If its Gujarat it must be communal

IN Media Practice | 31/05/2006
Deccan Chronicle displayed the tendency of the English press to sensationalise and communalize news relating to Gujarat.



S R Ramanujan



In one of my recent articles on the tendency of the English press to sensationalise and communalize news, especially when it comes to Gujarat, I dealt with the manner in which the press indulged in acts of omission and commission while reporting events at Vadodara during the first week of May.  I never thought that there would be a clinching support or evidence to my charge against the English press so soon as a measure of follow-up. Deccan Chronicle provided such a support in its issue dated 20th May reporting a local crime story in Dabhoi near Vadodara. Well, DC was an exception or rather a solitary instance and I will be unfair to other major English newspapers if I club them all together in this particular coverage. DC only underlines the tendency.


Dabhoi is a small town some 40 km from the historic town of Vadodara which has turned out to be communally sensitive thanks to administration and the media. Two kids were missing from 16th May in this town, when they went to participate in a neighbourhood marriage festivity. A local doctor, who has a roaring practice in the area, dominated mostly by the minorities, found the bodies of the kids in his car on 18th May and informed the Police. The Times of India (Hyderabad edition) reported the story on 19th May on page 12 with the headline "VADODARA tense over recovery of 2 bodies" (emphasis added) and the strapline "Doctor’s Political Affiliation Comes Under Glare Even As VHP Says It’s A Conspiracy". The desk staff could have thought that "Vadodara" draws immediate attention after the unfortunate events witnessed by the town early May rather than Dabhoi. Dragging "Vadodara" into the headline over the mysterious death of two kids in a nearby town was certainly misleading.


But what was more damaging was the way DC dealt with the story. A day after the TOI’s inside story, it was the page one lead in DC with a screaming, all-bold 72 pt headline "SUSPECT DOC ON THE RUN" with an italicised strapline  "Baroda simmers over gruesome killing of two children".  As if to add weight to the day’s lead story, two thumbnail pix of the kids, Tahi Belim and Salman Sheikh, were printed just below the headline.


The Ahmedabad datelined DC story excerpts run like this.


"Communal tension continues to grip Dabhoi in Baroda district after the bodies of two children were found from a local doctor’s car. The doctor, Jagdish Pankhi, who initially boasted of VHP connections and described himself as a VHP office bearer, claimed that he found the bodies in his Cielo car when he opened the car door…..


"Dr Pankhi himself informed the police about the bodies, but before the police could arrive at the spot some local residents rushed there and indulged in heavy stone-throwing. The police burst teargas shells to quell the mob…


"The police (then) registered a double murder case against the doctor, but by the time the police again went to apprehend him, the doctor and his family had absconded. The Baroda police was not forthcoming about further details. One police officer, however, claimed that Dr Pankhi was not absconding, but had been moved to an undisclosed location by the local police for safety reasons.


"A police officer investigating the case said" "Prima facie, Dr Pankhi does not seem to be involved in this case since h is claim that his car had not been touched by him for 15 days  has got credence from several people…a source at the hospital indicated that the Forensic Science Laboratory had supported Dr Jagdish Pankhi’s claims that his Cielo had not been used for the last 15 days."


 The fact that the second sentence of the lead news item traces the political ideology of the doctor for a simple crime story lays bare the mischief potential. What the newspaper did not say in so many words was that the motive for the murder could be political/communal because of the doctor’s VHP background, though the very same report says that he was thrown out of the VHP 15 years ago. 


Secondly, it does not stand to any logic or reason that someone who committed the crime of killing two children and threw the bodies into his own car, parked in his house, would inform the police of his own volition. Thirdly, it is also obvious when faced with a hostile and rampaging neighbourhood, anyone would like to shift to a safer place. One cannot expect him to inform his whereabouts to others. Is it not mischievous on the part of the newspaper to say that the doctor was "on the run" specially so when a police officer claimed that the doctor was shifted to a safer place for safety reasons. Finally, is this a lead story for a Hyderabad newspaper unless it is a motivated news judgement?


It is interesting to see how others treated the story. On the very same day when Baroda was "simmering" over gruesome killing of two children, the TOI’s filler was "Peace in Dabhoi" with the text "Situation in Dabhoi town of this district remained peaceful on Friday when the bodies of two children, found from a car, were buried, police said.".For the Hindu, it was a small d/c with the headline "Tight security in Gujarat town". For The New Indian Express (Hyd edition), understandably, this was no news.


What is quite surprising is that the DC, which thought the story was good enough for the lead on 20th May, did not think it necessary to give any follow up on the subsequent two days. What happened to the Forensic report which, according to the paper, was expected on 20th itself? Is the doctor still on the run? Is the town still "simmering"? Did the Police crack the case over the motive? DC readers are in the dark. They only know that Dr Pankhi, a VHP activist (?), is the possible culprit and he is on the run.


In the same breath as I discuss the Dabhoi coverage of the DC, I must place on record the forthright editorial it had on the electoral success of the Assam United Democratic Front (AUDF) and its implications. The AUDF’s move to join hands with Muslim organizations in Uttar Pradesh was assailed by the paper. It said "This is a dangerous move and has to be countered immediately by the secular political parties as well as individuals, as it will feed into communal biases and create tensions…The clerics’ intention is not to give a voice to the Muslim electorate, but to fuel their own long known political ambitions through a religious consolidation and polarization of views."


Maybe the Gujarat syndrome is clouding the paper’s judgement!



Feedback: s_ramanujan9@yahoo.co.in


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