Of Facts, EH Carr and BJP

Updated: 12 October, 2020 07:14 IST | Ajaz Ashraf | Mumbai

Is India losing its grip on reality? Considering the alternative narratives that have been obscuring 'facts' and masquerading as truth under the ruling dispensation, it would definitely seem so

Protesters in New Delhi condemn the Hathras gang-rape and murder. Pic/AFP
Protesters in New Delhi condemn the Hathras gang-rape and murder. Pic/AFP

Ajaz AshrafWhen the news about the suicide of former Central Bureau of Investigation Director Ashwani Kumar broke last week, there were many who received WhatsApp messages inquiring: What is the real story behind his suicide? Several tweets reminded us that the CBI had arrested Home Minister Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case, in July 2010, under Kumar's aegis. They were hinting at the possibility that he could have been murdered.

These speculations were scotched by the disclosure that Kumar had left behind a suicide note. Yet the initial flurry of responses to the news of his death testifies to the growing disinclination of people to accept a newsworthy occurrence on its face, believing the reality behind it has been manipulated to conceal a sinister backstory. So, was actor Sushant Singh Rajput murdered? After weeks of freewheeling speculations, the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences unequivocally declared that he did indeed commit suicide. Could not the Bollywood mafia have bought over the AIIMS doctors? Well!

The debate over the suicide of Sushant pales in comparison with the alternative narrative constructed around the 19-year-old Dalit girl in Hathras. Was she raped? No, for she knew the principal accused. Yet she, in her dying declaration, had accused him of raping and assaulting her, along with his three accomplices. She was murdered, right? Yes, but it was perhaps a case of honour killing. And yes, international conspirators fictionalised her rape-murder to foment caste violence in Uttar Pradesh and subvert, believe it or not, its development agenda.

Our grip on reality has decidedly become fragile, largely because we no longer know what constitutes "facts". CP Scott, the great liberal editor, in an article, in May 1921, wrote, "Comment is free, but facts are sacred." Scott's remark implied that facts are objects waiting for the investigator to gather and string them to narrate the story of an occurrence of importance. Such a view was critiqued by EH Carr, who, in What is History?, published in 1961, noted, "In spite of CP Scott's motto, every journalist knows today that the most effective way to influence opinion is by the selection and arrangement of the appropriate facts."

Carr was not commenting on the craft of the journalist but on that of the historian. "It used to be said that facts speak for themselves. This is, of course, untrue," Carr wrote. "The facts, speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context."

The narrator's predilection is revealed in his or her choice of the ordering of facts, with some emphasised more than the others and a few irrelevant to the story excluded. This is why every narrative reflects a particular point of view, often identified as articulating a distinctive ideology. Different narratives of the same event tend to reflect ideological dissimilarities, even contestations.

But the situation India faces today was anticipated neither by Scott nor Carr: What to do when facts are no longer considered sacred and are conjured out of thin air? What is the nature of that reality when the journalist and the historian "give the floor" not to facts, but lies masquerading as truth? Do we still heed Scott, who, in his 1921 article, suggested, "The voice of opponents no less than that of friends has a right to be heard…It is well to be frank; it is even better to be fair."?

In the befuddling 21st century India, it would seem unjust to give the "right to be heard" to those who cynically exploit the power bestowed on them to determine what are "facts" to only cook those up. Even before the BJP came to power in 2014, the police would implicate people in terror cases, which the judiciary periodically rubbished. But never before were "facts" conjured in such a coordinated manner so often, suggesting that the ruling dispensation wants the citizenry to exclaim at the occurrence of every event: What is the truth, its reality?

Confusing people about reality is designed to erode their conviction. This is so true of the investigations into the Capital's February riots by the Delhi Police, which have intimidated a range of people, as Scroll.in stories show, to produce "facts" and "give the floor" to them. All this for constructing the "reality" that citizens protesting against the government's citizenship policy conspired to foment violence. One of the intimidated, a creative producer, told Scroll, "There was a moment…when the DCP [Deputy Commissioner of Police] was… telling me that it was all a conspiracy, for a split second there was this weird feeling that how do I know it's not a conspiracy." Likewise, many will wonder that how do they know the accused in the Bhima Koregaon case did not plan the violence.

Carr wrote, "To praise a historian for his accuracy is like praising an architect for using…properly mixed concrete in his building. It is a necessary condition of his work, but not his essential function." Yet, when institutions fail to carry out the necessary condition of work and malevolently manufacture "facts", India can only become a cuckoo land, where the distinction between reality and fiction will increasingly get blurred and paranoia will afflict every person.

The writer is a senior journalist

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The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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First Published: 12 October, 2020 06:08 IST

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