Oblivious to communalism?

IN Media Practice | 03/09/2004
The media’s indulgence towards a rabid communal politician such as Uma Bharti is nothing new.


Jyoti Punwani in Mumbai




Elections in Maharashtra are just weeks away, and the communal temperature is soaring. Part of this is thanks to the Uma Bharti and Savarkar controversies. Part of it is to the way they are being reported, not just in the local language press, but also in the national press.


Reading the papers, any stranger to Indian politics would think that Uma Bharti was a colourful, unconventional heroine in politics with a mass following. It seems no news about her can be written without using the words ``feisty’’, ``fiery’’ and of course ```sanyasin’’.


Having been in the limelight for the last 13 years, Uma Bharti is now well-known as an unabashedly communal rabble-rouser who exhorted the mobs at Ayodhya to break the Babri Masjid; no sanyasin but one who enjoyed and abused power as a Central minister; and finally a chief minister whose policies favoured the majority and narrowed the space for minorities.


What she did in Hubli was absolutely in character: defied prohibitory orders clamped to control a communally tense situation created by her party; tried to lead a mob to hoist the national flag on a disputed plot of land, in the process, sparking off violence leading to police firing and 4 deaths, including that of a 12-year-old.


Though most reports and headlines highlighted the politics behind the sudden revival of the case as well as her resignation, overall they gave the impression that her only crime was that she had tried to hoist the tricolour on Independence Day. Just the kind of situation for which the RSS would use their favourite quote: ``If we can’t do so in Hindustan, then where can we? In Pakistan?’’


Only one national daily thought fit to interview the victims. The interview, carried in the inside pages, revealed that (true to form) not one of the BJP leaders so worked up about the honour of the national flag had bothered to help these families whose members had actually lost their lives due to the BJP’s flag-hoisting agitation. No report highlighted the fact that the RSS, which the most prominent BJP leaders proudly acknowledge as their mentor, started hoisting the tricolour on its headquarters only two years ago. Nor was any question about this put to any of the leaders, not even to Uma Bharti. Nor was she asked whether she had a right to hoist a flag on a disputed piece of property.


Bharti’s sanctimonious declarations about her willingness to give up her life for the flag were all over the place; but no reporter asked her why she hadn’t grabbed the opportunity to defend her actions in court, instead of ignoring its summons for the last 10 years. If as she claimed, she had been arrested before she could hoist the flag, why hadn’t she proved her innocence in court?


The media’s indulgence towards a rabid communal politician such as Uma Bharti is nothing new. Mumbai’s readers are used to similar fawning over the``Tiger’’, whose recent un-dyed stubble made front page news at the same time as he was issuing his trademark threats to Muslims to say Vande Matram if they wanted to live in India. This provocative quote was actually made the headline of a report in a leading national daily.


(It is worth recalling that this quote ``Is desh mein rahna hoga to Vande Matram kehna hoga’’ was the subject of heated discussion during the Srikrishna Commission proceedings. Policemen in the dock were amazed that they should even be asked why they had not taken action against those saying it. Significantly, so were their lawyers as well as those representing the government. It was left to Justice Srikrishna to point out that laying down conditions of residence on any citizen, let alone a community, by another group was not just communal but also fascist. Like the policemen and their lawyers,  the media remains oblivious to the menace in this slogan.)


Not once has the mainstream media conveyed through the use of headlines or even in accompanying reports, that such threats are illegal, if not totally undemocratic. It’s not as if the press doesn’t use headlines or write reports in a style which convey its approval/disapproval of what it reports. Every move by Arjun Singh to undo the deliberate damage to schoolchildren wrought by his predecessor has been reported so as to indicate that the new minister is on his own vendetta trip. Ironically, these very newspapers had protested the loudest when the original sins were committed by Murli Manohar Joshi. Arjun Singh’s personal motives as well as his ham-handed way of reversing those decisions need to be exposed, but by doing so in a vacuum, by subtly ridiculing these attempts, the only impression that comes across is that matters should have been left where they were. Headlines such as ``HRD ministry denies Joshi man UNESCO glory’’; ``UPA will `kill’ saffron texts’’;  or flip ones such as ``Re-righting the`wrongs’ ’ add weight to the protests of the BJP that the new government, motivated by nothing but petty politics, is out to undo `their good work’ of making education more `nationalistic’.


Anyone who is worked in a newspaper knows that headlines are given by sub editors in seconds, without any political motive. But what are chief-subs and news editors doing?


After the unlocking of the Babri Masjid locks in 1986, the communal equations changed forever. The VHP’s Ayodhya campaign, the Mandal agitation, Advani’s rath yatra, and its bloody fallout, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the riots that followed, the rule of the Sena in Mumbai and of the BJP at the Centre, and finally Gujarat. For the last 18 years, Muslims and other minorities have been pushed further and further out of the mainstream by right wing Hindu extremist parties, supported by the State and an increasingly aggressive section of the Hindu majority, and have been given second-class citizen status. Are journalists totally unaware of how headlines can mould readers’ thinking?


However, this debate becomes academic when you look at the writings in sections of the local language press. In Mumbai, Saajid Rashid, award-winning Urdu writer, head of the State Urdu Academy and editor of the Hindi version of the `firebrand’ (to borrow Uma Bharti’s title) tabloid, `Aapla Mahanagar’, has blamed the editor of the `Urdu Times’ for his stabbing. Rashid, who worked with this newspaper for almost 10 years, building up a solid readership thanks to his weekly column `Zindaginama’, is now part of Mumbai’s small but solidly secular activist-intelligentsia, opposing the Shiv Sena and the RSS as strongly as he defends Taslima Nasreen.


The `Urdu Times’ began a campaign against Rashid, calling him an "enemy of Islam’’ when he stood up for the right to freedom of expression of a Muslim academic who, at a literary discussion on what constitutes  `propaganda’, suggested that even the Qoran could be considered propagandist. Then came an editorial in his paper on Maharashtra Governor Mohamed Fazal, headlined ``Pagal Mohammed’’, a literal translation of the Marathi phrase `` Vedya Mohammed’’ which has always been used to refer to the eccentric emperor Mohammed Bin Tuglaq. As is the practice, the original Marathi editorial in ``Aapla Mahanagar’’ was translated for the Hindi Mahanagar, headline et al, by a sub who seemed strangely oblivious to the headline’s inflammatory potential. Rashid was not in the office when this was done, and issued a clarification the very next day.


Interestingly, there was no immediate reaction to the headline. But the day after Rashid was knifed, and he blamed the Urdu Times for the attack, the paper quoted this headline as a defence.


Just as Saamna continues to enjoy immunity, so does Urdu Times. This paper incidentally, had been the only paper in Mumbai to publish in a front-page box, the report of the Qoran being burnt in Delhi in March 2001. That very night, SIMI activists stoned buses in Mumbai.


Within a few days of Rashid’s attack, came the assault on Nikhil Wagle, editor of Aapla Mahanagar. The attackers abused him for having attacked Sena leader Narayan Rane at a meeting in Malvan, the stronghold of the ex-CM. A consistent critic of the Sena, this isn’t the first time Wagle has been attacked. His celebrity status has forced the government to arrest a few Sena activists. But both Wagle and Rashid need continued public support if their assailants are to be brought to trial. 


The author is a freelance journalist specialising in communal issues. can be contacted at jyopun@vsnl.com
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