Lanka policy gets media flak

IN Media Practice | 24/03/2013
The Tamil Nadu-based media exerted high decibel pressure on Indian foreign policy with regard to Sri Lanka.
MAYA RANGANATHAN sees this is as a recasting of public space. Pix: the 12-year-old Balachandran

The differences in media on India’s stand on the US resolution in the UNHRC against Sri Lanka for war crimes seem to have dissipated post-vote. Indian media is united in opinion that the UPA-led government at the Centre bungled yet again: the English language media and those in other regions berate it for succumbing to pressure from its electoral ally, the DMK in Tamil Nadu, and the Tamil media in Tamil Nadu for ignoring the pressure from the State.

While the policy implications of either of those arguments in a globalised world and in a country run by a coalition comprising regional parties are best left to policy-makers and constitutional experts to analyse, the media coverage in the run-up to the UN vote and its impact upon the people and polity is significant for two reasons. First, it signals more ways in which media in general and regional media in particular recasts the public space, an area effectively theorised by Robin Jeffrey in the context of the boom in the regional press in the 1970s; Arvind Rajagopal in post-television India of the 1990s; and more recently Ursula Rao in the context of news as culture. Secondly, it shows how domestic political or electoral estimations have come to exert “strong influence on Indian polity towards the problems of another country.”*The latter issue is more complex in a state like Tamil Nadu where media and domestic politics are enmeshed.

It could be argued that the present outpouring of outrage and grief over the plight of the thousands that perished in the culmination of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009 is to be expected given that pan-Tamil rhetoric has been the staple of both the regional media and politicians in Tamil Nadu. The ‘Tamil Nadu factor’ clearly at variance with the ‘national nodal point’ was apparent in earlier instances too concerning the ethnic issue in Sri Lanka: in the protests that followed the rejection of petition for clemency of the accused in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case in 2011 and the adoption of the resolution in UN seeking a probe into war crimes in Sri Lanka in May 2012. The current protests in the State are however, markedly different from those in the past, in that they are not only being led by students and have spread across the State, but also in that the protestors seem independent of political party affiliations, the first ever in the case of a political issue. More significantly, the events stand out for their efforts to influence India’s foreign policy, which has seldom been contested so in the past.

The sentiments of the people in Tamil Nadu became apparent following two stories in the news media, Callum Macrae’s Opinion carried in op-ed of The Hindu on February 19 and ‘No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka,’ aired on the channel Pudhiya Thalaimurai, with commentary in Tamil. While the contents of both are disturbing, the accounts enjoy more credibility owing to the media houses that published them. The Hindu’s stand on the LTTE, its assessment of its supremo V Prabhakaran and the means employed by him are too widely known to be repeated here. Post-war, it was one of the first media organisations to report directly from Sri Lanka with the then editor N Ram visiting the IDP camps facilitated by the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry. The July 2009 report, while castigating the LTTE for using its own people as human shields against the Sri Lankan forces, had credited the latter with eliminating a terrorist organisation in a ‘low-intensity military conflict’ and rescuing 300,000 Tamil civilians, in what was described as a ‘poignant human drama’. Today the picture of the son of the LTTE supremo, the 12-year-old Balachandran munching a snack, that first accompanied Macrae’s piece in The Hindu has become the ‘face’ in the protests with hundreds and hundreds of students donning the mask. However, it must also be noted here that The Hindu’s warnings on pursuing the demand for a separate state of Eelam has had few takers. Meanwhile, the documentary on Pudhiya Thalaimurai, a channel devoid of political leanings and seen as the most credible of the Tamil satellite television news channels in the State, has been more effective in driving home the plight of the Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka during the war than any other account going by the discussions in social networking sites.

Television viewers are only too familiar with 24x7 TV news channels attempts to influence external affairs. But media nationalism has seldom had an impact on foreign policies. The regional factor played an important role in the issue of the UNHRC vote not only because media and politics are inextricably intertwined in Tamil Nadu adding to redoubled pressure, but also to the evolution of coalition politics at the Centre with the Dravidian parties playing decisive roles. It is a moot question if and how the withdrawal of the DMK would affect the UPA now, but with coalition governments at the Centre coming to stay, their potential to impact upon not merely national policies, but international as well, cannot be ignored. On one level, such processes could amount to a strengthening of the democratic process, but on the other, they could also lead to further complexities eventuating in the re-imagination of a nation-state already compounded by enormous diversities.

Media is yet to become ‘the central and source point of influence’ but it seems to be exerting far more influence than ever before in the age of evolving media platforms when information has become the most easily available and in some cases least expensive, commodity. This adds yet another dimension to the current debate on media’s responsibility and its ability to comprehend and convey matters as complex as international diplomacy.

*Robin Jeffrey, India’s newspaper revolution: capitalism and politics of the Indian language press,1977-99 (UK, C Hurst and Co., 2000); Arvind Rajagopal, Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India (UK, Cambridge University Press, 2001); Ursula Rao, News as Culture: Journalistic Practices and the Remaking of Indian Leadership Traditions (New York, Berghahn Books, 2010) and Ashok Malik and Rory Medcalfe, India’s New World: Civil Society in the Making of Foreign Policy, (Internet resource,,_India%27s_new_world_web.pdf, accessed on Jan 21, 2013).

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