Media, the State, and Propaganda in the Digital Age

October 7, 2018

This interview of Sumanta Banerjee was conducted by Sanhati. A previous interview on communalism is available here.

Sanhati: Question 1

Compared to the 70’s, when the State could control “grand narratives” because there were only a few big media houses and one State-run television channel, there seems to be a striking diversification of media in the form of Twitter, Whatsapp, Facebook, hundreds of online media outlets, television channels, etc. Would you say that this diversification is necessarily democratic – in the following sense – is the State less capable of constructing “grand narratives” than before?

Sumanta Banerjee: Answer to Question 1 –

In the 1970s, the state could control the `grand narrative’ through the print media – mainstream newspapers that were brought out by industrial/business interests, like the Birlas running Hindustan Times, Goenkas running The Indian Express, Tatas who had taken control of The Statesman – all of them coming to a deal with the ruling party in agreeing to propagate its messages through their media in exchange of state protection of their business interests. In this bonhomie relationship between the state and crony capitalism, there was a brief disjuncture in the 1975-76 period of the Emergency, when a panicky Indira Gandhi imposed press censorship, fearing that the misdeeds carried out under her son Sanjay Gandhi’s order (e.g. forced sterilization, attempts to demolish Turkmain Gate in old Delhi and forcible evacuation of the citizens of its neighbourhood – mainly Muslims – to trans-Jamuna settlements) could be reported in the mainstream press.

But soon after that, – whether under the post-Emergency phase of Morarji Desai’s brief prime ministership, or later under his successor Indira Gandhi’s return to power – the Indian state renewed the old bonhomie with the crony capitalist owners of the press.

Today – in the era of ` diversification of media’ (in terms of the expansion of non-print media, like TV channels and social media outlets) – have these non-state agencies in the media scene been able to `democratize’ the circulation of news and information among the public, and free their minds from the domination of the state-propagated messages? Have they reduced the state’s monopoly on constructing the `grand narratives’ – or are they collaborating with the state (under the present BJP regime) in propagating the `grand narratives’ (of the so- called achievements under Narendra Modi’s government)?

In fact, the present Indian state has been able to incorporate most of the TV channels and social media outlets into its propaganda agenda. The Republic TV anchored by Arnab Goswami is the most notorious illustration of the BJP government’s utilization of a TV channel (owned by a BJP-follower) to spout daily venomous messages directed against anyone daring to criticize Modi. The latest example is its circulation of a fake letter (manufactured in its studio) purported to be written by Maoists planning to kill Modi in a `Rajiv Gandhi style assassination.’ As if waiting for the cue, the police from the BJP-ruled state of Maharashtra, immediately plunged into action, arresting five eminent human rights activists, lawyers and academicians, charging them under a draconian law and accusing them of being a part of a conspiracy to kill Modi.

On a lighter vein, let me add: who wants to come near Modi to kill him? His acts have raised the stink so high, that – forget the Maoists – even Yama would find the stench too suffocating to venture near him to take custody of his body when his time comes! There’s a saying in Bengali about characters like Modi – ‘Jomer aruchi’ (someone whom even Yama wouldn’t touch).

Sanhati: Question 2

Continuing, would you say that people in general are less susceptible to propaganda than before, or have more weapons to fight it? But if so, what can account for the extreme jingoism and lack of criticality among precisely those sectors that have more access to information? Do we need a new theorization to understand propaganda in the digital age?

Sumanta Banerjee: Answer to Question 2 –

The Indian people are not laid-back, passive recipients of media messages from newspapers, TV channels and social media. They are motivated into actions. They are apparently more susceptible to the Rightist propaganda instead of the Left-secular message, leading even the urban middle classes to “extreme jingoism and lack of criticality.”

But let’s remember, the soil of their receptive minds was already nurtured in the 1990s when successive Congress governments, pursuing a policy of soft-Hindutva, paved the way for the rise of Hindutva forces – first by Rajiv Gandhi’s opening of the Babri Masjid gates to allow Hindus to pay homage to a mythical birth place of Rama, followed by the permission given to Advani’s infamous `Ratha-yatra’ which left a trail of killings of Muslims.

Rajiv’s successor Narsimha Rao of the Congress party went a step forward by acquiescing in the Sangh Parivar’s violent orgy in the demolition of the Babri Masjid which led to the worst communal violence in post-Independence India. I do not think that all these developments were results of media propaganda. Rather, the public mind-set had already been shaped into the mould of anti-Muslim prejudices and violence by the political propaganda of the Sangh Parivar through public meetings and demonstrations in those years of the 1990s.

I do not believe that the communication media – whether the print or the television or the social media in today’s digital age – can implant new ideas or motivations among the public. The mainstream media only reinforce the public mentality that had already been shaped by the hegemonic political powers in civil society – as happened in the 1930s in Germany under the Nazi rule and Italy under the Fascist regime. The practitioners of the alternative media in present day India on the other hand (through web sites and social media networks), suffer from a serious disadvantage. However much they may try to reach out to the larger public by attempts at exposing the Modi government’s false claims, at every step their attempts are being subverted by the state.

Sanhati: Question 3

Should we see the rise of fascism via its own internal logic or should we see it in relation to the crisis of capital? Does the changing nature of media shape fascism?

Sumanta Banerjee: Answer to Question 3 –

I think the rise and retreat of fascism is historically related to the ebb and flow in the currents of capitalism. The changing nature of media (again a product of capitalist technology) cannot shape
fascism. It’s the other way round. It is shaped and used by fascism – as we see today in India (e.g. TV channels and newspapers as cheer leaders of the Modi’s fascist regime).

Sanhati: Question 4

Now for some questions more specific to India, in particular the critical art scene. From the time of your collection of the radical poetry of 1970s that came out as ‘Thema book of Naxalite poetry’ the radical art scene has changed. Along with Dalit Camera, People’s Film Collective etc. art seems to be a major mode of political expression. What are the some of the continuities and breaks in the cultural scene that you are seeing?

Sumanta Banerjee: Answer to Question 4 –

A lot of changes had taken place in the scene of radical literature during the last several decades since the publication of my collection of Naxalite poetry of the 1970s. The lively Dalit vernacular literature in Maharashtra, Telangana and other parts of India, is an expression of the rising new voices of the oppressed. The Adivasis are reviving their traditional folk forms by composing songs that protest against the present political order that deprives them of their lands in the name of industrialization. A large number of women writers have emerged on the scene during this period, who are making their powerful presence felt by lashing out at patriarchal customs, and by asserting their rights. All these new cultural trends – along with the Naxalite literature of the past – should constitute the main components of the present `critical art scene.’

Sanhati: Question 5

Under the current government, there seems to be a rise of intolerance and attacks on journalists. Gauri Lankesh was the most prominent and recent victim of this intolerance. We would like to understand your views on the environment under which journalists are covering social and political events. What constraints and possibilities does the new political milieu offer them?

Sumanta Banerjee: Answer to Question 5 –

I think that the Modi government (which has created a political milieu of hatred against minorities, intolerance of any dissent, and imposition of the hegemony of Hindutva) is putting `constraints’ in the way of journalists who want to function according to their professional code of objective reporting. At the same time, it is opening up `possibilities’ for mercenaries to enter the media scene to pose as journalists and propagate the above-mentioned messages of hatred, intolerance and imposition.

To start with examples of `constraints’ – the most extreme case was the killing of Gauri Lankesh by murderers who were nourished by the `political milieu’ created by Modi and his Sangh Parivar. Her colleagues in both the print media and TV, who shared her commitment to the values of secularism that are enshrined in our Constitution, are now being hounded out from their professional jobs.

To give a few examples – on September 11, 2017, Shobhna Bharti, the proprietor of the HINDUSTAN TIMES newspaper, announced the exit of its editor Bobby Ghosh. As revealed a few days later by the Wire website, this `exit’ was preceded by a personal meeting between Shobhna Bharti and Narendra Modi, where both his BJP functionaries and chosen bureaucrats from the officialdom, objected to Bobby Ghosh’s publishing reports and editorials and op-edits. (Re: WIRE website, September 19, 2017).

As for the `possibilities’ – they are being offered by the ruling party to a new group of mercenaries who have been recruited to various media channels. The best example is the rise of the TV anchor Arnab Goswami. He was a non-entity in the media scene till 2014. But soon after the BJP came to power, his face suddenly started appearing on TV screens , and then there was no looking back for him ! He jumped from one TV channel to another. Through his style of shouting hate messages and violent body gestures on the TV screen, he is faithfully serving his political patrons by translating what the RSS goons are doing in terms of physical violence at the ground level (e.g. lynching pf Muslims and Dalits , killing of rationalists and journalists) into audio-visual representation through the Republic TV channel that he is running now.

Sanhati: Question 6

Finally, we would like your views on the vernacular press in West Bengal, the Northeast, or other regions you are aware of. What are the special struggles involved for journalists who mainly report in the vernacular, and cover social and political events?

Sumanta Banerjee: Answer to Question 6 –

Bengali journalists surely face `special’ types of challenges when covering political events in their areas of coverage. For instance in Tripura, a Bengali journalist was allegedly killed recently by members of some tribal extremist group because of his reports which offended them. In West Bengal too, haven’t Bengali journalists faced similar threats from the goons of the ruling Trinamul Congress for reporting their misdeeds ? But more importantly – the threat to independent journalism is coming from the Bengali owners of a major media group, which is succumbing to pressures from the Modi government. The Kolkata-based Anandabazar Patrika group-run ABP TV has forced its head Punya Prasun Bajpai to resign – because he wasn’t projecting Modi’s face too often in his shows ! (Read Punya Prasun Bajpai’s article on the Wire website of August 6, 2018).

1 Comment »

One Response to “Media, the State, and Propaganda in the Digital Age”

  1. Kisan Bhoir Says:
    August 14th, 2019 at 12:34

    Apango ke liye govt ki kya suvidhaye hai please information bhejiye

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