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Thursday, May 19, 2022

The riots that could not be televised

What a difference twenty-five years makes. A quarter of a century ago,the television screen (black and white) was frozen in time.

Written by Shailaja Bajpai |
November 3, 2009 2:55:03 am

What a difference twenty-five years makes. A quarter of a century ago,the television screen (black and white) was frozen in time. For three days,Doordarshan,the sole channel then,remained stationed at Teen Murti Bhavan where Indira Gandhi’s body lay in state. The shehnai mourned in the background,while dignitaries and the public filed past.

Finally,on November 3,the coverage moved out with Mrs Gandhi’s funeral cortege to the cremation ground. Close your eyes and still vividly see Rajiv Gandhi standing amidst the smoke and flames of the lit pyre,his eyes inscrutable,his features numb.Those two images — Mrs. Gandhi’s body lying in state and Rajiv Gandhi standing by her funeral pyre — perhaps helped shape our responses to both individuals at the time. Mrs Gandhi laid so low,so tragically,filled you with sadness,distracted you from the violence of the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi which Doordarshan,to its shame,did not show; Rajiv Gandhi,handsome but stoic in his personal loss made one’s heart go out to him. Could we have voted for anyone else in that landslide Congress victory of December 1984?

On October 31,1984,DD was the last one to give us the news of Mrs Gandhi’s death. That was typical and expected: nobody turned to TV for the latest news,then; it was radio and BBC that told us what happened in our own backyard. Think it was Salma Sultan who first announced it on DD’s evening news,more than 10 hours after she was shot.

Had it been today,within minutes,seconds of the assassination,it would have on the air and online. All the news channels would have rushed to the scene of the crime,the hospital,Congress HQ. The tragedy,the number of assailants,the bullets shot would have differed,varied in the telling: one channel would have categorically stated Mrs Gandhi was dead on the spot,another that she was alive but died on the way to the hospital and a third that she was seen alive at the hospital (maybe even heard speaking?). Ditto for the assassins. Peter Ustinov,there to interview Mrs Gandhi,would have given on-the-spot interviews with the first visuals of events immediately before and after the shooting. R.K. Dhawan and everyone else present would have been hounded until they delivered soundbytes. What Mrs Gandhi said as she fell,would have ranged from what she actually said to perhaps what Mahatma Gandhi said. We would have been inundated by speculation,speculation as facts and voices,voices,voices. Delhi police would say one thing,the doctors a second,the attendants at Casualty/Emergency a third,bystanders a fourth and anybody within a kilometres radius of AIIMS or Safdarjang Road what they saw or didn’t see (how did it matter as long as you were seen and heard?). Meanwhile,the government spokesperson would have confirmed nothing beyond saying Mrs Gandhi has been shot at and her assailants apprehended.

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The highlight of the coverage,undoubtedly,would have been graphic reconstructions of the assassination (News 24 and IBN-Live reconstructed Mrs Gandhi being shot on Saturday) and Mrs Gandhi’s riddled body (remember graphics of Pramod Mahajan after he was shot?).

Some Hindi news channels would have consulted the soothsayers on Mrs Gandhi’s prophetic speech the day before on the possibility of her death and we would have been out on the streets of Delhi for reactions.

At some stage,the top TV anchors would have gained entry to AIIMS or Mrs Gandhi’s residence: “Blood,blood,everywhere…” By evening,it would have been Discussion Time India,obituaries,Sikh militancy,and of course Mrs Gandhi.

In sum,we would have had the kind of chaotic coverage we have every time there is a violent event — most recently,Y.S Rajasekhara Reddy’s accidental death.

But one thing is for sure: the violence in Delhi that followed Mrs Gandhi’s assassination would have been on the air,possibly live (remember Gujarat after Godhra) and everyone would have seen what happens when a mighty tree falls. Impossible to say whether this would have curtailed or aggravated the situation. Either way,the non-coverage of the riots 25 years earlier is still a blot on Doordarshan’s screen image.

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