The Media War on Indigenous People and Activists
The mainstream news media have historically served as instruments of powerful state actors. The role of news media as a mouthpieces of the state has essentially meant that state-sponsored propaganda is played out as the overarching narrative in the media. Reproducing the dominant narratives of the state, media recycle the ideological claims of the state as foundational and universal truth claims. Moreover, the privatization of the media shape the media agenda in a narrowly corporatized model, framing issues within the overarching logics of private capital flows, and undermining the democratic possibilities of media.
Particularly salient in the context of India are the role of the media in disseminating the dogma of development, pushing forth specific ideas of development as the overarching truths while simultaneously marking the realms of acceptability and unacceptability in public discourse, delineating the questions related to development that can and can’t be asked.
Questions about the fundamentalism of economic growth as development for instance are marked as outside of the realm of acceptability. Questions interrogating the dominant assumptions of mineral extraction as development are marked as outside of the norm. The privatized model of development as resource extraction and displacement is conflated with national interest. To ask questions about the legitimacy of the naturalized logic flows in public discourse is to be anti-national, to be against the interest of the nation.
The dogma of development is especially powerful when considering the lives of indigenous communities in India, as development is positioned as necessary for the nation, embodied in the many state-sponsored initiatives of land acquisition for projects of mineral extraction and industrialization, essentially displacing indigenous communities from their sources of livelihood.
Often unquestioned in the mainstream logic of development are questions such as: Who profits from the development projects aggressively pursued by the state, and often narrowly defined as mining and/or industrialization? What are the benefits of these so-called development projects for the tribal communities that have been displaced from their ways of life and from their land? If the pursuit of development narrowly profits the owners of capital, how then can development be framed as of national interest?
Bastar, violence, and media
In the most recent cases of state-sponsored violence in Bastar, a region in Chhattisgarh that is predominantly tribal and that has witnessed both state-driven and Maoist violence, the mainstream media have remained silent about the state-sponsored rapes, false cases, and encounter killings of tribal community members. Even as stories have foregrounded Maoist violence, the realities of state-sponsored violence and structural violence in the region remain unvoiced. Also erased are stories of incarcerations, torture, rapes, and murders that are carried out by the state and its police-paramilitary apparatus including the police-sponsored vigilante groups such as Salwa Judum, Naxali Peedit Sangharsh Samiti, and Samajik Ekta Manch.
Particularly salient are the silences regarding the legitimacy of evidence-making in the implementation of draconian acts such as the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act (CSPSA) that is deployed widely to silence dissent in the name of addressing Maoism.
Witnessing the state-sponsored atrocities on the tribal population disrupts the state narrative.
Human rights activists, peaceful protesters, journalists, and tribal community members have been systematically detained in Chhattisgarh without evidence, subjected to torture, and killed in encounters, having been labeled as Maoist. However, these state-sponsored forms of violence that have been regularized as everyday instruments of repression remain mostly hidden in mainstream media stories.
Local journalists questioning state atrocities in Chhattisgarh are being systematically harassed and silenced. Most recently for instance, local journalists in Chhattisgarh Santosh Yadav, Somaru Nag, Prabhat Singh, and Dipak Jaiswal were arrested. The journalists Alok Prakash Putul and Malini Subramaniam fled Bastar after having been threatened by police and the pro-police vigilante group Samajik Ekta Parishad. The researcher Bela Bhatia, whose research has supported many of the stories on the human rights violations in Bastar, has been harassed and intimidated. Members of the lawyers’ group Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group, which provided legal representation to the tribal communities, were intimidated and threatened, and eventually forced to leave.
Zee News and techniques of state propaganda
Amid the overarching mainstream media silence about the false cases, cooked-up evidence, state-sponsored rapes, encounter killings, harassment of journalists and lawyers representing the tribal communities in Bastar, the fabled “anchor of truth” Zee News ran a story on May 20, 2016, alleging the involvement of two professors from Delhi, Archana Prasad from Jawaharlal Nehru University and Nandini Sundar from Delhi University in instigating villagers in Bastar to join the Naxalites.
Visuals of covered faces, guns, and village pathways are mixed in with an ominous soundtrack to heighten the viewer’s sense of anxiety as the camera takes the viewer to Bastar. The viewer is invited into a village in Bastar threatened by Naxalite violence and introduced to an account of the incitements by the intellectuals from Delhi who have seemingly travelled to Bastar to spread Naxalite terror and to seed Naxalite ideology among villagers.
The Zee story opens with an enumeration of the death toll caused by Naxalite violence, giving a picture of the number of deaths resulting from Maoist violence. Even as the various statistics of deaths are summarized, missing are the accounts of the tribal deaths that have been caused by the fake encounters sponsored by the state.
The long-discredited, rogue news anchor Sudhir Chaudhry opens the story with a glimpse into pro-Naxalite thought supposedly brewing in University campuses in Delhi. The story is framed as targeting “JNU’s anti-India slogan raising students, anti-India text teaching Professors, and journalists of the Afzal-loving gang” beyond the general audience of the show. The story is thus a moral lesson in nationalism.
Although there is no evidence to support the claim that the two Professors accused of instigating the villagers did indeed do so, the anchor pushes the audience to the foregone conclusion that the villagers were threatened by the Professors to join the Maoists. Questions such as “Are the thoughts of JNU and Delhi Professors Naxal loving?” “Do professors feel sympathy for the Naxalites?” “Are JNU and DU Professors nurturing the flowers of Naxalism?” frame the media story.
A panoramic shot gives a glimpse of supposedly protesting villagers, without giving any details about the protest, and without offering in-depth context to the protest. Local activists for instance have noted that the protest was orchestrated by the police and that villagers were not involved in the protest. Other accounts have suggested that members of the police were mixed in with the protestors.
A signed petition is shown on screen without depicting whether the petition was indeed signed by the villagers. In fact, activists working in Bastar have suggested that the petition was a part of police-orchestrated propaganda and was not written by the villagers. The news story does not address this criticism or does not demonstrate careful verification of evidence.
Excerpts of interviews showing villagers describing the visit by the Professors are presented. The identities of the interviewees are hidden for security purposes, therefore leaving no room for verifying the veracity of the sources. In one of the interviews, the reporter is shown showing the villagers a picture of one of the Professors on a phone, supposedly to verify the identity of the visitors, raising questions such as: How did the reporter know the identity of the Professor? Who informed him about the identity of the Professor? Was he informed by the police about the identity of the Professor?
Although the voices of Professors Sundar and Prasad are presented in the story, denying that they instigated the villagers to join the Maoists and stating that finding facts is an integral part of their research mission amid the turmoil in Bastar, their accounts are not taken into account in the overarching narrative form of the story. The journalist filing the story concludes by stating that although conclusions can only be derived after a thorough investigation, this could be a serious consequence for JNU which has already been under the scanner for its anti-national activities. The anchor wraps up the story with the conclusion that Universities like JNU are sites of anti-national activities and are spaces for seeding the ideas of Naxalism among villagers.
The multiple frames and accounts offered are obfuscated in the overarching narrative of the story that points toward anti-national thought being cultivated at universities such as JNU. Images of the February 9 protest event at JNU (the veracity of the Zee News story related to this story has already been discredited) are juxtaposed against the images of Bastar, thus offering a seamless web of explanation of anti-national thought sponsored in Universities such as JNU. The Bastar story fits with the gestalt of anti-nationalism that Zee News weaves together.
The structure of the Zee News story gives the semblance of a story that was probably planted by the power structures, perhaps following a trajectory similar to the earlier Zee News story on the alleged protests on the JNU campus that we know now was planted. Moreover, the story of pro-Naxalite teachers at JNU and DU fits with a broader concerted campaign by the Chhattisgarh state to delegitimize scholars and activists witnessing and drawing attention to the state-sponsored atrocities in Chhattisgarh and the state’s practices of manufacturing evidence to incarcerate tribal community members, frame them as Maoists, and build a narrative of Maoist surrenders.
In viewing the story, it is worthwhile to ask: How did Zee News secure access to the story of the two professors travelling to Chhattisgarh? Was there any relationship between Zee News and state-police actors?If so, what was the relationship?
Rather than seeing its function as informing citizens, Zee News is preoccupied with the function of manufacturing consent around the state agenda, framed in a narrowly constructed narrative of nationalism/anti-nationalism.
As a propaganda tool of the state, Zee News functions to create consensus through the performance of news. Overall, the narrative framework of the Zee News story suspends critical thought in an absolute way, instead pushing one-way propaganda overloaded with anxiety about the security of the nation state and threats to its development agenda. The authoritarian narrator of the preconfigured story does not expect her/his reader to engage questioningly with the narrative he/she offers. The truth value of the narrative can’t be questioned as that would destabilize the narrow idea of the nation state manufactured through propaganda. To question the truth value of the narrative or to ask for evidence is to risk being framed as anti-national, seditious, terrorist, threat to national security, or some combination of these labels.
The materiality of disenfranchisement
The Zee news story titled “JNU and DU professors instigate Chhattisgarh localites against government” performs a communicative inversion of the materiality of the lived experiences of tribal communities in Bastar.
As documented by a range of human rights organizations, the structural and material violence in Bastar is an ongoing saga, having been exacerbated in recent years with the state’s interest in aggressively cultivating mineral extraction and industry in the region.
The Maoist foothold in Bastar is a product of this very structural violence, drawing upon the sense of disenfranchisement and loss that have historically been experienced by tribal communities in Bastar.
This large scale land grab is given the name of development, couched as necessary to the progress of the nation. The cleansing of Maoists offers the chador for a strategically conceived genocide of India’s tribal population.
As tribal communities have resisted these initiatives of displacement, often through peaceful and democratically constituted processes, they have been framed by the state as Maoist. The Maoist label has worked powerfully to disenfranchise communities and to unleash violence on community members. For instance, local activists including Soni Sori and journalists such as Supriya Sharma and Malini Subramaniam document how large percentage of the Maoist arrests and surrenders constitute unarmed and innocent tribal people.
Systematic state-sponsored violence including mass rapes and encounter killings have been carried out across Bastar, predominantly as tools to threaten and displace tribal communities from their sources of livelihood, to uproot them from their homes.
Silencing voices and erasure
The anti-nationalism trope is a powerful rhetorical device in erasing acts of witnessing. Testimonies can be silenced by being labeled as being against the interests of the nation.
The materiality of the state-sponsored oppression in Bastar is marked by the communicative erasure of the stories of oppression carried out by the state, often precisely to enable aggressive land grab in the form of mineral extraction and industrialization. The rhetorical framing of large scale tribal displacement as national development underlies the state sponsored violence on tribal communities.
The spatial distance of Bastar from sites of articulation in the mainstream combined with an authoritarian regime that threatens journalists, activists and human rights lawyers, has ensured a tightly controlled communication environment, where information about the atrocities carried out by the state doesn’t find its way into the mainstream media. News about the state-sponsored violence in Bastar is blacked out, thus enabling the condition for disproportionate state violence without any accountability.
The narrative of the Maoist threat is strategically deployed to legitimize state violence as an instrument of development.
The accounts of tribal dispossession mostly remain unspoken in an overarching story of development and Maoist threat in Chhattisgarh.
For the state and the powerful actors that run the state machinery, repressing the truth of the everyday violence carried out by the state machinery in Bastar is critical to reproducing state-capitalist power and control. The accounts of mass rapes and encounter killings orchestrated by the state need to be erased so they don’t disrupt the dominant narrative weaved by the state apparatus. This silencing of testimonies is carried out through the linear narrative of nationalism/anti-nationalism.
Amid these silences, independent fact-finding missions such as the one carried out by Professors Sundar and Prasad are vital to describing, analyzing, and interpreting the textures and layers of experiences by tribal communities. These efforts at discovering the truth, however contingent and contested, through accounts offered by tribal community members, are vital to creating infrastructures of listening.
Narrative accounts such as those offered by Soni Sori, Bela Bhatia, Alok Prakash Putul, Malini Subramanian and Supriya Sharma that bear witness to the large scale strategic manufacturing of evidence and state repression disrupt the monolithic agenda of the state to turn Chhattisgarh into one large mineral extraction and industrialization operation.
The narratives of the lived experiences of tribal communities across Bastar amid the various forces of violence disrupt on one hand the mainstream story of displacement as necessary to development, and on the other hand, invite the audience into imagining entry points for social change. That the violence perpetrated by a state on its own people is a fundamental form of anti-nationalism needs to be a starting point for mainstream media conversations. Interrogating the uncritical jingoism that goes in the name of nationalism is integral to the social construction of a nation state built on the principles of inclusiveness, justice, and dialogue.
(Mohan J. Dutta is Provost’s Chair Professor of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore).