Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Xinhua

India, the world’s largest functioning democracy, seems to be under a severe threat. The threat, one might initially be inclined to think, is only from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. However, this would be a gross underestimation of another grave threat to Indian democracy: the Indian corporate media, generally speaking, and TV news channels more specifically. 

One might find it ironic that the sword arm of democracy, the very watchdog that protects the public interest is in itself a grave threat to democracy, but in present-day India, this is the bitter truth. Ordinary people may think that free, fair and fearless media are a prerequisite of democracy, and that the Indian media have been true to the democratic onus thrust upon it, but the opposite is true.

In fact, they are consistent cheerleaders of Modi’s communal agenda and always the first to jump wholeheartedly on to every anti-minority, anti-leftist, anti-human-rights, anti-dissent, and anti-opposition bandwagon. They have consistently succeeded in covering up Modi’s failures, weaknesses and wrongdoings.

Indian freedom fighters and liberators envisaged a secular, just, non-violent and tolerant nation, but could very well be turning in their graves as they witness today’s reality. 

A genuine test of a well-functioning democracy rests on free, fair, fearless and independent media that are committed to ensuring that the goals enshrined in the Indian constitution are met. After Modi took power in May 2014, the media became the mouthpiece of the ruling BJP. The fact is that the corporate media barons have very close ties with the ruling party, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the media and the political parties in power. 

Promoters of Hindutva

The Indian media have been supporting Modi’s every move. For instance, despite India being the largest beef exporter and second-largest exporter of leather-based footwear, exports worth a combined US$16 billion annually, and with some 2.2 million people relying on these sectors, many BJP-ruled states have banned beef despite thousands of livelihoods being at stake.

The BJP and its affiliate organizations’ cow-vigilante groups have instigated several mob lynchings of alleged cow slaughterers and beef eaters since 2015. These vigilantes killed about 100 people from 2015 to 2019. The Indian new channels never questioned the BJP government on this. Instead, they pointed fingers at the victims of these lynchings, the general refrain being “if they hadn’t eaten beef or slaughtered cows, they wouldn’t have been killed!”

Similarly, there is systemic persecution of the minority Muslims and Dalits – the lowest stratum of India’s caste system – who have been discriminated against, harassed and even killed by so-called upper-caste people. There is very scant coverage of such incidents in the Indian mainstream media. Instead, on some TV channels, minority panelists, during debates on cow vigilantism, have been shouted down by overenthusiastic presenters and branded as traitors.

Anti-leftist

Likewise, the Modi-led government in 2016 launched several campaigns to suppress the leftist movement in India by suppressing leftist students in the federal government-funded universities and campuses. The Modi government targeted students because they supported left-wing parties.

A case in point is the brutal suppression of leftist protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2016 and the arrest of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and subsequently, his being charged with sedition. The government, and BJP spokesmen and leaders, portrayed these student leaders as traitors. India news channels too repeatedly projected these student leaders as traitors and as being funded by India’s traditional rival Pakistan.   

Anti-human rights

In the same way, India’s media have been promoting an anti-human-rights culture along with torture, police brutality, and unlawful killings. They have touted gross human-rights perpetrators as national heroes.

A case in point is that of Major Leetul Gogoi, who tied a young Kashmiri man to the front bumper of a military jeep and drove it to patrol villages in the area, using this man as a human shield against stone-throwing crowds in mid-April 2017. The then-army chief Bipin Rawat came to Gogoi’s rescue and commended him for his “sustained distinguished service” in Kashmir. The Indian news channels maintained a studious silence on the matter throughout. ABP News lauded BJP leader and actor Paresh Rawal’s tweet “Arundhati Roy must be tied to the army jeep instead of stone pelters.”

Covering up government failures

Modi hastily announced the annulment of the legal tender of 1,000- and 500-rupee banknotes, later popularly known as “demonetization,” on November 8, 2016. The motives for banning these banknotes were to strip the Indian economy of its black money, bring people and an unaccounted pile of cash into the tax net, combat corruption, and curb financing of terrorism. Instead, the panic triggered by the currency shortage not only damaged the economy, it reportedly even cost lives.

In addition to that, Modi also enforced the goods and services tax (GST) passed by a constitutional amendment act on July 1, 2017, hastily and in an unplanned manner. India’s media overvalued this as the most historic move in India’s economy since its independence.

India has faced a severe economic slowdown since 2018, which many commentators say is the impact of the demonetization and GST. However, Indian mainstream media contributed to covering up the pernicious effects of GST and demonetization, and by praising these detrimental moves, misled the Indian electorate; as a result, Modi obtained a landslide victory in the Lok Sabha (lower house) election held in April and May 2019.

Modi’s government was struggling to deal with accusations that it should have done more to prevent many bank frauds and to crack down on widespread corruption. Opposition parties were trying to hold Modi and his government accountable for their failure to make good on the 2014 electoral promises to create jobs and bring back an estimated US$215 billion of black money invested in offshore tax havens.

Opposition allegations that India paid far more than it needed to for Rafale aircraft purchased from French suppliers through a Modi government deal were particularly damaging.

As a result of the above and the Modi government’s failure to deliver on electoral promises, the BJP was defeated in five state elections held in November and December 2018, and that pushed Modi on to the defensive. 

Amid these failures and a strong likelihood of Modi’s defeat in the Lok Sabha election, a terrorist attack occurred on a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) that claimed the lives of 49 paratroopers in Pulwama, Kashmir, on February 14, 2019. By pandering to Hindu extremists, Modi tried to capitalize on the escalating tensions with Pakistan in the upcoming elections. He claimed that the Indian Air Force had carried out a surgical strike on the Pakistani town of Balakot.

India’s opposition parties questioned the government’s failure to protect the paratroopers and asked for evidence of the surgical strike. The media depicted the opposition and those who questioned Modi over the Pulwama terror attack and Rafael aircraft purchase as anti-national, enemies of the state, and traitors.

Similarly, many TV news channels paint a negative picture of every politician who opposes Modi.

Anti-Muslims and minorities

The story doesn’t end here. After winning the general election for the second consecutive time in 2019, the BJP revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which enjoyed a significant amount of autonomy as compared with other Indian states. Opposition parties and prominent citizens opposed Modi’s move. Indian TV news channels stereotyped them as pro-Pakistan and anti-India elements. 

The Modi government decreed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) on December 12, 2019, and announced the enactment of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). These moves are thought in many quarters to be systematic persecution of minorities and immigrants. Minority-rights groups, students, human-rights activists, prominent citizens, and opposition parties sparked widespread national and international protests against the CAA and NRC. Indian TV news channels again painted protesters as anti-national and accomplices of the arch-enemy Pakistan.

Last, Modi announced a three-week nationwide lockdown on March 24 with a mere four hours’ advance notice at 8pm India time, and it became effective from midnight on the same day. All the TV news channels of India supported Modi’s call for this illogical, draconian, impulsive, and complete lockdown.

Modi comes across as inexperienced and impulsive in this context and the hasty decision to declare a complete lockdown was followed by widespread migration of daily-wage earners on foot from the nation’s capital and other major cities to their homes because they could not earn their wages and also because of shortages of daily essentials across the country.

During this, neither was social distancing maintained nor was the spread of the pandemic contained. Police used excessive force against migrant workers on the charge that they had violated the lockdown. Predictably, these poor people were depicted as pandemic spreaders by Zee News, ABP News, Aaj Tak and India Today

The Modi government has been using the pandemic as a cover to trample upon media freedom and to mute the few people who still dare to ask questions about government wrongdoing. The government is using the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext for the imposition of a de facto political emergency. Indian media are corroborating with the government to communalize the pandemic and muzzle dissenters. 

Anti-free speech

Prominent social activists and intellectuals Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha have been arrested amid the lockdown. Police summoned the prominent Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan for his protest (against the government’s attempt to depict the Muslim minority as to blame for spreading the pandemic and the opaque manner in which the health crisis was being combated.

Arundhati Roy, the 1997 Booker Prize winner and a social activist, continuously opposes the government’s attempt to blame the Muslim community for the pandemic. These people are tirelessly fighting for the rights of indigenous and poor people, but they are termed “urban Naxalites” by Modi, and television news channels depict them as anti-national elements.

In addition, the government is using the police and intelligence agencies for the systematic persecution of the Muslim minority as super-spreaders of Covid-19, and media are crowing their appreciation of  Modi’s every move.

The best term to depict Indian corporate media probably be kayfabe journalism. Kayfabe is a form of the performance art used in professional wrestling in which portrayal of staged events as “real” or “true” as being genuine and not scripted or predetermined is carried out. Indian media depict dissenters as anti-national traitors and the enemy of the state in a way that is so well stage-managed that most Indians fall for it. 

Prominent Hindi poet and satirist Sampat Saral, in his poetry recitation events, often says that had today’s Indian TV channels existed in 1947, India would not have won independence from British colonialism. To this writer, it will come as no surprise if the Modi declares himself as the prime minister of India indefinitely and the Indian media hail it as a “historic move.”

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now. 

Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.