The most formidable challenge to sanity and scepticism, so essential to our trade, has come from this dangerous undermining of news at prime time. The old-fashioned evening news bulletin has gone extinct. What you have, on the other hand, is debate after debate on each channel after 8 p.m. And because that debate must be polarizing, vicious, loud and therefore fun, it has to be provocative, anchors have to look stern, disgusted, preachy and so holier-than-cow. Further, since all competing channels look at the same list of stories that broke latest by 6 p.m., there is no time to fact-check, to hold a story up for verification. If the public prosecutor claims Kasab demanded biryani in jail, who can afford to wait until it is checked out with jail authorities. Somebody has said it, everybody has heard it, so let’s go with it, only challenge being how to look more outraged than the rest. The biryani theory had, in fact, been cooked up decades before 26/11 and Ajmal Kasab. Google the siege of the holy Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar in 1993. As negotiations continued with militants who had seized control of the Kashmir Valley’s holiest Muslim shrine, the government obviously arranged for food for them. This was then immediately seized upon by the BJP and its backers, saying Narasimha Rao’s government was pampering terrorists with biryani, rather than storming the shrine and killing them. Of course, no biryani had actually been served. Food was apparently supplied from the CRPF/BSF langar and, as my friend and famous Kashmiri writer Basharat Peer tells me, biryani is not even a familiar dish in Kashmir. Now, when you are fighting vile terrorists, you don’t have the patience to get your culinary imagination right. Or Rao would have been charged with feeding terrorists goshtaba or tabaq maz instead, and the metaphor would have remained confined to Kashmir rather than become a scar on our minds, marking out coronary-clogging biryani as a symbol of Muslim appeasement. It was impossible then not to take the claim of the prosecuting lawyer at face value and launch the shout-rage.
Until he bragged years later, in March 2015, that he had lied to make public opinion angrier with Kasab, and underlined to the entire world how gullible, unquestioning and non-journalistic we had become meanwhile.
Many more recent instances underline this increasing gullibility. The death of two Badaun girls (in May 2014) was immediately accepted as rape-cum-murder by boys of a higher caste. Shortly thereafter, the story of a serial rape as a consequence of love jihad emerged from nearby Meerut. Then, there were the two ‘brave’ girls in Rohtak who beat up their ‘molesters’ in a bus. Lynching of a Muslim man (accused of rape by a Naga woman) by a mob that stormed the prison in Dimapur. The rape of a seventy-one-year-old nun in West Bengal. In each case, almost nobody waited to bring you the story first, with at least the basic facts verified.
The pressure to find issues for the evening’s tu-tu-main-main is much too great today to allow for any patience or scepticism. Each one of these stories caused plenty of what we prefer to call shout-rage. But in the course of days, each one of these cases unravelled slightly different narratives. The CBI concluded that Badaun was a case of suicide; the woman in Meerut had apparently made up the story; so probably had the ‘brave’ girls of Rohtak; the Muslim boy in Dimapur was not only no Bangladeshi illegal but the brother of a Kargil martyr of our army; and finally, while it is reprehensible that an elderly nun was raped, the suspects were (probably Bangladeshi) Muslims and there was no linking it with the spate of vandalism at churches happening at the time. But each one had already been squeezed fully for prime-time value and just nobody was about to apologize.
This is the era of hashtag patriotism and anger. And biryani makes a sexier hashtag than a budget.
No surprise then that even the navy officer who bragged in Rajkot that he had ordered the destruction of the suspicious Pakistani boat in the Arabian Sea said he wasn’t going to capture terrorists alive only to feed them biryani.