Bogey Threats

How India’s newspapers spun the withdrawal of the farm laws

Throughout the protests against the farm laws, mainstream media has made no attempt to disguise its condescension for the protesting farmers. ANI/ Hindustan Times
30 November, 2021

Narendra Modi took everyone by surprise on 19 November when he announced on national television his decision to withdraw the three farm laws. The laws had been a source of popular unrest in Punjab and Haryana since they were promulgated as ordinances in June 2020. But, in the days following Modi’s announcement, a commentariat that had had no inkling a decision like this would be made began conjuring up their own reasons for why Modi did what he did.

Unsurprisingly, they tried to take credit away from the farmers for the struggle they had waged and instead sought to hand it back to Modi—for doing what, in the end, was the only politically savvy option available to him. The evident loss of face for the government needed to be disguised. This was readily provided by the spin that the government had not caved into the protest but had acted to deflect the security risk posed by a disgruntled Sikh minority. It was only a slightly more sophisticated form of the anti-national or Khalistani tag that has been summoned as and when the protests needed to be labelled as dangerous.

After most victories, it is the victors who speak. But, on the opinion pages of the newspapers, it was those who saw it as a defeat who spoke. The Times of India carried an editorial and pieces by the author Chetan Bhagat and R Jagannathan, the editorial director of the right-wing magazine Swarajya—their very choice of “experts” reflected their view on agriculture. The Hindustan Times restricted itself to a lead editorial, while the Indian Express, apart from its own editorial, gave space to Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Ashok Gulati, both willing advocates of the neoliberalism that the laws espoused.

These pieces written in the aftermath of the decision were symptomatic of how the mainstream media has approached the protests from the very beginning. Eight months ago, writing on the farm protests for this magazine, I had noted, “Under the guise of expertise and knowledge, what is evident in much of the commentary in favour of the laws is an upper-caste condescension that seeks to disguise the upper castes’ own rather partisan interests in the matter.” Even though Modi’s decision was a defeat of this very condescension, a survey of the media commentary in the immediate aftermath indicates that no lessons have been learnt and that no attempts are being made to disguise the continued condescension.