What will it take to get #OccupyUGC to Page 1?

If you’re annoyed by how much of mainstream media (MSM) is devoted to Salman Khan and his acquittal, allow me to point out a tiny matter of 150 students being detained that has barely been reported by the very same MSM.

This piece was written for Boom.

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Yesterday, in Delhi, a student rally faced water cannons, tear gas, lathi charge and mass detention. This happened in broad daylight, at 5pm. The students were protesting the University Grants Commission’s (UGC) decision to scrap fellowships to MPhil and PhD students who have not taken the National Eligibility Test (NET). By 7pm, there were shocking photographs and snippets popping up on social media.

Eyewitness accounts say the police action was brutal and unprovoked. Women have said they were groped and manhandled. There are video clips that show policemen beating protesters viciously. Photographs of two separate students show blood streaming down their shell-shocked faces. The Delhi police detained reportedly 150 students at the Parliament Street police station.

Take a look at this morning’s newspapers. There is no mention of this incident on the front pages of any major Indian newspaper in English.

If this protest and the way it was handled had taken place in an obscure part of the country, one could perhaps forgive the newspapers their blinkered perspective. (Though arguably, the whole point of newspapers and news channels is to bring you news from further than your backyard.) But these young men and women were assaulted in the national capital, where every newspaper has a bureau. More than 100 students were held in a police station in the heart of New Delhi. There are claims that the police is refusing to file FIRs that will put their brutality on record.

This, according to the mainstream print media, isn’t really newsworthy apparently.

Had the crackdown on the Occupy UGC protest happened late at night yesterday, there would have been some excuse to not have managed a proper report on these violations in today’s newspaper. But all this happened at 5pm, well before the deadline hour for newspapers. There would have been more than enough time to gather a report of what happened at the protest and what was happening at the police station — particularly since all this was unfolding in Delhi — before the newspaper was readied for printing. There are articles taken from the Press Trust of India wire service, which are available online on a few respected news sites, like NDTVDeccan Herald had put up the PTI report on its website within a few hours.

The Indian Express website has a report that has particularly disquieting details.

The protesters said Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists who had kept away from the protest showed up at at about 12.45 am and stayed put outside the UGC office. They were not touched by the paramilitary or police forces, the protesters alleged.
 
…’There was absolutely no provocation from students. Several students were severely injured, but the police did not stop. We then decided to block roads at the ITO crossing, following which the UGC decided to meet a delegation of students,’ said Pratim Ghosal of DSF.
 
De said, ‘After two hours of violence, the police put forth a condition before our fellow protesters, telling them to disperse if they wanted us (picked up from UGC office) to be released. They were forced to agree.’

Look at the print editions of the major newspapers in English, and you’d never guess that any of this has taken place. If a researcher goes through these newspaper’s print archives for December 9, 2015, they will find no mention of this incident. Unless you look on the internet, it’s as though the protest and the brutal police response didn’t even happen. And then we call the online world “virtual”.

If students being assaulted in the national capital isn’t newsworthy enough to be on the front page or even be reported (in the case of some newspapers), what is? Does Occupy UGC need to trend on Twitter and Facebook before mainstream media considers it worthy of Page 1 and printer’s ink?

Yesterday’s violence is not the first time the Occupy UGC protesters have been targeted by Delhi police. The UGC announced its decision to slash non-NET fellowships on October 7. Since then, there have been at least two occasions when the protesters have taken to the streets and faced state-backed violence. They faced lathi charge and 100 of them were detained in October and in November, 40 students were detained.

Backed by students from different universities from all over the country, Occupy UGC has snowballed quickly. No one denies that the UGC has a point when it claims fellowship funds have been mismanaged. However, the solution to that problem isn’t scrapping the entire programme, argue students.

In addition to the original issue, there’s now an additional fear that the government will follow in the previous regime’s footsteps and welcome WTO’s 160 member nations to establish educational institutions as commercial ventures in the country. Nandita Narain, president, Delhi University Teachers’ Association, explained, “The UGC’s decision [to discontinue non-NET fellowships] is linked to the government’s decision to open higher education to market forces, which is why it doesn’t want to invest any money in its institutions.

Would foreign players in the educational arena really be a bad thing? Champions of this plan would argue that a little competition may well force state-backed institutions and colleges to improve their syllabi and teaching systems. Narain points out that there is a significant adverse effect to privatising education: “There will come a time when only the rich will get teacher taught education in India and the rest will have to opt for cheaper, low quality, online courses. It means most of our young people will be denied quality education. This is intellectual colonisation.”

The Delhi police, HRD Minister Smriti Irani, the AAP-led local government and the powers that the Delhi Police reports to may or may not agree with Narain and the student unions. They’re welcome to their opinion and in fact, some reasonable debate on the state of education in India would be very welcome. However, water cannons and cracked skulls are not hallmarks of a conversation. Neither are tear gas, assault and detention.

Worse yet is the complete silence on this topic in mainstream media, which is currently facing a serious crisis. The readership figures for print publications are inching downwards instead of going up. With the internet providing (accurate and inaccurate) news faster, conventional media outlets are struggling to prove their relevance. Ignoring incidents like the Occupy NGC doesn’t help the newspaper and news channels’ cause. If anything, it just confirms their irrelevance.

Among many readers and viewers, there’s a growing sense of contempt at journalism and journalists. Those on social media face it consistently. Catchphrases like “paid media” are flung venomously at journalists and readers regularly question a journalist’s biases, ethics and reporting ability.

If journalists and editors keep ignoring issues like student protests, “paid media” is going to end up being a compliment instead of invective. It implies someone is willing to spend money on us, which no one will bother to do — whether it’s a salary or a bribe being paid — if we don’t bring out the news.

To misquote a famous slogan, ask not what your readers do for you, but what you’re doing for your readers. And look at that front page. Because at the moment, there’s more to be gleaned on the state of the nation by what doesn’t make it to Page One than what does.

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Last week’s rants

This past week has been harrowing. Earthquakes, blasts, bombs, manhunt, child rapes — there was no good news. There were, however, rants.

The first is a fluffy one, about a new Dove commercial that a lot of people have loved and I found deeply irritating. The tagline is “You are more beautiful than you think” and shows women being confronted with “proof” of their distorted self-image.

dove-ad-sgrab

There are three possible reasons for me reacting the way I did:

a) I’m a curmudgeon

b) I’m not more beautiful than I think

c) I’m a curmudgeon who is sputtering at the idea of the brand that would have me buy deodorant that promises fairer underarms tell me what to think of the way I look.

 

This was my so-not-beautiful reaction to the Dove Real Beauty Sketches campaign.

Then came the news of a grotesque rape of a 5-year-old who was abducted by a neighbour and raped repeatedly over the next two days. The family went to the police but the police didn’t pay much attention to these claims of a child being missing. Two days later, the child was found by her family in the neighbour’s flat. She was rushed to hospital and doctors were reportedly aghast because her rapist had shoved candles and a bottle of oil inside her. (She’s going to have to reconstructive surgery and remains critical but stable.) Her rapist, meanwhile, had run away. There is speculation that he thought the girl was dead and fled. If this is true, then it would suggest that raping her brutally wasn’t something that pricked either his conscience or instinct for self-preservation. It was only when he thought he could be charged with murder that he ran.

I’ve steadfastly stayed away from following the news today. Even so, I’ve heard of another raped little girl. She’s 4 years old and she was raped by three other minors. There’s also been another gang rape in New Delhi, which raises the tally of rapes in the capital in 2013 to 393. This time, she’s 13 and was raped by 8 men. Someone asked me whether child rape cases are being “dragged into light” by the media — because we must be profiteers of misery, no? — because the Delhi case has caught people’s attention much like the Delhi gang-rape did. To which I replied that there’s no proving or defending against claims like these. But even if the accusation is true, it doesn’t change the fact that these horrible incidents happen. If they didn’t, then we wouldn’t have so much to “drag” into the light.

Anyway, until yesterday, I had it in me to rant. Today, I have nothing but fervent, wordless prayers for the girls and women I know and don’t know.

Section 144 — Means?

At about 6.30am this morning, New Delhi’s Raisina Hill area was “evacuated” by the police, who “made announcements about clamping Section 144 of CrPC prohibiting assembly of more than four persons in the area and herded the protesters into the buses.”

In case you weren’t sure about what exactly is in Section 144 of the The Code of Criminal Procedure, below is the text of this law. The news reports make clear that it’s not Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code that’s being invoked. That one is, well, more compact. Emphases mine.

Joining unlawful assembly armed with deadly weapon.

Whoever, being armed with any deadly weapon, or with anything which, used as a weapon of offence, is likely to cause death, is a member of an unlawful assembly, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.

Possibly the government is aware of the fact that this actually describes the police yesterday, rather than the protestors whose arsenal was made up of placards.

Section 144 of the The Code of Criminal Procedure is a little more elaborate in its wording and gives the government “power to issue order in urgent cases of nuisance or apprehended danger”. But if you’re trying to find the nut, you’ve got to go past the nutshell. So here we are. Emphases mine.

(1) In cases where, in the opinion of’ a District Magistrate, a Sub-divisional Magistrate or any other Executive Magistrate specially empowered by the State Government in this behalf, there is sufficient ground for proceeding under this section and immediate prevention or speedy remedy is desirable, such Magistrate may, by a written order stating the material fact of the case and served in the manner provided by section 134, direct any person to abstain from a certain act or to take certain order with respect to certain property in his possession or under his management, if such Magistrate considers that such direction is likely to prevent, or tends to prevent, obstruction, annoyance or injury to any person lawfully employed, or danger to human life, health or safety, or a disturbance of the public tranquility, or a riot, or an affray.

(2) An order under this section may, in cases of’ emergency or in cases where the circumstances do not admit of the serving in due time of a notice upon the person against whom the order is directed, be passed ex-parte.

(3) An order under this section may be directed to a particular individual, or to persons residing in a particular place or area, or to the public generally when frequenting or visiting a particular place or area.

(4) No order under this section shall remain in force for more than two months from the making thereof:

Provided that, if the State Government considers it necessary so to do for preventing danger to human life, health or safety or for preventing a riot or any, affray, it may by notification, direct that an order made by a Magistrate under this section shall remain in force for such further period not exceeding six months from the date on which the order made by the Magistrate would have, but for such order, expired, as it may specify in the faid notification.

(5) Any Magistrate may, either on his own motion or on the application of any person aggrieved, rescind or alter any order made under this section, by himself or any Magistrate Subordinate to him or by his predecessor-in-office.

(6) The State Government may either on its own motion or on the application of any person aggrieved, rescind or alter an order made by it under the proviso to sub-section (4).

(7) Where an application under subsection (5), or sub-section (6) is received, the Magistrate, or the State Government, as the case may be shall afford to the applicant an early opportunity of appearing before him or it, either in person or by pleader and showing cause against the order, and if the Magistrate or the State Government, as the case may be, rejects the application wholly or in part he or it shall record in writing the reasons-for so doing.

It’s worth keeping in mind that yesterday, the police caused obstruction, annoyance and injury to the protestors, disturbed public tranquility and caused a riot rather than prevented it. Also, citizens expressing their support of a woman who was brutally raped is defined as an urgent case of nuisance. Now we know.

Photo by Money Sharma, DNA
Photo by Money Sharma, DNA