Lights, Kalluri, Action: Attending the IIMC’s Seminar on “National” Journalism

Members of the Bastar Solidarity Network protest the attendance of former inspector-general SRP Kalluri at an event at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi. Saumya Khandelwal/Hindustan Times/Getty Images
21 May, 2017

Early in the morning on 20 May 2017, I set out to attend a yagna at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, in Delhi. The yagna was scheduled to bring up the curtain on a day-long seminar at the institute. The seminar, titled “Vartaman Pariprekshya Mein Rashtriya Patrakarita”—National Journalism in Current Scenario—had been organised by a little-known publication named Media Scan. The event had received significant publicity over the previous few days—citing the yagna as an example, former and current students accused the institute’s director-general KG Suresh of “saffronising” the institute since his appointment. Many criticised the event’s organisers for only including people whose views align with those of the current dispensation—Hitesh Shankar, the publisher of Panchajanya, a mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was reportedly slated to moderate the inaugural session. SRP Kalluri, the former inspector-general of Bastar against whom an inquiry is pending at the National Human Rights Commission, had been invited to participate in a session titled “The Questions of the Deprived Classes.” (Shankar did not eventually make an appearance, but Kalluri did.)

I arrived at the venue at 7 am, when the yagna was scheduled to begin. Both the security guards at the entrance and Ashish Anshu, one of the founding members of Media Scan, who came to the gate, asked me the name of the publication I worked for. “The yagna is for organisers only,” Anshu told me, and asked me to return at 9.30 am. When I returned, I saw that Delhi Police officers had joined the security guards at the gates. (Each person entering the venue was asked to stand with their identity cards in their hands, as the organisers took photographs of them.)

The first session launched a book after which the seminar was titled—a treatise on the current state of journalism. It began at close to 11 am. By this time, a crowd of protestors had begun to gather outside the IIMC gates. Four persons were on stage to speak during the session: Suresh, the IIMC director general; Yogesh Singh, the vice chancellor of the Delhi Technological University; Ashok Bhagat, the secretary of Vikas Bharti, an NGO affiliated with the RSS; and Ashish Gautam, the founder of the Divya Prem Sewa Mission, a charitable trust. Vidya Nath Jha, a news anchor with Zee News, moderated the discussion. Inside the auditorium, close to 50 people had gathered.

“Why do certain sections of the media look at an event like a yagna and react the way that they do?” Jha began, setting the tone for the discussion that was to follow. “There are some people outside the gate also who are raising a big hue and cry,” he continued, “but if you can hold a namaz on any road, what is the problem with a yagna?” The only people who had a problem with yagnas, Jha added, were “designer patrakars.” He then introduced the panellists and presented them with a copy of the book. Singh, who took the podium next, said that it was necessary to acknowledge that India’s education system has failed to inculcate the value of nationalism in students across the country. He proceeded to relay several anecdotes that emphasised the importance of loyalty—to family, to teachers and to the country—before handing the microphone over to Suresh.

Suresh, too, insisted that yagna was harmless. “It is meant to ward off rakshasas”—demons—he said. “Yagna agar Bharat mein nahin hoga, toh kahan hoga? Pados mein? (Where else would a yagna be conducted except India? In our neighbourhood?).” Only fools would think that secularism is under a threat in the country because of the event that was organised, he continued.

Suresh then began to lament the state of journalism, and said that a “media mafia” had been operating in the country for several years. “When I was a journalist, we were taught to report what we saw, not make up our minds about what we wanted to see beforehand,” he said. He recounted a report he had written regarding a mid-air aircraft collision that occurred over the Charkhi-Dadri village in 1996, between a Saudi Arabian airlines flight and the Kazakhstan airlines flight. The bodies of the dead passengers were strewn around the village, Suresh recalled. “Even though all the passengers were members of a certain community,” he said, “I saw only swayamsevaks”—RSS volunteers—“ensuring that all the bodies were pieced back together.” When he reported this, Suresh claimed, the “media-mafia” labelled him a “Sanghi.” “If you waver from their agenda, you will be ostracised,” he said. He warned young reporters to not “fall into the trap” of the media mafia, and urged them to remain true to themselves and their country. “If Burhan Wani is a truth in this country, then so is Umer Fayaz,” he said. The audience applauded.

After the first session ended, I left the auditorium to speak with the protestors outside. (Not a single speaker at the event thus far had failed to mention that that certain people were protesting the event.) Nearly 40 people had gathered outside the gate. Among them were members of the Bastar Solidarity Network, a civil-society collective; Mohit Pandey, the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Student Union; the Bhagat Singh Ambedkar Students Organisation leader Anirban Bhattacharya; and Dawa Sherpa, of the Democratic Students Union. Many demonstrators were protesting Kalluri’s attendance in particular. They held placards that read “Kalluri Go Back,” and were shouting the phrase as a slogan as well.

Current students and alumni of IIMC had also gathered by the gate. Ankit Kumar Singh, a current student, told me that he was not being let in even though he had a valid ID card. “What are they doing inside? Are they conducting some kind of bali [sacrifice]? Why current students like me are not allowed to enter?” he said. (In a recent interview with Sagar, another reporter at The Caravan, Suresh accused Ankit of having a “grudge against the administration,” and spreading information regarding the seminar to media organisations.) Sachin Shekhar, another current student said, “This is a seminar on journalism, all of us are journalism students, and we have questions. Why are we not being allowed in?” Prakriti Sharma, also a current student at IIMC, said that the security personnel were screening students based on their political beliefs, and only those students whose political leanings matched those of the organisers were being allowed in.

The students I met inside seemed to prove her hypothesis. According to Deepak Prasad, an IIMC student who attended the event, the protesters were people with mindsets that “needed reform.” “They call Kalluri a rapist, but Naxals are big heroes in their eyes,” he said. Narendra Soni, another student, referring to the students outside, said, “If you knew that I was coming to your house only to cause chaos, would you welcome me?” A student named Raghvendra Saini told me that students were asked to pay Rs 200 to attend the event. I asked why he didn’t find it strange that he was charged to attend an event at his college. “Koi baat nahin, vasool toh ho gaya,” he said—no matter, it was worth it.

During the brief intervals between two sessions, a poet and comedian named Shambu Shikhar took the stage. Shikhar made jokes about prominent political figures such as Mayawati, Arvind Kejriwal and Lalu Prasad Yadav, all of which were met with roaring applause from the crowd. (None of the jokes I heard poked fun at members of the ruling government.)

The loudest applause, however, was reserved for Kalluri. As he entered the auditorium for the session, the audience—which had swelled to nearly 150 people—began chanting “Bharat Mata Ki Jai,” aggressively and in unison. Kalluri was joined on stage by Buddha Singh, an associate dean of students at JNU, and Diwakar Minj, the proctor of Ranchi University. Rajeev Ranjan Prasad, the author of a book titled Amcho Bastar, moderated the panel. Buddha Singh opened the session, stating that many media organisations have portrayed Bastar in a manner that seeks to defame the police and the state. He added that certain academics make claims about understanding Adivasi communities in the region, but that “all their information is propaganda.” “I come from a campus that is filled with students that call the state and its supporters rapists, but will not call out rapists in their own ranks,” he said.

Both other panellists commended Kalluri for his work in Bastar. When he was finally handed the microphone, Kalluri said, “The way the media talks about me, some people must have thought that I am big and scary like Bahubali, but I am a small man.” “If more than five people in Bastar say anything bad about me, I will quit,” he continued. “This is my launch in Delhi.” He added that the perception of him in Delhi has been authored by some “script writers,” but that would change very soon.

Through his speech, Kalluri repeatedly made jokes about his wife, for which he received loud applause. “Professor Buddha has a loud voice and it sounds like he is shouting at all of us, I ran away from home and came here to escape my wife who has a similar tone,” he said. At another instance, he compared the problem in Bastar to marriage. “Marriage is a union of two people who come together to fight problems that didn’t exist before marriage,” Kalluri said. “Similarly, the problem of Maoism also never existed in Bastar and was created only by a migration of Naxalites from Andhra Pradesh.”

Kalluri went on to accuse academics and civil-society activists of profiting from the plight of Adivasi people, who, he said, have been harmed by the Maoist rebels. “This nexus of academics and foreign NGOs does not want there to be development in India and they do not want Adivasis to have normal jobs,” he said. “I have more than 5 CBI cases against me and more than 24 writs, because, as you know, doing good work is an uphill battle here.” Kalluri concluded by saying that, when his wife asked him why he had come to IIMC when he no longer held a post in Bastar, he said, “Tabadle se ilaka badalta hain, iraada nahin”—a transfer changes your district, not your intention.

Suresh had said during his speech that he did not oppose Kalluri’s presence since media persons would be free to question the police officer. After Kalluri ended his speech, audience members were asked to write down their queries and hand them over to the moderator. Each question began with praise for Kalluri, and in response to each, he repeated his commitment to “helping the Adivasis.”

Throughout the day, I attempted several times to speak with Anshu, one of the founders of Media Scan and the organiser of the event. When I first approached him at noon, he asked me where I worked. “I don’t trust you and the publication you work for,” he told me, upon hearing my response. “You’ve come here having decided already what you want to see.” After I requested to speak to him a few more times over the course of the day, he agreed, and invited me to the room on the IIMC campus in which he was staying.

I asked him about his publication. “Hum Google mein nahin hain,” he said—we are not on Google. He added the publication began as a venture run by him and his friends from college, and that they have been addressing issues such as media practices and ethics for the last ten years. “We organised this event to further the discourse around nationalism, instead of it just being a word that’s thrown around,” he said. Anshu then proceeded to tell me that he was bothered by the demonstrations outside the venue. I asked him if Media Scan had any prior affiliation with IIMC. He said that it did not, and that this was the first time they had organised any event at the campus. I asked him why all of the invitees appeared to share the same political views. “Have you ever seen Teesta Setalvad”—the lawyer and activist who is a vocal critic of the ruling party—“share a stage with anyone from the right wing?” he said. He added that he had been to Bastar several times, and that according to him, the media’s representation of Kalluri is biased. “The people who came to this event are underrepresented,” he said. “Kaun sunta hai Ashok Bhagat ji ke awaaz? Aap sunte hain kya? (Who listens to Ashok Bhagat? Do you?),” he said, referring to the secretary of the Vikas Bharti, the RSS-affiliated NGO. “I’m sure you don’t.”

I asked Anshu whose views he felt were overrepresented in the media. “Arundhati Roy,” he said. “You won’t like Ashish Gautam’s work, but you must be aware of Himanshu Kumar.” (Kumar is an activist who ran a Gandhi ashram in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh.) “Aap jis sanstha se aate hain, woh bhi yeh hi karte hain,” he continued—the organisation you come from, that also does the same thing.