Communication Students, Practitioners, and Professors in Solidarity with Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, Rama Naga, Ashutosh Kumar, and Anant Prakash Narayan and Jawaharlal Nehru University

 

 We, students, professors, and practitioners of Communication and Media, condemn the recent attacks by the Indian state on students and faculty at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus. Given the spurious nature of the claims mostly circulated through traditional and social media, we demand an immediate end to all police action on campus, a withdrawal of charges against the President of JNU Students’ Union, Kanhaiya Kumar, and JNU students Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, Rama Naga, Ashutosh Kumar, and Anant Prakash Narayan, as well as an engaged effort to return peace and a climate of open debate to the university. We are troubled by the climate of authoritarianism being actively promoted by the Indian government in educational institutions and the concerted effort by the government to silence critical conversations. We are also disturbed by the attack on journalists by lawyers and goons close to the structures of power.

 As communication studies workers, we are all too aware of the power of symbols. We condemn the active use of propaganda techniques such as doctored images, morphed videos, and communicative inversions to charge students at Jawaharlal Nehru University with sedition. The Orwellian manipulations on media channels such as Times Now, Zee News, and News X render evident the dangers of ratings-driven journalism that has forgotten the fundamental values of balance, nuance, and attention to complexity. For instance, we note that on a Times Now Debate, the anchor Mr. Arnab Goswami actively built up the show on the premise of questionable evidence even as it becomes clear that Mr. Goswami was aware of the questionable nature of the evidence. As later close examinations have demonstrated, a number of the videos were doctored. Further, the suspect videos have been heavily used by the Delhi police in its FIR filed against the JNU students.  What we are especially troubled by is the manufacturing of spin and the further circulation of spin as truth to attack students and to carry out what seems to be a pre-meditated attack on one of the finest institutions of higher learning in India, the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Moreover, What is troubling is that on being pointed out that the key video in question had been doctored up, news anchors such as Arnab Goswami have used strategies of denial and prevarication rather than admitting the error and actively working to then rectify it.

The attacks signal a broader agenda of attack on critical thought that is integral to the research and teaching of the social sciences in Universities. It is the job of Universities to serve as spaces for asking difficult questions, hopefully opening up spaces for new imaginations; these possibilities are erased when the state works actively to silence voices on university campuses.

The danger of propaganda to a democracy lies in its circulation of “us” versus “them” rhetoric to fan the flames of anger. False claims become truths and stir public opinion, even after the very basis of the claim has been debunked. Take for instance, the claim made by News X and later circulated in other channels that an IB report had suggested Umar Khalid’s links with Jaish-e-Mohammed. Even after a story in The Hindu reported that the Government had no such evidence, news channels continued insinuating the link. Later versions of stories reported on the number of calls that Khalid apparently made to Kashmir. Such propaganda works precisely because it suspends judgment, directing the wrath of public opinion toward the member of a minority community. Even if Khalid made 38 calls to Kashmir, this is no evidence of his links with terror groups. In spite of interviews and mounting evidence that point toward Khalid’s Communist worldview, which therefore places him as opposed to religious fanaticism, the witch hunt once started, continues to escalate. Evidence does not matter here. Khalid’s appearance and name are easy targets for further drumming up the propaganda campaign. Recent tweets by celebrities close to the BJP/RSS ideology such as Anupam Kher and Madhu Kishwar attacking the students is proof of the power of false propaganda in feeding a media witch hunt.

We request the Indian state to withdraw its charges of sedition brought on the six students, Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya, Rama Naga, Ashutosh Kumar, and Anant Prakash. As legacy of colonial India, the sedition laws harken back to a past where they worked as tools to silence voices of the freedom movement, and have no relevance in a democratic India. Moreover, in examining carefully the various media data, it is clear that there is no evidence linking the students with the alleged slogans. Slogans are not examples of sedition as their link to charges of inciting violence remains tenuous. However, some of the doctored media reports might as well be classified as seditious as they implicitly provoke violence directed at the students under media trial.

The United Nations offers an overarching framework of media policy that balances between freedom of expression and regulation of media to prevent violence. The lies and implicit calls to violence emerging from a small segment of media point toward the need for developing and actively engaging these regulatory frameworks in the context of Indian media. These calls to violence are particularly dangerous when considering the safety and wellbeing of minorities, with the UN guidelines calling for broad guidelines to ensure media regulation that protects the rights of minorities within democracies. Here’s the UN policy guideline for States:

“States should take steps to build resilience to incitement to violence that could lead to atrocity crimes and prepare contingency plans for the prevention of incitement to such violence. Building resilience entails, inter alia, building State institutions and structures that are legitimate, respect international human rights law and the rule of law in general and have the capacity to address and defuse sources of tension; and building societies that accept and value diversity and in which different communities coexist peacefully. Contingency planning aims to prepare governments, civil society and populations to minimise the impact of incitement and respond adequately to any crisis resulting from acts of incitement to violence that could lead to atrocity crimes.”

 Unfortunately, the media-orchestrated communalized hunt for Umar Khalid calls for immediate attention of the State to this UN policy framework. The policy framework goes on to offer:

“Enforcing laws and ensuring accountability for acts of incitement to violence that could lead to atrocity crimes are important components of atrocity crimes prevention. To this end, it is important that States ensure that incitement to violence is a punishable offense and that those responsible are prosecuted.”

In the instance of Umar Khalid, State actors are complicit in the promotion of violence rather than in calling for balance and calm. The UN framework calls for the state to actively develop training programs, minority sensitizing curricula, and media pluralism, steps that the Indian state would do good to put into place to counter its current climate of persecution of minorities.

Finally, we believe questions such as Kahmiri plebiscite and the sovereignty of Kashmiri people are complex issues that call for more dialogue rather than the closure of the discursive space. The event “Country without a post office” is an excellent example of an important and much-needed dialogue across India on the Kashmiri question, state-based oppressions in Kashmir such as the killings and rapes of Kashmiri civilians, and the right of the Kashmiri people to self-determination. These are the kinds of conversations we hope our students engage in as they strengthen our democracies, holding us accountable to the best of ethical standards. A nation state is strengthened through this vision of communication as dialogue and participation rather than the uses of communication as a tool for manipulation and propaganda driven by the desire to fan the flames of anger to drive ratings, eyeballs, and shares.

The beauty of communication is in opening up spaces, not in shutting them off.

We conclude this petition with the hope that the Indian state works toward cultivating this vision of communication as dialogue. It is after all through such dialogues that robust visions of the nation state are realized.

Sincerely,

Lawrence Grossberg, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Mohan J Dutta, National University of Singapore

Larry Gross, University of Southern California

Wendy Willems, London School of Economics

Anjali Monteiro, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

Shakuntala Rao, State University of New York

Cherian George, Hong Kong Baptist University

Phaedra C Pezzullo, University of Colorado, Boulder

Naomi Tan, National University of Singapore

Raka Shome, National University of Singapore

Srividya Ramasubramanian, Texas A & M University

David Oh, Ramapo College

Walid Afifi, University of Iowa

Elmie Nekmat, National University of Singapore

Bingjuan Xiong, University of Colorado, Boulder

Lala Acharya, Purdue University

Ambar Basu, University of South Florida

Azmat Rasul, Florida State University

Anustup Basu, University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign

Nandita de Souza, Goa

Shiv Ganesh, Massey University

Devika Chawla, Ohio University

Louis-Georges Schwartz, Ohio University

Neha Belvalkar, Film maker, Saint Paul, MN

Kimberly Huff, Bonita Springs

Anirban Roy Choudhury, Manchester

Craig Gingrich-Philbrook, Makanda

Aubrey Huber, Tampa

Heather Zoller, University of Cincinnati

Arkajit Rakshit, Snoqualmie

Melissa Click, University of Missouri, Columbia

Lisa Spinazola, Tampa

Mohan Ambikaipaker, Tulane University

Jessica Elton, Ann Arbor

Khorshed Alam, Tampa

Boulou Ebanda nya B’bedi, University of Ottawa

Heather Curry, Tampa

Michael Catlos, Aliquippa

Soumitro Sen, Greenville

Kristine Clancy, Long Beach

Gargee Chakravarty

Jude Yew, National University of Singapore

Krish Datta, Mumbai

Michael Truscello, Mount Royal University

Uttaran Dutta, Arizona State University

Debalina Dutta, National University of Singapore

Jagadish Thaker, Massey University

Dillon Sellars, University of South Florida

Charles Morris, Syracuse University

Induk Kim, Chicago

Mahuya Pal, University of South Florida

Adolfo Lagomasino, Tampa

Dyah Pitaloka, National University of Singapore

Bruno Martinica, SCHOELCHER

Iccha Basnyat, National University of Singapore

Claudia Janssen, Charleston

Satveer Kaur, National University of Singapore

Cheryll Ruth Soriano, De La Salle University

Shaunak Sastry, University of Cincinnati

Manishankar Prasad, Singapore

Angsumala Tamang, Tampa

Anupam Bandyopadhyay, Tampa

Lucy Davis, Nanyang Technological University

Linda Gallant, Wakefield

Seema Buckshee, Mumbai

Dithhi Bhattacharya

Sun Sun Lim, National University of Singapore

Yi Kai Aaron Ng, National University of Singapore

Mohar Roy

Taberez Neyazi, Jamia Milia Islamia

Amit Tripathi, Jakarta

Tatjana Todorovic, Singapore

Phillip Reed, Akron

T T Sreekumar, Trivandrum

Alyse Keller, Tampa

Stephen Hartnett, University of Colorado, Denver

Zohreh Sullivan, Champaign

Paula Baldwin, Monmouth

Jacob Abraham, Tampa

Renee Botta, Nairobi

Susannah Bannon, Austin

Subhashini Dinesh, Chennai

Arup Baisya, Silchar

Mohammad Ullah

Suranjana Roy, Kolkata

Udayan Roy, Saskatoon

Siddhartha Dutta

Madhumita Datta, Atlanta

David Atkin, University of Connecticut

Chaim Noy, University of South Florida

Junyoung Kim, University of Iowa

Hyung Nam, Portland

Kallol Guha

Celia Keenan, Dublin

Swetha Dandapani, Hyderabad

Ingrid Hoofd, Utrecht University

Tessa Houghton, The University of Nottingham

Harsh Taneja, Evanston

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