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Saturday, August 20, 2022

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Making sense of Iran-US tensions and the dissent on Indian streets and in universities

Between a Rock and a Hard Place The anti-CAA protests have picked up a certain rhythm. (Representational Image)

“All is well!” tweeted Donald Trump after taking stock of the damage at two military bases in Iraq, which were hit by Iranian missiles. He was right in more ways than one. First, the damage was negligible. But second, it was so very negligible that the missiles were clearly intended to be signals rather than munitions. Far too many hit the base, but in unused land, for this to be put down to human error. A diplomatic signal from Tehran followed, clarifying that Iran would not follow up with more attacks. What more was needed to demonstrate that Tehran had chosen to be mature about this, demonstrating its strike capability without causing much harm, and allowing a reckless US president to back off with dignity intact from a situation teeming with hard rocks and hard places? The man was proposing Talibanic measures against culturally important sites, and it would have been a disaster if he had followed through.

Things must have been pretty hairy if even Fox News talked of the threat of war. And the videos of missiles in flight in the darkened skies, broadcast by Iran’s state television and picked up by channels like Al Jazeera, were indeed reminiscent of Desert Storm. For a few hours, talk of war affecting the whole region was all over the international channels, though a moment’s reflection would have shown that few nations have the stomach to broaden conflicts any more. And since the Iranians were kind enough to give US pride a dignified exit route, there was nothing to worry about.

In India, coverage of the strike on Monday was like watching the History Channel. Particularly interesting were images from West Bengal, which saw violence, and Kerala, where normally busy roads were completely without traffic. It was as if the last 20 years had never happened, and we were still in the last century. When we are being rushed off our feet by the daily news, it’s perversely comforting to see that some things never change.

But all eyes were on the longest-running show on the political landscape – the attack in JNU and the ongoing agitation against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the NRC. In the JNU story, perhaps the most interesting revelation came from Anima Sonkar, state joint secretary of the ABVP, on Times Now. She identified masked figures in videos of the attack as ABVP members, and clarified that they were carrying weapons for self-defence, following scare stories on WhatsApp groups. Usually, such breaks go to print reporters, who don’t have to stay at the wavefront of the story and have the time to rummage around in the ground clutter. It’s interesting to see that Times Now, which has been seen to be identifying with the ruling dispensation, got this damning admission first.

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The anti-CAA protests have picked up a certain rhythm. Every day, lists of must-attend protests circulate on WhatsApp and Instagram, like the TV and radio listings that used to appear in newspapers in times now forgotten. And every time, the police oblige the calls for an encore by roughing up a student or three, on camera. At the same time, a Delhi University student who participated in the violence was identified by WhatsApp messages requesting that she should not be identified. Matters have taken an interesting turn if social media, which has been the power plant of the BJP’s electoral machine, has now been weaponised by opponents of its government’s policies. In fact, the attempt to paint Deepika Padukone as an attention-seeker, in search of publicity before a big release, was completely deflated on the very social platforms where the initiative began.

Finally, there’s a news app that I’ve stumbled on that really helps to clarify the foggy mind. UnFound is a news curation service — which is a little more than an aggregator app — which claims to be AI-powered. Now, that claim could mean anything at all, in an AI landscape where claims fly fast and thick. But whether it owes to machine intelligence or human industry, it definitely does its job, reducing bias by providing context to breaking stories. For every story, it has the latest news, a backgrounder, which is usually a Wikipedia link, a timeline of events and an opinion section where “supporting”, “neutral or mixed” and “opposing” views, (which link to opinion sections of newspapers and TV websites) appear side by side. It’s like good music apps for the PC, which pull in all sorts of relevant material while playing a song.

The app’s presentation of views for and against the motion does produce a fairly rounded picture. It’s a restorative from the action of social media, which bubbles us with people who think like us, reinforcing our preferences or prejudices, while also exposing us to atrocious vilification by the opposing side.

First published on: 11-01-2020 at 01:36:30 am
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