Tuesday, September 6th, 2016

The strike by 18 cr exposes what’s wrong with Indian media

Nidheesh J Villatt | September 6, 2016 3:46 am Print
Around 18 crore workers went on strike to protest against Modi government's plans to reform India's labor laws, disinvestments in central and state-owned enterprises and opening up sectors ranging from railways to insurance and defense to foreign direct investments (FDI). But the Indian media instead of focusing on their plight chose instead to focus on drivel

Has Bengaluru become the new Bengal? – Banglore Mirror, a popular compact daily run by the publishers of The Times of India, published a report on September 1 with this headline. Confused? You might be wondering how southern India’s most “happening place” is becoming Bengal.

When a friend forwarded me this article on WhatsApp, I was bit confused. But reading the full story gave me some interesting insights on the quality of the Indian journalism, especially much-hyped tall talks on “objectivity” of reporting, as well as the Indian political economy.

The story was about the general strike called by the working class of India on the next day, September 2. Although it could not be independently verified, news reports suggested around 180 million workers, including state bank employees, school teachers, postal workers, miners and construction workers etc participated in the day-long strike across India, protesting against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic policies, especially plans to push for greater privatisation.

The crux of the argument by the Banglore Mirror reporter was that Karnataka, especially Banglore is “heading the way of West Bengal and Kerala” in successful industrial strikes. The journalist went to argue that since Banglore “witness such strikes with alarming regularity”, it is causing much inconvenience to public, especially “office goers and parents of school children”. The story particularly pinpointed about the difficulties created by the “total transport strike” which was described as “becoming the rule in Bengaluru”.

To substantiate her argument on troubles created by the workers strike, the reporter quoted several people. The list includes city’s top “entrepreneurs,technocrats and senior HR officials” of top companies. So you have top guns of India Inc. in the story. You can find Kiran Mazumdar Shah, TV Mohandas Pai, office-bearers of corporate bodies like Assocham, FKCCI etc. All of them were worried about the damages that the strike could inflict upon the “Brand Bengaluru”.

Apart from raising concerns about “Brand Bengaluru’, the corporate world harshly criticized a handful of workers for holding the whole city to ransom by physical coercion. As a must-corporate ritual, they also pointed out the huge revenue loss that the strike could bring to Bengaluru’s economy. D Muralidhar, former president of FKCCI, argued that “per day revenue generated by the city alone is around Rs 120-140 crore and a day’s strike will result in zero revenue”.

All fine. All are interesting arguments. But the story is about the workers’ strike, right? Or for argument’s sake, let’s say the story is about troubles caused by workers and their agitation. So where is the worker’s voice in the story? I reread the story. There was no worker in the story. There were only quotes by corporate leaders with whom workers have an unequal and exploitative relationship. Isn’t it like reporting fake encounters in Bastar or Kashmir by only taking versions of CRPF or army? Isn’t it like reporting farmer suicides in Vidarbha by taking only versions of Monzanto? Isn’t it like reporting demolition of Babri Masjid solely on the perspective of Kar Sevaks?

When it comes to labour reporting, I won’t blame the Banglore Mirror reporter personally. If we critically analyse the content of Indian Media in post-Liberalisation period, it is pretty clear that mainstream media deliberately under-reports and misreports labour struggles and exploitation. “Biased and one-sided reporting is the new normal,” Gautam Mody, general secretary of the NTUI, once told me when I met him for an interview.

Corporate media, as exemplified in the Banglore Mirror report as well as numerous reports published elsewhere, was faithful to its masters in reporting this general strike also. With some rare exemptions, the general tone of the mainstream media reports on labour strike reflects this loyalty. Even though millions participated in the strike, most of the media outlets decided to ignore the deep-rooted reasons for this unprecedented mobilization and opted to report on superficial things like how protest by workers created traffic block etc.

The other strategy is to ignore the massive mobilisations that happened in almost all industrial centres of the country and wrongly report that there were strikes only in “Left bastions”. There was also another strategy to paint workers as a violent mob who indulged in arson and indiscriminate destruction of property.

Corporate media’s highly distorted reporting should be seen along with Modi government’s unparalleled attempts to sabotage the strike. This, as other trade unions alleged, was done mainly through BMS (Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh), the trade union wing of RSS which is also one of the largest workers’ union in the country. “The leadership of the BMS connived with the political establishment to sabotage this historic strike. They tried to confuse the workers by spreading misinformation that government has addressed all major demands raised by the joint platform of trade unions,” AK Padmanabhan, CITU president, said.

Padmanabhan and his comrades who were active in the mobilization said despite circulars and verbal warnings by BMS senior leaders, workers affiliated to the BMS joined the striking workers en masse. “Bharatiya Mazdoor  of BMS came with us and their leaders went with Sangh,” this was how some pro-strike automobile workers in industrial belts of Haryana depicted it. However, Saji Narayanan, former BMS president, argued that opposition unions were using strike to target Modi government for political benefits.

When I spoke to workers and trade union activists across the country over the next few days after the strike to get to the bottom of it, I was struck by couple of pertinent points. The first one is that workers came in large groups to participate in strike even if their union leaders were taking a pro-government/ pro-corporate stand. This was particularly visible among workers affiliated to the BMS. For an instance, workers affiliated to BMS unions in Oil India’s plant in Assam, Coal India plant in Dhanbad, defence manufacturing units in Tamil Nadu etc., actively participated in strike.

Secondly, unorganized workers massively participated in strike. Thirdly, several sectors and geographical areas traditionally unaffected by labour strikes witnessed strong protests. The instance of northeastern states would be a good case. Right from tea plantation workers in Assam (previously general strikes didn’t had much impact in Assam tea belt) to workers in several establishments in states like Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram and Arunachal Pradesh participated. Similarly, Odisha also witnessed more participation. Another interesting case is Gujarat, the paradise of corporates hailed for its successful taming of labour unrest. Protests in Gujarat were also distinct with a militant presence of Dalit workers who also raised voice against their social oppression.

Fourthly, state and managements used police machinery and other repressive tools along with similar pressure tactics to tame workers who were in a pro-strike mood. This was evident in industrial belts of Haryana where workers in automobile manufacturing hubs were arrested. In case of public sector units, workers alleged that Cabinet ministers called their leaders to pressurize workers. This illegal pressure was true in case of several other Central government departments like Income Tax. Chief Ministers like Mamata Banerjee openly threatened workers against participating in strike.

In spite of all these threats and pressure tactics, crores of Indians came together to stand against ill-treatment and inhuman exploitation. How long can the Indian establishment and corporate media portray this kind of a mass movement merely as something that caused traffic block? How long can it be depicted merely as something that causes “inconvenience to public”?

As journalists, can we forget the fact that many powerful Western countries have a population less than 18 crore?

Nidheesh J Villatt
Nidheesh J Villatt
Nidheesh J Villatt reports on political economy, rural affairs and human rights. He tweets @NidheeshJV