In her classic book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein unmasks the practitioners of what she calls Disaster Capitalismfor profiting from human misery, and often precipitating and promoting it to spread their influence globally.In a scathing critique of Milton Friedman’s role in inventing “economic shock treatment” as advisor to Pinochet’s regime, Klein says, he advised Pinochet toimpose reforms all-at-once – privatisation, cuts to social spending, deregulation. Such drastic reforms were forced on a populace already traumatised by the military coup and hyper-inflation and the fall-out of the shock treatment was dealt with by the regime in its prisons, torture cells, and disappearances of dissenters. She says “Friedman predicted that the speed, suddenness and scope of the economic shifts would provoke psychological reactions in the public that “facilitate the adjustment.” She likens it to Machiavelli’s advice that injuries should be inflicted “all at once.”
In a democracy that continues to be noisy like India, the primary instruments that “facilitate the adjustment” of psychological reactions arising from the shocks administered “all at once” have been the media. If we map major news pursued by mediain India from late 2015, we see a series of shock and awe events bursting out of their headlines with much regularity.
In September 2015, Mohd Akhlaq was lynched in Dadri. Days of media coverage debated beef consumption that took a violent communal/caste turn. Media also reported several instances of Gaurakshaks attacking people trading in cattle.Even as the complexities of the beef politicswere being ferreted out by the media, on January 2, 2016, the Pathankot attack occured, the murky details of whichare still not fully explained, despite the frantic media attention and the cacophony of breast-beating nationalism on channels.
Soon after media attention was caught on January 17, 2016, byRohithVemula’s suicide. Protests built up across university campuses against caste discrimination.
When the issue of caste-discrimination in higher education institutions began to gain traction, on 13 February,in an unprecedented move, JNU students were arrested on sedition charges for “raising anti-national slogans” at a protest rally. The unprecedented attack on students, faculty of JNU and their lawyers inside Patiala court stunned everyone. The protests that erupted against the abuse of sedition law and the attempts to suppress free speech by the government lasted beyond mid-March when the arrested students were let off on bail.
The questions surrounding the fake videos produced as evidence to arrest the JNU students were still being debated when in April, the Handwara girl’s molestation, street protests, and the first shocking reports of the use of pellet guns in Jammu and Kashmir hit the headlines. April also saw protests around the flag and patriotism in NIT, Jammu &Kashmir. The Kashmir issue rapidly escalated thereafter with the Handwara girl’s family detained at unknown locations while the protests continued.
Before a full picture could emerge about these events, on July 8 Burhan Wani was shot dead. The protests took on a new intensity with more use of pellet guns.Several thousand youngsters are severely injured and rendered sightless, while dominant media mostly concentrated on the nationalist narrative.
Then a few days later, theJuly 17 Una attack on dalits took attention away from Kashmir. The Una event introduced a new element of the perpetrators videographing their own crime and publicising it though mainstream media (http://news.rediff.com/commentary/2016/jul/22/hooligans-behind-una-dalit-attack-shot-the-video-for-fun-gujarat-chief-secy/3d79b8025dd5c4b5fad36f50c6a03aef).
Even as the outrage built up against Una attackers and details began to emerge, Uri attack (http://www.dailyo.in/politics/indian-army-uri-attacks-pakistan-nehru-kashmir-ajit-doval/story/1/13029.html) happened in September followed by ‘surgical strikes’ (http://thewire.in/70409/surgical-strikes-questions-still-remain/), also in September. Both Uri and the surgical strikes gave rise to serious veracity issues, which are still to be adequately explained.
However, before further reporting could happen on the two events,a student of JNU,Najeeb,was attacked by the ABVP on JNU campus, and he disappeared from 15 October. JNU was on the boil once again with protests.
In a massive operation of its kind, some 31 people,many Maoists and several villagers, were killed in an encounter in Malkangiri on and after 23 October. As the killing and torture of 9 civilians from the villages became a rallying point for human rights defenders, eight under-trials who were supposed to have ‘escaped’ a high-security prison in Bhopal were shot dead on 31 October, and the whole ‘encounter’ was filmed from several angles. The videos later surfaced, first on social media and then on television channels giving rise to doubts about the official narrative. The media began to raise questions about the killings (http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tracking-from-beginning-to-end-encounter-of-8-simi-prisoners-in-bhopal/article9306335.ece).
On 3 November, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting announced a one-day (November 9) ban on NDTV India for its reporting of Pathankot – an event that took place eleven months ago in January and for which the government was not held sufficiently to account by the media – for allegedly putting national security at risk. The entire media community converged to protest against the move. NDTV went to Supreme Court and the government put the ban in abeyance.
But on the day the ban was to kick in, the government announced demonetisation of currency notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 denominations unleashing financial chaos that touches every ordinary citizen’s life. The trauma of demonetisation is inflicted on a civil society that’s lacerated by the shocking events throughout the year. But the profiteers are already active, cashing in on the new opportunities the miseries of the people put before them.
In all the instances except demonetisation – the Dadri incident, Rohith Vemula’s suicide, Una attacks, Handwara girl’s molestation, Burhan Wani’s killing, Najeeb’s disappearance – it is the poor, adivasis, dalits and minorities who were the victims.
The series of incidents that began with Dadri lynching to demonetisation (some orchestrated, some coincidental) have all caused various kinds of social, political and economic shock and trauma. The year 2016 is perhaps one year during which a series of such events occurred with such relentless regularity. Almost all the incidents gave rise to questions of Constitutional rights and justice.
Paradoxically, the media spin was managed by infusing nationalist sentiments into the public discourse after each of the incidents. Pathankot that followed Dadri lynching with its subtext of a beef-eating Muslim victim drowned out Dadri under loud protestations of patriotism on media. Similar situation arose following the arrest of JNU students, who were severely maligned by sections of the media as anti-nationals, and the following incidents in Kashmir, Uri and surgical strikes gave a further boost to this rhetoric.
Some sections of the media spun the ‘national/anti-national binary’, tacitly supporting the idea that not all citizens are entitled to right to life and free speech.Chandan Mitra took the opportunity to call for the closure of JNU in a vitriolic piece (https://bharatabharati.wordpress.com/2016/02/18/government-should-take-this-opportunity-to-shut-down-jnu-chandan-mitra/ ) written on February 18, 2016.
Newslaundry on October 14, 2015 carried (https://www.newslaundry.com/2015/10/14/swapan-dasgupta-ko-gussa-kyon-aata-hai ) a scathing evaluation of Swapan Dasgupta’s labours in shielding the central government following Dadri lynching and other events. In an opinion piece (http://www.freepressjournal.in/analysis/settling-chaos-of-campus-politics-swapan-dasgupta/766283 )Dasgupta says “the issues that have created disturbances in campuses appear to be increasingly detached from the concerns of the wider society” (he mentions, beef festival, FTII and Jadavpur University),and flags the need for careerism as “a heartening sense of focus and a desire to use the years spent in the campus as a stepping stone to a more fruitful working life.”
This kind of orchestration of the eventsdiscouraged any deeper investigation of the gaps in information surrounding theevents. Channels like NDTV TV India,whoasserted that the job of journalists in a democracy is to ask uncomfortable questions, were targeted on social media and later slapped with the threat of a ban.
Subhash Chandra, a media mogul himself and a newly minted MP who won with the support of the ruling BJP, went on to call for a permanent ban on NDTV! (http://www.firstpost.com/india/ndtv-india-ban-essel-groups-subhash-chandra-rages-against-channel-on-twitter-3092952.html )
In the case of demonitisation too, while some channels bring us the reality of extreme distress experienced by people, the apologists too are at work on media. In an embarrassingly euphoric piece of November 20, 2016, (http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/out-of-my-mind-811-black-money-demonetisation-kala-dhan-narendra-modi-4384981/), Lord Meghnadhexults, “For a few generations, Indian citizens have not been asked to suffer for the national good. This is their chance. It is a day or three while they are short of cash. … The kaladhan has been destroyed. Country is cancer-free. Narendra Modi will be known for 8/11, an event to match Smiling Buddha 1974 and Operation Shakti 1998. … If NarendraModi can be criticised, it is for not indicating how difficult it was going to be for a short while for all citizens, while he slayed the Kaliya Mardan.” (!!!)
And Ashok Malik echoes with, “Modi is positioning himself as both Prime Minister and insurgent. This sets the stage for him to approach the 2019 election as, yet again, the champion of the underdog. From demonetisation to democratisation is, as one may put it, but a small step.”(http://www.ndtv.com/opinion/what-demonetisation-says-about-and-does-for-modi-1627467 ), spinning nationwide economic distress with words like “insurgent”, “champion of the underdog”, and “democratisation”, not forgetting to mention the 2019 election! The shock of demonetisation too is being framed as a patriotic project. Questions arising out of the short-comings in the process are being shouted down.
Being event oriented, the media coverage hurtles from event to event and seldom has time for follow-up stories. Whatever coverage is done, concentrates on the drama of visible consequences and not on the causes and forces orchestrating the events. This is a perfect recipe for the rulers to manufacture shock and awe eventsthat swerve media attention forcefully from one event to another, as a strategy for managing public opinion. Media, bybecoming platforms for drumming up patriotic fervour around each incident, seduce public opinion into believing our own Big Brother’s slogans that “War is peace”, “Freedom is slavery” and “Ignorance is strength”.
India, as a 70 year-old democracy, was negotiating its way towards claiming second-generation rights like the right to work, education, food security and social equality, even as the primary rights (right to life, liberty and free speech) were still being fought for and consolidated.
Over the last two years, the country has been subjected to manufactured turmoil (Akhlaq lynching, beef politics, Una attacks, JNU and HCU incidents, Malkangiri, and Bhopal) that did not just directly threaten basic rights like right to life, liberty and free speech of the poor, dalits, adivasis and the minorities, but set the stage for the shock ofdemonetisation. Demonetisation has encroached on the right of the ordinary people to access their lawfully earned incomes. This is in addition to severe cut backs on social spending.
The series of events succeeded not just in creating shock, they invariably strengthened the coercive state, undermining the Constitutional limits to its power. This is the time to sharpen our abilities to see through the shock doctrine, if we are still to survive as a democracy.
Padmaja Shaw is retired as a professor of journalism from Osmania University.