On October 3rd, 8 people including 4 farmers were allegedly killed in the violence that ensued in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri ahead of the visit of the state’s Deputy Chief Minister Keshav Prasad Maurya.
The incident took place when Union Minister Ajay Mishra’s son Ashish Mishra reportedly ran a vehicle over the protesting farmers who were peacefully participating in resistance against the incriminating statements made by the Union Minister where he warned, ‘“Sudhar jao, nahi toh hum aapko sudhaar denge, do minute lagega keval” (Mend your ways, or we will teach you how to, it will only take a couple of minutes).
According to The Caravan, eyewitness testimony explains that Ashish Mishra’s car also mowed down journalist Raman Kashyap who was then covering the protest for a local news channel. Soon after, gunshots were fired as the police allegedly helped Mishra to swiftly escape.
Just few hours after the incident, BJP Lok Sabha Member Varun Gandhi tweeted a 45 second video footage of the incident, strongly demanding accountability and stating that “Protestors cannot be silenced through murder.” Shortly after the tweet, the BJP MP and his mother Maneka Gandhi were dropped from BJP’s 80 member national executive committee list, which was released by the party president JP Nadda.
The message is clear- be it farmers, activists, journalists or even MPs, if you dissent , you shall be sidelined, silenced or even murdered. Furthermore, politicians like Rahul Gandhi, Akhilesh Yadav and Priyanka Gandhi were egregiously harassed and hackled on their way to meet the families of the deceased farmers. Priyanka was seen in a verbal spat with the police who detained her without any warrant.
The incident comes at a time when the politics in U.P is heating up over the upcoming election. BJP leaders continue to position the criticism and intervention by opposition leaders in this incident as political tourism and actions driven by political motive. While this political blame game of whataboutery rages on, what remains missing is accountability and justice.
Amidst the central government’s desperate attempts to curb dissent, the media is also complacent in shifting focus to news that would grab more eyeballs. By now, every commoner is updated with the news of Sharukh Khan’s son, Aryan Khan’s arrest by the Narcotics Control Bureau over a drug scandal. The issue has made it to the headlines and is doing rounds on social media either in the form of sardonic memes, posts denouncing the allegations, or garnishing various shades of opinions on the lives of Bollywood celebrities.
While most media houses have explored Aryan’s case with “exclusive coverages” and prime time debates, none of them have had any coverage of similar gravitas on the alleged murder of farmers by the son of the Union Minister. Bollywood’s tryst with drug scandals and the hunting down of renowned personalities is an issue of relative importance, but one cannot help question the media’s selective coverage, and rather lack of coverage of issues that raise grave concerns about our democratic right to dissent.
However, this is not the first time that the farmers’ movement, besides other socio-political issues has been brazenly under-reported or misreported by the media. Last year, shortly after the demise of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, media channels were quick to resurrect controversies and conspiracy theories which took social media by storm. A case study on TV shows indicates that 65% of the total debates conducted by the Republic TV between July 31 and September 15, and 69% of the total debates conducted by Times Now between June 16 and October 6, were on a single topic i.e. Sushant Singh Rajput’s death. This happened when the farmer’s protests were at rise, amidst a poorly handled global pandemic.
On November 25, 2020, Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM), a coalition of over forty farmers’ unions had called for its first march towards Delhi and were dealt with water-canons and tear gas by the Delhi Police. Amidst national unrest, TV journalist Rajdeep Sardesai from India Today, sardonically tweeted a correlation between the farmers’ protest and its possible cover up by summoning actress Deepika Padukone for a drug test conducted by NCB which also happened on the same day.
It is high time that we call a spade; a spade. Amidst wild conspiracy theories and ludicrous media trials, is the fourth pillar of democracy being reduced to yellow-journalism and theatrics? In 2019, Ramit Verma, creator of a popular YouTube channel, studied the airtime mainstream Hindi news channels allocate to major issues to understand their editorial conscience. The findings are alarming:
Attacking Pakistan: 79 debates, Attacking the Opposition (including Nehru): 66, Praising Modi and the BJP/RSS: 36, Ram Mandir: 14Bihar floods: 3, Chandrayaan Moon Mission: 2, Rape case against Swami Chinmayanand: 1, PMC Bank scam: 1, Economy: 0, Unemployment: 0, Education: 0, Healthcare: 0, Public infrastructure: 0, Farmers’ distress: 0, Poverty and malnutrition: 0, Women’s safety: 0, Environmental protection: 0, Mob lynchings: 0, Questioning any government decision or policy: 0
While it is important to impartially cover incidents happening all across the nation, it is also equally important to raise questions of importance. It is the media’s job to question those in power, to hold them accountable for their actions or the lack of it.
Followed by his demotion, Varun Gandhi recently warned about possible attempts to whitewash the Lakhimpur Kheri case with yet another religious colour. He said, “An attempt to turn #LakhimpurKheri into a Hindu vs Sikh battle is being made. Not only is this an immoral & false narrative, it is dangerous to create these fault-lines & reopen wounds that have taken a generation to heal. We must not put petty political gains above national unity.”
Even though Ashish Mishra was arrested after a prolonged 11-hour interrogation by the Special Investigation Team, some questions remain unanswered- Why is no police security provided to the protesting farmers? Why has the Prime Minister not held a single press conference related to the farmers’ protest? Why is the movement deliberately being painted over with religious and political interpretations?
The cacophony surrounding the arrest of Shahrukh Khan’s son is a distraction from political issues, and serves as skyrocketing TRP fodder for most media houses. Whatever it yields, it is certain that the under-reporting of the Lakhimpur violence speaks volumes about how we have got our priorities wrong.