Karnataka is the outlier in peninsular India—the only state in the South that the BJP has managed to come to power, by hook and by crook. Twice.
There is a plethora of political reasons for this, including caste realignment, but there can be little doubt that the Kannada media has played a hands-on role in paving the way for the Hindu nationalist party to gain a foothold, and then obtain a stranglehold, in a progressive state known for pioneering social reforms.
Politically invested media owners, slimy media houses, ideologically indoctrinated editors, anchors and reporters—and community and mutt affiliations—have steadfastly, subterraneously and perhaps irredeemably communalised the Kannada media landscape like in no other state below the Vindhyas.
The fundamentalist bread-and-butter issues—Idgah maidan in Hubli; Bababudangiri in Chikamagalur; Tipu Sultan in Mysore, etc—have hogged headlines and dominated the discourse in Karnataka for the better part of the last two decades.
But Mangalore occupies a very special place. Despite its high literacy and syncretic culture, Mangalore has been command central of the Hindutva laboratory on the west coast from around the 1992 demolition of the Babri masjid.
It has also been the testing ground for the sangh parivar’s pet themes: love jihad; moral policing; gau raksha.
The Kannada news media has played its dutiful part in foregrounding this drip-feed. In the process, it has also helped stereotype the minorities, spawned anti-intellectualism, and subconsciously conditioned the minds of voters, present and future.
(As the IT capital of the country, Karnataka is fittingly the motherboard of “fake news”, with overt and covert political-business support. And it was in Bangalore, of course, that the journalist Gauri Lankesh was shot dead in her home.)
The breathless coverage of the discovery of a “live bomb” at Mangalore airport on Monday, January 20, leading up to the “surrender” of the “suspect” two days later, January 22, offers a window into the manner in which mainstream Kannada media is dangerously feeding the fears and fantasies of the “majority”—and feeding off it.
It makes for a revolting spectacle.
The reported facts of the Mangalore “live bomb” case are:
1) Mangalore police said CISF personnel found a black unattended backpack near the arrival terminal of the airport around 9 am on January 20.
2) The suspected “bomb”, found in a steel box in the bag, was defused around 5.30 pm, some 3 km away from where it was found.
3) CCTV footage released by the police showed the possible suspect, a middle-aged man wearing a cap, arriving in an autorickshaw.
4) No arrest was made till end of day.
Yet, with nearly no other facts at their command, the Kannada newspapers of the next day were speculating on the motive behind the purported “attack”, pointing at a wider “gameplan”, and essentially indulging in loud dog whistling that left little to the imagination on who and what they were hinting at, if not targetting.
And who it would eventually benefit.
The No.1 Kannada daily is Vijaya Karnataka from The Times of India group.
Its editor is Hariprakash Konemane, a former personal assistant to Pramod Mutalik, the Bajrang Dal leader who founded the Sri Rama Sena, which hit the headlines in 2009 for attacking young men and women in a pub in Mangalore, citing a threat to “Indian values”.
Vijaya Karnataka‘s lead headline on January 21 was more opinion than reporting, a familiar failing of the news media trying to keep with social media often by copying it.
“Pauratvakke pratikara?” read the VK headline (below) straight-up.
In plain English, was the Mangalore bomb “revenge” for the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)?
The un-bylined news report, citing unnamed sources, was pure speculation:
“After the killing of two people in police firing in the anti-CAA protests in Mangalore, there was much talk that there would a big attack. Was the Mangalore bomb a part of that plan?”
Vijaya Karnataka did not stop there.
A breathtaking editorial (below) in the same issue said that there was no doubt that the “bomb” was the handiwork of a “well-trained group of terrorists”. And, “looking at the manner in which the bomb had been wired and placed”, it also concluded that it was a “sophisticated bomb”.
VK wondered loudly if only locals were involved or “international organisations” were behind it.
“It should be investigated if there was a connection between the suspected anti-social elements who took part in the anti-CAA protests in Mangalore and the bomb,” concluded the VK editorial.
“It’s inexcusable if the masterminds behind the “bomb” made use of the CAA protests for their dastardly act.”
When the police zero in on a local Hindu, Aditya Rao of Manipal the next day, Vijaya Karnataka goes all quiet. Its headline (“bomb-ge spotakha twist”) now talks of an “explosive twist to the ‘bomb'”, although the twist is more to its own artifice and prejudice.
As the Twitter handle “@NoumChomsky” pointed out, there is no talk of #CAA in the VK report on day two, after the police have started rounding up suspects.
And when the “suspect” Aditya Rao improbably walks into the state police chief’s office in Bangalore, 300 km away, and turns himself in on the morning of January 22, Vijaya Karnataka relegates the news to two columns with the bland headline: “Bomber surrender”.
The identity of the suspect, Aditya Rao, is revealed only in the strap below the headline.
The editorialisation of the Mangalore “live bomb” and the fear-mongering is a trend disturbingly visible across Kannada newspapers.
The second-largest selling Kannada daily Vijaya Vani—owned by former BJP MP and MLA Vijay Sankeshwar who owned Vijaya Karnataka before selling it to the Times group in 2006—doesn’t take the CAA route but links it to January 26.
“Bomb bhayotpadane (bomb terrorism)” says the headline (below), with ‘bhaya‘ (fear) in red.
“Attempt to spread massive fear before Republic Day,” asserts the strap above the headline.
A “reality check” at bus and railway stations after the airport incident is the Vijaya Vani lead on day two (below). By now, police have zeroed in on nearly a dozen suspects. The rumoured detention of an “unemployed” individual, Aditya Rao of nearby Manipal, gets a cursory single-column mention in the lead package, .
When the mysterious “surrender” of Aditya Rao is announced in Bangalore on January 22, Vijaya Vani triumphantly claims the suspect gave himself up because he was “afraid of being shot by the police”.
For the record: Vijay Vani‘s founder Vijay Sankeshwar was decorated with the Padma Sri in this year’s Republic Day honours list. He had met Narendra Modi on January 14. Sankeshwar’s son Anand Sankeshwar “interviewed” Modi before last year’s general elections.
Also for the record: Vijaya Karnataka‘s editor Hariprakash Konemane was a 9 pm presenter at Dighvijay News, a TV news channel launched by Sankeshwar, before he hopped over.
Kannada Prabha, the daily newspaper which the BJP Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar bought from the New Indian Express group in 2011, called the improvised explosive device in Mangalore “massive”, putting its weight at 10 kg.
“Karnataka trembles to biggest live bomb,” screamed the double-decker headline (below).
Like Vijaya Karnataka, Kannada Prabha had an editorial (below) on the day after the incident.
Although the “bomb” was safely defused, KP said it was clear that a “team of terrorists” was active in the state. It linked the discovery of the Mangalore “bomb” to a spate of reports of alleged “terrorist” activities against the backdrop of the anti-CAA protests.
Kannada Prabha declared that the time it took the police to defuse the “bomb” (nearly 8 hours) was proof of its sophisticated nature. It is a cause for alarm that such men are on the soil of Karnataka. Since it was an act of terror, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) would be involved, Kannada Prabha said.
(The unemployed “suspect”, Aditya Rao, who was instantly branded as “mentally disturbed” by the state’s home minister Basavaraj Bommai, later claimed he had picked up the procedure to assemble the “bomb” from YouTube.)
Kannada Prabha momentarily stepped off its high-octane coverage on day two with the strap line above the headline (below) grandly claiming, apropos of nothing, that initial investigations showed “No involvement of Islamist terrorists”.
Hosa Digantha, a suspected sangh operation, which magically produced a 32-page special edition to mark the Supreme Court judgment on Ayodhya last November, had comparatively sober coverage on page one vis-a-vis its peers.
“Sajeeva bomb patthe” (live bomb found) was the bland headline (below).
But a local supplement in Manalore titled ‘Sangam‘ expectedly had blanket coverage of the “bomb” incident, with the insinuatory headline “Bandralla angalakke” (colloquial for “and so they have arrived”).
A box item on the front page of the supplement patted itself on its back, harking back to a story three days earlier (below) which spoke of the “threat” posed by “thousands” of unidentified people “without names and without addresses” all over the coastal belt.
But the Mangalore “bomb” was too juicy for balance and nuance. On day two, Hosa Digantha reported exclusively that the alleged airport “suspect” also had the Manjunatheshwara Temple in nearby Kadri, in his eyesight.
“Kadri devala guri?” read the lead headline (below), with a box item suggesting that the 30,000-40,000 devotees attending the Brahmotsava festival at the temple could have been at risk.
In an editorial (below), Hosa Digantha lambasted former chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy for making light of the “bomb”.
HDK’s cardinal crime in the newspaper’s eyes was to point out that the purported “bomb” did not have a timer (as it did not go off for 8 hours till defused) and seemed amateurish given the kind of shimmery (“minimini“) powder found in it.
“When it comes to national security, politicians must be one with the army and the police. Instead, Kumaraswamy is handing out judgments that there was nothing in the “bomb”. This is not the first time he is doing so. He had done the same when seven SDPI persons were arrested in Bangalore,” the editorial said.
(“Socialist Democratic Party of India” is now the red rag in BJP-ruled Karnataka, with talk of banning it for its alleged links with the Islamist Popular Front of India”)
But when the “suspect” surrendered, and it turns out to be the “unemployed and mentally disturbed” Aditya Rao, Hosa Digantha crunched the development into a two-column story below the fold. It also handed him the benefit of the doubt. The alleged bomber, said the paper, was “frustrated with the system”.
The January 21 front page of Vishwa Vani, edited by Vishweshwar Bhat, a former officer on special duty to the late Union minister Ananth Kumar, who was previously editor of both Vijaya Karnataka and Kannada Prabha, has vanished from the paper’s website without explanation.
But a screenshot taken from Twitter (below) shows that it too jumped the gun and attributed the Mangalore “bomb” to the anti-CAA protests and the police firing which claimed two lives.
When Aditya Rao surrenders, Vishwa Vani talks of the man who had scared the “entire nation”. The paper reveals that Rao had made similar prank calls to the Bangalore international airport when he failed to secure a job in the airline industry.
The newspaper also front pages state home minister Basavaraj Bommai’s questionable claim that the alleged “suspect” was “mentally disturbed”.
Among the big dailies, the only speck of what could pass off as balanced coverage came from the No.3 Kannada daily Praja Vani of the Deccan Herald group, which refrained from linking it to the anti-CAA protests in Mangalore and the police firing, or to the ensuing Republic Day.
In fact, on the day after the incident, the paper placed the Mangalore “bomb” story below its own exclusive of the homes of Kannadigas being razed by suddenly and suitably overactive Bangalore civic authorities who thought they were “Bangladeshis”.
The coverage of the Mangalore “bomb” on the subsequent two days in Praja Vani was similarly sans sensationalism but far from probing. Kannada journalism is now at that delicate stage when even routine, matter-of-fact reporting seems an act of heroism.
The only other Kannada publication that showed sound news judgement and refused to brand the “bomb” or speculate on the motives was the Mangalore newspaper Vartha Bharti.
Its headline, like that of Hosa Digantha and Praja Vani, was as-is:
“Explosive found at airport”.
A box item on page one of Vartha Bharti also answered the apprehensions of Vijaya Karnataka and Kannada Prabha. Outdated equipment, it revealed, was the reason it had taken nearly eight hours for the “sophisticated bomb” to be defused.
Vartha Bharati was the only mainline Kannada newspaper to carry Aditya Rao‘s name prominently in its headlines (below), both when the police were looking for him and when he “surrendered”.
Vartha Bharti was also the only Kannada newspaper to call out the rest of the Kannada media for their unbridled fear-mongering.
On the day after the incident, January 21, the paper said in an editorial (below) that the state seemed to be suddenly overrun by “maadhyamagalu shrishtisiruva ugraru” (media-created terrorists), after the attempts to quell the anti-CAA protests had failed.
“It is the duty of the police to clarify on the fake and imaginary stories of terrorists on the loose in Mangalore that have been published in a number of publications. Instead, by remaining mute, the police is validating the fiction,” the editorial said.
After Aditya Rao‘s formal “surrender”, Vartha Bharti followed up its outrage at the bias in the media coverage with another searing editorial.
“On the surface, it looks like the Mangalore ‘bomb’ incident was a premeditated conspiracy involving sections of the media, the police and the sangh parivar.
“Aditya Rao‘s role was small. There is no doubt that the media turned a small explosive into a massive bomb.
“If spreading hatred against members of another community, and if spreading fear in society are signs of mental disturbance, then this incident proves that newspapers and TV news channels are suffering from it,” the editorial (below) thundered.
“In just one day, the people of the state have realised who the real terrorists who are trying to destroy our society are. Today, Aditya Rao is in custody. But those who turned his small explosive into a massive bomb are getting ready for new explosions. If Aditya‘s name had been Adil, the same media would exploded homes all day.
“Therefore, the time has come to conduct these media personnel to a mental test and to supply the necessary medicines.”
In contrast to the rage of Vartha Bharti, the coverage of Udaya Vani, the other local Kannada newspaper headquartered out of Aditya Rao‘s hometown Manipal, was placid with Aditya Rao‘s name taking a low profile in the strap line .
And the Hubli-based Samyukta Karnataka was no different.
Admittedly, journalism is a human exercise, and many mistakes do happen in the speed of reporting.
But the decidedly slanted coverage of Kannada newspapers, which had nearly 12-14 hours to stitch up reporting unlike 24×7 TV news channels, and the rush to instant judgement, points to a deeper systemic problem in Kannada journalism.
Across the board, the uncritical coverage reveals a near-total lack of skill sets in as basic a field of reporting as crime, or in writing editorials. Obvious questions that the newspapers ought to have asked of the government and the police on the spurt in incidents since the BJP came to power lay buried.
A merry-go-round where reporters and editors jump jobs and swap positions at different organisations every few years, and place chelas and chamchas, proteges and relatives in charge while leaving, appears to have coloured a vast portion of the Kannada media canvas in one uniform shade.
And it isn’t white.