voters from picking their choice of candidate out of fear that, in case the candidate is defeated but the party wins the Assembly polls, those responsible for defeating a candidate would face immense threats to life and bearings under the new government.

The EC Ban has, to some extent, stemmed this cynical rot. But, Jagran group’s exit poll – presenting a survey of a voter sample comprising about 5,700 people across 38 Assembly seats in western Uttar Pradesh – was so clearly skewed in favor of a particular political party. When no official counting has begun, or can begin before all the phases are over, this is not just distasteful, but illegal to the last letter.

One thing is more than clear and has been clear since 2013. The rule of law and democratic niceties do not concern the inherently anti-constitutional ruling dispensation and its media hoards. These laws have evolved after much deliberation to allow democracy to take its own course. Time and again, opinion polls have yielded grossly misleading results, showing that elections in India are not a matter of cold math based on just caste or religious calculations, but also include a heavy dose of emotions.

Jagran was among the first media groups Prime Minister Modi had chosen to speak to after becoming the prime minister. And the links of sections of the Indian (read Hindi) media to the supremacist Hindutva right has been historic. Not so long ago, in September 2016, the newspaper’s questionable reporting of the outbreak of intra-community (read Hindu-Muslim) tensions in Uttar Pradesh was widely criticized. As is not uncommon, an incident of the harassment of girls became the cause of group violence.

But it was the fashion of reporting on this incident that has come into question. Dainik Jagran wrote, “A distance from Bijnor town, when some girl students, who catch the school bus every day face eve-teasing. Youth from the minority community have been indulging in eve-teasing for some days now. Last Friday, again conflict broke out over eve teasing and as the conflict escalated, there was stone throwing and even gun shots were fired. Ahsan (32) died of gun shots while Aneesuddin (50) and Sarfaraz (22) died on the way to hospital.” All names of males who died are Muslim names, easily identifiable.

The newspaper Jagran was clearly being the spokesperson for only one section of citizens, the Hindus. It wrote further, relying on ‘sources from the police,’ that, in fact, “it was two girls, standard ten students from the minority, who were harassed and stalked by the youth and family members of one Sansar Singh that led to the conflict. The conflict resulted in three dead and 12 injured.” This manner of partisan reporting has been the bane of Indian journalism that has gone unchecked even before and during times of acute anti-minority pogroms. We have in India a Press Council of India that is mandated to act, but does so extremely sparingly.

As the ‘story’ unfolded, one thing became clear: two Muslim girls were teased by Hindu Jat boys on September 17, 2016, while on their way to school. The boys are said to belong to the family of a Jat hegemon in the village. When the girl's family went to the Jat hegemon's home to complain about the eve-teasing, they were fired upon from the roof of the fortified house, in a brazen display of power. One member of the girls' family was killed on the spot.

The assault did not end there. The next morning, a mob of around 100 people attacked the girls' home, and as many as 17 members of the Muslim family were badly injured in the violence. Three of the injured died later and a fourth, Rizwan, who works in a hair cutting salon in Delhi, was injured severely with bullet injuries in his neck, and thereafter succumbed to his injuries. In all, four people, including a woman, were killed in the violence, all Muslims. The fact that all the deceased and the injured belong to one family is proof that the girls' family had only gone to beseech the elders of the deviant boys to rein them in, rather than express any community driven sentiment.

Clearly, fair reporting was not the newspaper’s aim. The tendencies in large circulating newspapers to play the sinister political tune of the Hindutva right goes back decades, heightened during the aggressive mobilization of the majoritarian right in the mid 1980s.

These observations by the late media analyst Praful Bidwai, in Communalism Combat, August 1997, bear recall. The article was in an issue of the journal that was assessing 50 Years of Indian Secularism, titled, “Media in Service of Communalism.” Bidwai writes:

One of the most important—and yet among the saddest-changes to have occurred in the Indian media over the past 50 years is its communalization, or at least, its opening up to communal influences as never before. The respectability that Hindutva has acquired among the upper and middle class elite of the despicable Ram temple campaign culminating in the destruction of the Babri mosque in December 1992, and in horrific pogroms and riots the following month, would have been quite inconceivable without the media’s complicity with and soft line on the sangh combine.

It is also a fact of no mean consequence that the top journalists and columnists of India’s largest-circulation English-language magazine are not just BJP sympathizers, but hardcore RSS supporters, no less. Today, in most English-language newspapers and magazines-to a discussion of which this article is largely confined-pro-BJP articles, stories and leaders far out-number those that are strongly secular or liberal and left-wing in character.

This is a far cry from the early years of independence when the mainstream English-language press would treat the Jana Sangh, and in particular the RSS, as politically unacceptable, and as part of the lunatic fringe, far beyond the secular-democratic pale. This was only partly because of the trauma of Partition which witnessed the unfolding of the horrible consequences of communalism (of which the BJP is a legatee) and the assassination of Gandhi (the work, clearly and self-confessedly, of Hindutva).

It was also because the RSS Jana Sangh was seen as a fundamentally intolerant, parochial force that threatened unity, social cohesion and nation-building much in the way casteism or linguistic-regional chauvinism did.

It is this trend within the media which is today sharp and heightened with aggressive corporate control. Leave alone diversity and democratic coverage of trends and interests, this hegemonization threatens the very credibility of large sections of the Indian media today.

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