While covering the ceaseless swirls and eddies in the epic farmers’ agitation on Delhi’s borders, a professional journalist would need to arrive at a vantage point from which to view, report and analyse the developments, in order to tell this history-making story with some degree of credibility and seriousness.
Many media persons have not had to search too hard to find their respective vantage points. Some are happy to be guided by television rating points (TRPs), circulation figures or the hits they can garner in their search for the perfect perch. A great many are content to occupy a roost crafted for them by an authoritarian, micro-managing political apparatus through the agency of supine and mendacious managements.
All they, on their part, have to do is to suspend critical thinking, give up any pretence of independent thought, stifle the voice of conscience and find the stomach to endlessly expand on pre-formulated scenarios, pre-fabricated information, pre-cooked conclusions.
Much of the recent reportage on the farm protests emerged from precisely such a perspective, one which just cannot fathom why farmers should so stubbornly resist a policy that is designed by the Modi government for their own well-being.
It does not perceive the anti-democratic manner in which the farm laws were brought in without consulting the primary stake-holders and spirited through parliament almost by sleight of hand; but it is full of outrage in framing a tractor rally organised on the same day as the Republic Day parade as a blot on Indian democracy.
It cites the Red Fort events and the clashes with the police at ITO to bolster the case that the protests are being driven by criminal, pro-Khalistani, anarchic, anti-national forces; but has no interest in the fact that the great majority of protesters did follow the prescribed routes, attracting the adulation and garlands of supportive crowds.
How should journalists report on a large-scale event with a complex backstory such as the ongoing farmers’ protest in India
It insists that the protesters constitute only a section of farmers from Punjab and Haryana, turning a blind eye to nation-wide support across the country from Himachal to Tamil Nadu.
When the police raided Bhartiya Kisan Union leader Rakesh Tikait’s camp at Ghazipur and cut off electricity and water supply, it is framed as necessary steps to maintain law and order; but when masked hoodlums are bussed in to throw stones at the protest site in the Singhu border while shouting a murder-threatening slogan popularised by parliamentarian Anurag Thakur — who will soon be presiding over the forthcoming budget presentation as junior minister — it is framed as “clashes” caused by local anti-farmer sentiment.
It portrays the Union home minister as a no-nonsense leader committed to the security of the country while ignoring the reality that, under his watch, India has become less secure, less united, more polarised, more repressive.
The vantage point of such a perspective is embedded in power and the exercise of power. In a piece for The Wire, a former CEO of Prasar Bharati Jawhar Sircar discerns with a practised eye that “most footage and reportage appeared to be from behind the safe security of the well-armed police.”
He goes on to observe that the distance of the cameramen from the really hot action-spots revealed more than just the physical dimension of the problem. It showed a lack of integrity and independence in the media, especially when compared to the “studied neutrality” of footage captured by some foreign channels.
Yet, amidst the loathing for “gori media” so apparent at these protest sites, there were many remarkable media professionals who won the respect of both their audiences and their subjects. They didn’t shirk away from reportage in Hindi, Punjabi and English, night and day, in freezing temperatures and under serious threats to their physical safety, to bring us this epic struggle in all its dimensions and passion.
What made their coverage so significant? This takes us to the question raised earlier: how does a professional journalist arrive at the right vantage point to achieve credible coverage of a complex story? The primary requirement undoubtedly is to understand both the cause and the causality undergirding it.
Coming to the first, all the distractions of January 26 should not wipe out the central reality: here are people waging an existential battle, not just for their present but their future — and incidentally our present and future too because the country’s food security is at stake. The reality that so many of their compatriots have died by suicide over the years because of their material conditions drives their implacable resolve, forcing them into a now-or-never moment.
The voices from the ground captured in the recent reportage express this very deep, often quiet, determination. In articles in The Wire, for instance, we come across quotes like: “We have not come to fight. One fights with enemies, not with one’s own government. First and foremost, we want to display that farmers have dignity and they have rights. And we have come to claim those rights”.
The intention is not to destroy anything: “We will leave Delhi as we found it. We do not want to hurt Delhi or its residents in any way. The tricolour will fly from our tractors, as will our kisaan [farmer] flag, but the tricolour will fly higher!”
Understanding the causality of this crisis — the circumstances that led to the present situation and how it impacts the future — is equally important to know, in order to arrive at the right vantage point. The fact is that it is not the farmers, but the tyrannically powerful which had created the present quagmire in the first place.
As another analysis, “Res-Publica: The Ground We Share” puts it, “perhaps … this is a conflict between those who wish to turn the law into an instrument of domination and those who want the law to equalise the unequal.” The pathway to a future solution lies in resolving this.
Could the farmers’ movement, just as the protests against the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act before it, “create a new language of democratic protest”? It is a question that reporters of this story may well go on to answer.
The writer is The Wire’s public editor By arrangement with The Wire
Published in Dawn, EOS, February 7th, 2021