South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Dhaka Tribune on Feb. 08 by Garga Chatterjee ::

When gung-ho posturing happens, the pit-poor daily wage earners like fishermen ultimately pay for it 

In this world of breaking news and constant updates, we sometimes need some distance in time to digest the full implications of an event. A good example is the recent “terror-boat” incident off the Porbandar coast of the Gujarat state of the Indian Union, where a boat caught fire (still unclear how) and sank without any known survivors.

The coastguard and the government at Delhi declared those on board as terrorists, and hence claimed to have foiled a major terror attack. This is especially significant given the maritime route taken by the Mumbai gunmen from Pakistan who had carried out major massacres a few years ago.

Most of the media (with a few but important exceptions) dutifully parroted the official version of things without serious analysis or fact-checking. The incident revealed the state of our media. Beyond hysteria, this event will only go on to affect fishermen who earn their livelihood from those waters.

The media’s duty is first to truth and not to any other agency like the government or army or judiciary. That is why it is considered a separate pillar of democracy. That is why government claims in cases of natural disaster casualties, riots, and many other such things are not taken at face value.

It is understood that the government has an agenda and that, like any other entity in the world, is self-interest. The media is answerable partly to its owners but more importantly, to the people at large.

The interest of the government and that of the people often do not coincide. This basic understanding of the lay of the land is lacking when information from various sources of the government or press releases of the armed forces or the coast guard or any other state agency is taken at face value.

All states and entities of power want to manufacture consent of the kind that helps themselves the most. And the only way to resist that is to consistently doubt the versions of the powerful, and follow that up with intelligent investigations and analysis.

When such doubting is semi-criminalised in public discourse, those are signs of dangerous times. One has reason to be very worried about the prevalent scenario in the Indian Union when senior journalist Praveen Swami is threatened and his effigies were by militant crowds for his reporting of certain loopholes and inconsistencies in the government’s version of things in the Gujarat “terror-boat” incident.

During the 1970s, the Indira Congress government imposed media censorship to control the message. It turns out that now, by media ownership and public threats, the same kind of pressure can be exerted on those who might want to doubt the official version of things and probe deeper.

We do not even need an official declaration of emergency to produce a similar silence. The emerging media culture of blindly believing the government or the army or the police or for that matter anyone on certain sensitive matters without probing the substance of the claim gravely undermines democracy, civil liberties, and people’s sovereignty.

Now that the media and the government have moved on to other hot pursuits, let’s turn to what has happened with other boats in the vicinity of the India-Pakistan coast. About three days after the “terror-boat” incident, Pakistan Marine Security Agency captured two fishing boats manned by Indian citizens.

When gung-ho posturing happens from security headquarters of India and Pakistan, the pit-poor daily wage earners like fishermen ultimately pay for it. The chattering-class and the elite, who are never at the receiving end of anything, do help in creating the atmosphere of animosity for which poor people have to pay, often with their lives.

We do not know when these poor fishermen will be released. Like perverted stamp-collectors, India and Pakistan collect alien fishermen in their jails and exchange them with each other during their periodic confidence-building measures for peace. In this costly charade, fishermen are the cannon fodders of goodwill. This cruelty must end. 


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