Media and the demand for statehood

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 20/02/2014
While much was justifiably made of the blackout, the real significance of the media in the formation of Telangana has been as a major and controversial player.
It drove both the movement and the opposition to it, says SEVANTI NINAN

Sevanti Ninan

The Lok Sabha TV blackout of the passage of the bill to create Telangana, extraordinary as it was, was only the culmination of the role the media, particularly television, has played in the run up to the impending birth of this new state. True TV was denied the powerful role of giving the people of the region, as well as the rest of the country, a chance to witness contentious history in the making. But while much was justifiably made of the blackout, the real significance of the media in the formation of Telangana has been as a major and controversial player.

Television and press play a significant role in the formation of a new state.  There is published work to this effect regarding one of the three states which came into being in 2000. In The Making of a Small State (2011) Anup Kumar examined the aggressive role played by Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran in sustaining the jan andolan which led to the creation of Uttarakhand.

Similarly, in the case of Telangana, newspapers and TV channels have come into existence in the last few years primarily to articulate the statehood demand. If the media pre-2009 was owned largely by businessmen and politicians from the Andhra region, there are now entrants such as T News, V-6, and others on the Telangana side of the divide.

In a charged situation, sensational media can do harm. In this case it drove both the movement and the opposition to it. In January 2010, the Andhra Pradesh High Court made a series of observations in this regard while directing the state government to implement the Cable Act more effectively. “On account of some of these abusive visuals, people are becoming violent and are trying to create havoc in the state,” the judge said.

He added, “This court is firmly of the opinion that the TV news channels in Andhra Pradesh are exceeding their limitations only for the sake of sensation and this court cannot be a silent spectator.” The order asked the administration to ensure that TV9, NTV, TV5, I News, Sakshi, ABN Andhra Jyothi, ETV-2, TV1, RK News, HMTV, Mahaa TV, and Studio N adhere to the programme code.

The flip side of this was what the Srikrishna Commission report said about how the media could be used to diffuse the demand for a separate state. There was a chapter 8 in the report, not made public initially, which suggested that  the demand for the new state was being articulated by local reporters given to capturing “only those events/news which reflect the regional sentiments.”  The holders of equity in these newspapers and TV channels he said, were people in favour of Seemandhra. Hyderabad city, which was expected to be the centre of most of the agitations, was generally covered by journalists who are votaries of a separate Telangana. If the media could be “managed” it said, the demand for a separate state (which his committee did not endorse) could be defused.

When the chapter was made public by a High Court judge, it raised a lot of eyebrows.  But it underscores my basic point about how the media has driven this and earlier statehood demands. Out of both genuine conviction and commercial imperatives. The regional media gives itself the freedom to whip up public opinion, but does not display the required maturity to see beyond its self-interest. Some rise to it, most don’t.


A channel that did, back in 2009, was HMTV in Andhra Pradesh when it converted itself into a platform to debate the division of the state. It telecast live from Hyderabad and nine other towns of the Andhra, Telangana and Rayalaseema areas a show called Dasa, Disa where people debated the division of the state. Each episode drew intellectuals, students and the community at large to participate, waiting patiently for their turn to speak.

The studio-based opinion industry that prime time TV news has become ensures that the cameras capture less and less. Repeated shots of jubilation or protest accompanied by an anchor harangue. That is how it was on Tuesday night (February 18) on ABN news, T News, TV 5, TV 9, Sakshi, NTV—you name it. The unintentionally telling bit was anchor and participants greeting each other at one point on T News with ‘Jai Telangana!’

As for the self-styled national media in Delhi, they thought the main story of the day was the TV blackout. Whether on Times Now or NDTV the anchor could not see beyond it. It gave Arnab Goswami grist for his daily hectoring and troubled Vishnu Shome endlessly: “Does anybody believe Lok Sabha TV when it says it was a technical glitch?” The channel’s Hyderabad correspondent interviewing excited young men who though they might now get government jobs, was asked what people there thought of the blackout. “That is hardly on anyone's minds here, Vishnu,” she replied.

The birth of a new state is an overwhelming moment for the people it affects, with endless possibilities for coverage. What a pity then that all these TV channels together achieved so little.

Reprinted from Mint Feb 20, 2014

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