Covering vigilante censorship

BY R A RAVISHANKAR| IN Media Practice | 23/12/2012
Does journalistic balance demand construction of a false equivalence between proponents of a violent religious nationalism and those of a secular worldview,

 On December 12, a student group at the Indian Institute of Science(IISc), Bengaluru,organised a screening of Anand Patwardhan's documentary "Ram Ke Naam (In the Name of God)". A news report in DNA the next day, titled "Sparks fly at IISc over Anand Patwardhan documentary on Babri Masjid razing", betrayed ignorance of the film's tempestuous history and ended up largely echoing timeworn Hindutva complaints. 

Shortly after its release in 1992, "Raam Ke Naam" won multiple national and international awards, including the Filmfare award for best documentary and the National award for the best investigative film (for the year 1992),presented by the Directorate of Film Festivals, set up by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The citation commended Ram KeNaam as a "skilfully made film on a major problem of the times -- the communal divide."

Despite such critical acclaim, Doordarshan decided the film was too incendiary to be aired until ordered by the Bombay High Court to telecast it on prime time. The film's travails didn't end there, and unhindered screenings have been far and few between. It has also faced temporary bans in several districts, enforced illegally by the district administration and the local Hindutva forces until forced to retreat by public protests.

Given this history, it was not surprising that the announcement of this film screening in IISc enraged some Hindutva followers.

The DNA news report labelled the film a "controversial" take on the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue, a rather lazy characterization substituting for a critical review of the film. In reporting a controversy stemming from a film screening, shouldn't the politics espoused by the film merit some analysis? Or, do the tenets of objective journalism demand that the subject of controversy and the opposing worldviews of the contending groups be glossed over for the sake of journalistic "balance"? How is it fair and balanced to construct a false equivalence between two groups, one a proponent of a violent religious nationalism and the other espousing a secular worldview? As majoritarian fundamentalism and the violence it engenders has become more generalised, it has also become more normalised in the common psyche.

Even more bizarre was the report attributing "much of the problem" to publicity posters used by the organisers describing the VHP as a "militant" group. The word militant, when used as an adjective, could be intended to mean:

1) vigorously active and aggressive, especially in support of a cause

2) engaged in warfare; fighting.

The first interpretation is fairly value-neutral. We have had militant anti-caste crusaders and social movements striving for an egalitarian society as well as militant religious nationalists seeking to uphold a hierarchical social order. Thus, "militancy" could be good or bad depending on the cause it supports. VHP is certainly militant in the sense of being vigorous and aggressive, and so also in the sense of being engaged in fighting. Its leaders and cadre are proud of such militancy, and have often warned Hindus and even Hindutva leaders who don't toe their militant line. Such militancy might be an embarrassment to some Hindutva followers, in which case their protests/appeals should be aimed at the VHP, not at its labeling as a "militant" group.

However, Concern members got wind of this action, and eventually managed to let the screening go ahead with an important caveat -- there was to be no discussion after the screening, and Concern was responsible for evacuating the audience out of the venue once the film ended. There was considerable uncertainty about whether the event will go ahead until the day of the screening. The pro-Hindutva students also threatened a legal suit if the posters describing the VHP as "militant" were not removed, but Concern didn't budge.

About 150-200 people came for the screening. I was about five minutes late, but heard from a friend that when the organisers attempted a brief introduction to the film, the (all-male) Hindutva group started shouting and the screening was started hurriedly without an introduction. Once the film started, the Hindutva group continued to raise a ruckus, either when they were particularly aggrieved (as when none of the Hindutva supporters interviewed in the film seemed to know exactly when Rama was born; a Hindutva follower in the audience asserted that Rama was born 9.5 lakh years ago, and claimed fossil evidence to this effect!) or to express approval for Narendra Modi (as when an interviewee in the film averred that the Hindutva upsurge will be short-lived) and other Hindutva icons (as when Advani barked "Mandir Wahin Banayenge" -- we'll build the temple THERE, at the site of the mosque), or to make a suggestion ("invite Subramanian Swamy to know the truth about Ayodhya").

Some of the vocal Hindutva supporters, including the budding paleontologist who set Rama's age at 9.5 lakh years, seemed to prefer the anonymity of the dark and left before the film ended. But a group of about ten Hindutva supporters stayed back and started shouting immediately after the film ended. Concern members tried to get everyone out of the room immediately, but the Hindutva supporters wanted a captive audience.

It later turned out that they haven't been able to muster such big audiences for their events, so wanted to have a say then and there. In the words of one of them, paraphrased as I remember: "When we have some events to talk about corruption or issues of national interest, no one turns up. But for this biased documentary, so many have come." The room was soon cleared, and a shouting match ensued outside. The Hindutva supporters departed with staple Hindutva slogans of "Jai Shri Ram, Bharat Mata ki Jai", besides a demand to "Ban Concern."

If I were a reporter covering the event, I would have queried the Hindutva group about their repeated attempts to cancel/disrupt the event. What were they afraid of? If the film "is full of lies and does not even want to discuss the facts", as one of their unidentified members claimed, wouldn't the audience see it for what it is? After all, it wasn't as if the organisers were distributing trishuls or demanding a death sentence for their ideological opponents, like the VHP has done. Such hostility to a two-decade old documentary makes one wonder how much more rabidly they would react to an event on contemporary Hindutva, or its practice in Gujarat. 

If I were a reporter, I would have written all this and more. How much of it would have passed the editorial desk is an entirely different matter.

(Ra Ravishankar is an engineer based in Bengaluru, and a member of the Mining Zone People’ s Solidarity Group )


Inaccurate journalistic labels 

The problem at IISc wasn't one of "communal tension" as the newspaper report mentions, it was more a reaction by a small group of rabidly pro-Hindutva students to a film they feared would expose the Hindutva movement's blood-stained past and give the lie to its claim to represent all Hindus. I say this based on what I saw and heard at the film screening. The screening was organised by a student group called Concern. Once the screening was finalized, and necessary permissions taken from the appropriate IISc authorities, publicity posters were put up. A motley group of rabidly pro-HindutvaIISc students swung into action, put up misleading counter-posters, and persuaded the Students Council President to write to the IISc public relations officer recommending cancellation of the film.

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