Gajendra, BJP and the Propaganda Machine
The tragic death of a farmer from Rajasthan occurs at a rally organized by the Aam Aadmi Party on 22 April 2015. The farmer, Gajendra Singh, hangs himself from a tree in full public view of the demonstrators, the media, the police. The electronic media had till then been barely covering the event, generally holding forth instead, in studio ‘debates’ among the opponents of AAP. Once this happened, the media spin doctors swung into action, and as Rajdeep Sardesai tweeted later, they seemed to work on an already decided script. Sardesai’s tweet said that there were clear instructions from the BJP to the media to focus only on the hung/ dying (or dead) man, and forget the rally. It seems, on a closer look, that the the second part of the instructions had perhaps already been given in advance – not to cover the rally and if at all, to attack it in sponsored studio debates. And of course, the BJP, which is the architect of the new Land Acquisition Ordinance, is an interested party in this game.
It is not entirely irrelevant to the overall politics of the media-BJP spin doctoring of ‘reports’ that the AAP government in Delhi was perhaps the first in the country to announce what is without doubt the highest compensation to farmers suffering crop losses – Rs 50, 000/- per hectare for all farmers who have suffered damage. Nor is it entirely irrelevant that the Delhi government had lent full support to the anti-land acquisition struggles and Kejriwal had himself joined in the rally held by Anna Hazare and had now taken up the land issue in all seriousness.
Thus it happens that between the BJP and the big media propaganda machine, which has on at least two previous occasions completely blacked out AAP, the stage was set. Also at work in the media-AAP relationship over a longer term now, is the role of Mukesh Ambani’s media empire, given that on a range of issues AAP has directly challenged the latter. As an aside, let me add that a very senior journalist told a friend at the height of the Delhi election campaign, that in CNN-IBN/ IBN7, clear instructions had been issued to the staff not to give more than 20 seconds exposure to Arvind Kejriwal under any circumstances. If AAP swept the Delhi elections despite that, it must say something about the limits of the media game, at least as far as the majority of the population is concerned.
This time round, there was another constituency that was waiting to move into action – the Delhi elite, especially the radical elite whose hatred of Kejriwal is simply visceral, but which had been just about tempered by the presence in his team of People Like Themselves, darlings of the media. The latter had, to use an old Maoist expression, ‘wormed its way into the party’ and was intent on fighting an ‘ethical battle for inner party democracy’ against the ‘fascist Kejriwal’, a battle in which they were fully backed by the Ambani dominated media.
As an ironic aside, let it be stated that their idea of democracy will of course never extend to demanding transparency and accountability from either Mr Ambani or his big media empire. And it is this empire that will be the tribunal on inner party democracy. They will judge who is democratic and who is a dictator!
So, the stage was set: Kejriwal the fascist, organizing a farmers’ rally, who had now issued what Times Now repeatedly referred to as “Kejriwal’s gag order on the media”. Did they even stop to think what they were saying? Or was it deliberate ‘disinformation’, to use an old cold war term? The reference here is to a story published in The Hindu, based on police sources who said that “security personnel were asked to restrict members of the media from entering the venue of a function where Mr Kejriwal was in attendance.” Clearly this was not meant to prevent the media fr0m ‘entering the venue’ of the rally. To my mind, it simply prevents the media from barging on to the stage or pursue Kejriwal personally only to deluge him with their nonsensical charges, as a matter of right. That’s a gag order? Was the media not permitted to cover the rally in any way they wanted? Did the chief minister’s office issue any order prohibiting the publication of reports against it?
And while we are at it, the same newspaper, for reasons best known to them, also published another report with screaming headlines running across an entire page saying “AAP ignored suggestion to shift rally venue”, once again entirely from police sources. The point of this so-called story was that if they had not been obstreperous and changed the venue, there would have been no trees for Gajendra to hang from! So, the story seems to say, always listen to Delhi Police; they are your true benefactors. The mindlessness of this story is mind-boggling, for there is no reason for a newspaper not to know that Delhi Police’s reasons for moving all protests out of central Delhi have nothing to with any concern for anybody but themselves. If they had their way, they would not allow any protest anywhere at all.
The Radical Indignation Industry
So this constellation of forces ensured, as far as the BJP and the big media is concerned, that the radical indignation industry was also ready to be moved into action. They knew which buttons had to be pressed in order for the radical indignants to launch, in their by now familiar lynch-mob mode, an attack from the Left – for an attack from the Right was no longer credible on the land acquisition question. The prime necessity was to deflect the debate away from the issue of land acquisition and Gajendra’s suicide provided the truly melodramatic moment for that. No one – not the media, not the BJP and the Congress, not the radical indignants, not the Delhi police – was interested any more in anything else but taking down the dictator. Never before in my living memory have I seen such a unity of purpose. All attack was now focused on Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘inhumanity’ in continuing with the public meeting even as Gajendra Singh was dying. Gajendra Singh’s suicide became merely the occasion for the playing out of all manner of fantasies – political or otherwise. Who was interested in Gajendra Singh himself?
The BJP, of course, did not lose a moment to demand that Gajendra’s kin be paid a compensation of Rs 5 crores saying that
“The chief minister failed in his basic duty of asking the hundreds of his party volunteers who were present to make an effort to climb the tree and save the farmer… On the other hand, he kept giving his speech,” said Delhi BJP chief Satish Upadhyay.
Almost in a similar vein, but marking his radical pose, a professor of philosophy observed in a Facebook comment:
“What exactly is the difference between a set of grinning ‘leaders’ watching a gumbad crushed to dust and another set of scowling ministers watching a man preparing to hang from a tree?
Philosophy perhaps gave this professor the insight to see what Kejriwal and others could not: that the man was preparing to hang from the tree. But philosophy could not alas, tell him the difference between an accomplished act – the destruction of the mosque and an act that lies in the future (‘preparing to hang’); nor could it let him see the difference between a willful act of destruction, perfidy and treachery, namely the destruction of the Babri Masjid after committing before the Supreme Court that they would not let anything happen to the mosque; and on the other hand, what can at best be described as an act of omission. But as we will see later, this was not even an act of omission.
Nearer home, fellow Kafilaite, Apoorvanand has this to say about Gajendra’s effort to attract the attention of AAP leaders:
The AAP leaders did notice his attempts to draw their attention and this was construed by them as a conspiracy to distract the masses and more importantly media, through his act. In fact, one of them said that he should come down as they have seen enough of such antics. He was thought to be diverting mass attention from a crucial issue. (emphasis added)
At another point in the same article, Apoorvanand goes on to say:
‘Latak gaya?’ was the first, spontaneous reaction from the stage to the news of the death of Gajendra by hanging. It is not easy to convey the moral casualness of these words. I have been trying to translate it into English and find myself failing to find words to communicate the indifference, the casualness, coldness, even cruelty which ooze from this phrase.
It is well known that as on many other issues, we in Kafila do not make a virtue of our agreements; indeed, we delight in our disagreements and have openly debated each other on the anti-corruption movement and AAP. It is not the opinion that Apoorvanand expresses here that is important from my point of view but quite simply the misrepresentation of facts that is involved in this statement – as will be evident from the discussion below.
We could go on sampling a whole lot of opinions expressed in this mode in the past few days but let these two suffice for the moment, as representative of a certain genre. As Ashok Vajpeyi noted recently (in another context) in one of his columns in the Jansatta, there is no thought any more; there are only opinions. The social media indignation industry is both a vehicle as well as a consequence of this death of thought and its supplanting by opinions, often expressed obsessively ten times a day, with the tap of the keyboard.
The Event and the Reportage
Given the huge amount of propaganda that has now submerged the actual issue at stake as well as the actual sequence of events, it is instructive to go over these developments at some length. Here, below is a video clip from NDTV India that shows exactly what was happening on the dais when events started unfolding.
In this video, three things are quite evident in the way Kumar Vishwas addresses Gajendra, the audience in general and Delhi Police: first, there is a general appeal to Gajendra to come down, then there is an appeal to the audience to bring him down or help him come down. Second, there is a continuous appeal to the police to act and perform their duty, if need be, climb the tree to bring him down. Third, there is a rising tone of panic as police choose to completely ignore appeals from the dais and the man refuses to come down. It is at this stage of panic that Vishwas begins to ask if there is a plan here in this inaction?
On the dais we see Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia among other AAP leaders, sitting cross legged, while we hear the voice of Kumar Vishwas addressing the audience, though he is not in the frame:
“Doston, jo bhi hamara saath perh par chadh gaya hai usse hamara yeh kehna hai ki voh neeche aa jaaye..agar neeche aa jayega to zyada behtar hoga.” [Friends, whichever of our comrades has climbed up on the tree, we want to say to him, it will be better if you please come down…]
He goes on to invite him to the dais: “neeche aa jaayen, manch par aa jaayen, mukhyamantri mil lenge aap se, up-mukhyamantri mil lenge.” [Please come down and come to the dais, the chief minister will meet you and the deputy chief minister will meet you]
It is around this time that two people come close to the dais and we see Sisodia and Kejriwal lean forward to hear the report from them. By this time, clearly some time has elapsed and we notice the calmness in Kumar Vishwas’s voice give way to a certain panic. From around this time we see more and more of Kumar Vishwas in the frame and we can see him often looking helplessly at the other behind him on the dais and obsessively continuing with his appeals. Nothing seems to be having any effect on Gajendra but not on the police as well, who we know, from other accounts too, were standing right there. A little later into the video we will see the policemen on duty smiling nonchalantly while one of them talks on his walkie-talkie. Entreaties now begin to give way to a certain panic as Vishwas then begins to ask why the person perched up on the tree does not come down. Is there some plan behind this? (Kya yeh yojanabaddh tareeqe se kaam ho raha hai? Do mahine se kendra ki sarkar pareshan hai ki kisee tarah se Arvind Kejriwal ki sarkar to badnaam kiya jaa sake.)
But then there is a change of tone again. This time Vishwas addresses the audience in general. Ham sabse baat karne ko taiyar hain. Lagatar samvad karne ke liye taiyar hain. [We are ready to talk to everybody; we are ready for continuous dialogue]. And then addressing the audience: jo bhi hamara saathi hai use neeche lekar aayen. [Please get this comrade of ours down from the tree]. At this point, the panic returns and the address is now directed at the police directly: Police are requested to climb the tree and get the man down. There is no response from the police. Kumar Vishwas repeats his plea to the police and then on seeing complete lack of response, turns to audience. “Police wahan neeche baithee hai, to kya aap yojana bana kar kaam kar rahe hain. Aap kisanon ki lashon se khelte hain…Dilli police se anurodh hai ki ve aisa kaam na karen…” [What is the police doing? They are sitting right there under the tree? Does it mean they have a plan according to which they are not acting…You play with the dead bodies of farmers. We request Delhi Police to refrain from doing such things…]
Having said this Vishwas then calls upon Sanjay Singh to come and address the audience – to take the proceedings back to what the demonstration was intended to be for in the first place. And then, before Sanjay Singh can come up, he turns once again to say “what is going on”, and “if this is going on right in front of the police, then is there a larger plan”? We can surmise that at this stage there might have been some further development. Perhaps, the man had tied the cloth around his neck – after all he did stay in that state for quite some time. And then in the inset, we do see Gajendra with the white cloth tied around his neck standing on the branch of the tree. The police remained completely unmoved right through and one there seems little room for any doubt that like the media, they too perhaps, were under instructions – in their case, not to act.
One thing however, is quite clear from this video – that at no point did the leaders from the dais use the kind of language that Apoorvanand suggests. Apoorvanand in fact makes a lot of the words ‘latak gaya’ – apparently used by someone on the dais, as the first reaction to the death of Gajendra Singh – as can be seen in the second quote from him above. If the words ‘latak gaya’ were indeed uttered from the dais (by whom, we are not told), they seem to me to have come in at the end of the whole series of statements and acts that I detail above, which then give us a different picture, even if the language does not fit in with the language sanctioned by the literati for expressions of sorrow or grief. (That is why it is important to state who used these words, and when). In fact, it will be evident from the description above that all through, Gajendra is being invited to come down and come to the dais. Frankly, I do not see what else they could have done short of climbing the tree themselves. And who could have known whether this was actually a prank or someone preparing to hang himself?
Now, just in case I am accused of depending on one single report, let me also state that a journalist who was present there recounted almost exactly the same series of events as this video shows. She in fact, asserted that all through, attempts were being made from the stage to ask people to help and finally at one stage, after Gajendra’s body was brought down, people were so agitated at the inaction of the police, that they wanted to actually fight with the police, at which all the effort of the leaders and volunteers was to prevent matters from escalating.
[Addendum: Since this post was published, my attention has been drawn to an eye-witness account of the events by Kumar Keshav in Teekhi Mirchi. This account not only affirms everything said above but gives some important additional information as well.]
It is interesting how this media-BJP-elite concert worked. Even a sober paper like Jansatta carried a piece by Apoorvanand quoted above, (also published on Kafila) with an accompanying photograph, now widely circulated, of Kejriwal and Sisodia looking out at something at some distance – presumably Gajendra at some stage of his being up on the tree. This photograph was accompanied with the blurb ‘kisan ki maut ke tamashbeen bane aap neta’ (or some such thing). Jansatta had been largely sympathetic to the Anna Hazare movement and AAP till it decisively turned against it following the split with the Yadav-Bhushan group. In the way in which the media spin doctors worked to produce a specific narrative and a particular image of a farmer driven to suicide – not by the non-payment of compensation by the BJP government in Rajasthan – but by the AAP leaders, the indignation industry could not but lap up the bait. No questions need be asked then. This is how lynch mobs work. Indignation, indignation and indignation – without giving you a moment to actually step back and ask for evidence, or cross check different narratives in circulation.
No questions were asked then; no questions are being asked now, when Delhi Police has filed three FIRs (also detailed in the video clip above) – all against AAP. No questions are asked as to how it happens that Home Minister Raj Nath Singh says exactly the same things in Parliament that are being said by the Delhi Police. The conscience keepers of our society who are so revolted at the happenings as reported by the big media, have not a word to express for the absurdity that even the common man on the street can see – that of holding AAP responsible for abetting suicide. Let the BJP first finish AAP, with the help of the radical indignation industry, then they can deal with all others, one by one, till the last radical is rooted out or incorporated into the real fascist machine that is at work all the while. Those who are fond of dropping Pastor Niemoller’s “First they came for the socialists…” at the drop of a hat, will perhaps once again have history pass them by, leaving them to write more poems of helplessness.
Often during times like these, I am reminded of an episode from my days as a young CPI(M) activist. Politburo member, M. Basavapunnaiah was explaining to us the party’s stand on some complicated international issue. some questions challenging the party’s stand were raised in the meeting. At this point, Basavapunnaiah responded by saying that ultimately, it is a question of horse-sense: When a horse gets lost in a forest, it must rely on that sense. For us this horse sense, he said, is determined by figuring out where US imperialism stands. We must go the opposite way. I found this a useful advice to keep in mind. It may not always work, especially if one were to reduce it to yet another formula. As an intuitive ‘horse-sense’, however, it is always useful to figure out where the BJP, in its most fascist manifestation, stands today. Our conscience keepers can of course, choose to die fighting AAP just as their forebears spent their energies fighting the Social Democrats (social fascism was considered another kind of fascism by them) while Nazism sailed into power. Those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.
Meanwhile, just to complicate our story a little more, let us turn to the different accounts that have appeared in the media, submerged by the propaganda machine, about Gajendra Singh. They may not add up to anything but they certainly throw into question the picture of a poor farmer driven to suicide. We do not now, and may perhaps never, know what drove him to the desperate act that he performed on 22 April, but these accounts leave us with a large number of unanswered questions.
Gajendra Singh and Land Acquisition
According to some reports, Gajendra Singh was protesting against non-payment of compensation for the damage to crops due to the recent unseasonal rains. Singh’s family plot of land apparently did not qualify for ‘required’ 33 percent for a farmer to become eligible for compensation, says Kailash Sharma, Additional District Commissioner of Gajendra’s home district, according to an Indian Express report. Another report in The Huffington Post quoted family members, especially Gajendra’s uncle, to the effect that he “was under stress and disturbed due to crop loss”. Some initial reports had also stated that while up on the tree, Gajendra Singh had been raising slogans against the BJP’s Vasundhara Raje government, shortly before he committed suicide.
Two days later, on 24 April, however, another report gave a completely different picture of Gajendra. Take this from a report from the Business Standard for instance, that describes him as a artisanal entrepreneur:
Gajendra Singh Kalyanwat was, if one is to go by his website jaipurisaffe.com, what would be called an artisanal entrepreneur. In the slider on his site, he can be seen tying colourful Rajasthani headscarves for BJP leaders Rajnath Singh and Murli Manohar Joshi, Nepal’s Vice-President Parmanand Jha, and even officials working with the royal family of Jaipur.
The same report cites one of Gajendra’s siblings, Vinod, via the Indian Express, who ‘trashed’ talk of her brother being upset over crop loss. “Why would he commit suicide? And that for being upset over crop loss. This is absolute rubbish. My brother wasn’t a petty farmer. He was a big person,”’ he told the Express (the report is a bit confused about the sibling’s gender!).
Another report on 23 April, stated other details about Gajendran’s political life:
Singh began his political career with the Bharatiya Janata Party. He took part in local events of the party and had even wanted to fight elections for the BJP. In 2003, when Singh did not manage to get a ticket from the BJP, he joined the Samajwadi Party.
He fought elections in 2003 but faced defeat at the hands of BJP’s Alka Singh. Despite his loss, he continued to remain in politics and was a member of the SP till 2013. During this period, he took became a district president as well as became a member of the state working committee
In 2013, in a hope to get a ticket to contest Vidhan Sabha polls again, Singh switched to Congress. But when he did not get any positive response, he joined the AAP.
Not a very neat and comfortable picture here. It is possible that Gajendra Singh was disturbed for reasons that may or may not have anything to do with the destruction of his crops. He did however, come to the AAP rally along with thousands of farmers facing acute agrarian distress, exacerbated by the threat posed by the Land Acquisition Ordinance. This is the burning issue that got pushed aside, not so much by his tragic death, as by the orchestrated way in which it was deployed through a fascist propaganda machine, with the radical indignation industry in tow. Suicides like Gajendra’s often happen, not because the person concerned individually suffers but because of the overall sense of doom that envelops him or her regarding the fate of the social group to which s/he belongs.
Remembering Another Suicide
I cannot but help recalling here another suicide that took place almost two decades ago. That too was a suicide right in the middle of a struggle but in an atmosphere of total despair. It was May Day, and the year 1997. A few months ago, the Supreme Court had ordered the relocation of polluting industries from Delhi. In the eleven years that the case had been going on, the workers who worked in those factories were never made party to the dispute – despite the fact that it was they who were first affected by the pollution caused by the industries in which they worked. A movement developed that took shape under the banner of Delhi Janwadi Adhikar Manch and it was this forum that had called for a May Day rally to focus on the issues of the workers rendered unemployed by the Supreme Court’s order. The rally proceeded from Ferozeshah Kotla grounds towards Jantar Mantar, and as it crossed the ‘press area’, there was a minor agitation among the workers who were legitimately angry that the press had completely blacked out their struggle and their problems. They were pacified, and as we walked, I spoke to some of the more agitated ones. The situation of people in the rally was desperate. One of them, Sarvesh Chand, was particularly agitated but did not seem to me to be really disturbed or unstable in any serious sense. However, as we reached Jantar Mantar and proceeded towards Parliament Street Police Station, Sarvesh Chand immolated himself – right there in front of all of us and the police. And there was nothing we could do. There were no blankets at hand to even douse the fire. It was a general sense of paralysis – and it took quite a while before Sarvesh could be taken to RML hospital. He was in the casualty ward for a few days, after which he succumbed to his injuries.
To all those who have pronounced their final judgements on the AAP leadership, I can only say that going through that experience was humbling. One realized that one is not always in control of situations, even when one thinks one is. Organizing and leading struggles is a far more difficult job than reading Dimitrov on fascism and ‘applying’ it mindlessly to situations that bear no relationship to those days of the mid 1930s.
Today, there is general despondency all around in the agricultural sector and there are many reasons for it. Longer term issues like indebtedness to more immediate ones like crop damage of course, but what stands up over and and above everything else at the moment is the spectre of land acquisition. That is where the great battles of the recent past have been and those in the near future are going to be fought. It is an issue that calls for the most concerted and coordinated struggle at all levels. From joint mass struggles on the ground to independent mobilizations by different parties, policy level interventions as well as intellectual interventions in public debate – all need to work in tandem. Mutual allergies are often unavoidable but it is imperative to recognize that the larger battles are far more important. Nothing less than our collective future is at stake – at least Gajendra’s death should bring us to this realization.