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Fathima Latheef and the degradation of Media: From Islamophobia to patriarchy, how media showed little regard for facts

The objective here is not to credit or discredit the parents’ version of the incident, but to create a context to understand the media discourse around truth, probability and informed debate.

Every Wednesday afternoon, the corridor outside HSB 335 of IIT Madras witnessed celebration over coffee, samosa and cake ordered for all the students of the logic class. The excitement it generated was enough to last beyond the long class and the taste of the food perhaps lingered a little longer. Sudarsan Padmanabhan, the professor, enjoyed spending from his pocket and took a personal interest in getting the right supplier so as to ensure quality. He also made sure that biodegradable cups/plates are used and all food items are served fresh and/or hot.

Interestingly, the Wednesday orders had sufficient provision for some uninvited guests that included a few colleagues and staff who would routinely assemble outside the lecture hall to steal a coffee or some leftover cake. The road to logic, for Sudarshan Padmanabhan or SP as he was known, always passed through food, more so if it involved students. But that is part of the story; he was an extra-ordinary scholar combining the very best of Western and Indian intellectual traditions and balancing the textual with the worldly.

It was common to see students fiercely arguing with SP when he posed tough questions or played devil’s advocate by enticing the students to make statements and then finding contradictions in them. Never shy of responding to an innocuous query from students, nor in taking up a conceptual gauntlet, or laughing over some harmless banter or mimicry by creative and mischievous students, SP was the epitome of a textbook professor who walked in a way as if there is no destination and had all the time in the world to speak with students, colleagues and non-teaching staff. Colleagues often pulled his leg for being over caring about his students; students who did not belong to his class often regretted not being so (and also for missing out on tea/snacks). It is not surprising that the Institute and student representatives always found a willing partner in SP as and when there was a need for continuous monitoring of facilities such as upgraded canteen or drafting of various institutional frameworks involving elected student bodies.

Fathima Lateef, a rare talent of her batch, was a student of this logic class. SP treated everybody equally and Fathima, a little more equally, often ending a discussion with what Fathima said. As of now, nobody knows for sure what drove Fathima to accuse her professors when the professors named actually pampered her. Regardless of the authenticity of Fathima’s notes, or the probability of other causes, SP was declared guilty by grief-stricken friends and relatives and an over-zealous media, with able support from politicians and interest groups.

Within a matter of days, SP became the reason of not just Fathima’s death but of everything that ails the Indian education system in general and IIT Madras in particular. His is a classic case of all associations of reason gone horribly wrong and ideas such as deliberation, participation etc. sacrificed at the altar of political agenda-setting, religious polarization, ideological divide and journalistic one-upmanship. In the cacophony of finding the truth behind Fathima’s death, what is still shrouded in mystery is the very truth itself.

Read: The other side of the Fathima Latheef news story: The tragedy, the claims, the contradictions and the real injustice

After the mysterious note blaming SP was released by the relatives, two more student-friendly professors (Hemchandran Karah and Milind Brahme) found their names in the list of suspects and were held responsible for pushing Fathima to take the extreme step. These two professors were equally caring, concerned and empathetic, always finding ways to reach out to those who needed help or required emotional/academic support. Both of them had the conviction of walking an extra mile in accommodating students with different social/cultural backgrounds. Two weeks after the tragic incident, students and faculty believe that the bond between the teacher and the student will never be the same again at IIT Madras. As a faculty member put it tersely, ‘this is our 9/11 moment’.

News media and the ways of delivering justice

The objective here is not to credit or discredit the parents’ version of the incident, but to create a context to understand the media discourse around truth, probability and informed debate. Given that the parents have lost their precious child, it would serve no one’s cause to be judgemental. The same with her classmates, friends and seniors who believe that her death could have been avoided.

So far as political parties and their affiliated student bodies are concerned, their demonstrations and demands can be seen as bread and butter questions; they are doing what they are trained to do, i.e. fishing in troubled waters. But what is appalling is the complete degradation of news media which absolved itself of any pretension of objectivity and disinterestedness, the general virtues associated with the profession. Not just social media trolls and the faceless rabble-rousers, even mainstream news media indulged in this evolving news story and sought to cash in on a minefield of a topic that can send their TRP soaring. Here are a few examples:

Huffington Post article

Money Control article

Sabrang article

News media not only violated their own self-assigned credential of creating conditions for citizenship and democracy; they conducted themselves in a manner that produced the very opposite: mob justice, vigilantism, utter disregard for rule of law and willful abandonment of verifiability of their own claims. What we have got so far is character assassination, scandalous statements and an in-your-face unwillingness to ask very basic questions about available evidence.

What is troubling is the absence of any sense of doubt, self-reflexivity and moderation that should guide any engagement with an issue such as this. The suicide notes have been presented in an uncritical manner as if it constitutes authentic evidence. Here are some examples where the news media virtually became the spokespersons of the bereaved family by legitimating the ‘suicide notes’ left by the victim. Those who naively believe that we should not give media too much importance, not only underestimate the power of media in peddling truth for a significant length of time, but also vulgarize real suffering of the victims. The term ‘media trial’ has limited carrying capacity in the present context; perhaps ‘media justice’ has better claims.

Since that unfortunate incident, IIT Madras has issued an official statement about its sincerity in a fair probe without compromising its commitment to protecting its faculty who have been scarred by both mainstream and social media and are perhaps too numb to defend themselves. It is believed that the investigative team will do a professional job without being swayed by the media blitzkrieg. The accused professors are cooperating with the investigation, have not applied for anticipatory bail and have not made any outlandish statements, something that establishes their sincerity and trust in the system. Since the initial whispers about the possible reason for her death (such as performance in an exam), the debate has gone over to issues of harassment, casteism, elitism and Islamophobia.

National Herald article

The Companion article

If you are scratching your head as to how such divergent reasons could be reconciled, you need to understand what is known as media logic. This media logic is not peculiar to local, vernacular, regional newspapers and magazines coming out of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, but to the very philosophy of contemporary media management.

Template of predictable truths

At a time of political correctness, combined with the conventional truism of journalism as Fourth Estate, journalism as a profession has taken up the garb of activism, consciousness raising, social conditioning and even politicking (many media houses are owned by political leaders/parties), not through fair representation of facts but through predictable templates. The baseline of this template while dealing with an institution such as IIT Madras is to question it for what it is meant to be – a specialized and elite technological institution (to be distinguished from elitist). What follows is the demonization of the elite institution for not being the same like more inclusive institutions / local colleges (i.e. not perpetuating caste politics, academic mediocrity, political interference, favouritism in appointments of faculty, corruption in admission and evaluation to name a few). The very fact that IITs remain islands of meritocracy (a bad word now) is reason enough to castigate such institutes as an impediment in the path of equality, justice etc. Thus many reports linked Fathima’s death to Rohith Vemula’s; some went to the extent of comparing the case with the lynching of Md. Akhlaq in Dadri.

Firstpost article

Once the deviance of the elite institution is established, an unfortunate death can be converted to institutional murder (or even murder), and be connected with a series of earlier suicides/deaths that can create a web of opacity, suspicion and intrigue. Points of criticism such as saffronization, Hinduization, Brahminism, Islamophobia, patriarchy, caste discrimination etc. follow this predictable pattern. As per this template (that has become normalized after decades of academic and political sanction), if a girl dies, the first suspect is patriarchy, and in case of a dalit, the needle of suspicion is directed at an individual/group blinded by Brahminism and caste hierarchy. Similar template was used after Fathima’s death as in this report.

I am reminded of a colleague’s experience when she was asked by her journalist friend about the possible cause of Fathima’s death. The colleague referred to the ongoing investigation and went on to argue about various possibilities that could have contributed to her untimely death. But the journalist friend intervened with an all-knowing aura and said, “you see my friend, I don’t want what you think. I want the cause, the real one”.

Reality is not what has happened, but what is logical, believable and can be easily digested using the template mentioned above. Since an individual suicide is not sufficiently eye catching, news media converted it to a grand plan of Brahminization and saffronization and the professors their agents. At a time when news media and journalism have become synonymous with cinema, often following the logic of capital investment and marketing, what the audience is conditioned to desire is instant gratification and instant justice delivery. The phrase that frequently appears is ‘call to action’, so that citizens can be converted into revolutionaries, the reason is replaced by mob frenzy and mass hysteria.

In such media framing (part of media logic mentioned earlier), the focus is on gaining attention by arousing emotion, often by putting the headlines in inverted comma or by placing a question mark after the headline. Some others make plain statements without any quotation mark as in the following item.

The Cognate article

Such headlines trend not just in specific Indian circles but find fame in Pakistan as well.

The casualty in such journalistic practice is professionalism and ethics. Journalistic norms such as ‘conjecture cannot replace facts’ or ‘the balance between the right to publish and public interest’ are seen as obsolete principles. What thus matters is a catchy headline, a sensitive image ‘for representational purposes’, a quote from ‘our own sources’ or ‘someone who requested anonymity’ in order to optimize anger and the desire for retribution.

(This article has been written by Jyotirmaya Tripathy. He is a Chennai based academic and cultural critic)

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