Vadodara—stoking communal sentiments

IN Media Practice | 11/05/2006
Professional ethics demand that, on such occasions, the media conducts itself with utmost restraint, not stoking communal tension.

 S R Ramanujan

 While commenting on the Vadodara violence consequent on the demolition of the mazaar of the sufi saint Chisthi Rasheed-ud-din, both the Home Minister Shivraj Patil and Union Home Secretary V K Duggal, besides the predictable rhetoric on such occasions, made a cryptic comment on the media,that it should be restrained in its reporting (words to that effect). The question is whether the media (especially the English Press and the national television channels) played to the communal sentiments thus sensationalizing the news in the process, or was it quite objective in the presentation of news in its sequence and analysis. 

The Times of India (May 3) reported that the Gujarat High Court "took note of the report published in TOI - Rioters target Nyay Mandir, torch Advocates vehicles - and said that for first time in the history of the city, Nyay Mandir, the edifice of the judiciary was attacked".  

The reported attack on the Nyay Mandir took place before the demolition of the dargah of the sufi saint in Fatehpura area. Who were the culprits and why did they target the judiciary? The English press did not throw much light on this except for a single column story somewhere buried inside in the TOI. The Hindu (May 3) however reported that a group of lawyers, who called on him (Union Minister of State for Home, Sriprakash Jaiswal) shouted slogans as he remained non-committal on condemning alleged attacks on the Nyay Mandir and the sessions court complex on Monday evening. The concluding sentence of the report was that the "mob was protesting against the court¿s ¿failure¿ to grant a stay on the demolition of the dargah".


The same story of May 3 in the Times also took credit for its own  May 1 story  "Demolition men caught between duty & faith" with a photo feature quoting the 1998 survey showing over 1200 temples and 260 Islamic shrines encroaching public space in Ahmedabad. According to the report, the court asked its office to assign a regular number to the writ petition by showing TOI as the petitioner, which has done "yeomen service to the society with such articles and photographs of such religious structures by people of different communities on public places". The court did not stop at this. It ordered the local administration in Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat to demolish shrines obstructing traffic without discrimination and submit reports. 

The Hindu (May 2) reported, quoting Mayor Sunil Solanki, that the demolition of unauthorized structures were going on for a fortnight and that at many places members of different communities volunteered to remove the obstructions. In Fatehpura, three meetings were held with representatives of the Muslim residents and due notice was also issued to the trustees of the dargah for its removal but they failed to respond. What did the Hindu editorial say? We¿ll come to that later. 

 But, what did the minister say in Delhi? He did have answers to questions like who attacked the Nyay Mandir and why. He, however, could not even recollect what the Mayor told him about the demolition of religious structures of all communities including a Sai Baba temple. His memory perhaps failed during his journey from Vadodara to New Delhi. Therefore, he said: "Enough caution was not taken by the district administration which decided to remove the dargah on the PRETEXT (emphasis added) of clearing illegal encroachments". What the minister failed to say in his report to the Centre was that there was no discrimination in demolition since 42 religious structures belonging to the majority community were razed to the ground. He also conveniently forgot the fact the even before the dargah demolition, there was a riotous situation in and around the Vadodara court for its reluctance to grant stay.  

The only argument against the local administration could be that it should have anticipated trouble in view of the physical attack against the judiciary itself. However, if it has restrained itself from demolition it would have not only incurred the wrath of the judiciary, but invited criticism for buckling under pressure from those who took law into their hands. The administration was in a catch-22 situation. 

Was this reflected in any of the reports or editorials that appeared in the English press? On the contrary, the usual suspect was the state chief minister Narendra Modi and the demolished dargah was described as "Mini-Babri". Interestingly, this "mini-Babri" was a venerable place more for the majority community than others and dargahs are considered to be un-Islamic by a major section of the Muslims.  The suggestion was that keeping the elections in 2007, Modi might have planned this riot since 2002 riots paid him political dividends. Defying all conventional norms, NDTV was carrying live pictures of the demolition and repeated those visuals in every bulletin. The Hindu carried a picture of the dargah being brought down. The entire attempt was to whip up mob frenzy recalling 2002 horrors. Professional ethics demand that, on such occasions, the media conducts itself with utmost restraint in not stoking communal tension. Sadly enough, the media did just the opposite. 

The media focus was also on the fear and sense of insecurity among the minority community. Was it not exaggerated? There was a byte from a Muslim who said that when he tried for police help, the response was "Go to Pakistan". It was such a vague and irresponsible byte when the situation was very tense filled with vicious rumours. Who is this person? Whom did he contact? Did he hear it from someone else? Vox pop bytes like this are quite deceptive and channels should take care not to purvey such rumours. The vox pop was not accountable to anyone.  Moreover, it was the residents who threw stones at the civic staff and the police leading to lathicharge, teargas and firing which killed two rioters. In retaliation, there were stabbings taking the lives of two belonging to the majority community. The fifth victim, a Muslim, succumbed to his head injuries sustained during stone pelting. The sixth victim, again a Muslim, was burnt alive in his car by a mob which was trying to settle scores for the deaths due to stabbings. Unfortunate incidents like this, though shameful in a civilized society, do happen in other states as well. When Gujarat is yet to recover from its nightmarish experience of 2002, the genuine apprehensions of the community are understandable. But, is media justified in hyping the incidents and looking at every event through the prism of 2002? You don¿t expect a community with a sense of insecurity and fear to attack the premises of a court and to indulge in violence against the officials and police, whatever the provocation.    

The Union minister Jaiswal also felt that "distinction should be made between an ordinary place of worship and the one which is a few hundred years old.." Alas, the minister is so ignorant of law that he does not even know that subsequent to Babri demolition, PV Narasimha Rao government made a law which ensures status quo for all the religious structures that were in existence as on 15th August 1947. The law does not make any distinction between ordinary places of worship and old ones so long as they were in existence before 15th August 1947.  

Further, the Gujarat-fixation of the Centre became obvious when it appealed against the Gujarat High court ruling in the Supreme Court. The Law Ministry was suffering from amnesia.   The Madras High Court, in a different context, endorsed the order of its Madurai Bench which enabled the local administration to remove unauthorized structures as a result of which 250 roadside temples, one church and a dargah were demolished in Madurai. Will the SC interim stay be applicable to T Nadu as well, or is it only Gujrat-centric? This is how the Centre made itself open to the charge that it is biased against Gujarat. Given this attitude of the Centre what will be its options? Legitimising illegal encroachments elsewhere in the country in order to respect the sentiments of different communities? Or, will it be the larger interest of the public? 

The editorials and analyses in most of the English press were on the predictable lines. Just Modi-bashing. Modi is perhaps the fall-guy for all reasons and seasons. If there is theft in a locality, the immediate target of the police would be to catch the "known dacoit" (KD) of the area whether he is guilty of the crime or not. Modi finds himself in  such a situation today because of 2002. The Hindu editorial found fault with Modi government for feeding the "fears and complexes of the minorities at every available opportunity… Instead of assuaging hurt sentiments, the authorities ended up fuelling the apprehensions of the Muslim residents of the area. With Mr Modi at the helm, the demolition predictably took on a communal colour". The media did not want to take cognizance of any other facts because they did not suit "secular" pretensions.  

Having blasted Modi in the first editorial, the Hindu followed it up with a second one turning its attention on the Gujarat High Court¿s judicial activism implying that it is ok if judicial activism is confined to "the rescue of ill-treated under trials or bonded labour or child workers".  No one wanted to admit the fact that there was no tension when structures belonging to the majority community, whether in Vadodara, Madurai or Mumbai, were demolished. The Hindu therefore concluded that a firm line can be drawn only for future encroachments and the Gujarat High court order "is something that the State could have done without." Does the National daily of 125 years standing want  all the illegal encroachments of different communities throughout the country to remain unaffected just because it does not suit a particular community¿s sentiments?  

Though it was Modi who first wanted flag march by the Army and additional forces from the Centre after touring the riot-affected areas of Vadodara (some of the state forces were sent to other election-bound states for security) the Times edit gave credit to the Centre for the deployment of Army. The Deccan Chronicle was however worried over the "complete helplessness of the minorities to get help from the police and the administration if they are threatened". It went on to say "It is not sufficient for the chief minister to agree to the deployment of the Army, and he must be held responsible for the failure of the administration to protect its citizens if he fails to make the officials accountable". Though there was an initial suggestion that riots suited Modi, retraction followed to say that Modi does not need a riot now as his agenda is to mobilize Gujaratis, irrespective of the community, on the Narmada waters which is more emotive than any other issue. 

There was no attempt in any of the editorials to appeal to the minorities to see reason and cooperate with the state governments to remove illegal encroachments since there was no discrimination on the basis of religion. There are umpteen examples, not only in Tamil Nadu but in other states like Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka where religious structures that were obstructing the traffic have been removed.



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