Sunday, December 05, 2021

Telescope: Twisted discourse

TV got worked up over Gurmehar Kaur for all the wrong reasons

Written by Shailaja Bajpai |
Updated: June 18, 2020 2:53:39 pm
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“Nationalism versus Free Speech” (CNN News 18). “#Fanatic Fury” (Times Now). “Patriot wars” (India Today). “Battleground University” (NDTV 24×7). Azaadi, anti-national, anti-India. Sounds familiar, right? The headlines are the same, the language is identical, the narrative interchangeable. A meeting, “separatists”, protests for and against, violence, police (in)action, political barbs, bullying, character assassination = chaos.

Only the names have changed. Replace Kanhaiya Kumar with Gurmehar Kaur,  JNU with DU (or LSR) and you are watching television frame the news of February 2016 and February 2017. The march of time changes calendar dates but the “#March for India” (Times Now) seemingly treads the same path. Except. Except (and Donald Trump has made repetition the new normal) on this occasion, English TV news took you to the crossroads where you could turn right, left or go straight after a Ramjas College seminar was cancelled, following protests by the ABVP against Umar Khalid speaking there, and Gurmehar Kaur’s post, “I am not afraid of ABVP” saw a deluge on social media with threats of rape and violence against her.

WATCH VIDEO | Ramjas Row: ABVP Protests Outside Delhi Police Headquarters

Monday, TV news was flooded with outrage. If you went left, you would hear people like Professor Aditya Mukherjee (JNU) say that the nation was being tested, “I can hardly recognise this as my country. This is the beginning of fascism.” If you went right, you heard Saket Bahuguna (ABVP) condemn the threats against Gurmehar, but oppose all “anti-national slogans” (Left, Right and Centre, NDTV 24×7). And from nowhere, we were talking Maoists, Bastar, terrorism.

If you stayed in the centre, you had all the news channels — yes, Times Now included, which believes it is the nation — stick to the core issue. As CNN News 18 put it, “Online bullies troll martyr’s daughter” or “Tolerant India stung” (Times Now). The story of the day could have been the Ramjas row and how social media has become a minefield of abuse, appropriating the national discourse and setting the political and social agenda. Bahuguna touched upon it briefly, suggesting that social media should be “regulated”. We can’t do better than to quote CNN’s Jake Tapper against such censorship: “No”.

However, TV news did not stick to the present. As is its wont increasingly, it took its lead from social media and the news became an April 2016 video by Gurmehar — who had lost her father to an attack by militants in Kashmir — in which she said, amongst many other statements, “Pakistan did not kill my father, war killed him.” Last year, that statement did not evoke even a meow, let alone a cat fight on prime time TV debates. This week, however, it
unleashed a furious controversy over “Free Speech v/s Patriotism” (why did TV channels frame it as such?) which used tweets and comments from Virender Sehwag and Randeep Hooda to athletes Deepa Malik and Babita Phogat, amongst many others critical of that particular Gurmehar comment.

There was a passing “Tsk, tsk” at the rape threats to the young student, but the talk turned to nationalism or anti-nationals, although Bahuguna categorically stated that Gurmehar was “absolutely not” anti-national (NDTV 24×7). If all of this wasn’t confused and confounding enough, the politicians waded in. Minister of State for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju tweeted, “Who’s polluting this young girl’s mind?”, and went on to give interviews throughout Tuesday where he spoke of the “leftists” and the “far left” posing a threat to India, bringing up Afzal Guru and terrorism — he even spoke of her father’s troubled soul, thereby further muddying the waters.

To their credit, TV news anchors repeatedly reminded politicians and panelists of how a young woman was being hounded. And Gurmehar was the best argument against all criticism: In interviews across channels, she came across as an intelligent, articulate person suddenly “nervous” and scared, someone who was forced to retreat to the safety of her home to avoid becoming a victim of Breaking News. Maybe that’s why, by Wednesday, everyone, politicians, ABVP, were at pains to “reclaim” her. This is how news can be twisted out of context. As happened at the Oscars where Warren Beatty was handed the wrong envelope for Best Picture, the wrong story can become the news of the moment.

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