Last autumn, it was a pack of vultures who were out there with their bloodied beaks, feasting upon the arrest of a 24-year-old, a person not in public life, for allegedly possessing drugs and being involved in contraband trade.
There is no other way to describe the breathless, inaccurate, and voyeuristic non-journalistic exercise of going after Aryan Khan, known only for being his father, superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s son. The lurid interest in all things—ranging from Bombay cinema, glamour, scandal, drugs and ‘crime’—seemed to find focus in Aryan’s plight as he was pulled off a ship and put behind bars for over three weeks.
This, as we then suspected and now know for sure, for having done nothing.
The NCB and the political establishment were the initiators and drivers of this dark episode, but it would be nothing without the active connivance of our news media. It is a shameful chapter in Indian media’s inglorious recent history that cannot be allowed to be forgotten—it holds important lessons about the media, communal prejudice, and the state of India today.
How Such Media Frenzy Helps the Ruling Party
The first story the Aryan Khan episode encapsulates closely mirrors what happened after the unfortunate suicide of actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Carefully documented by Michigan University’s Joyojeet Pal and his team, the linkages between the media frenzy, feeding off social media and vice-versa, was joined in by anonymous and some newly created groups. Some ruling party handles picked up the baton and this led to the froth becoming real, eventually feeding the mainstream evening news cycle.
What did it choose to do? Through a mix of memes, soundbites and conspiracy theories reminiscent of Pizzagate in the US, there was a bid to link familiar faces from Bombay’s cinema world to Rajput’s death, certain specific names from the Shiv Sena were linked to alleged parties and events, culminating in tarring high-profile names from cinema who are still not seen in the service of the BJP.
Most of all, this was used to distract Indians from the disturbing march of hapless migrants to their homes, governmental mismanagement, neglect and Covid-19 heading towards a severe public health crisis.
As the Institute of Perception Studies has pointed out studying about 11 channels and over 26,000 seconds recently, only 0.16% spoke of the LPG price hike. What then filled the airtime? Vicious night-time debates, so-called WhatsApp chats, were used as an excuse to tar and convict cine stars, and to dehumanise an innocent young man who was not even an accused, as a druggie/dealer in a desperate greed for ratings.
Attempt to Beat Bollywood Into Submission
The second aspect that the so-called Aryan Khan case shone the light on was the war waged by officialdom (for which big TV news provides a transparent lens) against the superstar Khans in Bombay. They found a hook to attack the biggest Khan who—despite the much-touted selfie with Narendra Modi—is not seen as part of those who sing hosannas to the ruling party.
Undoubtedly, Shahrukh is still the biggest and symbolises things and an India that is important to pull down. His son, not charged but taken into custody and demonised over TV and other media, provided a perfect foil to mount a larger attack on father Shah Rukh. Along with him, this assault encompassed all those who are not Akshay Kumar or Kangana Ranaut, known for paying regular obeisance to the ruling dispensation.
Law, Order and Prejudice
But the most important part of the shameful saga was the light it shone on the law and order machinery and its fit with prejudice, amplified shamelessly by media channels, ‘sources’ and the presumption of guilt for those with certain kinds of names.
Each year there have been detainees released after decades in captivity, who had been implicated falsely and kept in jails. This destroys lives and breaks so many homes. In one of the starkest cases last year, 127 Muslims charged with ‘terror’ were acquitted after 19 years by a Surat court. They had been arrested in Gujarat while attending a seminar on Muslim education and were accused of having links with the banned group, SIMI.
Just ‘sources’ in the NCB saying that Aryan Khan has been picked up, provided grist to the prejudiced mind and fodder to feed news frenzy. The news cycle was happy to link Aryan with a Muslim surname with terror/drugs, crime and went onto do hitjobs on him relentlessly, without waiting for either evidence or ‘process’.
Disproportionate Representation of Muslims in Prisons
Muslims have a disproportionately high representation in prisons, as a report brought out in 2018 by Common Cause and Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) established. The study also noted that there was a high perception among Muslims that they were implicated in terrorism-related cases, just as Scheduled Tribes or Adivasis believe that they are implicated as Maoists, and Dalits or Scheduled Castes believe that they are implicated in petty crimes. They pointed to a “disproportionately high” real representation of Muslims in prisons.
“Muslim representation in police, calculated in proportion to their population in the states and at the all-India level, is constantly less than half of the size of their population in India,” the report said. Also, “the data on Muslim representation in police – provided under Crime in India, NCRB until 2013 – has since been discontinued. The absence of information on this crucial aspect of diversity further clouds the possibilities of improvement in this aspect of policing.”
Data on India’s prisoners, released by the NCRB in December 2021 reveals that in 2020, of 488,511 prisoners, 19.1% were Muslims. The population share of Muslims is 14.2%. No doubt other marginalised categories across castes, tribes and the poor are similarly disproportionately represented. But media prejudice, especially over the past five years, taking up cases involving Muslims in crimes to frenzied coverage has put them in another category.
Out of Prison, Sentenced to Poverty
Aryan Khan 'Case': A Case of Manufactured News
Aryan Khan, young and not in public life, sitting at the intersection of celebrityhood but not seen as in the BJP scheme of things, with a Muslim father and a Muslim second name found himself as perfect fuel for reckless media sources, who need cheap and ‘sourced’, government-friendly stuff to create noise over each evening. In the process of distracting from the tanking economy, a severe public health and jobs crisis, substitute ‘news’ was manufactured, and a 24-year old’s life was made mincemeat.
Aryan was unfortunate to fall prey, and fortunate to eventually survive. But his plight serves to shine the light on the nastiness of prejudice against the many fault lines that plague India today.
It illustrates why Indian media has fallen in the world press freedom rankings, first to 140, then to 142 and now to 150, in the bottom thirty countries this year, one rank better than Sudan, and one below Turkey. This freefall is certainly not good for the media, but it is even more damaging for our democracy.
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)