Ranjona Banerji: No questions on Kumbh?

13 Apr,2021

Ranjona BanerjiBy Ranjona Banerji

At least, newspaper headlines – and here I mention The Times of India (dated April 12) in my neck of the woods – lead with India’s rising Covid-19 figures. Violence in Bengal comes second. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi sneaks in above the fold with his “Tika Utsav”: a “big war against Covid”.

Page 2 of the same edition informs us that the PM’s “vaccine drive” has been hit by vaccine shortages in Uttarakhand. Now I would have placed that news next to the PM’s “utsav” story. Anyway.

The big local story, apart from the Kumbh Mela in Haridwar and rising Covid figures, is of course the massive number of forest fires. Those have got excellent coverage, underlining the dire situation.

All the newsworthy situations in Uttarakhand are dire: Covid, vaccine shortages. forest fires, the open flouting of Covid norms at Kumbh.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because this is what news is. It is primarily about dire situations. Plus, how do they affect you, what you should do. It is not PR for the government of the day. No matter how frightening the government and your boss’s business dealings.

Occasionally, newspapers break out of the fear cycle. If my local paper does what it can – covers the news according to established norms – then the Divya Bhaskar in Gujarat went a bit further in a somewhat dramatic manner.

The Covid-19 situation in Gujarat is very bad (although TV “news” will concentrate on Maharashtra for obvious government-toppling reasons). Hospitals are running out of space and medicines. The grills of the gas furnaces at a Surat crematorium burnt after running for 24 hours and other horror tales.

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/surat/gas-furnaces-grills-melt-as-cremations-continue-24×7/articleshow/82008914.cms

With Covid patients desperate for the drug Remdesivir, it was revealed that the state BJP president CR Patil had hoarded 5000 units. When reporters questioned Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani about this, he replied that people should ask Patil. So Bhaskar carried Patil’s phone number as its headline, on April 11.

Over the top, you might argue. But effective. And courageous.

**

And then there’s the Kumbh Mela. Given that 2021 looks like a repeat of 2020, implying that we have learnt nothing about this pandemic, people’s minds went back to the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi last March, which was positioned by the media as a massive “super spreader”. People were arrested, Muslims were vilified, our TV communal warriors went ballistic. As the year progressed, cases were dismissed for lack of evidence and people were acquitted for being innocent.

Obviously, comparisons of media attitudes between the Markaz event and the massive Kumbh Mela being held in the middle of a second wave are being made. And obviously our friends in TV fall short. It’s not they’re not covering it. But when you compare the sort of hatred and hysteria that was whipped up against Muslims last year, you see nothing comparable against Hindus or a Hindu event or Hindu customs.

Try and remember Arnab Goswami or Rahul Kanwal, to name just two. They were baying for blood. Are they doing that now?

Instead, we’ve got the usual fairy tale stuff of how Artificial Intelligence is going to be used to detect people in the massive Kumbh crowds for violation of Covid norms. People in the TV media, especially those that win bogus awards, just love artificial intelligence possibly because they have none of their own. GPS chips in currency notes and AI cameras really appeal to them.

The Uttarakhand government also loves tech fantasies, so we have GPS-enabled garbage bins and whatnot. How much they work is another matter… Picking up the phone and speaking to a local journalist would give you an answer, but I don’t know if that’s permitted in TV “news” protocol.

The other dire story is rising retail inflation and a continuously flailing economy. How much of that is going to make the headlines, do you imagine?

Ha ha.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She writes on MxMIndia every Tuesday and Friday. Her views here are personal

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