Aakar Patel | Lynchings and other atrocities: When ‘news’ is no longer news

The Asian Age.  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Columnists

Not many modern democracies have gone down this path before, setting it upon themselves to use the law and the media to target citizens

It cannot be that there is no damage to our social fabric, and because of the social media one is aware of the anxiety and trauma of the minorities as they face this onslaught. (Representational Image)

News is defined as “information about a recent event or recently changed situation”. There is something missing in the definition and that is the filter that is applied to news. Things that are more important, more interesting and more relevant tend to get picked by news editors and news producers over things that are either seen as less interesting, less important or less relevant. Stories move from the front page to the inside pages and then, if similar incidents keep coming, they are no longer considered “news”.

In the second part of the BBC documentary that this government is upset with, I had said something about the category of violence we call “beef lynching”. In all of my decades in active journalism I hadn’t come across a story of a beef lynching, and almost all of the violence on this issue has come to us after 2015. It was triggered by speeches made by the Prime Minister against what he called the “pink revolution” and then the criminalisation of the possession of beef by BJP-ruled states, starting with Maharashtra and Haryana, triggering the violence.

The question is: has that spate of violence ended? On February 6, a headline read “Many lynched by mob in Assam, locals protest arrests”. The dead man, a Muslim, was accused of stealing a cow. This story did not make it to the television news channels and there were no debates on it. There is no point in trying to convince them to do this. One can assume this is because the media no longer thinks lynching of this sort is important or interesting or relevant.

The same day another story was reported with the headline “94% acquittal rate under Haryana’s cow slaughter law in Muslim-dominated Nuh”. One need not get into the details except to say that it is clear that the police is being used to victimise minorities. Another story, this time from Gujarat, came into prominence recently, though it is from an event three months ago. A 22-year-old man was given life in jail because he was transporting cattle. Stories reporting this carried headlines which were quotes from the judge who delivered the sentence. One was: “Religion is born out of cow; Problems on Earth will be solved the day cow slaughter is stopped: Gujarat Court”.

The reason it took so long for the story to come out in English was that the judgment was passed in Gujarati and the local media, for whatever reason, did not take any interest in the story.

If reported at all, it was likely on the inside pages because, once again, such things are no longer important, interesting or relevant. The interesting thing about the all of these cases are the laws in which the burden of proof is reversed and the State presumes guilt, rather than innocence. In case of the 22-year-old, the law says anyone found transporting a cow without a certificate from the government would be considered as guilty and carrying it for slaughter, “unless the contrary is proved thereto to the satisfaction of the concerned authority or officer”.

The important thing here is not the judge’s observations but the fact that on the face of it, the judgment appears valid. If we write up and pass laws specifically to harass, then we must not be surprised by the results they produce.

In 2019, a man in Gujarat, a Muslim again, was accused of slaughtering a calf and serving it at his daughter’s wedding. The police could not prove this had happened, but they did not have to prove it. The law requires the accused to show that the meat consumed days or weeks or months earlier was not beef. This of course he could not do, and so the judge sentenced him to 10 years. This was later reversed by the high court, which did not give any reason other than to say that it was using “judicial discretion”. It’s possible the high court was embarrassed or uncomfortable by what was being done. But again, the fact is that the judge who sentenced the man was only following the law.

Now let us move past the incidents, if we can, and look at the larger picture. Are we, is the media, having a debate on these laws themselves, which are absurd and designed to target and harm? This is a rhetorical question, of course. There is no interest in such things and they have been going on now for far too long for us to assume that any interest will come. We are all right with inflicting cruelty on others and inflicting absurdity on all of ourselves.

What does this say about our society and our democracy? This is a deeper question, but it doesn’t have easy answers. Not many modern democracies have gone down this path before, setting it upon themselves to use the law and the media to target citizens. It cannot be that there is no damage to our social fabric, and because of the social media one is aware of the anxiety and trauma of the minorities as they face this onslaught.

The end-state that we are heading towards with this ideology, as I have written often enough before, is only more of the same. What has been happening over the past few years will continue to happen, but we will hear less and less of it because it is no longer regarded as “news”.

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