Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Sting in its social context

The sting in its social and ethical context
Vidya Subrahmaniam, November 7, 2007

The Tehelka sting on Gujarat 2002 is a credible effort. Yet it is difficult not to question its timing and the exploitative manner of its presentation.

One of the ironies of the Tehelka sting on the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat is the way it has been received. Narendra Modi’s supporters, though denouncing it as a “Congress-secular conspiracy,” seem nonetheless convinced that it will strengthen him before a crucial election.

In the case of Mr. Modi’s detractors, the logic works in reverse: They worry that images of the riots, made worse by the insensitive manner of their presentation, will revive the raw passion of 2002, helping to seal the widening cracks in Mr. Modi’s Hindutva vote bank. Civil rights activists find the reaction unfathomable and are distraught that so courageous and spectacular an investigation should be measured for its immediate, rather than long term, impact.

In one sense the activists are right. For years those who felt revulsion at the 2002 pogrom had fretted about the apparent hopelessness of it all. In Mr. Modi’s Gujarat, the calendar might have stopped at Godhra 2002, judging by the prevailing notions of justice and injustice. In this narrative, the horror aboard the Sabarmati Express was injustice but not the horror that followed it. Consequently, the victims were always those killed on the train, never the thousands brutally, revengefully killed in the aftermath.

For years, those despairing of the situation had waited for just the kind of clinching, incontrovertible evidence that Tehelka produced to establish the macabre truth of that time — a truth known to everybody, documented previously, acknowledged by the apex court, and yet unfailingly dismissed as so much fabrication by the Modi administration and the Chief Minister’s legion of admirers. Now finally it was out in all its gory detail — told by the perpetrators themselves in their own words. With frame after chilling frame of the pogrom dramatically unspooling before them, those claiming to be “politically conscientious” ought to have rushed to embrace the Tehelka team. Instead, they reacted in dismay. The questions, “why now?” and “why like this?” soared above the audio-video effect of the sting, undercutting what was billed by Tehelka as “the most important story of our time.”

Rights activists feel let down by the reaction. Yet there are aspects to the sting that are discomfiting. For those of us in the media who go by the label “pseudo-secularists,” the Tehelka scoop was a difficult moment to confront. The swirl of emotions we were caught in spawned questions and counter-questions, all springing from within, each with its own unclear answer. Surely, the dilemma underscored the complexity of a problem that was inseparable from its political and ethical dimensions.

Overused phrase

Tehelka unveiled its latest sting at a time when the phrase was in bad odour from overuse. Too many fake stings had damaged way too many reputations, and it was with some trepidation that viewers approached the latest script, theatrically narrated television-style. By the end of it, though, there was no doubt that the investigation was first-rate; the footage was the end product of a search that led from one gut-wrenching story to another, each unashamedly told to a camera candidly capturing the depravations of that time.

The journalist behind the veil was the anti-thesis of the high-flier, armed, as he was to recollect later, “with nothing more than a couple of spycams and some daredevilry.” Ashish Khetan had been part of several of Tehelka’s operations, yet few knew him. He put his anonymity to good use, spending six tortuous months under cover, fearing all the while that the lid would be blown off his impersonation of a Hindutva sympathiser. What started as an aimless quest turned into a most astonishing discovery, as quarry after quarry turned up to speak to the camera — from the Bajrang Dal, from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, from the State Government’s legal department.. The men were unrestrained, almost garrulous, as they narrated how cold bloodedly they committed their crimes.

Some of us watched this incredulously. Why would anyone go this far to implicate himself? But then strange things happened in Gujarat. In an environment where support for the 2002 pogrom was treated as a given, confessions of this kind were presumably quite in order. Asked about this, the Bharatiya Janata Party did not allege the tapes were doctored. The spokesperson dismissed the evidence as “bragging.” This prompted a journalist to ask: “What sort of people do you harbour that brag and boast about committing heinous crimes?”

The unease about the Tehelka sting does not stem from doubts about its credibility. It stems from the timing of its release, and the exploitative manner of its presentation. The Tehelka tapes hit the television screens just when Mr. Modi’s Hindutva base appeared to be splintering. Five years after the pogrom, the parivar’s disillusionment with the man, once beloved of them all, seemed near-complete. In 2002, the VHP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh hailed Mr. Modi as a hero, and conferred upon him the title, “Hindu hriday samrat.” The same parivar now threatened to boycott him, led by the VHP’s fire-breathing Pravin Togadia, and joined in by a myriad other saffron outfits, all accusing Mr. Modi of straying from the Hindutva path, and issuing daily bulletins on his misdemeanours.

The anti-Modi rebellion in Saurashtra, previously made up of a handful of BJP malcontents, and therefore easily containable, was now a full-blown threat to Mr. Modi, having become the focus of any and all discontentment in the region. The rebels, always blessed by the former Chief Minister, Keshubhai Patel, and now fortified by the entry into their fold of veteran Suresh Mehta, were in the middle of evolving a joint strategy with the Congress, when Tehelka aired the sting.

Operation Kalank revisited the wounds of 2002 and in the process held up a mirror to the Congress which had taken the rebels in its embrace, forgetting the role they played in the riots. The sting unarguably saved the Congress from a major folly: Gordhan Zadaphia, Minister of State for Home in 2002, and leader of the BJP rebels, was among those expected to join the Congress. He retreated. But the sting also closed the window of opportunity provided by the division in the saffron ranks. In 2007 Gujarat, the only way to undermine Mr. Modi was to separate him from his post-Godhra image. Indeed, the parivar’s annoyance with Mr. Modi flowed from his perceived departure from the path he had himself shown in 2002. In reviving the memories of 2002, Tehelka revived the memories of saffron togetherness forged on a felt need to fight Muslims. The sting clubbed the guilt of Mr. Modi with that of the VHP and the Bajrang Dal at a time of debilitating tension between the Chief Minister and his ideological family.

Flawed argument

Undoubtedly, this line of argument is repugnant to the very notion of justice. This amounted to consciously, premeditatedly excluding Muslims and the injury done to them from the election debate. There was another pertinent question: if people rushed to vote for Mr. Modi, enthused by images of extreme violence done to one community, what sort of a people were they? The Tehelka team made a persuasive case to view the sting from a larger perspective: the aim of any investigation was to bring out the truth, and this truth could not be sacrificed at the altar of electoral calculations. Yet others said if the sting strengthened Mr. Modi, enabling his re-election, it had also caused long-term damage to his national and international image.

Perfect reasoning. However, it was also in some sense lofty and removed from the reality of Gujarat — where Muslims faced the prospect of five more years in isolation. Of what use was a journalistic investigation that brilliantly captured their suffering yet expected them to endure it in their own alleged interest?

Finally, there is the matter of how the sting was presented. The television channels chose the thriller format for a footage that was so graphic in itself that it required no further embellishment.

Yet in the hand of its exploitative anchors, the gore and death became a voyeuristic melodrama, complete with teaser-trailers that promised more and commercial breaks that stretched on and on — in evident admission that somebody’s misery was somebody else’s bottomline.

Perhaps the sting will make no impact. Perhaps the rebellion against Mr. Modi was illusory anyway. Nonetheless, there is no getting away from the singular important question the sting has posed: can you separate an investigation, however important, from its social and ethical context?

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