Mission Obfuscation: How Tamil Nadu Reels From Engineered Misinformation

Mission Obfuscation: How Tamil Nadu Reels From Engineered Misinformation

by M R Subramani - Thursday, July 4, 2019 11:15 AM IST
Mission Obfuscation: How Tamil Nadu Reels From Engineered MisinformationA students who took the NEET exam failed and committed suicide. The was used by the opposition and the media to paint the Modi government as responsible for it.
  • The heady obfuscation concocted by Tamil Nadu’s mainstream media and opposition is thriving in its hatred for Narendra Modi, but neither the BJP nor the AIADMK has done anything to counter it.

Balakumar Somu, one of the organisers of the jallikattu (bullfight) protest in January 2017, demanding that the sport be allowed to be held in Tamil Nadu, had an interesting anecdote to narrate. He was trolled and ridiculed on Facebook by a man for taking up the cause of jallikattu.

Slowly, the man got in touch with Somu and became his acquaintance. A little before the protests broke out in Tamil Nadu in early 2017, the person went missing. When questioned, he said he had gone to attend a conference of the Tamil Nadu Tawheed Jamaath (TNTJ) that decried idol worship.

That person, a Muslim youth, was in constant touch with Somu during the jallikattu protests, taking undue interest in an issue that he was critical of. On 23 January 2017, the jallikattu protests finally ended after a group of protesters clashed with police, who had to resort to lathi charge to disperse them.

A couple of weeks later, the Muslim youth got in touch with Somu again to reveal something that was shocking. The youth told Somu that he was severely caned by the police. He said that was among a group of people, during the stand-off between the police and protesters, that threatened to drown itself in the sea.

The youth said the police came from behind and caned them all so severely that it took him weeks to recover.

When Somu asked the youth why he took part in the jallikattu protest, when he was so critical of it, he replied that he and others were ordered to take part in the protests by the TNTJ.

This was the first instance when the entire mainstream media (MSM) in Tamil Nadu misled the people regarding Narendra Modi and his government with the support of opposition parties, led by Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK).

After tasting success with the protests and media coverage of jallikattu demonstrations, the MSM and opposition began to look for more opportunities to tarnish the image of Modi and his government. Soon, they picked up a slew of issues in which, the Modi government had minimal or no role to play.

At a park in a central Chennai area, a group of persons were animatedly discussing the results of the Lok Sabha in Tamil Nadu. An elderly person in the group lamented that Tamil Nadu has failed to recognise a honest person by snubbing the BJP and its allies. A middle-aged person in the group shot back: “What has Modi done for us?” to which the elder person referred to the help extended by the Centre to construct toilets, homes and gas connections. “I can show you places in Tamil Nadu that have benefitted from the schemes,” the elderly person said.

“What about NEET, Cauvery and things like Neduvasal?” the youth retorted. The elderly person didn’t want to enter into any fight as he responded saying: “I think you have got carried away by the false propaganda of the opposition and media. Let me forward some responses to the issues you have raised.” The friends ended their conversation there, but it was a clear revelation of what went wrong for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in Tamil Nadu.

The opposition and media tasted blood with the jallikattu protests and their coverage. That gave them the courage to continue their anti-Modi offensive, which immediately extended to the opposition to Neduvasal hydrocarbon project.

Similarly, the opposition and media took chances to criticise other projects, like neutrino in Pudukottai district, the methane gas project in Thanjavur and a couple more. In 2017, Modi and his government became the sole target of the opposition and media on the controversy over the National Eligibility-cum-Entrance Test (NEET) for admission to medical colleges.

Unfortunately, one of the students who sat for NEET failed, and committed suicide. The was used by the opposition and the media to paint the Modi government as the one responsible for it.

Then came the Cauvery river water issue. The DMK went all out ‘demanding justice’ for Tamil Nadu even as early as March-April 2018, when the state needs water from only from June for the kharif paddy. When Modi came to Chennai to inaugurate the Defence Expo on 4 April 2018, the DMK and its allies launched a #gobackModi campaign physically as well as on social media.

The opposition and media had a field day in the wake of demonetisation and implementation of the goods and services tax (GST). Demonetisation was portrayed as something that was targeted at the poor. It was even dubbed as a move to help friends of the central government. The GST in turn was criticised as a move to harass small and medium businessmen by the Centre rather than be seen as a genuine tax reform.

Less than a year before elections to the Lok Sabha, the Modi government was put on the mat for the death of 13 people in police firing during protests to shut the Sterlite copper plant at Thoothukudi. This episode was one that the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) mishandled, but the government at the Centre had to bear the cross.

All the above issues were used by the opposition with active help from the MSM in Tamil Nadu to tarnish the image of Modi and his government. The irony is, as a Tamil adage goes, the blame is on someone else when the sin has been committed by another person.

No doubt, the people in Tamil Nadu got carried away by the fake narration of facts. And it will only be fair for us to examine what really these issues were, something the media in Tamil Nadu failed to deal with or highlight.

First, during the jallikattu protests, two key issues were swept under the carpet. One, the ban on jallikattu came into force because of the use of bulls as performing animals was barred in 2011 by the then Union Minister for Environment Jairam Ramesh in the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government led by Congress. The DMK, which backed the protests to allow jallikattu, held during the harvest festival of Pongal in January, was a key member of the UPA government.

This is the fact but the media played up criticisms of the NDA government headed by Modi and AIADMK government then headed by O Panneerselvam for the event not being held. The MSM simply overlooked the fact that the UPA was the root cause of the sport not being allowed.

Second, once the protests ended, little efforts were made to recognise how the Modi government had gone out of the way to revive the sport. Nor did anyone give credit to Panneerselvam for his efforts in taking up the issue with the Centre and initiating a solution.

While the general public of Tamil Nadu got swayed by the enormity of the protests, the MSM, which was aware of the truth chose to remain silent or even failed to focus on those behind the protests. The Opposition is bound to play politics no doubt but what stopped the media in Tamil Nadu from looking into the elements that took the jallikattu protests too far.

No one ever looked into why the TNTJ, a bitter critic of jallikattu, took an interest in the protests. There wasn’t even a brief mention of this anywhere in the media. Second, organisations like May 17 and Naam Tamilar Katchi besides Social Democratic Party of India, the political wing of the controversial People Front of India, actively took part in the protests. No one highlighted this or talked about the fact that these organisations hijacked the protests even after an ordinance was passed for holding jallikattu in Tamil Nadu.

In the case of Neduvasal, the fact is that the project was finalised by the UPA government, and DMK president M K Stalin said that his party’s government, during its 2006-2011 term, had given permission to conduct a study for the project. The media and opposition only played up the Centre finding a private entrepreneur to tap the hydrocarbon. Again, no one in the media tried to find out if there was any real concern over the project being implemented at Neduvasal.

That was the second instance when the media and the opposition got away with their anti-Modi campaign. By 17 June 2017, it had become 2-0 in favour of the fake narrators. Though efforts were made by BJP and AIADMK to explain facts, they were either ignored or fell on deaf ears, thanks to the proactive false narrations by the media. In this, one cannot also ignore how the fake propaganda gained momentum through social media forwards on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

It is another issue altogether that the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit failed to come up with a narrative to counter such fake narratives.

Again, on the NEET issue, the DMK and Congress got away with the tables being turned against the Modi government. The NEET was introduced in 2013 by the UPA government in which the Congress and DMK were the key players. On the other hand, it was the Modi government which exempted Tamil Nadu and a couple of other states from NEET in 2016.

In 2017, when the Centre was set to allow exemption again, a group of Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) students filed a petition in the Madras High Court that prevented the Modi government from giving the exemption. The petition finally headed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that NEET should be held in Tamil Nadu also.

The counsel for the CBSE students in NEET case was senior Congress leader P Chidambaram’s wife Nalini Chidambaram. Still, when Tamil Nadu medical college aspirants took NEET in 2017, it was the Modi government which was blamed.

Even on the issue of suicide by the girl student, the media failed in its duty to go into the facts. The girl’s brother was under a local DMK functionary’s influence. After not writing her NEET well, the girl wanted to join an engineering course but was prevented by her brother. Did the DMK have a role to play in this? Why was she prevented from joining an engineering course? No one really bothered to find answers to these questions as the people seemed to have believed that “Modi was responsible” for this.

In the controversy over sharing of Cauvery river water, there were a few issues that the Tamil Nadu public ought to have known. Unfortunately, neither the media nor anyone else, including the state BJP unit, tried to put things in proper perspective. This, unfortunately, continues till date.

The DMK, in particular, alleged that the Modi government was delaying the setting up of the Cauvery Water Management Board in view of the elections to the Karnataka assembly in May 2018. No doubt, the BJP had huge stakes in the elections but the party couldn’t make it past the post, leaving the Congress to form a coalition with the Janata Dal (Secular) or JD(S).

However, what the media hid and others didn’t want to discuss was that the Supreme Court ruling on Cauvery came in March 2013 and the UPA government, in which the DMK was a part, dragged its feet on implementing the judgement. The Modi government did seek more time from the Supreme Court last year when it had a deadline until 29 March, but the anti-Modi protests were conveniently utilised to bury what had happened in the past.

In December 1970, when sharing of Cauvery river water turned out to be a problem, the then Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi wrote to the then prime minister Indira Gandhi for holding talks. Gandhi responded by writing that she won’t summon anyone for talks on the Cauvery until the elections got over in March 1971. Why was the late Karunanidhi’s meek acceptance of it brushed aside and away from Tamil public memory?

Second, during the river water sharing talks in November 1974, Karunanidhi conceded 100 thousand cubic feet of water from Tamil Nadu’s share. No one, including those in BJP, pointed out how Tamil Nadu’s interests had been sacrificed.

Yet again, DMK went scot-free without being questioned why it held protests in early April when Tamil Nadu actually needed water in June for its paddy crop in the Cauvery delta. April was clearly two months ahead and there seemed to be some kind of agenda behind the protests. Probably, the DMK had some understanding with the Congress to put the BJP in a spot and thus put the ruling party at the centre in a difficult position.

After last year’s assembly elections, when Karnataka Chief Minister H D Kumaraswamy made no commitment towards water sharing and when the DMK chose to keep silent, its role never came under scrutiny. The same people who had shouted for Cauvery water in April 2017 chose to remain silent when the DMK’s ally Congress and JD(S) ignored Tamil Nadu’s needs.

The bitter truth about demonetisation was that media played up incidents that happened outside the state than what really happened within. There were instances in which some politicians got their 500 and 1,000 rupee notes changed by using their influence in banks. There were also reports of how some politicians used state organisations like transport or electricity boards to change their unaccounted-for money. More credence was given to the statements of opposition politicians flaying the move rather than focus on the real implications of demonetisation.

GST implementation, no doubt, was faulty resulting in chaos. But the media never looked into the advantages of the system, particularly how the collections have exceeded the government’s expectations. Tamil Nadu is one state where traders try to minimise the tax outgo. Again, it is a state where people try to buy things without a bill, fully realising that it results in non-payment of tax though they get the product cheap.

The opposition and media drove the message that GST had resulted in higher prices for products they buy when the reality was contrary to it. Also, they failed to point out how, especially restaurants and eateries, increased their prices under the guise of GST when they ought to have lowered the rates. It was one of the issues that the media chose to ignore and totallym so.

Coming on to the issue of the Sterlite copper plant, even as the protests began for its closure, it was clear that vested interests were behind it. The Tamil Nadu media, in particular, chose to ignore this aspect and gave wide coverage to politicians who backed the protesters.

On 22 May 2018, before police could open fire on protesters, a group went berserk attacking everything they came across. No one in the media tried to go into how a group of protesters got sharp weapons and other things to cause damage, including setting on fire the residential portion of Sterlite plant.

The Modi government was blamed for the death of 13 people in police firing. Isn’t the police under the control of the state government? How many media outlets tried to discuss or portray the issue truthfully?

How or why has the Tamil media got away with these fake narrations? If you look at these narratives in an unbiased manner, it will be clear that this trend set in only after the death of former chief minister and AIADMK supremo J Jayalalithaa in December 2016. The media generally tended to be a little fair as long as she was alive and more importantly since she had filed more than 200 cases of defamation against the media.

With the demise of Jayalalithaa, the state lost a leader who could control the entire state, and in particular, get the best out of the police force. Sadly, it was during her period that the police department got politicised and it remains so until this day. The politicisation of the police force had given a free run to organisations like May 17 or TNTJ, which jump at every available opportunity to protest over any issue.

If one watches closely the developments since Jayalalithaa’s death, it becomes clear that the opposition, particularly the DMK, and the media, are pouring out their frustration, in their inability to destabilise the AIADMK government led by Palaniswamy, on Modi and his government.

After Jayalalithaa’s death, the DMK thought it could come to power soon as it expected the AIADMK to disintegrate due to contradictions in the party. Once Jayalalithaa’s aide Sasikala Natarajan, who nursed the ambition to become the chief minister, was convicted for amassing assets disproportionate to her known sources of income, a part of the AIADMK’s problems was solved.

Palaniswami, who became the Chief Minister mainly because Sasikala and her followers trusted him more than O Panneerselvam, has been able to hold on to his own and has, in fact, ascertained himself better than anyone in the party. Panneerselvam was seen as someone who can break the AIADMK anytime.

Once Modi called Palaniswami and Panneerselvam to the capital and made them smoke peace pipe, it upset and angered DMK and the media to no end. In order to avenge the dashing of their hopes in bringing down the AIADMK government, they continuously targeted Modi and his government.

Often, the DMK and other opposition leaders charge the Centre and Modi of helping the Palaniswami government to survive. No one has bothered to find out or even ask DMK president Stalin, who has made this allegation a favourite pastime of his, one question. Why hasn’t anyone in the opposition moved a no-confidence motion since February 2017, when Palaniswami last won a vote of confidence?

The other reason for DMK’s anger against Modi is that the party had reached out to him soon after Jayalalithaa’s death to help it come to power in the state. But Modi upset Stalin and his team more by brokering peace in AIADMK.

To the DMK’s advantage, the media in Tamil Nadu has been more than willing to do its bidding. While the party owns Kalaignar TV along with a couple of other channels, it gets unstinted support from the Sun TV group owned by the Marans, who are the late Karunanidhi’s nephews. A few other television channels like Puthiya Thalaimurai, whose founder T R Pachaimuthu got elected to Lok Sabha in alliance with DMK, Thanthi TV and Sathiyam TV, owned by Christian preacher Mohan Lazarus, have also become part of the anti-Modi brigade in Tamil Nadu.

An ecosystem to spread hatred against Modi and his government has sustained itself for over two years from January 2017. It continues to thrive without any counter from either the BJP or the AIADMK. Going by the state of affairs in Tamil Nadu BJP unit, it is likely that this ecosystem could prevail in future too.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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