Truth in the age of Digital Media- JNU Row in India

One of the significant attributes of Computer Mediated Communication is the way in which it has altered our traditional ways of negotiating with the world. Many scholars of hyper-reality associate this computer-generated universe with the declining ability of the human perception to distinguish between real and the simulation of the real. It is under the premises of such context that we are at present witnessing a ‘virtual war’ in India fought on the terrain of cyberspace. This war is the manifestation of a clash between multitudes of ideologies which constitute the character of public opinion in hyper-diverse Indian society. The access of media-literate Indians to social media platforms, video sharing sites, and online news has provided a foundation for the formation of new virtual communities. Through the internet these virtual communities unite with their ideological comrades and pontificate certain versions of beliefs. These beliefs however often contradict and clash with the inimical beliefs of virtual other and create a content dominated by hatred, abuse, bullying, incitement, chauvinism and other forms of virtual violence.

What is strikingly important on these virtual battlefields is the way in which the construction of facts becomes the function of the will or the entitlements of the participants. The recent clampdown on the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students by the incumbent Hindu nationalist government in India led by Narendra Modi raises essential questions concerning this newly developed hypermediatic manifestation of societal, political and cultural affairs. With the ongoing countrywide politically charged ambiance created in India after JNU Sedition Controversy, we see the emergence of a pattern bearing striking resonance with concepts used by scholars, writers in their explanations of the societies and polities in the post truth and hypermediatic era.

Context

 In the dominant imagery Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) symbolizes a bastion of left-wing political spectrum. The vibrant culture of student politics can be termed as one of the indispensable facet of JNU. With students from assorted backgrounds of India and outside, JNU continues to hold the reputation for providing a congenial setting for mushrooming of multitude of ideologies. The ubiquitous graffiti and posters on the walls of the buildings inside the campus communicate volumes about the world around us. While India as a society largely continues to adhere to its traditional customs and moral values, certain aspects of left-wing brand of politics of JNU attempts to challenge such norms. This conflicting character of left-wing JNU politics and the society that inhabits it sometimes create an atmosphere of fissure. However despite its dominating left character, JNU has also in the past invited war mongers, hate preachers, and Islamophobes like Daniel Pipes, Tarek Fatah to speak on global politics and so-called Muslim rage. In fact JNU has played a vital role in bringing the anti-Muslim gadfly Tarek Fatah into the public life of India. Many Hindu festivals like Holi, Diwali are celebrated fervently with institutional approval. It is the existence of this contradictory nature of norms and ideologies that makes the essence of JNU polysemous. In the backdrop of this indeterminate character of JNU, it is largely the accommodation of dissent that has given the university its distinctive character.

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(All India Student Association posters in JNU) Image Source: Aljazeera

On 9th February, 2016, four erstwhile students of radical left organization Democratic Students Union (DSU) of JNU sought permission from the JNU administration to organize a cultural event as a form of protest against the controversial hangings of Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru by the Indian state. Both Maqbool Bhat and Afzal Guru hailed from Indian-Occupied Kashmir and both are largely revered by Kashmiri Muslims as martyrs of struggle for freedom in Kashmir. The cultural event also signaled the support for the struggle of the Kashmiri people for their right to self-determination. In the traditional JNU way, the organizers aimed to use art, music, slogans and poetry as a form of protest against the judicial killing of Afzal Guru. Just before a few minutes for the start of the cultural event, Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) which is the right wing all India student organizations and also an affiliate of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) appealed to the university administration for the cancellation of this ‘anti-national’ event.

The University Administration immediately conceded to the demands of ABVP and called for the cancellation of the event. The organizers of the event saw this surrender of the Administration to the whimsical demands of ABVP as an attack on the culture of intellectual autonomy and free speech in JNU. As a means to reclaim this space, the organizers of the event with the support from other left student organizations in Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union (JNUSU) of the university proceeded with their meeting. Other than the students of JNU, the meeting also witnessed participation from students outside JNU, including some students from Kashmir. The large number of students attending the protests provoked the student activists from ABVP. As per the firsthand reports from the students, the students from ABVP mobilized its cadre and started threatening organizers and the supporters of the event. The entire atmosphere turned hostile and the ideological rivalries began to be articulated through tempestuous forms of sloganeering.

The students from ABVP alleged that some students from the crowd supporting the event raised anti-India slogans. The ABVP students also alleged that few of these slogans raised by the event organizers supported secession of Kashmir from India and also eulogized India’s arch enemy, Pakistan. As a response to this incident the current President of the Student Union of JNU Kanhaiya Kumar addressed a gathering and questioned the aggressive behavior of the students from ABVP. In his speech, Kanhaiya Kumar made a scathing criticism of the ABVP and its parent party, BJP. In addition, Kanhaiya Kumar criticized the ruling government for its recent onslaught on the institutes of higher learning in the country. In no time, the electronic media in India seized upon the incident and framed the event as an attack on the Mother India.  Since the formation of the government by the BJP, nationalism in India has come to mean consenting to the ideology of Hindu nationalism. Any opposition to the ideology of Hindu nationalism also known as Hindutva has been bracketed as treason, anti-national, or Pakistani. Since the allegations involved sympathies shown for Kashmir and Pakistan in the heart of India, few nationalistic private media news channel anchors left no stone unturned to showcase their jingoism and apathy for student politics in JNU.

Media and the JNU Episode

Zee News, an Indian News channel, was one of the first to report the incident. The Chairman and the Channel Head of Zee News are known for their support of Hindu nationalist politics in India. To showcase its support for the BJP government, the channel supported the claims of the ABVP in JNU. The channel, without any delay, played the video clips as a proof to indicate the raising of anti-national slogans in the JNU campus. One of the clips also showed the President of the Student Union addressing the gathering of students and the chanting of anti-national slogans.  The video clips shown on TV straight away caused frenzy on the cyberspace. The video clip began to be circulated across the digital sphere in India. Zee TV and another news channel named Times Now (referred by some as Fox News on steroids for its sensational journalism) immediately summoned the main organizers of the event and the president of JNUSU on their channels for clarification.  During the live debate, the news-anchors of Zee TV and Times Now openly branded the invited student guests on their respective news programmes as treacherous and anti-nationalistic. The moral diatribe of the news-anchors against these students fuelled national outrage against JNU. The anger orchestrated by student bashing news-anchors began to be articulated on social media with hashtags such as #ShutdownJNU and #JNUantinational. The stance of the JNU students by the popular and controversial news-anchor of Times Now named Arnab Goswami was seen as an act of courageous journalism by the majority. The name of the news-anchor Arnab Goswami as a symbol of a true nationalist trended on Twitter for days.

The ruling government instantaneously seized upon the political atmosphere in the country and condemned the slogans in the JNU. To maneuver anger and discredit JNU for political benefits, the Home Minister of the country, by citing a later to be found fake tweet, claimed that JNU students received support from Hafiz Saeed, of Lashkar e Taiba from Pakistan. Without allowing the JNU administration to settle the affairs, the government ordered the police to crackdown on the university. The Police filed first an information report on the basis on the video clip footage made available by Zee TV. The President of the Student Union, Kanhaiya Kumar, was arrested for sedition charges. The police also issued look-out circulars for the arrest of the organizers of the event. One of the student organizers of the event with a Muslim name was without any evidence reported by few media outlets as a sympathizer of terrorist organizations in Pakistan. There is generally very little need for evidence in India in order to frame any Indian Muslim as a Pakistani or anti-national. Muslims in India are often questioned over their loyalty and patriotism in India. Being Muslims they are repeatedly linked to their co-religionists across the globe and particularly to Pakistan. In the past several years many Muslim youth have been illegally detained by the Indian police by linking these– later to be found not guilty– Muslim youth with terrorist activities. The involvement of the Muslim name in the entire JNU controversy provided a captivating opportunity for suspecting the protesters and believing the narrative of those championing the nationalistic cause.  The name of the Muslim student trended on the social media sites and led to vigilantist death threats against his father and threats of sexual violence against his sister on social media.

The relentless covering of the incident by the media took a new turn when a news channel came to establish that Zee TV video clips showing students chanting anti-national slogans were doctored. According to this report, the clip especially of Kanhaiya Kumar which led to his arrest had been inserted with words such as (bandook) gun. Despite these turns and twists, the resentment against JNU has continued to persist on the cyberspace. The explosion of interactive natural digital communications in India has encouraged the media-literate Indians to lay claims over the public discourse in unprecedented manner.  According to the latest 11th annual report (2014-2015) of the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) there are more than 300 million internet users in India. Of these internet users, nearly 72% belong to urban India. One of the major reasons for the rise of right wing politics in India has been connected to a rapidly growing middle class in India. It is this middle class that is currently dominating the comment sections of open-ended social media platforms. By randomly classifying the nature of this content produced by the middle class via the internet, there is a typical right wing pattern of thought-process dominating the cyber discourse. In the Giddenian sense this intrusion of expert knowledge into the day to day affairs of the lay people gets routinely interpreted and acted on by lay individuals in the course of their everyday actions.

One of the major trends to be experienced is the unbending online support for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The massive and fervent armies of online Modi supporters post their comments across the cyberspace to defend every action by Modi and his government. The beef ban, egg ban, censorship, curtailment of dissent, Islamophobia, murder of rationalists, cultural supremacy and many such features characterizing the ruling government are unequivocally defended. While at the same time intellectualism, Dalit resistance, opposition to Hinduization of the education, the anti-neoliberal stance, and questioning the role of the Indian army in Kashmir are aggressively targeted by these cyber Hindutva. These online supporters of the ruling government, with brazen disregard for anything associated with social sciences, have turned the terms such as secular, liberal, and intellectual into ‘sickular’, ‘libtard’ and ‘pseudo-intellectual’ respectively. This bears resemblance to what Susan Jacoby observes in her celebrated book The Age of American Unreason. Jacoby argues that the emergence of modern media platforms coincided with the ascendance of culture which promoted an attitude denigrating the importance of tradition, history and knowledge.  The access to prosthetic knowledge made possible through the internet allows these online supporters of the government as experts. The media technologies have come to inform these right wing cyborgs as never before.

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Smriti Irani Educational Qualification Row Source: Times of India

The justification of beliefs irrespective of facts available is one of the dominant trademarks of the content generated by the online supporters of the present government in India. In the age of the infoglut or the information overload, the cyber Hindutva communities exclusively allow themselves to be associated with the content which conforms to their pre-existing beliefs. Any content that produces a cognitive discomfort is immediately deemed as irrelevant or a conspiracy to malign the present government. In the events which followed JNU clampdown by the ruling government, even when the evidence do not favor the hysteria which the media channels such Zee TV and Times Now spawned, the belief that JNU is the hub of anti-national activities  continues to dominate the comments sections of any news about JNU. The use of information for ideological predispositions by the cyber Hindutva groups makes digital spaces largely as platforms for breeding delirium, misspeak, falsehood.  Ralph Keyes in the Post Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life argues that the deception has become a modern way of life. Assessing the terrain of deception in American life Keyes notes that an estimated half million Americans hold jobs for which their purported qualifications are spurious. The inflation of resumes Keyes terms as a characteristic of the post-truth era where digital media revolution has come to a significant role.In India in the recent past there have various cases where the government representatives holding public positions have lied about their qualifications. The significant example is the controversy over the educational qualifications of the Human Resource Development Minster, Smriti Irani and also of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

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