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How sanity trumped hate

Could it be that the alternative narrative put out through social media and digital news websites actually found purchase?

IN MY last column, I asserted that Delhi was not India. After the Aam Aadmi Party’s spectacular victory in the elections, one wishes it was. And perhaps it will be. Who knows?

But this is not the time to ask that question. Instead, it’s a time to celebrate that the voter was not swayed by the poisonous rhetoric that dominated the Bharatiya Janata Party’s election campaign to the point that she would reject a party for whom the welfare of the ordinary citizens of Delhi has been top priority.

It is, in some ways, a victory of rationality over narrow nationalism and hate.

Now that this election is behind us, there are still aspects of the campaign that will require further investigation and study. I refer specifically to the role of the media. How is it that the ordinary voter, who consumes the narrative put out by mainstream media and, more specifically television, was not moved enough to change her vote? The leading news channels, and less so the print media, amplified the hate-filled language of the BJP and echoed its rhetoric of demonising dissenters, especially those who continue their vigil at Shaheen Bagh.

Yet, voters were not swayed.

What does this tell us? Only a more detailed study will indicate how this happened but could it be, within the confines of a small state like Delhi where, unlike Kashmir, the internet has not been suspended, that the alternative narrative put out through social media and digital news websites actually found purchase? Could it be that as a result of this, more people are now aware that all that appears in the mainstream media is not necessarily true? Have the days, when people would say, “I read it in the newspaper, so it must be true”, or, “I heard it on TV, so it must be correct”, ending?

By default, are we now coming into an age of more discerning consumers of media? Perhaps I am being over-optimistic, reading too much into what could just be a passing moment. But it is worthy of some contemplation, and further study.

DEBATING THE DEATH PENALTY

Moving on from politics and elections, the media in any democratic society is supposed to provide a space for debate on issues that concern society. One of these is whether a civilised society should support capital punishment for heinous crimes.

Many democratic countries around the world have debated this issue and subsequently removed the death penalty. But in India, the space to even discuss something like this is shrinking, especially in the current political climate, where killing people who are condemned with or without a trial seems perfectly acceptable. After a season of public lynchings, we have progressed to men wandering around with guns and shooting at anyone they find disagreeable.

Since the 2012 gang rape in New Delhi, the demand of “death to rapists” has grown exponentially. To the point that when four men — merely suspected of having raped and killed a woman in Hyderabad, and who had not yet faced the court — are gunned down by the police, there is celebration instead of horror that they were not granted the right to a trial.

We are now on the cusp of the hanging of four men who were convicted of the 2012 rape. The muted debate around the rightness of the death penalty has been met with outrage by most people who think this is not the time to talk about it.

But when is the right time? After these four have been hanged? Will our “collective conscience” be assuaged enough after that for us to talk rationally about whether the severity of punishment makes any difference to the incidence of crime and, more particularly, crimes against women? In the current political atmosphere, it will be virtually impossible to carve out that kind of sane and calm space to discuss this.

That is why I thought it quite brave of The Print to run an article that gives us some insight into the lives of the four men on death row. Their families, living in the typically abysmal conditions in which the majority of the urban poor in India live, say, “The media has been one-sided about the whole thing. Our poverty is what damned us, and that is why our voices have been erased.”

The condemned also have a story. Shouldn’t the media be telling us about them, instead of falling in line with the overwhelming demand of “death to rapists”? I think we need to, because it leads us also to question who finally makes it to death row, and who are the people who get away. Those on death row are almost always the poorest, the most marginalised, those with the inability to mount an effective defence, while the privileged get away, literally, with murder.

Also, against the reality that crimes against women have not diminished since 2012 and the following year, when the Justice Verma committee put out an excellent report on what needed to be done to make the law more effective, we do need to pause and ask whether the introduction of the death penalty — which the Verma Committee did not recommend — has made any difference. Can our media allow for the space for such a discussion?

As Aakar Patel of Amnesty International rightly points out in this report, “Executions will not eradicate violence against women. Too often, politicians in India advocate capital punishment to show their resolve to tackle crime but ignore more effective solutions like improving investigations and prosecutions. India needs to undertake far-reaching procedural and institutional reforms to curb violence against women and girls.”

CORRECTING MISTAKES

Finally, The Hindu too needs to be commended for acknowledging an error, something that is not done very readily by the media. This is in relation to an item it carried linking a study of bats in Nagaland to the coronavirus that is wreaking havoc in China and spreading to other countries.

The paper’s Readers’ Editor dealt with it in his column.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology and the National Centre for Biological Sciences apparently collaborated in the study in Nagaland. But this link was only because Wuhan provided the reagents for the study, as the Readers’ Editor points out. The desk found the item newsworthy, linking Wuhan, bats, the coronavirus, and Nagaland under the headline “Study of bats and bat-hunters of Nagaland comes under the scanner”. This headline was subsequently changed in the web-edition of the paper.

The paper’s readers drew attention to this item. That is significant, because it suggests that at times of an epidemic, people do consume science-based news. Unfortunately, this is the very reason why information can be misleading or even false. It is incumbent on news organisations to run such stories through a proper scientific filter. With the decline in training of journalists on science-related subjects, such mistakes tend to creep in inadvertently. The consequences can sometimes be quite serious.

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