If V.S. Naipaul were alive today, he would have written a different book from his (in)famous India: A Million Mutinies Now. After watching our disastrous response to the coronavirus, the Nobel Prize-winning author would have been tempted to call it, India: A Million Hypocrisies Now, or if he felt more charitable, India: A Million Contradictions Now.
Just over a year ago, the outbreak of the virus in the Tablighi Jamaat headquarters in Delhi spread across TV news channels, especially Hindi ones, like the virus itself. The Tablighis were condemned as “super spreaders” by TV headlines, anchors, reporters, and accused of “corona jihad”.
For several days, we saw footage of the Nizamuddin area cordoned off and the Tablighis emerge, one by one, surrounded by police as if they were criminals – remember? Channels like News Nation chased the Tablighi members across the length and breadth of the country unrelentingly, while ABP News called them a “human bomb”, and everyone was outraged by their irresponsibility.
Cut to April 2021. The Covid-19 tally has crossed 1.60 lakh daily cases in India. Meanwhile, in Haridwar, Uttarakhand, “9 lakh take the holy dip” during the Kumbh Mela (CNN News18). “Curbs are in place… but the visuals are very disturbing,” said the anchor.
Shock – that’s about it
In the last so many days, news channels have shown us stills, video footage of thousands on the banks of the Ganga with “social distancing thrown to the wind,” observed India Today’s Gaurav Sawant.
NDTV 24×7 reported that at least 594 people were found positive Monday/Tuesday and there were over 2,800 active cases at the Kumbh Mela – “Absolute disregard for Covid-19 protocols,” commented the anchor.
After reporting on the holy dip for two days, Times Now was, finally, horrified by what it saw: #StopSuperSpreader events, it demanded. Anchor Rahul Shivshankar gave a piece of his mind to a BJP panelist on his Tuesday primetime show: “I will not allow you to, artfully, put the responsibility on the public…. You cannot take ‘dubki’….”
However, news channels’ coverage of Haridwar continued to dip in and out of Kumbh Mela, half in horror, half in awe at the audacity of it all. But no channel called this a “human bomb” or “corona warfare”, no channel characterised them as criminals or condemned the sants and sadhus in the kind of language they had used for the Tablighis—even though this congregation was a thousand times larger than the Markaz one in Delhi — and at a time when Covid-19 cases are surging each day.
That’s the contradiction of India or its hypocrisy – call it what you will.
Then, one person on India Ahead said what all news channels should have: “We owe an apology to the Tablighi Jamaat.”
Silence on top politicians in rallies
Unfortunately, Haridwar is not a solitary example. As ThePrint has reported, politicians say one thing and do another: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation on 8 April and appealed for strict adherence to MSD — mask and social distancing — besides washing of hands.
But on Monday, all news channels broadcast, live, his speeches at three rallies in West Bengal where thousands were present — without masks standing shoulder to shoulder — “PM is holding rallies one after the other,” marvelled News18 India.
Ditto Home Minister Amit Shah, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi — among hundreds of other politicians who are campaigning in West Bengal and flouting all norms.
What impression does this create on the public that is watching the leaders at rallies where no coronavirus-appropriate behaviour is practised? What are the viewers to think when doctors, every evening on primetime TV discussions, tell them that the vaccine is not the cure, please practise MSD — and then, TV channels switch to crowded political rallies? They think ‘anything you can do, I can do too’.
Has any channel dared call out the top political leadership of this country? Zee News did complain that the PM and the Election Commission had urged Covid-19 appropriate behaviour during the election campaign but “political rallies mein laparwahi” — the accompanying footage was of Mamata Banerjee’s rallies only.
Television news holds up a mirror to the contradictions and the hypocrisies that have landed us where we are now: Tika utsavs and the festival of democracy side by side with the Kumbh Mela. Would someone explain what exactly it is that we are celebrating?
A lot to cover – news and face
It’s not that news channels have not tracked the alarming rise of the Covid pandemic across India — “Breaking all records!” exclaimed the News18 India anchor as if she was announcing a Guinness World of Records achievement. “118 new cases per minute… India top in the world in cases,” added India TV, sounding equally appalled and impressed.
They have shone the light on healthcare infrastructure collapsing before our very eyes: “50 hospitals no beds, no ventilators” (Aaj Tak), “70% ICU occupancy in Delhi” (News X), “Few beds in Chennai” (Mirror Now). A Zee News reporter phoned up hospitals in Delhi: No beds in Delhi hospitals, Safdarjung ICU “khaali hai”.
Cut to Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal in an advertisement asking the public to wear masks, to get vaccinated, and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath issuing a similar request.
Then cut to Haridwar or the political rallies and the crowded markets.
While news channels, like the BJP and Trinamool Congress, focus on the “Battle for Bengal” (CNN News18) and “Mamata’s dharna politics” (India TV), they have also taken us to cremation grounds in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh (NewsX) and in Surat, Gujarat where so many bodies had to be electrically cremated, the chimney at one crematorium suffered a meltdown (ABP News).
They have been at the railway stations in Mumbai where migrant labourers have told their tales of woe, again — no money, no train tickets available — “Tell me, what do I do?” (Mirror Now.)
And, they have issued the sternest of all warnings: “If you don’t wear a mask, you will end up in plastic bag…” (ABP News).
Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar).
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.