The power and risks of exaggeration: Lessons from the Capitol and the farmers’ protest

Harish Salve repeated to SC the media narrative of “a siege” and of farmers “holding Delhi to ransom”. Counsel Rahul Mehra pointed out that Delhi has 120 border-points and two were impeded by police

The power and risks of exaggeration: Lessons from the Capitol and the farmers’ protest

Kabir Dixit

India awoke on the morning of January 7 to the global hysteria of an attempted coup d’etat in the US. The scale of calamity was compared, often and unhesitatingly, with 9/11. President Trump, we learnt through initial reports, had refused to peacefully transfer power and had incited supporters to violently take over the reins of US government. The resultant violent mob had disrupted the joint session of the US Congress that was underway to ratify Joe Biden’s election.

To those accustomed to “spontaneous crowds” demolishing massive 500- year-old three-domed structures in even less time with complete impunity, the initial global broadcast of a single broken window of the Capitol appeared to be a case of media over-promising and under-delivering on the action.

A video that did send shivers down the spine was of a young woman protestor being shot at point-blank range while trying to jump into a plush Capitol corridor through a broken glass panel. Somehow the gravity of the allegations against the presumed intent of the Trump supporters seemed to justify all violence against them in the name of national security.

No one asked how or why did four protestors die. The audacity of their misadventure seemed explanation enough. Within a week, Trump earned the historical ignominy of being the only US President in 231 years to be impeached twice; this time on the charge of incitement of insurrection.

The danger of exaggeration was again brought home vividly by a showdown in the Supreme Court of India between Harish Salve and the Delhi Government Counsel Rahul Mehra. This was day two of SC hearing of petitions seeking removal of farmers’ protests at Singhu and Tikri borders. Mr Salve with characteristic gusto painted the picture of a city under siege by farmers and in danger of starvation deaths due to tremendous rise in food prices. Salve’s powers of persuasion truly animated this apocalyptic visualization, which came to dominate the hearing. Farmers, it appeared, were waging a war on the city and the Supreme Court must bring relief by ending the siege. With farmers not even represented before the court on the day, the question was who would challenge this version.

Thankfully, Mehra took under a minute to prick and burst the bubbles so carefully created by Mr Salve by simply pointing out two things (a) none of what Mr Salve had said had been filed on affidavit and could not be taken as fact; and (b) as per Delhi Government, Delhi had over 120 border- points out of which only two were partially impeded due to farm protests but not by farmers - by the police. On hearing this, even the Chief Justice of India was compelled to relent, “It seems Mr Salve has overstated his case”.

One can’t blame Mr Salve. The unhinged media narrative around the farmers’ protests was that of “a siege”, of farmers “holding the city to ransom”, “bringing the capital to its knees”; literary flourishes befitting a medieval war with no basis in facts. Thankfully, his averment was countered in court before it could run amok in the news the next day as gospel truth.

It is unpardonable today to suggest even the slightest possible dilution in the narrative enormity of the assault on the citadel of American democracy; a sin to be seen mounting the faintest defence of those established in the narrative as marauding white supremacists and racists who were looking to massacre the elected leaders of the House of Congress on the call of their fascist leader; and a bigger sin still to draw any comparison between the media treatment of those who breached the Capitol and the gross stigmatization by Indian media of the anti-CAA and anti-farm law protestors. The latter after all are fighting for their very survival against a fascist regime while the former are fascism's storm-troopers incarnate.

Yet, someone must run this risk before any protestor is labelled a rioter and any assembly called a violent mob anywhere in the world; before the State machinery anywhere gets a free hand to pursue and prosecute protestors as terrorists or anti-nationals or rioters from within the comfort of a favourable dominant narrative right or wrong.

American administration, however, won't dispatch indiscriminate notices for recovery of damages to every identified protestor at the Capitol à la Aditya Nath in Uttar Pradesh. Nor will it delight in publicly displaying the names, home addresses, and photographs of those accused of insurrection on public crossings.

Even so, allegations of violence, conspiracy, crimes against the state or of endangering national security must be made with great restraint and responsibility against anyone involved in any political action however unpopular. Evidence and proportionality must form the basis of prosecution.

(The author is Advocate-on-Record in the Supreme Court of India. Views expressed are personal)

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Published: 26 Jan 2021, 5:46 PM