‘TV doesn’t want debate; it wants whipping boys’

The dastardly ambush of a Congress party convoy by Maoists in Chhattisgarh on May 25, in which 28 people including the founder of the Salwa Judum movement Mahendra Karma perished, led to the by-now ritual witchhunt of human rights activists on television—and their ostracism by newspapers.

On one level, in a Pavlovian sort of way, the media randomly accused “Naxal sympathisers” of staying silent. On another level, the media was accused of allowing them to speak. (In fact, one former IAS officer even goes so far as to say that he “almost felt like taking a gun and shooting these people, as also the TV anchors who gave them time and space.”)

Lost in the noise is nuance—and balance.

Here, Nandini Sundar, a professor of sociology at the Delhi school of economics, provides perspective on how the media is distorting the debate with its shrill “us vs them” tone.



I am sick to death of TV panel discussions which ask whether human rights activists are soft on the Maoists, romanticise the Maoists and so on. Why doesn’t someone ask if our honourable politicians and security experts are soft on police torture and extra judicial killings?

Television is not interested in a serious discussion – all they want are whipping boys.

The sight of Arnab Goswami mocking Prof Haragopal for giving an “academic analysis” was especially nauseating, compounded by his showing off about “Emily Durkheim” (sic).

Why bother to have a panel at all,  if only hysterical calls for the army to be sent in to wipe out the Maoists count as ‘analysis’, and every other viewpoint is seen as biased?

The media’s vocabulary is also very limited.

I remember a particular excruciating interview with Binayak Sen where he said he “decried” violence and the anchor repeatedly asked him if he “condemned” it. As far as I know, the two words mean roughly the same thing.

Nowadays, even before the media asks me, I start shouting “I condemn, I condemn.” I wake up in my sleep shouting “I condemn.” I am scared to use other words to describe complex emotions, because the media is unable to understand anything else.

The only reason why I agree to participate in any TV discussions at all or give interviews to the media, is because I have such limited space to express my views. Most of the time the media is completely unconcerned about what happens in places like Bastar, and when there are large scale deaths of civilians, no-one runs non-stop news or panel discussions.

Perforce “human rights activists” have to speak in unfavourable circumstances, because that’s the only time when the media is interested in our views; and that too, not because they want to hear us, but because they need a “big fight” to raise their ratings.

That’s what is called ‘balance’.

One can almost see visible disappointment on the anchor’s part when panelists who should disagree actually agree on many issues.

Since May 25 I have been inundated with calls from journalists asking for my views. But when I want to write, there is little space. A leading national newspaper refused to publish me on the killing of Mahendra Karma, till they had enough pieces which promoted a paramilitary approach.

Even when I do get published it is under strict word constraints. I wrote the first opinion piece ever written in the national media on the Salwa Judum in 2006, but was given 800 words, under the fold. In the first year of Salwa Judum, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of articles on Salwa Judum.

I personally met several editors and showed them photographic evidence; and begged TV editors for panel discussions, but no-one was interested. If they had been interested then, perhaps things would not have come to such a pass.
I am unable to write my own book on Salwa Judum because of the court case and all that it takes.

I have been wanting to write on it since 2005 because I am, above all, an anthropologist.  In any case, my mental space is so clogged by the media noise and the strain of being confined to “opinion pieces” that keep saying the same things because no one is listening, that I can’t write.

I am almost glad the IPL has taken over again, and we can all forget about Bastar and the Maoists till the next major attack.


I reproduce below an extract from my article, Emotional Wars, on the public reactions to the death of the 76 CRPF men in April 2010.  This was published in Third World Quarterly,  Vol. 33, No. 4, 2012, pp 1-17:

“Government anger was directed not just at the Maoists but at their alleged ‘sympathizers in civil society’, whose verbal and written criticism of government for violations of the Constitution and fundamental rights, was morally equated with the Maoist act of killing in retaliation for those policies.

“Within minutes then, given the government’s role as the primary definer of news, whether the alleged sympathizers had adequately condemned and expiated for the attack, became as critical to the framing of the news as the attack itself. 

“The largely one-sided government and media outrage – the targeted killings or rapes of ordinary adivasis rarely, if ever, invite direct calls upon the Home Minister to condemn each such incident – easily summon to mind Herman and Chomsky’s distinction between “worthy and unworthy victims” as part of what they call the media ‘propaganda model’.

“While news coverage of the worthy is replete with detail, evokes indignation and shock, and invites a follow-up; unworthy victims get limited news space, are referred to in generic terms, and there is little attempt to fix responsibility or trace culpability to the top echelons of the establishment.

“…In times of civil war, the emotions performed by the state range from the inculcation of fear to a calculated display of indifference to the exhibition of injured feelings, as if it was citizens and not the state who were violating the social contract, and that the social contract consisted of the state’s right to impunity.”

Also read: EPW tears into TV’s ‘hawks, hotheads, hysteria’

‘TV is now a site for manufacturing news, consent’

‘Is news TV becoming a national security hazard?’


  1. N D Sharma

    A Bastar SP booked a journalist as a Naxalite. Later he admitted in court that he had done so because then BJP chief minister Sunderlal Patwa was annoyed with the journalist’s reports. Because of his qualities of putting innocent but inconvenient persons behind the bar, the IPS officer became a darling of Congress chief minister Digvijay Singh also.


    Acts like jail, externment of Madhuriben (Madhuri Krishnaswamy) for demanding full and timely wages for MNREGA workers helps Naxalism grow.


    Politicians, IAS officers and revenue officers joined hands to deprive
    by fraudulent means the tribals of Bastar region of their lands with precious,
    centuries-old trees standing on them. The loot continued for several decades.
    On directions of Supreme Court, an experts committee catalogued some 800 cases with the nature of the crime and the names and roles of perpetrators in each case. Supreme Court asked Madhya Pradesh government (Chhattisgarh was then part of Madhya Pradesh) to proceed against them. Now CAN YOU BELIEVE the Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh, on instructions of the chief minister, submitted an affidavit in Supreme Court saying that his government could not take action against them. The matter was then entrusted by Supreme Court to CBI. After registering some FIRs, the CBI investigators opted for enriching themselves instead of trying to send VIP criminals to jail. The Supreme Court also forgot all about it.

  2. The Naxalites (a.k.a. Maoists) do not respect the Indian Constitution and Indian laws. They strike at will and kill innocent civilians. They destroy schools, telephone exchanges, railway lines etc. They are challenging the Indian State. Why then should laws applicable to law-abiding citizens be applied to them?

    If the Naxalites want to wage a war, only the rules of war are applicable to them. The rules of war are simple: engage and shoot to kill. Period! Any other approach would be doing injustice to law-abiding citizens. Because then, there would be two different standards or laws; one for the law-abiding citizens and another for those who take to arms, hide in forests and wage war. If an enemy nation engages in war would we invite the enemy soldiers to dinner and debate?

    There is no need to indulge in lengthy debates. Can those who take their side convince them to lay down arms and engage in civilized debate? If not, debates on television or any other medium are futile.

  3. Deepak

    The author seems to be someone who gets his salary from the Government and yet supports those who wages war against the Government. It is people like these who are more dangerous that the naxalites and terrorists who wield the guns.

  4. debasisha mohapatra

    What sucker is the above poster is.Does he understand what democrracy is ! No wonder,you have more naxalism.

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