Most people who know me would probably assume (based on how eager I am to discuss current affairs) that I have a couple of news apps, a newspaper subscription or a twitter feed filled with news content. Three years ago, they would have been right. Not anymore. This is a post about why I don’t read breaking news – and what I do instead. First, a brief overview of my argument against breaking news. That way, if this is the limit to your attention span, I’ve managed to get my point through to you.
Broadly speaking, all breaking news falls victim one or several fatal (but oh so human) errors:
It is reactionary and status quoist
It is divorced from context, and
It exaggerates threats to your person
Breaking news is the problem
Nearly all news coverage is conservative. Even ultra-liberal outlets like The New Yorker have this assumption at their heart: “the world is originally good and people are flawless; institutions corrupt them”. But newspapers and fortnightlies have to (by their very nature) take a measured, balanced approach to their curation. Breaking news’ original sin is that it focuses on what’s being broken more than what is being built. When you need to put something out every few minutes, you can be sure than a lot of that something is nonsense.
I think we diminish the constructive value of change in societies. 24/7 news coverage tends to warp our understanding further and makes us react to emerging news rather than sit back, take a breath and assess where things are going. The news industry (and those on the periphery like social media sites) profits from creating false narratives out of non-issues. Everywhere around you, there are non-issues being blown out of proportion. Go on Facebook and you’ll see this playing out in real time: your kooky uncle shares some government conspiracy to take away his medical supplies; your distant cousin thinks that China created Coronavirus to break Western dominance and emerge as the undisputed superpower. All of these ideas and narratives have always existed, but breaking news amplifies the impact of such fringe voices by giving them airtime. Whether it’s for casual mockery or serious debate, most “news” isn’t actually news: it’s just plain hand-wringing about change.
There’s a wonderful Quartz article from a couple of years ago that made me realize the stupidity of a 24/7 news cycle:
As news organizations embrace the internet economy, they’re pushed to publish with more immediacy, more emotion and more frequency. They’re speeding up to fill infinite space — and in the process, they’re losing sight of their responsibility to help readers understand their world.
The paradox of this false urgency is that we end up with far more words being written, far more time spent reading, and far less clarity, context and understanding.
In that sense, breaking news and rollercoasters are very alike: they provide excitement and evoke fear of change while ultimately leading us nowhere.
Questions of quality
Another consequence of relentless news coverage is entirely predictable and all too human: people get complacent and fall into patterns of lazy behaviour. Sometimes, it creates stories with absolutely no fact-checking, no context and nothing to hold it up other than some flimsy reporting. In the grand scheme of things, we are still naked bipeds running scared from fearsome saber-toothed monsters of the night, and we use bad reporting to cover up our inherent prejudices and biases in a facade of “journalism”.
Consider the now infamous case of some Muslim men arrested in India for “links to ISIS”. The story was trumpeted by every newspaper, website and magazine at the time. It was reported that 9 men were nabbed while communicating with each other to take care while handling some “hazardous” chemicals. Of course, the police victoriously proclaimed that they had stopped a terror attack, and civic society had just been handed a jump scare, only to realize that it was nothing to worry about.
Though reports spoke of “chemicals”, the only chemical named in all of them was hydrogen peroxide, because one 100 ml bottle was labeled so. Known as a hair bleach and a mouth rinse, hydrogen peroxide was described by the Anti-Terrorism Squad as a chemical “preferred” by the Islamic State to make bombs (DNA, January 24).
Between 2015 and 2017, Europe experienced six bomb blasts in which hydrogen peroxide was indeed used. Three of these explosions were planned by the Islamic State. However, the other chemical used in these blasts was TATP or triacetone triperoxide. There was no mention of triacetone triperoxide being found in the homes of those arrested in Maharashtra.
And that’s the state of news media in the 21st century – first at the scene, quick to label, eager to point fingers, and almost always wrong. And that’s why I try to avoid reacting to news pieces, especially when they’re fresh.
My news diet
Over the years, I’ve figured out a stable cadence at which I’m comfortable with absorbing news. I’ve realized that no matter how much I try to avoid it, people will insist on discussing developing issues without having much reliable information about it. This happened with the Iran crisis, early COVID-19 reporting and now again, with the economic impact of COVID. I don’t like to be uninformed, but I don’t really want to be reactionary either. Far too many people I know just regurgitate whatever opinion they get off Joe Rogan, Sam Harris, Hasan Minhaj and John Oliver. I don’t want to be one of those. So, I’ve subscribed to a news briefing by Axios just so I’m aware of big news. Every weekend, I catch up on the week’s major stories through a couple of podcasts and magazines. That’s it. This level of awareness takes me approximately 1 hour per week, and I’m not measurably less-informed than any news junkie.
Along the way, I’ve also developed trust in some media outlets, and I generally don’t trust all outlets with all news equally. Here’s the summary:
Headlines: Axios – I used to use the BBC podcast, but it was taking up too much of my time so switched to Axios about a year ago
Local: Stuff (NZ), The Hindu (India), NYT (US), Axios (US)
Culture: The Atlantic, Scroll, Quint, Quartz
Business: Livemint (India), NZ Herald (NZ), Wall Street Journal (US), The Economist (World)
Politics: WPR (World), The Guardian (UK), NPR (US), FiveThirtyEight (US)
Science: Nautilus, ScienceDaily, Undark, New Scientist, HeritageDaily, Phys.org
Opinion: BBC, Guardian, Aeon, The Nib, Longreads, Marginal Revolution, UnHerd
I use Google News to catch up if I feel like I need the top headlines. I change the region from NZ to US to UK to India, and by the end of it I generally know enough to get by. Of course, you can make it even simpler by setting up a Feedly – it takes 10 minutes and you’ll be forever grateful you did it.
“A few Hindus entered Babri Masjid at night when it was deserted and installed a deity there. DM and SP and force at the spot. Situation under control. Police picket of 15 persons was on duty at night, but did not apparently act.”
— K.K.K. Nayar (23 Dec, 1949)
This is the first time in years that I’ve decided to write several thousand words on anything other than an academic assignment. So, I’ll try to string my thoughts into a nice blog-friendly structure. Bear with me.
So there’s this idea in political science that when the British waved a wand and vanished in a puff of smoke from what they called “India”, what they left wasn’t so much a country as a bunch of identities loosely confined within an area roughly the size of the Amazon. A fevered puzzle of peoples that had hithertofore agreed to disagree on everything from religion and development to the role of women. People have discussed it for the longest time, in newspaper articles, editorials and countless sneering told-you-sos, and some like Pratap Bhanu Mehta have built their whole careers wrestling with what that means for the India of today.
So you’ll forgive me for my insistence that in order to reach Ayodhya, we need to pass through the bylanes and durbars of Delhi.
What gave us this nation? Why did we end up with the nation we have today, with all its contradictions and problems? How did this chaotic country of 300-something million at independence decide to become a democracy, granting everyone suffrage from the get-go, working within the first decade to dismantle pernicious social structures like untouchability, inequality and zamindari that had hamstrung us for millennia? India’s story is not only surprising within the context of history, but within the broader geopolitical realm in the middle of the 20th century. In a sea of multicultural melting pots like Syria, Nigeria and Iraq (all wrecked by the British, but that’s a story for another day) that never saw an ounce of development or harmony, India stands out as a curious anomaly. Even today, there isn’t another country with the level of diversity of opinion, identities, languages, faiths, opportunities and aspirations as India.
And yet, there’s a level of agreement on some basics: we are all equal but not the same, we get to pick our leaders (to whatever extent any modern democracy allows its citizens to), and we all get to argue, bicker, fight, shout and scream till we’re blue in the face; just to be able to believe whatever we want to. In other words, we all believe in the nation-state of India. So, a natural question to ask is: how is it that if we can’t agree on anything, we can all seemingly agree on what is and what isn’t India? It’s a weird question – and not just because I framed it that way.
TL;DR: there is no single India, and there never was. What we have now is mostly a Gandhian-Nehruvian idea of India as a pluralistic, egalitarian experiment where the state gets to tell its citizens how to conduct themselves with dignity. The other ideas that lost out were: the capitalistic India of Naoroji, the Hindustan of Golwalkar, the kookyland of Besant and the militaristic powderkeg of Bose.
And there began our troubles
See, the issue was that not everybody bought into this idea. There are many that still cling to this outdated and entirely absurd notion that India was a “Hindu rashtra” at some point and we need to return the nation to that. When exactly? 2500 years ago, when the only “Hindus” were in what is now Pakistan, and everybody else prayed to whatever animal they felt like? 2000 years ago, when the country was mostly Buddhist as a rejection of the Hindu social order? 1500 years ago, when the country was so divided on religious grounds that the Buddhists, Shaivas and Vaishnavas considered each themselves entirely distinct religions and burned each other’s temples to the ground? Or was it 1000 years ago, when the Muslim rulers started to organize themselves around Delhi and a large part of northern India was naturally converting to Islam? Or India’s inarguable glory days of wealth and prosperity under the rule of Sher Shah Suri or Akbar but without the Muslim monarchs who are just too much for you to bear? But if you don’t like any of the above, everything else is mostly just a country fragmented into a million states that were only ever united under Ashoka, Akbar and the British Raj. Notice how none of them were ever Hindu empires.
Any way we slice it, in the 2500 years of history of India as a geopolitical entity, it’s only since the 15th century (after the Bhakti wave peaked) that India was a Hindu-majority region. Not Hindu, merely Hindu-majority. So, the idea of Hindustan is based around a narrow focus on 20-25% of the entire history of this country, without any clear reason for why we should focus on this specific 20%. It’s a baseless idea built around flawed logic and a poor understanding of history.
It’s kind of like planting a Hindu image in what is clearly, obviously and historically a non-Hindu building, getting a mob together, performing a puja and hoping that the noise can hide the fact that this idol didn’t exist yesterday.
A bit like the symbolic fight over Ayodhya.
The Muslim argument is built on history
We all know the Muslim side of this. Babur, a Kyrgyz-Uzbek warlord who claimed to be descended from both Genghis Khan and Timur, fought his way through the Hindu Kush and arrived in Delhi. He did not like the city or the region and prefered Kabul instead.
Hindustan is a place of little charm… There are no good horses, meat, grapes, melons, or other fruit. There is no ice, cold water, good food or bread in the markets. There are no baths and no madrasas. There are no candles, torches, or candlesticks.
Babur in “Baburnama”
His sister, Khanzada, is one of the most badass and underrated female figures in history (Netflix Originals, where you at?). Also, fun facts: Babur appears to have had homosexual tendencies, drank like a fish, loved music, did every drug that Kabul could offer him and his autobiography (by all accounts, a beautiful work) seems more like a Sufi work than anything a pious Muslim would write. Here’s one gem:
Like us many have spoken over this spring, but they were gone in the twinkling of an eye.
We conquered the world with bravery and might, but we did not take it with us to the grave.
If that doesn’t make you think about the impermanence of glory on the same lines as Ozymandias by Shelley, I don’t know what will. Needless to say, he was also a very characteristically harami Mughal emperor. Another thing that gets overlooked: Babur (and his line) would have preferred to be known as Timurids instead of as Mughals, because they were proud of their Timurid heritage and not so much of their Mongol blood. Babur, as should be obvious by now, had some not-so-nice things to say about the Moghuls:
The Moghul troops who had come as reinforcements had no endurance for battle. They left the battle and began to unhorse and plunder our own men. It was not just here they did this: those wretched Moghuls always do this. If they win they take booty; if they lose they unhorse their own people and plunder them for booty.
Think about that when you’re thinking about why Baburnama is essential reading in most of Central Asia, and I believe should be in Indian schools as well.
He also seems to have ordered the construction of a small mosque in a little sleepy town called Ayodhya. “Seems to have”, because the only record we have of the date is from several decades after the mosque was constructed. Also, for a guy who liked Babur as much as Babur did, there’s no mention of this “Babri Masjid” in his autobiography. There’s also no real evidence to show that Mir Baqi was a “Mir”, or even a significant individual of the time. But the mosque stood nonetheless and people prayed there for centuries, seemingly unmolested by the Hindus around it.
So, let’s not belabour the point here. the Muslim argument is solid and rests on some evidence, but like all Indian history, the details are a bit fuzzy. Let’s look at the “carefully constructed”, “historically accurate” Hindu argument.
The Hindu argument is a whole load of cowdung
Long, long ago, a Dalit man wrote a wildly speculative book called “Ramayana” which said that a racist, sexist hunk called Rama was born in Ayodhya. Nobody seriously takes it to be historically accurate – not least because there are no man-sized apes in Karnataka that can leap across an ocean. It only starts to resemble reality if you reduce it to this:
man marries woman
they leave on a holiday/exile/honeymoon
woman escapes/elopes/gets kidnapped
man needs to prove his manliness and ownership over woman by killing the “kidnapper” who actually treats her with more respect than the husband ever does throughout the length of the tale
man returns victorious but shames wife for getting kidnapped in the world’s oldest tale of victim blaming.
But even then, it’s little more than a myth to most modern Indians.
The key instigators like Uma Bharti and LK Advani were rewarded by the Indian political class with MP posts, pretigious ministries at the centre and a whole lot of political capital. The people who stood in the way and tried to prevent popular violence were figures we’re now uncomfortable with. Don’t believe me? Watch:
Later, when the case made its way to the Allahabad HC, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) found some structural remains under the Babri masjid complex, and the layout of the leftovers looked vaguely like a temple. And that’s it – that’s all the “scientific proof” that the Hindu side’s argument rests on.
The Hindu argument then boils down to this Sparknotes version:
Book of fiction written at some unclear point in history says Rama was born in Ayodhya
There was a temple under the Babri Masjid
Some travellers to Ayodhya write that there was a temple to Rama there at some point
Ergo, this site is where Rama’s temple stood.
Therefore, it’s ours.
For more insights into the outrageousness of Hindu fundamentalist arguments about Ayodhya and many other topics, watch Vivek (‘Reason’ in English) by Anand Patwardhan. It’s won a bunch of awards, but is not a pretty movie, and is not meant to be a casual watch on the bus ride home. Sit down at a desk and watch. I could only find a link to the Hindi version, so I’m sorry if you don’t understand Hindi.
The emptiness of this case doesn’t end there, because there are some uniquely Indian peculiarities at play here. Enter the courts.
This shit is tiring, man
I’m way out of my depths in the legalities in this section, but I’ve been following this case long enough to be able to see a pattern of complete nonsense in the shenanigans and dirty tricks being used here. Here’s a timeline to help you follow along. There’s a ton of supplementary reading material available in a bookstore near you, if you’re interested in diving deeper into any of the below.
The first is the legal oddity left over from the British period that the deity aka Ram Lalla (aka made up idol placed in temple to provoke Muslims) carries legal rights of its own and is thus represented in court by its own lawyer. The history of this is fascinating and speaks volumes about how the British deepened India’s societal divisions and turned them into active political tools.
And then, one of these clowns on the Hindu side had the bright idea of taking this idea further. He filed that the site itself, “Ramjanmabhoomi”, be added as a party to the claim on the grounds that the site itself is sacred to Hindus and its identity cannot be separated from Ram Lalla. You can see the logic at play here.
To make matters worse, the Shia and Sunni sides, predictably, started fighting each other in public statements, weakening each other’s arguments and undercutting the legalese they were spouting in court. This, added to the open hostility and downright backwardness of some of their arguments during the triple talaq hearings just made it much harder for them to convince anybody that there was a “good” Muslim team here.
In the end, the Hindu side won the case with a weaker argument and no claim to the title.
The Hindu side won (obviously)
How did this come to be? The fact is, it was almost inevitable. For one thing, the Hindu parties were better organised and presented a unified face, with most of their disagreements about the role of the Nirmohi Akhara and amicus filings kept under wraps by the guiding hand of the RSS, or Sangh.
Second, the Muslim side had the rug pulled from under them by the Ismail Faruqui ruling in 1994. This meant that the court effectively proclaimed that mosques were not essential to the practice of Islam. When challenged in the SC, the Court decided to not refer this case to a constitution bench because that earlier ruling was only about that specific land dispute. So, the writing on the wall was clear: Muslims cannot expect the courts to hold up their right to worship.
Fundamentally, there was a huge asymmetry in what the two sides were expected to accomplish through the case. For one thing, the Muslim side had to show that the land was being used for prayers, had a clear line of usage and was essential to the Muslim population around there. They were unable to get a mass of people to prove it because of the slightly inconvenient fact that the masjid no longer exists and thus a revisionist could always say that it was never needed in the first place, and the larger issue that UP under Ajay Bisht is on a fast track to the stone age. The Hindu side only needed to show a few pamphlets and “sacred texts” of zero factual value to prove that a temple to Rama existed around that area. However, their frequent shows of force with rallies and procamations meant that courts had to factor into their decision the possibility of sectarian violence erupting as soon as the verdict was out.
And there, we see the problem coming full circle: India’s highest court itself no longer fully subscribes to the “Idea of India” written into the Constitution.
The Ill, The Illiberal and The Illegitimate
The Indian Constitution is a thing of beauty. But not the kind of robust, timeless beauty of the Grand Canyon or Everest. Instead, it’s a bit like the beauty of Michelangelo’s Painting in the Sistine Chapel: artificial, ethereal, delicate and dependent on something else for structural support. The Supreme Court was just that: the meat and bones to a spectacularly liberal and progressive body. Go over the list of landmark SC cases and you’ll see a pattern: the Court has built an image of steadfast justice and no-holds-barred discipline to the founding principles of the Constitution. Apart from the Emergency years (when practically nothing was untouched by Indira Gandhi’s powerlust), the SC has an almost squeaky-clean bill of health. And it’s not just me saying it.
But now, there’s some walking back going on. The SC is no longer an apolitical body, for better or for worse. There are many reasons for this: India’s growing illiberal class, the deviation of executive capacity from the goals of the judiciary and temptations of the legislative, disintegration of the Congress, etc. But I think the fundamental issue is much more pedestrian: just plain corruption.
I like the idea of India I grew up with – a pluralistic, socialist, secular, democratic republic. It makes sense to me, seems just, fair and something for the political class to aspire towards. Nothing captures this spirit as much as the Vidhana Soudha in Bangalore. The white Dravidian building in a city of glass and steel is a bit of an anachronism these days, but just its existence is a testament to the character of this country.
The building was mostly designed and conceptualised by the Chief Minister at the time, K. Hanumanthaiah, a man with no architectural knowledge, to commemorate the independence of the Mysore princely state, a wealthy and progressive subject of the British crown. The basic idea is said to have begun from the structure of a Dravidian temple – more specifically the architectural style of the Badami Chalukyas, hence the distinct and rounded “gopuram”. Upper reaches of the gopuram incorporate some elements of Persian architecture as well, a nod to the significant role that successful Muslims had played in shaping the state’s history – one of Mysore’s most famous rulers was Tipu Sultan, a legendary warrior-king whose tales of valour and indomitability inspire many to this day. The gilded lion of Sarnath at the top symbolizes the Union of India, of which Mysore was now a part. But the building was to be more than just a statement of the state’s identity – it was also a declaration of the new India’s aspirations: the Romanesque columns holding up the front are a mishmash of various architectural elements picked up in his travels through Europe. With the construction of this building, Hanumanthaiah was stating his intention to develop the state along Western European lines, but without forgetting its unique place in history.
If you peer closely at the inscription right above the columns, it says “Government’s work is God’s work”, a clever inversion of the priorities in “work is worship”. This, to me, is the right role of religious identities – as a factor to be mindful of. Not be guided by it as fundamentalists of every yarn would have us do, or be entirely agnostic to the religious beliefs of the population you govern – as Western democracies tend to view “secularism”. To me, the secular character of India is about more than just professed agnosticism. It is the duty of the state to respect Constitutional principles, actively engage every group and bring a compromise that serves the weaker sections of society. It is served by giving each group a voice, amplifying it so we hear the substance of the argument and then, collectively agreeing upon a mutually respectful course of action.
The Ayodhya verdict is a farce
The Ayodhya verdict achieves most of these but essentially assumes that the Muslims can determine their own course of action in the regular democratic processes of elections and politics. In doing so, the bench misses the most crucial point: if Muslims could dictate their own fate, they would not have to reach the highest court in the country to have their say. The Hindu side has been agitating that if the land wasn’t handed over to them, they’d find other means to achieve it. What recourse did the Muslims have if their side lost? Nothing.
The bench stated that this was merely a property dispute, and that it was not in the court’s mandate to dictate matters of faith. Therefore, the bickering Shia side and Ramjanmabhoomi were thrown out since they were not parties to the dispute. The verdict gave all of the 2.77 acres to the Hindus and instucted the government to hand over a 5 acre piece of land “in a prominent place” to the Muslim parties as compensation.
Seems fair? Sure. But consider this: it was the Muslim side with a stronger claim to the property, and the Hindu side produced no documents to prove the provenance of the land under question. In a property dispute, the Hindus only argued on matters of faith. So why were they rewarded? Let’s assume it’s not a property dispute, despite what the court says. If this was a religious dispute instead, why were the religious arguments of the Muslim side truncated? Why was the role of a mosque not examined again? Why was the Hindu side not required to produce any material on the reliability of Ramayana as a mapping tool? So, it’s not a religious dispute either. Things don’t add up because the case was neither about property nor about religion. It was purely political.
Coming right after the FRA verdict recently, this goes to show that the SC is no longer a reliable friend of the downtrodden. The court decided in favour of the status quo; and thereby implicitly chose the powerful. It abdicated its duty as we watched and cheered on.
The idea of India stands tall in Bangalore and houses the state legislature. Now, a monument to the idea of Hindustan will be built in Ayodhya, acting as a refuge to everybody who thinks that an equal society undermines their right to superiority over someone else.