By Nandini Sundar:
As with roads, trees, schools and electoral booths – all of which have become sites of conflict – the war ranges back and forth across the terrain of media coverage: more news, less news, propaganda. The ‘truth’, whatever it is, is an object of war.
The police often inflate figures of Naxalite losses, or try to pass off killings of villagers as Naxalites to reduce the morale of the rebels. For instance, in May 2006, the CRPF commander leading the operation clearly told the ICI that only one woman Naxalite had been killed; the rest had fled. We saw the body they brought to Dornapal camp. But the IG’s press release claimed that three Naxalites (one woman and two men) had been killed, and the Naxalites had dragged the other two bodies away. Surrender figures are similarly inflated as part of a psychological war to bring down Maoist morale. Even though the local media know that the spate of surrenders from 2014 onwards is coerced, they are obliged to carry the police press releases faithfully. The national media have been more openly sceptical on the surrenders issue, but to little effect.
Between 2012 and 2015, there have been brief flares of media interest whenever the Maoists have mounted a major operation – like the kidnapping of the Collector of Sukma, Alex Menon, in 2012 or the killing of Mahendra Karma and other Congress leaders in 2013 – but these have soon died out. There appears to be a general acceptance that this will be a long-drawn-out war, with ‘collateral damage’ among civilians. Among concerned citizens too, there is a dulling of senses, with repeated exposure to horrors. Even front-page news of rapes by the security forces appears to make no difference to the government. The media ownership scene also changed by 2014, with takeovers by corporate houses close to the new BJP government.
In the Iraq war, between 2003 and 2007, the US media coverage of bad news declined as its novelty value wore off and particular attacks or casualties were reported as discrete, unconnected events. The US administration’s claim to be succeeding, or at least the idea that there was light at the end of the tunnel, received far greater prominence.
Any attempt to suggest that the policy was not working was met with stern warnings of the dangers if the US did not stay the course. Thus an ‘accountability gap’ came into existence. A similar accountability gap is visible when it comes to the Maoist conflict. Th e media rarely questions the government on its overall policy, even when home ministers like P. Chidambaram and Rajnath Singh announce every four years that the Maoists will be finished in the ‘next two or three years’. They even report, without seeing any contradictions, these comments regarding an imminent finish together with scare scenarios like thgenerat relayed by G.K. Pillai, a former home secretary, who talked of the prospect of a Maoist takeover of India by 2050.
Unlike the US war on Iraq, here those killed on either side are citizens of India, for whose security the government is responsible. However, the targeted killings or rapes of ordinary adivasis by the security forces, if exposed, are rarely, if ever, attended by direct calls upon the home minister to condemn or compensate for each such incident. This is quite different from the manner in which television anchors make human rights activists answerable for every action of the Maoists. This easily summons to mind Herman and Chomsky’s distinction between ‘worthy and unworthy victims’ as part of what they call the media ‘propaganda model’. While news coverage of the worthy is replete with detail, evokes indignation and shock, and invites a follow-up, unworthy victims get limited news space and are referred to in generic terms; there is also little attempt to fix responsibility or trace culpability to the top echelons of the establishment.
In 2016, with several journalists arrested, and attacks on middle class activists, media interest in Bastar has revived again, especially among young reporters. The proliferation of Internet-based media sites like The Wire and Scroll has certainly helped to ensure that some human rights violations are covered, as has the growth of social media. On the other hand, the BJP, the RSS and the security establishment have been equally, if not more, successful in mobilizing both the mainstream as well as social media for counter-insurgency, including to malign anyone critical of the government.
Since 2014 I have been on a Bastar Whatsapp group run jointly by police and journalists. Whenever the police post photos of bullet-riddled bloody bodies of alleged Maoists allegedly killed in an ‘encounter’, some journalists punch victory signs. In 2016, these same journalists faithfully reproduced in their newspapers and channels what they knew was a police-fabricated complaint, ostensibly from villages in Darbha block, claiming that a group of researchers of which I was a part had threatened the villagers with Maoist retaliation if they supported the police. This was nationally relayed by the rabidly rightwing Zee channel, owned by Subhash Chandra, an MP backed by the BJP.
Note: Excerpted with permission from Juggernaut Books from “The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar” by Nandini Sundar. Available in bookstores and on the Juggernaut app.