In Defence of Communalism Combat

IN Media Practice | 11/12/2004
As a columnist Tavleen Singh is proving to be just the opposite of what she used to be as a journalist

N P Chekkutty


Tavleen Singh has been a journalist who commanded my respect from the days when she was reporting for the now defunct Sunday, edited by M J Akbar, and her reports from various parts of India, giving graphic details of the life in the ‘Other India’ will always remain as some the best journalistic writings  I have ever read in my life.  Her writings carried a passion rarely seen in Indian journalism, a forthrightness of conviction and they were always well- researched as she used to travel far and wide in search of her stories.


Later on when she took to writing books, she seems to have started losing her balance as anyone going through the pages of her work, Kashmir: A Tragedy of Errors,  would think she was not writing about Kashmir and its steep and sudden fall into a cauldron of violence, but about her own travels in the place and her contacts among the high and mighty in the Valley.


Now in some of her recent columns in Indian Express, Tavleen Singh seems to have completely abandoned her journalistic caution, her meticulous adherence to well-researched arguments, and her insistence on facts over fiction. As a reporter, this has been her main strength. But as a columnist, she is proving to be just the opposite of what she used to be as a journalist: She is opinionated, unfair and often wild off the mark in her assessments.


In two recent articles in Indian Express, she is making wild allegations and insinuations  against a fellow journalist-tuned activist, Teesta Setalvad who runs the ten-year-old magazine Communalism Combat. Her allegations seem to be clearly motivated and it raises issues of contemporary journalism such as what is to be considered fair comment, and how far a column can make use of hearsay or just guesswork while commenting on public issues.


First let us just take up the issues that Tavleen Singh raises against Teesta Setalvad and Communalism Combat  which she co-edits along with her husband Javed Anand, from Mumbai. In her piece "The Communalism Divide", published in Indian Express on November 21, Tavleen Singh makes the point that those magazines who thrived on painting India as a country of fanatics should now concentrate on exposing the communalism of the other kind. She insists that they do not attack Islamic fundamentalism, a much more serious threat than Hindu fundamentalism and alleges that this type of journalism was making a clean profit out of the business of communalism. She also goes onto say that it is time to ask where do they get their funds from.


Then when Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand reacted to her allegations (Indian Express, December 2) pointing out that  her allegations were factually incorrect, she takes an injured tone even as she repeated the same allegations again without any effort to substantiate any one of them. She writes (IE December 5): "I stand by my insinuation. They [have] published a sample of Communalism Combat stories to prove their fairness, [but] I can bet that even 10 per cent of their stories do not deal with violence against Hindus and Sikhs…"


She once again repeats her  allegations that funds for such efforts as Communalism Combat, a campaign journal, were coming from nefarious foreign hands like the Saudis. The message: The journal is Saudi funded, they do not write anything against Muslims, their campaign on Best Bakery case and other human rights violations are insincere.


I have no idea whether any journalist writing against Hindu communalism is writing such stuff because he/she has accepted money from the ubiquitous Saudis who have so much of petro-dollars. It is possible there could be some people who take money from such sources, but then it must equally be true that there could be some others accepting money (or other considerations like a seat in Parliament, an ambassadorship or something else)  from the Hindu fundamentalists or any others who have an agenda to sell. But I don’t think it would be fair for any sensible journalist to say that Tavleen Singh or any other person who defends the Hindu rightwing is doing so not out of conviction but out of financial considerations. This is crap, to say the least.


Tavleen Singh attacks Communalism Combat as a journal which singles out the Hindu rightwing as the only threat to Indian secularism and ignores the much more serious threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. I think this is a grossly inaccurate accusation, because as a reader of Communalism Combat who has followed the commendable work this little journal and its editors and writers had done for upholding secular ideals in the country in the past one decade, would agree that they are fair, and they are unsparing of all hues of communalism, whether Hindu, Muslim or any  other. In fact, I remember  that back in 1998, when I first came to know Teesta Setalvad, it was when she wanted me to write a report on the rising trend of Islamic fundamentalism in Kerala, in the backdrop of worldwide pan-Islamic upsurges  and the jungle law rule of Taliban in Afghanistan, the hounding of Salman Rushdie by the Iranian mullahs and the attacks on Talima Nasreen in Bangladesh, etc.


The facts presented by Teesta Setalvad and Javed in their rejoinder completely refutes this charge of selective attack on Hindu communalism with a list of select articles on the threat posed by fundamentalists of other hues; Muslim, Christian or Sikh that appeared in the journal in the past few years. The fact of the matter is that Communalism Combat, right from the days of its inception in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai riots in 1992-93 had made a serious effort to nail down communal forces of every kind and it was unsparing of all of them. But Tavleen Singh seems to find fault with them because they were successful not only as journalists unearthing facts often unreported by mainstream media and then relentlessly followed them up with an action plan, but also as human rights activists fighting such cases in the courts of law.


Tavleen too admits this, though  indirectly. She says she is writing about these journalists-on-the-communalism-business, as she remembered allegations about them when Zahira Sheikh made her charges against Teesta Setalvad in the sensational Best Bakery case. I think this is the crux of the matter:  Best Bakery case is a turning point in Indian journalistic and legal history as this journal and its editor fought so hard and long that she could convince the Supreme Court that the earlier criminal investigations and court proceedings in the State of Gujarat were not objective and fair, thus getting an order from the apex court transferring it to Mumbai for a retrial.


Anyone who has a sense of the real world, as Tavleen Singh ought to have, could see that those who are likely to be in dock if the case runs its full course would try to influence the proceedings and derail the whole process,  as they had done successfully in the past. They must be at it again, because this trial is so crucial for the Hindu fundamentalist right in India. Communalism Combat did a splendid job fighting such forces and Tavleen Singh  attacking them for what they did is a surprising development, given the fact that this kind of action is what we need in our profession today . I feel this is the time to rally round people like Teesta Setalvad and Communalism Combat, because there is a concerted move to derail the course of justice in Best Bakery case, buying up witnesses and influencing the course of law. I hope Tavleen Singh would remember her own past and would rally round the fighting journalists who espouse a cause and not run them down with silly allegations at a critical juncture as in the case of Gujarat riot trials. 


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