Media Populism at Work
IN INDIA, one of the most populous nations in the world, the media often frames stories around national identity through the lens of growth, freedom, and democracy. When covering stories that involve political dissent however, the frame is dramatically different: journalism quickly gives way to witch hunts. Few examples of this are as compelling as current coverage of a growing student protest movement against government efforts to turn universities into extensions of the ruling party. Student activists have declared solidarity with working classes and lower castes, and openly called for freedom in army-occupied Kashmir. They are the face of popular democracy in India today, and as such, the subject of a fierce, orchestrated campaign of police beatings, harassment, career jeopardy, and in particular, character assassination in the press — with intimidation by news anchors being the most prominent feature of the attack on universities.
The Indian media has long served as an ally of the state, often signaling to political supporters and dissidents alike who was on the right and the wrong side of the government. But many neoliberal champions predicted this would change after the government deregulated broadcasting in 1995. They claimed that a privatized media sector, free to grow and compete in an open marketplace, would deliver choice and freedom of opinion to a populous nation.
Instead, the opposite has happened. The exponential growth of media outlets in India has narrowed the channels for political dissent. In India today, a powerful propagandist — commercial media — has replaced a state broadcasting apparatus whose historic achievement was to create a national market for televisual entertainment. Through a series of “for or against” media campaigns, viewers must choose nationalism, security, nuclear technology, anti-corruption, good governance, and “good times” (the election slogan of the BJP in 2014, which the media endorsed and echoed), over a series of alternatives that are no alternative at all. This is neoliberal politics, Indian style.
After decades of government media serving as the voice of the state, privately owned television channels now claim that they speak for the nation. Uncorroborated accusations by political leaders in the ruling party are often treated as judgments that may lead to arrests based on fabricated evidence, accompanied by public humiliation. Instead of discussing the issues, news anchors attack the alleged culprits, declaring them to be antinational and thus fit for any kind of abuse. This peculiar form of media populism is now the default formula on Indian TV.
The most sensational chapter in this story is the government’s charge of sedition against students at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), one of the foremost liberal arts universities in the country, and well known for its political liberalism. Through a complex calculus that provides for both affirmative action and diversity, JNU’s admissions system makes the campus a microcosm of the Indian nation like no other university in the country. For example, students from the northeast are better represented in JNU than in any other university outside the northeast itself. The father of JNU Student Union President, Kanhaiya Kumar, one of the six students accused of sedition, is a farmer, and his mother a childcare worker; both live on a combined income of Rs. 3000, or about $45 a month in Begusarai, Bihar.
JNU is not only a national university; there is no university in India that tries harder to represent the nation in all its variety, and to bring its different parts into a meaningful relationship with each other.
If we adopt the language of the present government, it should follow that to accuse JNU students of being antinational is on the face of it, implausible. We might say that the charge is, fundamentally, antinational itself. The results of the first ever government survey of Indian universities, just announced, have indicated that JNU and Hyderabad Central University, a campus also prominent in the news for its student protests, were at the very top in their “diversity and inclusiveness.”
This is the government’s latest volley in an ongoing battle to redefine public universities on its own terms. But as Vinod Pavarala, professor and head of the Department of Communication at the Hyderabad University pointed out to me, students are winning this war of perception, not least because of their greater presence in social media.
Good Times Are Still to Come
The leader of the present government, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, kissed the steps of Parliament on his first day in office to show respect for democracy. It would be the first such show, and the last.
The 3rd century BCE philosopher Kautilya outlined four dimensions involved in the exercise of power, which are now part of the vocabulary of Indian politics: saam, daam, dand, bhed. These terms roughly translate as “consensus,” “tribute,” “punishment,” and “division.” The BJP relies on the last two, although it likes to presume or declare that it goes by the first.
The BJP’s predecessor, the Congress Party, was not so different. Under Indira Gandhi it won a landslide victory in 1971 with 43.7 percent of the popular vote (as opposed to the BJP’s 31.3 percent in 2014), and a larger majority of Parliamentary seats than the BJP’s. Four years later, Mrs. Gandhi declared a National Emergency, threw her opponents in jail, and launched a mass sterilization campaign. Voters ultimately threw the Congress out of office all over North India in 1977, a historic defeat that opened the BJP’s pathway to power.
The BJP, which ran for reelection in 2014 on the winning campaign slogan achche din aane wale hain, “good times are coming,” seems unaffected by the lesson, despite losing at the polls several times after the 2014 general elections (in Delhi and Bihar at the state level, and within the states of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat at the local level). At a time when rising inequality in India tracks closely with the growing social aspirations of its people, the government has been compelled to present some kind of justification for its policies. Its latest budget offers subsidies to the middle classes, including a 23.5 percent pay hike to Central Government employees. For the majority who are poor, however, token welfare measures are not the answer to growing inequality.
Neoliberal Governance and the University: The Case of JNU
Why are universities being targeted?
Education — or more accurately, reeducation through Hindu nationalism — is one of the BJP’s long-standing projects. Schools and regional universities have been the BJP’s focus thus far, but since 2014, the party’s (and its affiliate organizations’) attention has moved upward to the elite universities. Its influence at these institutions provoked student protests, which the BJP has tried to suppress.
Students went on strike for seven months to protest the appointment of a director at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) whom they and many others saw as unqualified. At Hyderabad Central University, a Dalit PhD student, Rohith Vemula, committed suicide earlier this year after being suspended for political actions similar to those students were later accused of at JNU. Critics accused the central government, which controls all central universities, of caste discrimination, and of violating rights historically taken for granted at universities.
Meanwhile, the central government is on a war footing. It has declared its intent to abolish the long-standing minority status of the country’s two leading Muslim universities. Richa Singh, the first woman student leader to be elected in the historic Allahabad University, received death threats after she opposed a powerful local BJP leader who, among other things, urged Hindu men to rape dead Muslim women. After these and other campuses challenged the ruling party’s student wing, BJP political leaders became outraged at the impertinence of their young opponents.
The attacks on JNU stand out among these cases: from falsely accusing its 28-year-old student union president Kanhaiya Kumar of sedition, to the admission of doctored videos shown on a national channel that these allegations rested on, to the criminalization of students for exercising rights they had previously enjoyed. But picking on JNU was surely a mistake — it is an internationally recognized university with many respected academics, and with a history of debate and dissent.
Student activists held a meeting at JNU on February 9, 2016, to protest the “judicial killing” of a Kashmiri, Afzal Guru, who had been convicted of terrorism. They were later caught by surprise when TV news stations aired footage of the event that showed students chanting antinational and seditious slogans. It turned out that the ruling BJP party’s student organization, the ABVP, had tipped off the stations in advance of the protest and invited them to campus; the footage in question was later shown to be doctored. The ABVP proceeded to file a police complaint alleging that antinational and seditious slogans had been shouted on campus. Two days later the Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, declared in a tweet that such activity “would not be tolerated or spared.” The JNU student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, was charged with sedition and criminal conspiracy and arrested on February 12. Five other students named in the arrest warrant went into hiding. An orchestrated campaign denouncing the students began on the news media. Alongside, student protests quickly mushroomed.
In student rallies that drew crowds of five and 10 thousand, JNU professors and students denounced the government’s crusade as a diversion from its failures and an attack on the spirit of university education. Critics were not limited to the JNU campus either. For example, one prominent Bollywood personality, Gulzar, remarked that student dissent on campus made him feel safer, and did not merit arrest warrants for sedition. Amid growing international protests against the government’s actions, Kumar was granted bail on March 2, but not before the High Court judge observed that his offense was like an infection in a limb that might yet require amputation.
The next day Kumar delivered a speech that soon went viral; the student leader whom they sought to frame as a criminal mastermind, instead became a political rock star. Far from crushing JNU as a bastion of antinational elements, the nearly unthinkable happened: the left became politically relevant again, thanks to the BJP.
Relevant, but hardly triumphant. After Kumar’s speech, one BJP leader offered a reward of five hundred thousand (or five lakh) rupees to anyone who cut out Kumar’s tongue. Another political entrepreneur offered a prize of 11 lakh rupees for his murder. A high-level committee set up by the vice-chancellor to inquire into the charges against Kumar and the four other students recommended they be expelled.
The larger public has become accustomed to internecine political debate of this kind, where brute strength rather than argument alone decides the outcome. In a public sphere of combat, politics is akin to a blood sport where reason and rhetoric can combine with raw force whether of numbers, or arms, or both. News media, rather than being transparent conduits to events, have become mock battlegrounds in India today, where the public enemies of the moment are ritually denounced. The struggle of the students has been to highlight the managed character of these media platforms, and to stage their own media performances, which circulate via social media.
A Clash of Institutions: Media Growth Encounters University Expansion
India’s universities are not simply extensions of what we are familiar with in the West. They were established as institutions of colonial governance. Even after independence, change came slowly to the universities, given their limited demographic basis. However, over the last 20 years, enrollment in higher education has increased nearly seven times, and the number of universities has almost quadrupled. Women constitute nearly half of all college students today, and the presence of lower castes has increased also. It is in the top tier of public universities that students have mobilized, initially demanding the reinstatement of graduate student fellowships the government abolished; subsequently staging political rallies protesting the mistreatment of Dalit students; and demanding freedom in Kashmir. The ruling party swiftly associated the latter with Islamic terror and sedition, leading to police cases against students.
All of the foregoing is in contrast to the private universities, which well-connected businessmen or political leaders fund and own themselves. Unlike their public counterparts, private universities have expanded greatly in the last four decades. They are more socially homogeneous, and have a higher proportion of upper castes, but are on the whole politically docile.
Students from subaltern castes are becoming politically active in public universities at a time when other spaces of progressive politics are shrinking, and jobs are scarce too. However, the major television channels have amplified the harsh state response to student activism, seeking to intimidate protesters rather than facilitate dialogue. Considering that private media emerged in response to state monopoly over the airwaves, the irony is rich.
In the era of state control, the role of mass media was largely defensive, excluding critical opinion and serving as a symbol of ruling party control; its persuasive power was limited. But private media today has gone on the offensive, and become powerful political weapons, symbolizing the neoliberal convergence of state and business elites. The counterrevolution is on, and it is televised.
Because the major national television channels are financially vulnerable, they are institutionally pliable and susceptible to external influence. Corporate globalization has found its unifying credo in an aggressive cultural nationalism.
This is recent, and its implications are only now beginning to be understood. For most of the history of independence, the majority of the country was in a media dark space. Within a few years media bright has become the watchword; varieties of media now traverse nearly every part of the country.
Previously, communication was fragmented across language and literacy, and between rural and urban areas. The masses were assumed to be passive and uneducated; the aim of mass communication was to activate them. The masses now appear to be activated, and in ways that older media theories never foresaw.
The popular Hindu news anchor, Ravish Kumar, diagnosed a “sickness of television” (TV ki beemari) that affected the medium and its viewers too. To prove his point, he broadcast his 30-minute report over a pitch-black screen — a moral and political statement. He wanted to make viewers isolate, and question the abuse now freely flowing from the television channels.
“India Shining” is the slogan that has accompanied the onset of neoliberalism since the early 2000s. As more people struggle to achieve a semblance of this promised human flourishing, they encounter a deeply embedded hierarchy that ruling elites go to extraordinary lengths to defend. Can neoliberal development crush the popular energies that it has helped to release, without fatally harming itself in the process? Instead of media witch hunts against college students, India needs a more expansive view of age-old subalterns seeking modern justice.
 Kumar’s speech can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yS9AX8rvYhg
 Satish Deshpande, “The Public University After Rohith-Kanhaiya,” Economic and Political Weekly, v. 51, no. 11, 12 March 2016, pp. 32-34.
 The February 19, 2016 Hindi broadcast on NDTV can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=shZf-NrSbu0