Note: In this series of articles senior journalist Amit Sengupta examines the role of the Indian media during the two years of the Covid pandemic.

Part One: Locked up during Lockdown

Even as the affluent and the middle classes were rejoicing the banging of thalis and utensils on their balconies to beat an incipient virus which had just arrived in India, there was bad news waiting around the corner in the summer of 2020. Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a lockdown on 24 March, 2020, in an 8 pm live telecast, giving just four hours to the beleaguered people of India. The lockdown was draconian and unexpected, and led to serious consequences, especially for millions of ordinary people, daily wagers, the low middle class, the urban working class, and the thousands of migrant workers in the unprotected unorganized sector.

The specter of a tragic nightmare was unfolding in India, as a scorching, remorseless and sad summer set in with a vengeance.

“The next 21 days are of critical importance for us. As per health experts, a period of at least 21 days is extremely critical to break the infection chain of coronavirus. If the situation is not handled in these 21 days, the country and your family could go back 21 years. If the situation is not handled in these 21 days, several families will get devastated forever. Hence, you must forget what going out means for the next 21 days. Stay inside your home, stay inside your home, and do just one thing — stay inside your home,” Modi said.

COVID Response Watch LogoThe 21 days, since then, have turned infinite. And in its wake, as the Delta wave in the killer summer of 2021, one year later, one day followed another in mass mourning, dying and death. There seemed no respite. And all this, while sections of mainstream media, especially the audio-visual media, buried its head into the sand, celebrating fake news and glorification of the current regime, while spreading the polarizing propaganda of ‘Covid Jihad’.

Then followed the extraordinary exodus on the hot highways, unseen by the Indian civil society since the horrific days of the mass forced migration during the Partition of India seven decades ago. While most of the mainstream media went into a willful, self-imposed lockdown on truthful coverage, very few reporters joined the emaciated, hungry and thirsty migrant workers and their families on the highways, with their tattered sacks as their only belongings. This reporter discovered that almost all the migrant workers from Delhi were living in cramped and dingy quarters in ghettoized sub-human conditions, sharing one room among many, and surviving in highly oppressive and exploitative conditions on low wages, especially in Noida.

In the Harijan Basti in Noida, almost all the workers had moved on, while the flower-sellers from Bengal waited on empty streets, surrounded by posh residences, while swanky cars swished by. One flute-seller in Noida played his flute, but no one listened. One make-shift tailor pitched his broken-down umbrella, like a mobile tent, outside a gated society, but there were no takers. One presswallah had no clothes to iron, because the people in the gated societies were avoiding him. Even those who washed the cars were discarded. Maids were banned from entering these residential areas, while most were sacked and not paid. It was all-round despair everywhere and there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

Among the innumerable public spectacles of stark tragedy were two which shook the conscience of the national media. One was that of the dead bodies of workers with chapatis strewn on the railway tracks, run over by a speeding train. The other was that of a little child pulling the saree of a dead mother on a railway platform.

However, these images, which mostly haunted the fleeting screens of the social media, did not stay for long, nor did it apparently seem to have any impact on the central government. Like during the deadly Delta wave, it remained cold and detached, as the dark, parallel cinema was being enacted on Planet X.

Instead, the Prime Minister and his devout media started claiming soon after that not only had the regime conquered the pandemic, it had ‘set a record’ for the world to see, and soon it will help the entire world by providing vaccines made in India. It took the Delta wave to prove that yet again it was all a grand hoax, manufactured by the PM’s PR machinery and a section of the loyalist media, too eager to toe the establishment line.

However, truth just cannot be hidden by manufactured consent. Dead bodies were burning in public parks and parking lots. The UP government put up hoardings to block photographers and reporters from reporting on the mass cremations happening in Lucknow. People were dying in hordes outside hospitals and in public spaces due to the abject lack of beds, oxygen and medical help, even while the health infrastructure seemed to have collapsed, especially in states like Delhi, UP and Gujarat, even while states like Maharashtra, Kerala and Bengal, braved it all, against all odds.

Reuters photographer Danish Siddique’s pictures of mass cremations in Delhi narrated the bitter reality on the ground. International newspapers had their front pages replete with mass cremations. Western governments, including the US, expressed serious concern and offered to help.

The Prime Minister of India and his best buddy, the Union home minister, simply disappeared, leaving the country and the capital to its fate. The saga of dying and death continued.

One of the largest-selling newspapers, Dainik Bhaskar, did a page one picture story of a crematorium in Bhopal in mid-April. The headline said, “The government’s data are fake, the pyres tell the truth.” The pictures were flush with the images of funeral fires.

 

Reports started trickling in of fudging of data, especially from Gujarat. The cremation grounds records did not cite the deaths as due to Covid. They were presented as nameless deaths of unknown bodies without identities or addresses. Only the obit pages in the Gujarati newspapers overflowed with condolence messages.

Dainik Bhaskar found that the officially recorded death count for Covid was only one in Bhopal on April 15. However, it was discovered that the three crematoriums in the city had a total of 112 Covid deaths. There was gross fudging of data. A Gujarati newspaper, Sandesh, on April 16, found 200 dead due to Covid while the official death count was 25. Later, Dainik Bhaskar deputed several reporters across the Hindi heartland. It found scores of dead bodies floating in the Ganga river, and buried hurriedly on the sandy shores, with tattered clothes as signposts.

The International Journal of Research and Analytical Reviews posted on 23 June, 2021, an abstract of a study done by a researcher at Amity University. It said:

‘‘India has a scrumptious tradition of print media since pre-independence and post-independence times. Indian print media had a glorious role in the freedom struggle of the country. After independence, diverse forms of media have made and contributed to expostulate democratic values to the people of India. Print media earned credibility by accurate, unbiased, factual, and objective reporting. For the last 5 decades, readers are most trusted in print media (when compared to) electronic or web media. Last few months, with the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the country’s print media has faced many challenges — economically to distribution. Now print media is inconclusive on news and information-gathering, advertising, distribution, and economy generation. Many journalists of our country have been tested positive from the deadly COVID-19 virus. Media houses and groups have slashed production costs and showed exit doors to their employees due to a lack of revenue sources. Print media is facing huge financial trouble due to a shortage of income which comes from advertising…’’

Even while most of the Indian mainstream toed his line unabashedly, Modi reportedly called upon media owners and editors to support his government in combating the pandemic and to provide positive news. What he meant by positive news is indeed unclear.

Clearly, as researchers in India and abroad have stated, the death count is obviously many times more than stated officially. Will the mainstream Indian media indeed go to the ground, investigate and report this grand scam…

Amit Sengupta is Executive Editor, Hardnews and a columnist, currently based in Kolkata


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