Mangalore vs Kolkata

BY Sankrant Sanu| IN Media Practice | 06/03/2009
The Mangalore incident was widely condemned while the attack on the Statesman was largely papered over in the media. Is an attack on the freedom of expression of a newspaper editor less significant than that of a woman going to a pub,
asks SANKRANT SANU. Pix: Statesman building, Kolkata.

Religious zealots abused women sitting in a pub in Mangalore in Karnataka, India. Zealots from another religion violently protested against the publication of an article in the Statesman in West Bengal. While the government in Karnataka proceeded to arrest Hindu religious extremists, the government in West Bengal succumbed to their Islamic variants, arresting the editor instead.  The first incident received widespread media-coverage and editorial condemnation and while the second, in comparison, was largely papered over. What lies at the heart of this difference in approach? 

¿The Statesman in Kolkatta reproduced an article titled ¿Why should I respect these oppressive religions¿ written by Johann Hari that was first published in the Independent London. . The article recommended that the right of free expression should not be curtailed by religious zealotry. It ended with promoting membership of the National Secular Society in UK for fighting for secularism and freedom of speech.


As a result of the article, a Muslim group of 4,000 people protested outside the papers office and demanded arrest of the Editor/Publisher.  Some violence broke out. The Communist Party of India (Marxist) led government of West Bengal could not resist the pressure. The Editor & Publisher of The Statesman were arrested for publishing the article.


There are some interesting parallels and contrasts between this incident and what happened in Mangalore.  A few weeks ago, a Hindu group beat-up some women in Mangalore who were frequenting a pub. Civil society was outraged and the Karnataka government took swift action, arresting the perpetrators and standing up for civil liberty.


Both these cases are fundamentally about free expression and speech. In Mangalore the issue was the freedom for women to visit pubs without intimidation by religious zealots.  In Kolkata the issue was the right of a newspaper editor to publish a reasoned academic critique of religious fundamentalism (and a defense of free speech) without intimidation by a different set of religious zealots.


I will not argue about the relative merits of defending visits to pubs versus the right to a reasoned academic discussion and debate in a free democratic society.  Far more interesting to me is the response of the Indian establishment, media and civil society.


1.      While in both cases, a private group of religious zealots wanted to curtail free expression, in Karnataka the BJP-led government sided with free expression by arresting the Hindu religious zealots. In West Bengal, the communist-led government sided with the Muslim religious zealots by  arresting Ravindra Kumar and Anand Sinha, the editor and publisher of the Kolkata-based English daily The Statesman.


2.      While the violence by the religious zealots of the self-styled "Shri Ram Sena" received huge media coverage and condemnation by the national and coverage by international media the larger violence by a bigger mob of religious zealots in Kolkatta received hardly any coverage in relative terms.  A preliminary analysis shows that the Mangalore incident received about hundred times the media coverage of the incident in Kolkatta.


3.      While it was heartening to see civil society rally around in large numbers against the acts of a small group of private Hindu vigilantes in Mangalore—including starting a Facebook group which garnered over 50,000 members , the state did take quick action against the vigilantes; on the other hand, the draconian actions of the state itself against free expression in Kolkotta—a case which really requires civil society to be more vigilant—hardly evoked a response.  Even more surprising is the apathy of the Indian media to rally to the defense of the editor of the Statesman--one of their kind. The Indian media downplayed the incidence, and with the notable exception of Vir Sanghvi of the Hindustan Times, there were few editorial condemnations.

The Mangalore pub violence and that of the mob in Kolkatta are both outrageous strikes against civil liberty. However if our goal is primarily civil liberty rather than the advocacy of particular political or religious agendas, it behooves us to understand the mechanics of this differential response by the state, media and civil society. In order to do so, here are some preliminary questions.


1.      Is an attack on the freedom of expression of a newspaper editor less significant than that of a woman going to a pub?


2.      How much of the frenzy about the Mangalore pub incident was media-orchestrated? Why would the media choose to orchestrate it?


3.      Does the Indian media, on the average, have a political or religious bias? Is this bias institutionalized or decentralized? Where does this stem from?


4.      Vir Sanghvi, in his article on this topic writes: "It is now clear that the liberal society has been suckered into relaxing its standards for free speech by militant Islamists." Is this true? What are the consequences of this?


5.      Is the response by the state in Kolkata due to "political compulsions"? Why is the communist government of West Bengal under political compulsion from Islamic zealots while the BJP-ruled state of Karnataka not under similar political compulsion from Hindu zealots?


6.      It is interesting to note that Johann Hari, who wrote the original article in The Independent, is known for his advocacy of secularism. Yet few Indian secularists stood up for him. Has Indian secularism essentially turned into apologia for Islamic religious zealotry? What will this mean in terms of long-term consequences for Indian civil society?


Sankrant Sanu is a writer, researcher and entrepreneur based in Seattle. 





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