On Monday, September 12, violent riots erupted on the streets in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, following the Supreme Court verdict which called upon Karnataka to release 12000 cusecs of water from the Cauvery river to Tamil Nadu. The long-standing debate over sharing the Cauvery’s water has been fought in the courts for decades, with the case eventually reaching the Supreme Court. On September 5, the court ordered Karnataka to release 15,000 cusecs every day for ten days, but agreed to reduce this because of escalating protests in Karnataka.
The media did little to help the inflammatory situation, and if anything, seems to have stirred things up further. Regional news channels in both states fuelled anger on the streets with so much hysterical reporting that the information and broadcasting Minister, Venkaiah Naidu, has since sent out a circular requesting channels to tone down their coverage of this issue, urging them to act responsibly and exercise restraint on covering riot-related news.
It all started when a video of a 22-year-old Tamil engineering student being beaten up by a group of Kannadigas--for allegedly posting mocking memes of Kannadiga actors on social media--went viral on Facebook and was carried by websites in both states on Saturday. A major Kannada channel, which also aired it on Monday morning, referred to the attackers as ‘brave Kannada activists’, claiming that they were ‘justifiably enraged’--the tone of the anchor had very little of the objectivity one expects from news reports. Soon after, this was responded to in Tamil Nadu. New Woodlands Hotel (an Udupi restaurant) in Chennai was attacked with petrol bombs.
Violence in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka
Provocative videos of assaults on both Tamils and Kannadigas were then broadcast on the big Kannada channels on a loop on Monday morning, with the media blowing the incidents out of proportion. When the SC verdict came around noon, Karnataka was already at boiling point. Shops and hotels were attacked, residents owning vehicles with Tamil Nadu plates were harassed and mobbed, and buses and lorries were set on fire in areas like Indiranagar, Mysuru Road and Kadabeesanahalli. Selfies were taken in front of burning lorries by Karnataka supporters wearing yellow and red stoles around theirnecks. Cameramen from several channelsrecorded stray incidents of stone pelting and the halting of vehicles.
Meanwhile, in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka registered vehicles were vandalized as well in Rameswaram, anda Kannadiga bus driver was threatened in a video that aired on a Tamil news channel on Monday. Offices and schools abruptly closed for the day, and children were sent home.
Girish Nikam, news anchor and consultant at Rajya Sabha TV, remembers how the media worked similarly in 1991, when riots brokeout over the release of water to Tamil Nadu during the reign of then-Chief Minister Sarekoppa Bangarappa. Nikam says that families simply left Bangalore en masse, including on foot, for their homes in Tamil Nadu since they didnot want to risk staying in Karnataka. “There was massexodus. I don’t recollect seeing anything like that in the recenttimes. Mainstream newspapers were responsible [back then],” he says, condemning the media’s tendency to sensationalise incidents andbroadcast them on loop.
Incendiary reportage, incensed viewers
Several news channels seemed to incite further outrage with their incendiary depiction of incidents - using the Kannada and Tamil equivalents for words like ‘beaten to pulp’,’mauled’, hammered’ and ‘thrashed’ to describe the violence that was often not so dire. Anchorson Kannada channels alleged that Kannadigas were not being given treatment in any hospitals in Tamil Nadu, condemning the ‘arrogance’ (darpa) of Tamil people.
Some reporters went as far as to provide justifications for the violence. A Kannada news anchor stated,”People on the street are pained because Cauvery is always emotional. This happens every time Jayalalithaa comes to power. What have we done to her that shetroubles our farmers so much? She has forgotten she was born inKarnataka and Mysore royals had provided shelter to her and her motherfor a long time.”
It’s important to note that television channels did not criticize the violence in the first few hours on Monday. Instead, they stoked viewers’ anger who were already feeling ‘victimised’ by the Supreme Court verdict. “I am aghast!” says Girish Nikam. “They have stopped doing journalism and have become agent provocateurs. Instead of asking questions, they provide answers.”
Bengaluru-based journalist and documentary filmmaker Vasanthi Hariprakash, also condemns the media’s portrayal of events. “My aunt saw a youth being beaten up over the Cauvery issue on television in Bengaluru. She felt this was bound to get a reaction since the infuriating reaction alone seemed to be the motto of this broadcast,” she says.
Meanwhile a Kannada channel, featured bytes by a ‘world famous’ astrologer during an exclusive interview on September 12, elaborating on what had, in his opinion, caused the riots on Monday. Dr. Chandrashekhar Swamiji wondered whether it was the white crow (bili kaage as the ticker kept insisting, alongside an image of a snowy-white crow) that he says was spotted in some parts of the state last week. Chandrashekhar Swamiji, a.k.a the Gold Swamy, is well-known as a guru to celebrities and politicians, and particularly famous for the ‘breaking news’ that Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwarya Rai were getting hitched. So, naturally, his opinion on the Cauvery riots is deadly relevant. Especially when he could unravel the mystery of a fictitious white crow that was apparently spotted somewhere in Srirangapatna or a black crow that sat on CM’s car a few months ago. These are considered to be omens of the future: while the white crow apparently signifies troubling times ahead, the black crow on the CM’s car was interpreted as a threat to both his chair and life.
Dr Niranjan Vanalli, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Mysore, points especially to the overtly simplistic and macho tone of the media’s discussions this week, stating that he has witnessed almost two dozen Kannada channels attempt to sustain themselves on jingoism without realising the serious implications of their coverage. “We have arrived at very easily consumable linear narratives today,” he says. “Why are media persons acting like they are the judiciary?” Professor Narayana A, a Bangalore-based policy and governance expert at Azim Premji University says. “Even when Mahadayi (water sharing issue between Goa and Karnataka) protests broke out a few weeks ago, channels didn’t go to the ground level with an objective of understanding the issue. As a result of this, both states have a constant feeling of injustice being meted out to them.”
So it isn’t surprising that Kurubur Shantakumar, the president of Karnataka Sugarcane Growers’ Association, thought the amount of blame being levelled at the media was unfair: “… This is an emotional issue and naturally with failed monsoon, tempers flared. Our media has been largely compassionate towards our farmers’ causes because we saw way too many suicides in the past few years. The judgement naturally hurt our sentiments. We feel wronged and people expressed just that.”
Ajit Hanamakkanavar, head of news and programs at Suvarna TV, also found the blame on electronic media to be unjust, stating that they repeatedly checked to ensure the language used was not provocative: “When we realised the following part of the day would be tense, we appealed to the public throughout our news segments to the public to maintain calm. We took a conscious decision not to run the ‘breaking’ rat race.” He added that the violence was caused by a mob mentality, recalling how there were 18 deaths during the 1991 riots despite there being no news channels at the time.
On the other hand, a senior journalist from TV9 who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the media just did its job, nothing more and nothing less. “We telecast news like we do on all other days. Please understand, Cauvery water sharing is an emotional issue that has been around since ages. We cannot be held responsible for this.”
While the electronic media was creating trouble, social media users from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were sending group messages to ensure people in both states got help, offering places for people to stay, and passing on information about areas with high violence through Google Maps. Others invoked the goodwill of Karnataka volunteers who had pitched in heavily during the Chennai floods in last year. Simultaneously, hashtags naming and shaming particular Kannada channels began trending, telling people to refrain from watching instigating news.
However, most of the damage had already been done.
It is unclear which channel started the race to the bottom on Monday. A good three hours before Bengaluru police announced the imposition of Section 144 as a preventive measure, television anchors on various news channels had begun claiming at 2 pm that prohibitory orders had been imposed within the city. Police commissioner NS Megharikh later said that the delay in imposing the orders was intentional in order to prevent further violence, and urged residents not to believe the rumours on social media and the media.
Shivanand Kanavi, consulting editor at Business India, says that until a more proactive approach is taken by the Press Council, it will be difficult to curb the current trend of regional jingoism, adding that he anticipates the invocation of Section 153 A - which criminalises the promotion of enmity between regional and other groups - given the present political climate. Meanwhile, over a dozen news channels are vying with each other for viewership and sustainability. The regional media and political forces in Karnataka in particular, are on constant tenterhooks, with elections forthcoming in 2018. Although the Cauvery water sharing debate should ideally be discussed between farmers’ organisations rather than in TV studios, the issue has turned into a political tool that may drastically alter the circumstances for political parties.
(Published in arrangement with GRIST Media)