Nuances of Haji Ali ruling lost in the reporting

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Opinion | 07/09/2016
The Urdu press downplayed the Haji Ali ruling and the English media ignored a vital aspect of it altogether. Simplification at its worst.
JYOTI PUNWANI felt it could have been handled better


Jyoti  Punwani


Now that the Bombay High Court has upheld the right of women to enter the sanctum sanctorum of Mumbai’s popular Haji Ali dargah, what do other dargahs in the city feel about it? A survey carried out by the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andolan (BMMA), the petitioners in the case, showed that 12 out of 19 dargahs in Mumbai allowed women right up to the mazaar (grave) of the saint. After the judgment, will the remaining seven also do so?

That’s the logical question, but despite every newspaper and TV channel putting the High Court judgment on page one and on primetime, no one cared to find out. The press coverage remained confined to the specific tussle between the Haji Ali dargah trustees and the BMMA.

This was an important fight, and the judgment showed why. The judges didn’t view it simply as a women’s rights vs religious rights contest. The judgment first deals with the religious aspect of the issue. It considers the faith-based arguments given by the Trust, and concludes that these arguments do not support the Trust’s contention that allowing women into the sanctum sanctorum is sinful in Islam. 

The judgment makes an important finding: “It cannot be said that the prohibition is an essential and integral part of Islam and fundamental to follow the religious belief; and taking away that part of the practice would result in a fundamental change in the character of that religion or its belief…’’. Only the Indian Express quoted this part of the judgment in its main report.

The Times of India did describe the judgment as ``a bold order evoking liberal Islamic principles’’, but this was on page 2. Its main report on the front page led with the right to equality and only in the very last line mentioned the court’s finding that the Quranic verses cited by the Trust ran contrary to its contention. It devoted the whole of page 2 to the judgment, yet none of the articles quoted this crucial finding.

"Surely most reporters knew that the petitioners themselves had stressed the religious aspect as much as the Constitutional aspect?"

The DNA report summarised the court’s reasons, yet did not mention this statement about the ban not being ``an essential and integral part of Islam’’. So also the Hindustan Times. The Hindu left out the religious aspect of the judgment altogether in its main report.

The judgment shows that the judges have given as much weightage to the religious aspect as to fundamental rights.  Yet, from the reports in Mumbai’s papers, and TV debates on the judgment, one would think that the matter had been decided on the basis of fundamental rights alone.

The Bombay High Court had, in fact, all along been extremely cautious in deciding the matter. It had first asked the trustees to reconsider the ban. It had also shown its inclination to wait for the Supreme Court to pronounce its Sabarimala verdict. The judges had said in so many words that this was a very sensitive issue.

The media apparently, doesn’t think so.

The issue has been in the news for more than a year. Surely most reporters knew that the petitioners themselves had stressed the religious aspect as much as the Constitutional aspect. In fact, Zakia Soman of BMMA, one of the petitioners, was at pains to point out in every TV discussion that the Quran is not in conflict with the Constitution when it comes to women’s rights.

Ignoring this very vital aspect and portraying the judgment only as a victory of women’s rights guaranteed by the Constitution gives a very different spin to the controversy. It essentially says: your religious practice doesn’t matter, what matters is the Constitution.

More than the press, it was television that gave the judgment this spin, especially India Today TV and Times Now. On both channels, the maulanas defending the Trust got less time than did the women.  In both, they were not allowed to complete their arguments. In both, the anchors not only made it very clear on whose side they were, but didn’t hesitate to display their amusement at the maulanas’ attempts to defend the ban.

"Why do maulanas come on Times Now? The disrespect shown to them makes you sympathise with them."

On the Newshour, Arnab  Goswami started off by gloating over the victory of ``our campaign’’ and telling the ulema: `Aap haar gaye.’’  That was unprofessional enough. After that, for over an hour and 14 minutes, he goaded, taunted, harangued, ridiculed and insulted the two ulema, their two Hindu counterparts, as also the dargah’s lawyer, and encouraged others on the panel to do the same.

``Religion baad mein aati, Constitution pahle-itni samaj aap ko aa gayi?’’

``Bharat desh mein yeh shariah chalta ki Bharat ka Constitution?’’

These were just two of the provocative questions that Goswami asked. Mufti Ilyas paused at the second question, and then replied that both would have to be considered, depending on the situation, but Goswami cut him short.

Interestingly, this was also the answer given by Taslim Rehmani of the Muslim Political Council of India, who berated the maulanas for creating a situation which had forced the court to decide a religious matter. But in the din that is the norm on Times Now, Rahmani’s answer got lost. Or maybe Goswami chose to ignore it because it didn’t suit him to target Rehmani.

Why do maulanas come on Times Now? The disrespect shown to them makes you sympathise with them. What makes them willing to bear such humiliation? Perhaps they know that their followers won’t be watching.

A survey by the Broadcast Audience Research Council last October showed that the total viewership of the five top English private news channels was 41% of the total viewership of their five Hindi counterparts.  Taken by itself, Times Now’s viewership was restricted to just about 0 .05% of the population. It’s doubtful that non-English-speaking followers of sundry ulema would be among this 0.05 %.

If they were, they would have had reason to be proud of the dignified demeanour of Mufti Ilyas on that Newshour. In the face of the gravest provocation, the Mufti, the senior of the two ulema present,  did not lose his composure. It was only at the fag end of the show, when Goswami sat back and allowed a panellist to shout down the Mufti, that the latter raised his voice in equal measure.

The Mufti in fact was the only one on the panel who had the right perspective. He prefaced his very first answer by saying: ``This is not a war; this war-like atmosphere is not good. There is no victory or defeat here.’’ And the question he counterposed to Goswami, when the latter  gleefully told him that all outdated religious rules would have to change now,  remained unanswered till the very end: Would the court be able to change the rule barring non-Hindus at certain temples?

NDTV was a refreshing contrast. The sympathies of their anchors were not hidden, yet they were respectful to the religious spokesmen, and allowed them to have their say. In fact, it was by allowing the Maulana to have the last word, despite making it clear that he was not in agreement with him, that Ravish Kumar got the clinching evidence of what’s at the heart of this debate. ``Nature has made me a man and her (Noorjehan Safia Niaz of the BMMA) a woman. Why does she want to be equal?” asked the Maulana.

Noorjehan and Zakia Soman have been the initiators and prime force behind this campaign since 2014. Yet, while Times Now had no one from the BMMA on its large panel, all news channels without exception led their reports on the judgment with Trupti Desai, the Bhumata Brigade firebrand famous for leading women into temples which bar them.

The Haji Ali issue is one of gender rights within Islam, in which Muslim women have taken the lead. Journalists following the issue know that Trupti Desai got involved in it very late. Despite agreeing to follow the programme chalked out by Haji Ali Sabke Liye, a group of activists supporting the petitioners, Desai carried out her own campaign. The group had to issue a statement dissociating themselves from her. True to form, in her interviews on TV after the judgment, she claimed full credit for it. The Delhi-based anchor of India Today TV in fact hailed the judgment as her victory, but was fortunately corrected by the channel’s reporter in Mumbai.

For one section of the press, the Haji Ali judgment was not big news. Ironically, that’s the section read by those most concerned with the issue -  Muslims. Inquilab, Mumbai’s largest selling Urdu daily, and the smaller Hindustan Daily, reported on the case and the judgment without editorial comment. Shahid Lateef, editor of Inquilab for the last 13 years, said there were more important issues facing the community.

"The Haji Ali judgment isn’t a victory of the Constitution over Islam.What’s been defeated is the sexist interpretation of Islam by some men who control a shrine. It’s a ruling in conformity with both Islam and the Constitution. "

``In the last two-and-a-half years, Muslims have been continuously under attack. Their security is the biggest issue now. The atmosphere is so polarised, social media is so explosive, that we have to be careful about how we cover events affecting the community. Our role is not just of a newspaper, but of a lantern for the community. Inquilab tries to focus on positive news that can encourage the community; education has been our campaign since the 92-93 riots. We also make it a point to publish articles by non-Muslims fighting for our rights, so that the community doesn’t feel isolated,’’ said Lateef.

For Sarfaraz Arzoo, proprietor-editor of Hindustan Daily, the Haji Ali case was an ``unnecessary controversy’’. According to him, there was hardly any difference on the ground between the point in the dargah where women could go upto till 2012, and where they can today. He felt the Haji Ali trust had unnecessarily tried to ``defend the indefensible. There’s no argument that can support a ban which did not exist earlier.’’ According to him, it was only Trupti Desai’s participation in the agitation that had made it newsworthy.

The Haji Ali issue is thus one more instance of the chasm between the Urdu and the English press. One may not agree with these editors’ reasons for downplaying the issue, but there’s no doubt that it would have taken rare courage to highlight the issue the way the English media has. But because women’s entry into dargahs per se is not forbidden in Islam (as the judgment has also noted), this could have been highlighted by the Urdu press, even at the risk of annoying the ulema.

At the same time, there’s no denying what Shahid Lateef said about the Urdu press’ responsibility in today’s polarising atmosphere. The question is: doesn’t the English media have a similar responsibility? Highlighting the role of a non-Muslim activist (imagine the backlash if a Muslim woman had stormed Shani Shingnapur temple), downplaying the religious reasoning of the judgment and emphasising only the Constitutional aspect, are not signs of such responsibility. Times Now in fact was deliberately provocative. Criticism of the religious heads of a minority community is fine. Humiliating them and setting a lynch mob on them,made for disturbing viewing.

The Haji Ali judgment isn’t a victory of the Constitution over Islam.What’s been defeated is the sexist interpretation of Islam by some men who control a shrine. It’s a ruling in conformity with both Islam and the Constitution. As Sarfaraz Arzoo put it: ‘The judgment opened one more gate towards understanding Islam. There’s nothing in it for the anti-Muslim brigade to crow about.”

That should have been the very reason for him and for Shahid Lateef to highlight it; and that should have been the theme of the English media. 


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