The current moment of attack of the Indian State on the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) has been catalyzed by an active role of a section of the mainstream Indian media in fanning the flames of nationalism to feed a witch hunt. Police have entered the University to arrest students on charges of sedition, claiming that the students participated in anti-national activities.
Students at JNU who had come together to organize a cultural evening to draw attention to the absence of juridical process in the hanging of Afzal Guru, an accused in the Indian parliament attacks of 2001, are in the midst of a national storm that have labeled them as separatists and as anti-national. And the media are key players in this story.
Kanhaiya Kumar, President of the JNU Students' Union, has been arrested under the outdated sedition law that was ironically the very instrument used by British colonialists to thwart India's right to self-rule.
The mainstream television media have played instrumental roles in stoking the flames of national frenzy, and in orchestrating a large scale media campaign that is mostly based on allegations, one-sided storytelling, and fabricated visual images. In these mainstream stories, University campuses have become hotbeds of anti-nationalism and therefore need to be challenged.
Having turned detective and judge in their Talibanesque performance, media anchors have turned into mouthpieces of an authoritarian state.
In the conclusive judgments passed by these mainstream media organizations, the students are anti-national and JNU, an institution that is publicly funded, produces and harbors anti-nationalists. The anti-national rhetoric thus is both an attack on the students as well as on the broader University.
The coverage is being used to question public funding of Universities such as JNU and the role of such institutions in the broader context of the nation state. Social media posts exaggerating the frenzy are circulating the manufactured conclusions, far removed from examining the evidence or the basis of the claims being amplified through the hashtag news culture.
Having given up on any notion of serving as the fourth estate, news channels such as Times Now and Zee News have turned into active propaganda mouthpieces of the state, conjuring up lies, and recycling bytes and #hashtags in 24/7 news cycles to feed the nationalism frenzy.
Allegations are bandied around without the necessary evidence to support them, having then established a lie as a truth and magnifying the lie through hashtags and sub-titles. The juxtaposition of the hashtags and sub-titles is key here, working side-by-side to pick up one-sided narratives and push them onto public discourse.
Absent from the news stories are balance, evidence and questioning of evidence, and critical interrogation of superficial narratives. The news shows thus have become sites of claims making that feed on heuristics and affect, without the space for reason and argument.
Videos that are presented are mostly unclear, although the conclusions drawn by the media anchors from the videos are definitive. Although the veracity of the videos have been questioned and competing video narratives have emerged, the news channels fail to actually delve into the evidence and the questions around this evidence.
Failing to perform their roles as journalists that ought to be critically engaging with evidence and the nature of claims-making, the news anchors have turned into elaborate storytellers, concocting up stories of convenience that are likely to be picked up by a wider mass because of their intrinsic emotional appeal. Hashtaggable stories are the driving features of coverage.
What becomes apparent from the coverage is the agenda of driving ratings through frenzied performances of jingoistic nationalism. Nationalism draws ratings, and the narrative of anti-nationalism at one of India's hallowed institutions becomes potentially a powerful story likely to grab ratings, likes, shares, and comments.
On the 24X7 channel Times Now for instance, the topic of the daily Newshour debate anchored by Arnab Goswami on February 10, a day after the JNU event, is the anti-nationalism on JNU campus, introducing the term sedition to label the event and the organizers of the event.
Sedition is set in opposition to freedom of speech, and the show is set up as a binary between sedition and freedom of speech. Although it is given the garb of a debate, the show is anything but a debate, having been choreographed to drive the conclusion that is already decided upon by Goswami. Having made up his mind that the students are anti-national, Goswami performs a show that attempts to build the plot toward his foregone conclusion.
And the students stand on trial.
Goswami's show The Newshour Debate frames the cultural event as an anti-India event. The term "cultural event" is itself questioned, with Goswami offering the conclusion that there is nothing cultural about the event. The viewer is not offered an explanation as to what Goswami understands by culture or cultural event, and the arguments for his claim that the event was not really a cultural event.
Students associated with the JNU event are brought into the show and are put on trial. Goswami is more the trial lawyer and the judge, shouting down his conclusions, mostly without the thoughtful engagement with supporting materials you would expect from journalists.
The viewer is offered the understanding that the students are associated with the event, but the students are not given the opportunity to explain their relationship with the event, the nature of the event, the planned purpose of the event, or their interpretations of what then took place. Their voices are mostly drowned out by Goswami's ever-higher-pitched voice caught up in a nationalist fit of rage.
The show quickly devolves into one-sided attacks on the students, with Goswami leading the charge. Making statements such as "You are caught today," "We are calling you out tonight," "You are a shame in the name of India," "You are traitors," "You are anti-nationals," "You people carry Indian passports?" Goswami goes on to cast the students as threats to the nation.
The frenzy picks up its shrill pitch as the show proceeds, with Goswami performing greater doses of anger as he brings in the different students on the screen. The viewers witness the students on the screen, their voices mostly drowned out by Goswami's tirade.
The BJP spokesperson is allowed to make allegations at the students being traitors and "closet terrorists," amplifying Goswami's label of anti-nationalism hurled at the students.
After making the one-sided allegations, none of which are backed up by warrants and evidence, Goswami does not give the accused students the opportunity to respond. His monologue goes on to answer his own questions and then directly addresses his viewers, having foreclosed the conclusion that the students are anti-nationals, complicit in a seditious acts.
The BJP spokesperson joins in the Goswami chorus to offer additional epithets in delivering the final judgment on the students as anti-nationals.
At the end of the show, without any opportunity for balance, Goswami concludes "You are more dangerous to this country than Maoist terrorists." Note once again the narrative of Maoist terrorists that is thrown around to feed the frenzy. The students stand accused, having now been labeled as national threats.
The show thus is set up as a trial of the students, with the predetermined purpose of labeling the students as anti-national. Rather than serving as a news segment or a debate as it is pitched, the Goswami show becomes a propaganda tool that makes allegations based on heuristics and appeals to the nationalist sentiments of a large viewer base, perhaps seeking to drive up his ratings in doing so.
The #hashtags on Goswami's show serve as rhetorical devices that frame the narrative heuristically. Rather than serving the purpose of news as balanced information, the #hastags flashing on the screen offer a narrow frame to the viewer, a narrow way of looking at the world, and a nationalist anchor to rally around.
Take the #hastag #FlashpointAfzal that was deployed for the February 10 Newshour presentation. The #hashtag is accompanied by the question for the debate "Is it freedom of speech or sedition to encourage separatism?" Note here the narrow framing of the debate. The JNU event has already been framed as encouraging separatism, without the presentation of evidence to support the frame.
A few visual frames of students shouting slogans (both visuals and audio unclear) are flashed on the screen as the only sources of evidence. The opposition set up in the frame between free speech and sedition already has a pre-configured resolution, that free speech cannot be allowed at the cost of promoting sedition.
Subsequent Times Now coverage of the JNU events and the ongoing student protests quickly pick up the hashtag #StopAntiIndiaCampaign. The transition from #FlashpointAfzal to #StopAntiIndiaCampaign is seamless, as if the conclusions naturally progress in that order. News has now become the basis for a propaganda campaign, serving as an organizing device for drawing attention to the apparent anti-nationalism on University campuses through hashtags and truncated titles floating on news screens.
The news show gives up any attempt at balance and distance, now turned into a propaganda function, carrying out its function as a mouthpiece of the powerful state and feeding on the narrative of anti-nationalism to shape public opinion.
Goswami's show is a propaganda war, having sacrificed any notion of commitment to journalistic decency. Unfortunately, the subjects of his ratings-driven propaganda war are students, the anchors in any nation for its possibilities and imaginations.