Three Tears For Terrorism

IN Media Practice | 13/08/2004
This kind of media selectivity suggests that victims of terrorism have no families to be interviewed.

By June 22, the picture one constructed from news reports was: Ishrat was traveling in the car with Javed Sheikh and two Pakistanis; that she was missing from home between June 12 and 15 (the day of shooting); that two lakh rupees have been recovered from the car and that the occupants had with them AK56 rifle, two revolvers, a satellite phone and two mobile phones. The media wanted readers to believe that it was an "innocent" girl from a middle class family who got into a car and rode with strangers from Mumbai to Ahmedabad. Her mother denied that she ever knew Javed. In that case, did Javed abduct her? Reporters were too considerate to ask such questions. Questions are an important tool in journalism for obtaining truth about reality.

Once the identity of the woman became known, media, political parties, rights activists and others rushed to declare the innocence of the girl though nobody had even suggested that she was guilty. Police were still investigating how she happened to be in the car. This article is about how the media prematurely pronounced Ishrat Jahan innocent and how they filed stories to reinforce that "truth." To pre-empt any adverse verdict, reporters began interviewing neighbours to establish her innocence. Interviews are part of a media technique of identifying the right persons and asking them the right questions to wrest answers that later provide ballast for editorial comment and provide the starting plank for a debate that accommodates views in agreement with those of the newspaper.

After the first reports followed a media stampede to exonerate and anoint Ishrat. All this before anybody had even said she was guilty. Sharad Pawar’s National Congress Party gave a lakh of rupees to turn Ishrat into a martyr. The Indian Express reported that though the Thane police have registered five cases against Javed (the man who was driving the car), they filed none against Ishrat and failed to throw any light on Ishrat’s case even after they had interrogated 50 persons. The report quoted DCP Yadav saying Ishrat had no criminal background. Is background necessary for a first offence? Kashif Khusro and Iqbal Ansari of Midday add substance to the innocence theory by interviewing Mohammed Ibrahim, secretary of the Hashmat Park building. Ibrahim says: "She taught school children in the locality and helped her mother, who does embroidery and tailoring, to make ends meet. I have never seen terrorists or criminals visiting their place in the last three years that they’ve been here. The family is peace-loving," According to Midday, Khalsa College authorities too said Ishrat was serious about her academic pursuits.

Here unfolds a facet of our national character: lawlessness. Courts have sprung up everywhere with a judgment: Ishrat is innocent. Jamait-e-ulma member Abdur Rauf Lala declared he was heading a fact-finding committee consisting of several political parties and NGOs of the Mumbra area even while demanding a CBI inquiry. If there is an extrajudicial probe it must investigate Rashtriya Janata Dal’s spokesman Shivanand Tiwari’s charge (The New Indian Express, 22 June) that the encounter was a conspiracy "to kill Muslims in the name of threat to his (Modi’s) life."

What surprised me most was my friend J.Sri Raman (Tribune, 28 June) saying: "They (the police) came out with ‘details’ and two ‘diaries’ that, however, did not become case-clinching exhibits at the bar of public opinion. The lesson is that similar questions should be raised also about similar other happenings elsewhere." He added that ‘encounter’ killings, for example, were not endemic to Mr Modi’s Gujarat. The summary execution of "suspects" in detention which is a far remove from the due process of law, has been practised for long in several states, from Kashmir and Punjab (of the eighties) to Andhra and Tamil Nadu.

Raman knows that militants and terrorists regularly kill our soldiers, policemen and innocent civilians. Are they legitimate fodder? Do soldiers and police have no mothers or sisters to cry? Do they have human rights? According to Raman, the verdict of the bar of public opinion is final and supersedes any judicial pronouncement. But where is this bar that people can approach and appeal for justice?

Next came media texts dripping copious tears. Times New Network’s Somit Sen describes the scene at Ishrat’s mother’s place in Mumbra: The heading was "Ishrat was a simple college student." The report said, "On Wednesday, Mumbra home of Ishrat Sheikh, the city collegian shot dead a day earlier in a police encounter, was plunged in darkness……The power failure in the one-room flat accentuated the deep gloom among the family members. ‘My daughter was just a simple college student and was not linked to any terrorist group,’ said Shamima Sheikh, mother of Ishrat, who was bitterly crying when TNN visited her on Wednesday." About her funeral, The Times of India report begins with this heading: "Thousands turn out to bid Ishrat’s farewell." The description of the adieu befitted a national leader. "A pall of gloom enveloped Mumbra." " The funeral procession trailed through silent streets and by-lanes. The silence was only broken by slogans against Gujarat police." "People came from every nook and cranny of the town to join the procession that inched its way to the burial ground." "Undeterred by intermittent rain, the mourners, both young and old, lent their shoulder to the bier in turn."

Another description of the funeral scene: "Thousands of people took part in her funeral procession. Shops downed their shutters and traffic came to a halt. A sea of humanity offered namaz on the six-km stretch of the main Mumbra- Kausa road before Ishrat`s body was buried in the local cemetery this afternoon. People gathered on their balconies and windows, on terraces and on the road in a show of defiance and in solidarity with the victim and her family." Defiance of what? When a young girl dies, it is a wrench that no family can bear. But when thousands of young people die every day all over the country, what is so special about Ishrat’s death? Going by the communal hysteria that gripped our media since Gujarat, one has to conclude that it has something to do with her faith. We saw this kind of affection in the case of Chattisinghpora massacre of Sikhs. In fact, it would have disappointed the media if the Ahmedabad police had not killed her, for, it would have deprived them of an opportunity to pillory Modi.

Earlier (19 June), portraying the scene at Ahmedabad where Ishrat’s mother had gone to collect her daughter’s body, the Indian Express reported, "Shamima Jehan Sheikh arrived in Ahmedabad early on Friday to carry out the most difficult task she had ever done: claiming the body of her 19-year-old daughter Ishrat. The pain was writ large on her face as she saw her younger daughter’s body in the morgue. Outside, the grief was pushed aside and anger took over." The report added, "Jamait-e-ulma member Abdur Rauf Lala, who claimed he is heading a fact-finding committee that comprises several political parties and NGOs of Mumbra area, said "She was a bright girl. Our fact-finding committee will probe the matter. We are demanding a CBI probe too." Director Mahesh Bhatt, who showed mobs wearing saffron bands indulging in communal violence in his film Zakhm, also was there besides Samajwadi Party president (Maharashtra) Abu Azmi and Congress vice-president (Maharashtara) V.P.Hussain Dalwai.

Headlines can be written to predispose the reader in favour of or against a personality or an issue that figures in the report. They determine how the reader absorbs the texts that follow. They entice him to share the view of the newspaper on the personality or issue. The following headlines appeal to readers to endorse Ishrat’s innocence and to believe that there is widespread grief garnished by righteous anger that an innocent girl had been killed. Here they are: "Maharashtra gives clean chit to Ishrat," "Thousands turn out to bid Ishrat farewell," "Ishrat was a simple college student" "Anger takes over: I want a CBI probe."

In this case, a woman was in the company of people who the police maintain were on a mission to kill important people. This version does not lose its relevance just because Narendra Modi is one of the targets. Modi’s name is not excuse enough to absolve someone of a dastardly plan. So far, no newspaper contradicted police classification of the dead as terrorists. Media are only asking such questions as, why did the police wait till the car reached outskirts of Ahmedabad when they knew the nature of the mission when the militants started at Mumbai or why did they kill every occupant of the car instead of arresting or apprehending one of them alive.

In The Hindu, A.V.Narayana from Tiruchi wrote: "Why did collegian Ishrat Jahan Raza choose to travel alone with three men from Mumbai to Ahmedabad?" a question no media person thought of asking Ishrat’s mother. Abhilasha Shukla from Jodhpur wrote: "The unprecedented haste shown by electronic media and various political parties in passing judgment even before investigation has begun is not called for."

My heart goes out to Ishrat’s mother, for, she had lost a young daughter. Every sensible person will grieve the death of Ishrat too if in the course of due process of law it is proved she is innocent. All those celebrities who endlessly declare "the law will take its own course" do well to abide by that dictum. Please do not set up people’s tribunals and execute the "guilty" and please do not defend bars of public opinion and peoples’ courts as rivals to courts that enjoy constitutional sanction. You are making a case for anarchy.


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