Grand Tamasha

Supriya Sharma on Citizenship, Protests, and the Indian Media

Episode Summary

The implementation of the CAA and the NRC have prompted protests around India. What will become of the civil unrest? And what does the government crackdown mean for civil dissent?

Episode Notes

On January 10, the newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) officially came into force. The act provides for an expedited pathway to citizenship for illegal migrants from a number of non-Muslim faiths hailing from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan and who seek refuge in India. The act has prompted intense protests across cities and towns in India. The act dovetails with another one of the Modi government’s priorities, the creation of a national register of citizens (NRC) that aims to weed out illegal migrants from India’s citizenship rolls. 

To talk about the bill, the street protests, and the ruling BJP’s larger objectives, on a recent trip to New Delhi, Milan sat down with Supriya Sharma, the executive editor of, in this first episode of the third season of Grand Tamasha. Scroll is one of India’s leading online news organization and its reporters have been at the forefront when it comes to covering the popular resistance to both the CAA and the NRC. Supriya has extensively covered the protests—and the state’s brutal response—in the crucial Hindi heartland state of Uttar Pradesh.

Milan and Supriya also discuss the economic slowdown and how that might be fueling popular discontent as well as the state of the media environment in India today.

Episode Transcription

Intro:                            00:00                "Unabashed." "The most unpredictable-" "becomes a headline." "The most volatile -" "outrageous behavior -" "unsubstantiated" "A of battle of personalities."

Milan Vaishnav:            00:11                Welcome to Grand Tamasha. I'm your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. On January 10th the newly passed Citizenship Amendment Act officially came into force. The act provides for an expedited pathway to citizenship for migrants from a number of non Muslim faiths who hail from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan and who seek refuge in India. The act has prompted intense protests across cities and towns in India and it dovetails with another one of the Modi government's priorities, the creation of a nationwide registry of citizens that aims to quote unquote weed out illegal immigrants from India's citizenship rolls to talk about the bill, the street protests, and the BJP's larger objectives. I'm joined in the Hindustan Times studio today by Supriya Sharma, the executive editor of Scroll is one of India's leading online news organizations and its reporters have been at the forefront when it comes to covering the popular resistance to both the CAA and the NRC. Supriya has twice been a recipient of the prestigious Ramnath Goenka award For political reporting, her recent coverage of the police crackdown on protests in Uttar Pradesh uncovered widespread police abuse. I'm pleased to welcome her to the show for the first time. Supriya, thanks for coming on.

Supriya Sharma:            01:22                Delighted to be here, Milan. Thanks for having me.

Milan Vaishnav:            01:24                So I want to begin by asking you to kind of give us a broad lay of the land. I mean, for people who are not following Indian news day to day. There's a kind of alphabet soup of acronyms. You have the CAA, you have the NRC, you have the NPR, and the combination of some of these have kind of been at the heart of the street protests we've seen. So maybe we can begin by just kind of stepping back a bit and explaining, you know, broadly how do these pieces of the puzzle kind of fit together?

Supriya Sharma:            01:54                Well, Milan, most well-informed Indians also didn't know much about these acronyms until a month ago. All the contentions at the heart of the current protest were either largely absent or at the very least dormant in Indian politics, which makes this moment even more extraordinary for it seems like the Modi government has dressed a lot of political capital on something that was not even a rallying point for its own base. Unlike say special status for Jammu Kashmir under Article 370. Basically, to say citizenship was never a flashpoint in Indian politics until now. So to do sort of decode each of these acronyms one by one, as you said, the CAA is a Citizenship Amendment Act, which was passed by Indian Parliament in the second week of December. As you said, it creates an expedited pathway for undocumented migrants from three countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan in Bangladesh provided the belong to six religious communities, Hindu, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, and Parsis.

Supriya Sharma:            02:56                Now to just step back a little, until law was passed, Indian citizenship was not on the table for anyone who had entered or stayed on in India without legal documents. So what this law does is that it normally creates a pathway, it expedites it for only certain categories of migrants and as you see, six religious communities does not include Muslims. So what it essentially does as critics say, is a completely arbitrary classification which does not meet the test of equality under Article 14 of the Indian constitution and in fact undermines the secular foundations of the Indian Republic. Now the government's justification has been that this law seeks to address the humanitarian concerns of persecuted minorities, but critics point out that by that virtue Rohingya is from Myanmar or Tamils from Sri Lanka would also qualify. Now discriminatory as it is, the CAA would perhaps not have been enough to spark this outpouring of anger that we're seeing on Indian streets outside of the Northeast ,where of course we've seen opposition to this bill even in its earlier avtaar when the government was not able to get it through parliament. There's been sustained opposition in the Northeast because communities there are fearful of migration of any kind, whether Hindu or Muslim, from Bangladesh. And they think that this law is going to legitimize migrants and encourage migration, which is why there's vehement opposition to the law.

Milan Vaishnav:            04:28                I mean just to pause there for a second, it's important to note for our listeners that there are different axes of protests in different parts of India. Right. What we're seeing outside of the Northeast, is concern about the anti-minority or the fundamentally unfair nature of the CAA and that it discriminates against Muslims. In the Northeast, if I'm not mistaken, it's really more about opposition to migration of any kind Hindu, Muslim -

Supriya Sharma:            04:57                Absolutely, yes.

Milan Vaishnav:            04:57                -Or Some third religion because of the fear that local customs language ways of living might be infringed upon.

Supriya Sharma:            05:05                Exactly. Which is why we have seen protest against the law in, in, you know, when it was a bill even in its earlier avtaar we've seen protest in the Northeast, but protest outside of the Northeast have come as a surprise, but they are largely guided by this view that CAA is part of a larger project to disenfranchise Indian Muslims in combination with the NRC, the National Register of Citizens that you spoke about. Now the NRC, until a year ago was an exercise limited to Assam, but it entered the political vocabulary of the rest of India mostly during the Lok Sabha election in the summer of 2019 when Home Minister Amit Shah, then in his capacity as the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party went on to talk it up and say that it will be extended to the entire country and almost every time that he spoke about it, he added a caveat.

Supriya Sharma:            06:00                He said that Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, Parsis need not worry about the NRC because the NRC will be conducted only after the CAA is passed, by which he implied that those who fail to make it to the NRC from these six communities would somehow, you know, be considered refugees under this new citizenship law. Something that would not be available to Muslims, Muslims would be left out in the cold. And this message spread far and wide. In early October, we interviewed daily wage workers in two cities, Mumbai and Delhi. And the contrast was startling. Hinder workers had barely heard of the NRC while Muslims were extremely anxious. They were already sort of salvaging documents and worrying over how they'll prove their citizenship. So this panic had set in, it had been largely missed because very few people cover, you know, Muslim communities in this country.

Supriya Sharma:            06:59                And so when Parliament was debating CAA and Home Minister Amit Shah once again brought up the NRC, it only deepened these anxieties. Of course, once the anxieties led to this sort of eruption of anger and we saw these widespread protests on the street, the government stepped back and Prime Minister Narendra Modi went on to declare that the government had actually never contemplated holding a nationwide NRC.

Milan Vaishnav:            07:26                Right, there was no plan in place.

Supriya Sharma:            07:27                There is no plan to do an NRC, which by which he contradicted Amit Shah. But also what was sort of raised eyebrows was the fact that the government had by then rolled out the NPR, the National Population Register. So we're adding now one more -

Milan Vaishnav:            07:43                This is the last of the alphabet soup.

Supriya Sharma:            07:46                Absolutely. So NRC is the national register of citizens. It's a list of Indian citizens. While NPR is a population register, it's a list of all residents in India and it's basically prepared by a household survey, which has been done previously. It was done in 2010 by the Congress-led UPA government. But the key difference is that this time, the questions that are going to be asked as part of the survey are different, there is a question where respondents will be asked where their parents were born. So this is sort of strengthening the suspicion that NPR, this time will become the basis of an NRC, which is something that has not happened in the past. So NPR will be the first step to an NRC and NRC in combination with CAA will leave Muslims vulnerable to losing their citizenship. This is the fear that has actually sparked these unprecedented protests that we've seen all through December and now halfway into January.

Milan Vaishnav:            08:49                And you really kind of have to understand the three of them in, in, in conjunction. You know, we're talking right now in the nation's capitol where protests and, and, and various forms of civil disobedience are, are, are raging in opposition to this triumvirate. But I'm wondering, you know, what was so interesting is there was a relatively muted response in the popular imagination, I guess you could say to the aggregation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir that was followed by the Supreme Court's landmark judgment in the Ayodhya verdict which has been simmering for decades now. Are you surprised as a journalist who who travels out and about regularly at the level of popular anger that we're seeing, given that we really didn't see that much in the wake of these other two developments?

Supriya Sharma:            09:36                Yes and no. I mean, I'll be honest, these protests caught everyone by surprise. None of us saw the protests coming. In fact, in the first week of December, I distinctly remember when this bill was tabled in Parliament, there was absolutely no indication or protest building up anywhere outside of India's Northeast. In fact, most of us assume that this will be one more controversial legislation that the Modi government, will get through Parliament without much opposition either within the house or outside. In fact, we even did a story talking about why there's so much silence about this even among Muslim communities. So clearly we didn't see the protest coming. But now in hindsight, and we're always wiser in hindsight, it's somewhat easier to see that the conditions were ripe for an eruption of anger. As I said, we knew that there was a wave of panic that had built up among Muslim communities. One woman in Uttar Pradesh told me, ham se hamarra deen chihn hum kuch nahi bolyea. You took away our religious symbol by which she meant the Babri Masjid and we remain silent. Aap hum se hamara desh teen loge, to ham kaise chupre? How do we stay silent if you're taking away our country? I mean, she said, we've given our sweat and blood to this country. This is the only home we know. Where else will we go? And this is, this is a voice that sort of echoed around the country. You put similar sentiments expressed all over the place from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra to Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal. So clearly that's, you know, the sort of existential crisis that Muslims are sort of experiencing over a NRC and CAA.

Supriya Sharma:            11:13                There's of course also a lot of angst among a small section of you know, liberal Indians who have been worrying over the undermining of India secular fabric. There was resentment over you know, kind of concentration of power in, in Modi and Shah. Also let's remember, the economy's not in a good place. Food inflation was at a six year high in December. Young people don't see bright prospects for themselves. There are not that many jobs around. But it sort of explains why we saw the protest erupting in December and the fact that campuses, you know, colleges and universities were big centers for these protests. So while we didn't see the protests coming now in hindsight, it's sort of easier to make sense of why all of this happened.

Milan Vaishnav:            12:04                So, I want to, you mentioned Uttar Pradesh. I want to, I want to transition to talking about that for a bit. You've written extensively on the ground about protests in Uttar Pradesh and the state's subsequent crackdown on protestors. We know that as many as 19 Muslim men have died in UP as a result of police action. This, I think, is the single biggest clutch or set of casualties we've seen as a result of the recent protests. Take us inside, if you could in, you know, tell us how did the police respond to ordinary men and women who had kind of hit the streets to protest this act?

Supriya Sharma:            12:39                So Milan, now the latest update is that the death count is up to 24 in Uttar Pradesh. And again, here it's important to emphasize that the only casualties that we've seen in the Citizenship Act protests have taken place in BJP ruled states. We first saw five people killed in police fighting in Assam. Then there were two deaths reported from Karnataka, which is again BJP ruled. And as you say, the maximum casualties have been reported from Uttar Pradesh. Now here it's sort of important to understand how, Uttar Pradesh dealt with the protest in a completely different way. What it did was it imposed a sweeping ban on public meetings on December 18th. Now it used a colonial era provision, which is essentially meant for local law and order keeping, not for imposing a state-wide band. What it did was it outlawed any gathering, even a peaceful one.

Supriya Sharma:            13:33                Now we have seen large, very large protests in many parts of the country being staged peacefully so there's no reason to believe that those could not have happened in Uttar Pradesh. But by, by imposing this ban under Section 144, what Uttar Pradesh did was sort of set the stage for a confrontation between police and protestors, which is what exactly happened in Lucknow, for instance, on December 19th on the same day, however, there was an entirely peaceful protest staged in Varanasi in Prime Minister's constituency where longtime activists, research scholars, students gathered to protest peacefully as eye witnesses told us all that they did was hold up banners and shout some slogans. They were bundled into police vans. And the next thing that they knew was that they had been charged for violent writing. So the sort of you know, the response of the police and the administration in UP was even on against peaceful protestors who sort of had a long history of coming out on, you know, civic issues and who are sort of are well established members of civil society in Varanasi, the response was excessive and disproportionate that they were charged for violence writing. While there's really no evidence that they did anything as sort of even minor to disturb public order. The next day was Friday, the day that Muslims gather for prayers. Again, what was surprising was that the police was posted outside mosques even when there was no formal call for protest. This itself, say residents, created a sense of siege in Muslim neighborhoods.

Milan Vaishnav:            15:17                That were being watched.

Supriya Sharma:            15:18                That they're being watched. They thought that this was sort of an intimidatory tactic. They didn't see any reason why the police should be posted in riot gear inside their neighborhoods. And they say that this was a provocation for young people. In many places, Muslims allege that the police use batons, opened a lathi charge on them without provocation. Now it's very hard to independently verify these allegations. But in one place, in Varanasi, we found a video recording which shows you know, protesters being asked to sit down by the police and these protestors, many of whom are young people obeyed the instruction and sat down.

Supriya Sharma:            15:58                And the next thing there was a lathi charge on them. So there is this one we do recording with sort of confirms what Muslim told us in one place at least. The police outrightly denied that it had fired bullets despite the fact that most people who have been killed died of gunshot wounds. However, subsequently there's a lot of video footage that surface showing policemen use firearms. And in one district the police belatedly admitted that it had shot dead. A young man, a young man who was actually preparing for civil service exams. And in no way sort of fits this kind of larger perception of, you know, rioting protesters. Again, it's not just the violence on the streets. This went one step forward where Muslims alleged the police entered homes, they raided homes, they ransacked homes, they beat up women and the elderly, they made indiscriminate arrests. There are horrifying accounts of minors being tortured.

Supriya Sharma:            17:00                Again, these are allegations, it's very hard for journalists to verify them, but just the volume of these allegations, the fact that these are consistent testimonies that you know, multiple reporters have gone into these places and have come back with, you know, multiple interviews means this should be taken seriously. And there is ample video evidence to show policemen walking through Muslim neighborhoods and vandalizing property. You know, they've gone around.

Milan Vaishnav:            17:28                Breaking car windshields, they're knocking over motorbikes, and.

Supriya Sharma:            17:32                Yes and there's not even a single person out on that street. This is just a calm neighborhood. And you know,

Milan Vaishnav:            17:38                Sort of, there was someone sort of hanging out their window filming this. Yeah.

Supriya Sharma:            17:40                Exactly. I mean the fact that now smartphones are ubiquitous and everyone can sort of record what's happening means that there is now all of this evidence that's surfacing where you can also see policemen breaking CCTVs presumably because they didn't want their actions to be recorded.

Milan Vaishnav:            17:57                So I want to step back and talk through kind of what happens next. You know, I was chatting with a friend yesterday who said that what we're missing is that there are many ordinary Indians across the country who silently support the protests that are happening against the CAA, but that many of the so-called liberal intellectuals in places like Delhi or Mumbai or even Hyderabad have not really reached out to them and, or found a way maybe in their own language and their own custom to kind of tap into this sense of disenchantment. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

Supriya Sharma:            18:33                It's somewhat intriguing to be honest because it sort of suggests that intellectuals have been the vanguard of these protests while actually it's been the other way around.

Milan Vaishnav:            18:41                Interesting.

Supriya Sharma:            18:42                What we have seen are that these protests have been organic, spontaneous, leaderless. They've often happened at the level of neighborhoods like you have like these resident welfare associations in New Delhi for, you know, these gated communities which have also been holding protests. And sometimes those protests are disrupted by another group of residents and there's sort of friction that breaks out where both sides are making their arguments. But you know, we haven't seen this, the sort of level of decentralized organic protest all across the country in a very long time. There is of course, some validity to the criticism that there's not much media coverage of protest or even like sentiment outside of metropolitan India. But to some extent, that's because of the, the shrinking footprint of India's national media where, you know, media organizations no longer have the reporting resources to cover much of this country.

Supriya Sharma:            19:38                There is discussion also over whether these protests need to be synchronized, whether an umbrella organization needs to be created, some sort of charter of demands should be drafted. But like a lot of people think that the beauty of these protesters, you know, they're fluid -

Milan Vaishnav:            19:54                They're kind of organic.

Supriya Sharma:            19:55                Yeah, absolutely. They're kind of unscripted nature. The larger question of what lies ahead, you know, I think we should approach it with humility given that we didn't see the protests coming.

Milan Vaishnav:            20:06                Right? It's always like, you know, an election analysis. You don't know what's going to happen. And then you spend the rest of your life basically saying, Oh, this is why you know, the BJP won, this is why the Congress lost.

Supriya Sharma:            20:13                Exactly. I mean, we didn't see the protest coming, so to say where they're heading is sort of a fraught exercise. But what we can see is that this time, the BJP has been caught off guard.

Supriya Sharma:            20:24                They weren't anticipating there'd be street protests and that the street protests would have this, you know, very interesting visual language where people are sort of holding the national flag, you know, reading from the preamble, they're singing the national anthem, you know, in a way that it's not easy for the foot soldiers of BJP to characterize these as anti-national which is the pattern that we've seen the past. So the BJP is sort of now taking stock and they are sort of, they've rolled out this pro-CAA campaign. One funny leg of this campaign was asking people to do, you know, make missed calls to a number to register their support for the law, but they're also holding rallies. There was a rally in Bihar yesterday where Adityanath, the chief minister Uttar Pradesh spoke. So, so they are going to sort of up the ante.

Supriya Sharma:            21:15                They're going to try and educate at least their base, which was also really very ill informed about this law. At the same time we're seeing that the opposition is also crafting a response. Of course, two days ago there was an opposition meeting, which was not very well attended. However, the resolution that came out of it is significant. The fact is that two States have already issued orders to halt work on the NPR and now Congress, too, has said it would do. So it has governments in five States. So altogether about eight States holding NPR. One state Kerala, going to Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of the law means that we are really in for some sort of a, you know, prolonged you know, stalemate over this.

Milan Vaishnav:            22:03                So it's interesting cause you said the, the, the ruling party is kind of upping the ante, but at the same time the government seems to have kind of slowly walked back it's more strident language on the need for a nationwide NRC and it's trying to encourage ordinary Indians to take part in this NPR process without fear that this is somehow gonna eventually result in their disenfranchisement. I'm wondering, do we know enough to say whether this is kind of a strategic shift of priorities? That they've taken cognizance of what's happening? They've redirected or more of our kind of short term tactical measure men to essentially nudge people away from taking to the streets and protest?

Supriya Sharma:            22:42                Well, most protestors see this as a tactical move because all the statements emanating from the government, whether the prime minister, the home minister, the law minister, any senior functionary, has been that there is no move to conduct an NRC right now. But the emphasis is right now.

New Speaker:               23:00                Right.

New Speaker:               23:00                You know, in an interview on a recent interview on NDTV, the television channels, when the home minister was pressed on the subject, he was sort of stuck on this. He said, NRC, Abhi nahi hoga and what happened right now? But he never said NRC Kabhi nahi hoga. It won't happen ever. Which is what protesters want to keep. Right? So protesters see this as a tactical move or sort of a move to get them off the streets for things to calm down. And it doesn't really square off with anything that we have heard in the past because on countless occasions the home minister has said, and I've also heard him say this in a political rally during the recent Maharashtra elections, that there will be an NRC before 2024 so his statements just don't square off.

Milan Vaishnav:            23:42                So let's just assume for a second that whether it's in two years or in three years or in five years, we have a nationwide NRC. It comes to fruition. There are million of Indians, millions of Indians, excuse me, who are deemed to be illegal stripped of their citizenship. I'm wondering what we know about what happens next. Right. So Bangladesh claims it is in a under no circumstances going to observe large influx of people from India. We have evidence, Scroll has reported this and others have as well, that there are these new detention centers that have come up, but they are relatively few in number. They don't have the capacity to house millions of people. Do we know what the actual end game of the NRC is? So let's just say for your argument that you know, 5 million people are left out. Do we know what happens to them?

Supriya Sharma:            24:26                No one knows Milan. That's really the frightening situation which has caused such panic around the country. Even in Assam where the NRC is not an abstract idea, it's actually a living, breathing oppressive reality where it's left nearly 2 million people quasi stateless even in that state, no one knows what lies ahead. Those who have been left out of the Assam NRC had been told that they can appeal in foreigners tribunals. Now these are quasi judicial bodies, staffed with low level bureaucrats, which.

Milan Vaishnav:            24:58                Not judges, its important to point out.

Supriya Sharma:            24:58                Not judges, low level bureaucrats who don't really have a Sterling record when it comes to fair and transparent adjudication. Many of those tribunal orders have been upturned by the higher courts. But what results from a tribunal order declaring someone to be a foreigner is that they have been sent to detention camps, where living conditions are abysmal. Inmates do not even have the dates available to prisoners, there are horror stories that have been reported about these detention camps.

Supriya Sharma:            25:26                Now, as you said, Assam is building more detention centers, but there'll never be enough room to house even like a fraction of those 2 million people who might be unable to prove their citizenship in these foreigner tribunals. There is some conversation in Assam that, that these so-called noncitizens people who have not been able to prove their citizenship would be somehow given work permits and allowed to stay on in India, which essentially means they'll become a form of cheap labor without political rights, which is why there is this deep suspicion that the end or fit NRC will be nothing other than a disenfranchisement project.

Milan Vaishnav:            26:07                So essentially what you're saying, just to paraphrase, would be these people would be stripped of their citizenship. They'd be allowed to stay with some kind of residential permit status, but they would no longer have the rights and responsibilities of a true citizens, which means they wouldn't be able to vote.

Supriya Sharma:            26:22                Exactly. They wouldn't be able to vote. In fact, anyone who's going through proceedings and foreigners tribunals even now in Assam is unable to vote. These are d-voters, doubtful voters. That's the acronym. And for many years now, anyone who's labeled a D-voter in Assam is unable to vote. Now that's happened on our small scale, which in Assam now becomes large scale because of the NRC. And here we are still talking about just one state in just one state. Nearly 2 million people have been rendered quasi stateless of that a fraction maybe unable to prove their citizenship in foreigners tribunals. And by that virtue would be stripped of their citizenship rights. You sort of look at it at a national level and the numbers are mind boggling and the whole exercise is going to cost the public exchequer several you know, millions of rupees.

Supriya Sharma:            27:21                So what is the end game? Nobody really knows. And it just seems this is a project that's going to destabilize the country with really no payoffs. And instead, it's almost as if we are all in this realm of darkness. We're just sort of groping around for answers and the answers aren't coming. The government has really not provided any clear roadmap other than issuing these sort of threatening a noise, especially at political rallies. The fact that at political rallies, Amit Shah has consistently spoken of an NRC you know, at a time when it is perceived as a dog whistle against Muslims. In parliament, again, he resorted to the same language. Something as huge and significant as that, the government has is yet to give us any clear answers.

Milan Vaishnav:            28:12                Right. I mean, it's, it's sort of analogous to, you know, Donald Trump talking about the wall, right when he talks about the wall, everyone knows what that means. Of course it's a physical representation, but it's also we want to keep those other people who are coming from our Southern border out.

Milan Vaishnav:            28:25                Um I, I'm curious about the link with economics and, and we're talking at a point where we're just a couple of weeks away from the government unveiling its latest budget on February 1st. Everyone's kind of trying to read the tea leaves or what they're going to do. Why are certain people in certain budget meetings and not in others, but we don't know what to make of that. But, but we can say with certainty is that we're in the midst of a pretty severe economic downturn. Some people have said it's the most severe downturn in three decades since liberalization, but the prime minister at the same time seems to remain, you know, hugely popular. He just got a renewed mandate for five years. Although the, the ruling party has seen some slip-ups at the state level in terms of recent elections that nationally their position seems to be intact. I'm wondering why a slowing economy hasn't led to more popular disquiet or has it, I mean, some people have written that the reason so many people are protesting is really, there's a mix of factors. It's not just the fact that this is a discriminatory measure, they perceive it to be one, but it's also because they don't have jobs. The, the growth isn't there. Investment isn't there. I mean, do you think these things are somehow interrelated?

Supriya Sharma:            29:40                Yes. I mean, I remember going around during the Lok Sabha elections, talking to people where a lot of them were experiencing all the adverse effects of a slowing down economy. They were farmers who were talking about falling incomes. They were young graduates who said that they were no jobs out there. And yet many of them said that they were voting for the BJP either because they were sort of swept in by the government's rhetoric on Pakistan. Many of them believed that 300, 400 millions had been killed in the Balakot air strike. And they're not to be blamed now for all, those were the headlines in the Hindi newspapers. So they had sort of internalized that.

Milan Vaishnav:            30:21                And on some television stations as well.

New Speaker:               30:23                Yes. so yeah, some of them were voting because they were convinced that this was a government that was giving a hard response to Pakistan. Others were aware of all the problems that the country was besieged with. Yet they said that Modi is still the most capable leader on the horizon and they thought he deserved a second chance. Now, during the Lok Sabha elections, while it was apparent that, that there was a growth slow down, that unemployment was at a four decade high, inflation was low. And I think that is what has changed in the last couple of months.

Milan Vaishnav:            30:58                And, and, and just to give the context, I mean, you know, there is a saying that, you know the, the, it's onion prices, which sort of determines, you know, whether governments fall or a or, or succeed because consumer inflation as represented by onion prices, which is a, a regular an ingredient in household cooking. It's something that people really feel the pinch, sorry.

Supriya Sharma:            31:21                Yeah. I mean, vegetable inflation in December was 60%. And partly because of those high onion prices as you spoke off. Now it is because we're seeing food inflation rise, we're seeing vegetable inflation just skyrocket. I guess that is what is sort of changing the public mood. You know there's, there's sort of a lot of mixed evidence for how growth correlates with political outcomes. You've also researched the subject and I mean, whatever I've read, it seems that, you know, the jury is still out there, there is no clarity yet on that. But we know mehangai is like a sure-shot thing to cause present moment. And even in the run up to the 2014 looks of high elections, mehangai was a big talking point for the BJP as it attacked the Congress at that time. Now, for the first time in six years that Modi has been at the helm, we are seeing food inflation rise and consistently rise. And we can only kind of assume that this is part of the ground conditions for the protests that we're seeing now.

Milan Vaishnav:            32:28                And I think, you know, as somebody who's thought a little bit about this, this idea of, you know, it's the economy stupid, how well does that explain or not political outcomes in India? I think perhaps one crucial thing that some of us missed is, well, perhaps that does have some weight provided there is say, palatable alternative, right? I mean, I think one of the things, I'm sure you heard, I certainly heard when I was traveling in India during the election season was it's not as if everything is, you know, sweetness and light, but you know, is there somebody else on the horizon that we think is going to be any better otherwise at least this government has tried a few things and let's give them another chance.

Milan Vaishnav:            33:10                I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you about the media environment in India today and it's kind of come up in, in various things you've said. You know, Scroll is one of the few digital news organizations that has at times adopted a, a critical stance on the government's policies and politics, or at least been willing to shine a light on, let's say inconvenient truths. And I'm wondering about what are some of the challenges and constraints that organizations like yours, you know, face in this, you know, rapidly changing kind of media landscape?

Supriya Sharma:            33:44                Well, there are lots of constraints and challenges like everywhere else in the world. Journalists who are doing their jobs are facing more hostility than ever before with political actors, organizing troll armies, for instance, on social media to heap abuse on us. Which along with social polarization means there is eroding trust in the news. So there are all these larger environmental challenges, but for organizations like Scroll, there's an additional challenge which is shrinking resources available to the newsroom. An independent organization like ours has found it really hard to raise funds in the present climate, which is why readers who recognize the value of our work, we request them to step forward and to subscribe and contribute to our reporting fund to help us do this work. So if I may use, by all means your platform to once again remind readers if you like our work well please subscribe. We also have a reporting fund which you could contribute. Help us keep things going.

Milan Vaishnav:            34:50                I mean, but do you think things are changing? Because you know, if I look around at the kinds of news that I consume in India now I'm talking about, but I guess it's true globally as well, is you know, a, a re establishment like Business Standard now, right? Which is one of the premier economic newspapers of this country has a paywall, The Hindu, right, which has a much wider reach than most other print media outlets has now introduced a kind of pay wall. So do you think the kind of culture is changing? I mean, you know, as somebody who is based in the United States, the idea five or ten years ago that we would pay for news was, was verboten, right. And now many of us happily part with our money to get subscriptions to the Washington Post, The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal or the FT or whatever the case may be. Do you think that this, the mindset is coming around?

Supriya Sharma:            35:35                Yes, I do think things are changing but perhaps too slowly and that still sort of leaves like a large gap for media organizations in terms of revenue. I think the idea of reader funded journalism is catching on, but it's yet to sort of translate into really something that's viable. But we're very hopeful. We are trying to build a model like that. And as I say, I mean our annual subscription costs about the same as a monthly Netflix subscription. So there's no reason why, you know, all these millions of people who come and read us wouldn't be willing, at least like a percentage of that wouldn't be willing to give us money.

Milan Vaishnav:            36:14                So instead of, you know, millennials chilling and watching Netflix, they could chill and read Scroll. My guest today in the studio is Supriya Sharma. She's the executive editor of Thank you for your reporting and for coming on the show. This is a very fast paced, fast moving series of events. Undoubtedly there are many other chapters that we could talk about in the coming weeks and months. So we hope that you can come back and give us an update on what's happening on the ground.

Supriya Sharma:            36:42                I'd love to do that. Thanks so much for having me. Thanks.

Outro:                          36:48                Grand Tamasha is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website, Grantamasha.Com. Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.