Tackling Hindu and Islamic terror the media way

IN Media Practice | 20/09/2008
Can violence that takes lives, destroys communities, and terrorises people be treated differently because different groups are involved?
PADMAJA SHAW says the media is helping to legitimize fascism.

It is only fair to expect respected media houses to set benchmarks for coverage of complex issues like fundamentalism – both of Hindu and Islamic variety.


Last month, the television screens in our living rooms brought to us scenes of the devastation wreaked by the Hindu fundamentalist groups on the Christian community in Orissa, then in Karnataka. These were quickly followed by the human havoc wrought by the Delhi blasts.


After the Orissa and Karnataka rampages, NDTV chose to bring on the ministers from the ruling parties in the states and people like Arun Jaitley on their show. Both the ministers and Jaitley treated us expertly to some typical, skilful Sangh Parivar ¿astroturfing¿ that they are so good at, by brushing aside the criminal attacks on Christians as mere grassroots reaction to conversions. The anchors on the channel are not equipped to deal with them. Either by choice or by design, the channel did not invite civil society activists to counter the Sangh Parivar opinion on the issue while giving extensive mileage and free transmission time for the Parivar to justify its primitive ideology.


Contrast the same with the Delhi blasts. The outraged and anguished anchors of the leading English channels nearly pushed the confused Congress government into another POTA, just to look more macho than Modi (after the Surat police¿s creditable performance of retrieving a dozen bombs planted on tree-tops and other interesting spots, cheerfully packed in bright gift-wraps). Did the channels need to push the government into a tight spot on the day of the blasts? Shouldn¿t the administration need public support in coping with the tragedy? 


There is a disturbing ambivalence in media response. On the one hand, its festive time for frenzied live coverage, unmindful of the safety of innocent child witnesses, to anyone who is willing to pass on any hearsay--it is all fodder for the day. On the other, there is the moral high ground from which administration, policing, health care, intelligence, everything is analysed and trashed with cavalier certainty. Underlying all this hype is the unspoken consensus about who the terrorists are, and what one needs to do to tackle them. Banned organizations are discussed confidently by their various names; stringent laws are recommended; tougher administration is invoked; the wrath of the state is given a free hand for a day to wipe out terror in one fell swoop. In none of the debates is there the slightest hesitation about what the media has built up as the consensus about the people involved.


The point of this argument is, can violence that takes lives, destroys communities, and terrorises people be treated differently because different groups are involved? Is there something like our own groups perpetrating ¿righteous violence¿ and others indulging in ¿mindless terrorism¿? Are the media houses so ¿invertebrate¿ that they cannot stand up to the reality of a fascist party systematically coloring all its planned communal misadventures as spontaneous public response? After partition of India, for many years, the communal parties were banned and their criminal activities closely watched. Of late, frequent appearances on commercial media over the years have made it their democratic right to defend and window-dress their fascist political agenda.


Today, the Karnataka minister had the temerity to issue a non-denial denial – "the Bajrang Dal says they are not directly involved.  We will investigate." Is indirect involvement in terror acceptable? What are so many Muslim youngsters picked up on suspicion from the mohallas of old Hyderabad doing in jails without a hearing? The screams of a Muslim mother for the safety of her missing son are brushed aside and a convinced Rajdeep Sardesai questions the right of a lawyer to defend a ¿terrorist¿ (this, while the taste of the excellent culinary skills of our police force is still fresh on our minds after the Arushi case!). Is there a need for the intelligence or the police to investigate the veracity of the accusations after this? This could well be the platform for a legal ¿encounter¿.


State governments in both Karnataka and Orissa have orchestrated the attacks and are tacitly backing them. But one of the news leads on NDTV says, ¿with an eye on the elections, the Congress today issued a warning to the BJP-ruled states…" Should the media confuse the issues so thoroughly? With or without elections, the atrocities in both the states are condemnable. The same channels tackle politicians about ¿politicizing¿ the issues. It is the media that are leading the pack in this, which promptly all the states that were warned picked up and used to their own advantage.


If the communal violence spreads further and the Centre is compelled to take action, media will feast on stoking the controversy as a political slanging match between warring parties, ignoring the large number of innocent lives that are lost in the process. For the media, it is their political beat and its entertainment value that matters; but for the man on the street, it is a matter of survival with dignity.


Amartya Sen famously said that the presence of free media in a country effectively prevents famines. One wonders, if the presence of free media can also protect a polity from rabid communal politics.





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