What's the English press aiming at?

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Opinion | 12/01/2012
The English language newspapers' biased prioritizing of events pertaining to Muslims on one hand and Hindu extremists on the other, has given rise to the feeling that they have been demonizing the former.
JYOTI PUNWANI recalls two instances to demonstrate the indifference of the press to the sensibilities of Muslims. Pix: The Sena activists held for the flag hoisting
Two newsworthy events took place recently which were consigned to the inside pages of national dailies. Nothing new in that, except that they contributed to the feeling among literate Muslims that the English press delights only in demonising   them.
The first was the arrest by the Bijapur (Karnataka) police of six Sri Ram Sene activists for hoisting a Pakistani flag at the office of the tehsildar of Sindhagi town on January 1. If that’s not sensational news, what is? The report quoted the police as saying that this was done to provoke communal violence. In fact, the very persons who had hoisted the flag took to the streets against its hoisting, along with their cohorts in the Bajrang Dal and VHP, stoning police vehicles, burning tyres  and taking out processions. The situation was so bad that the police asked shopkeepers to down shutters; the weekly market had to be cancelled, and State transport buses were taken off the road.
The first reports spoke only about the flag being hoisted. These too were confined to the inside pages, perhaps wisely. But when the culprits were arrested four days later, that should have been front-page news. It would have exposed the mindset and the tactics of organisations such as the Sri Ram Sene. It would also have shown that though the Sri Ram Sene may attack manifestations of Western culture such as pubs and lovers who celebrate Valentine’s Day, they themselves don’t refrain from celebrating New Year’s Day, a Western celebration if ever there was one. The arrested youth had gone to Bijapur to celebrate New Year and hoisted the flag on their return.  
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, highlighting this sensational incident would have made many of those who doubt the patriotism of Muslims do a re-think.
These are not aims that newspapers are supposed to fulfil, many journalists,  specially news editors, who decide which item goes where, would argue. But the Press Council guidelines on reporting communal issues, issued in 2010, say: “Journalists and columnists owe a very special responsibility to their country in promoting communal peace and amity.”
Editors would not have forgotten that during the investigation of the April 2006 Nanded blasts, which took place while some RSS boys were assembling bombs in an RSS member’s house, a fake beard was found in the house of one of the two youth who died in the blast. That was the initial pointer to the modus operandi of the RSS. The Bijapur flag-hoisting only showed that even five years later, Hindutva organisations act as agent provocateurs to provoke communal violence. This is an even graver crime than actually indulging in communal violence. But no national newspaper thought fit to write an editorial on this.
Interestingly, the Sri Ram Sene has blamed the RSS for the flag-hoisting. The Sene was founded by an associate of Bal Thackeray, who continues to be not only a force in Maharashtra, but an inspiration for many. Surely that link should have been highlighted in an edit. Even viewed as an independent organisation, the Sri Ram Sene’s  latest crime deserved more attention, given its history of violence.
What if six Muslim youngsters had been arrested for hoisting the Pakistani flag in Bijapur? How would we have treated that news? Would the BJP, Karnataka’s ruling party, have allowed us to bury it? And is it because the BJP rules Karnataka, that the news has, in fact, been buried?
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The second noteworthy event was the handing over by the Andhra Pradesh government, of compensation of Rs. 3 lakh each to 15 Muslim youths acquitted of the 2007 Mecca Masjid blasts in Hyderabad. The AP government has also promised to give them character certificates saying that they were not involved in any criminal case, which would help them get jobs.
This is the first time any government has compensated those wrongly arrested. Surely this was page-one news? Had it been given that space, it would have salvaged the honour of the youth, who had had to face the humiliation of having their names splashed across the front pages of all national newspapers when they were arrested. Three years after their arrest, it was discovered that the blasts had been committed by Hindutva terrorists. 
At the function, held on January 6, the youths demanded that the policemen who tortured them be punished. They also spoke about the fallout of their arrests, the damage to their education, careers and social standing.
But the news remained confined to the inside pages. Had it not been so, the readers across the country would have not only known that a Congress government tried to undo the damage done by its police to Muslims, but also how it went about it. To compensate Muslims targeted by its own police, the Congress government took money which should have gone for Muslim institutions – from the administration of the Mecca Masjid and the Shahi Masjid public garden. The National Minorities Commission, on whose recommendation the compensation was given, had suggested that the amount be paid from the salaries of the policemen involved in arresting and torturing the youth.
Not surprisingly, the Urdu press across the country front-paged the event, forcing its readers to note the silence of the English press and draw their own conclusions.
It is such indifference to the sensibilities of Muslims that makes the community  want  its own English newspaper. That is hardly the solution; a newspaper catering to only one community comes with in-built limitations, not the least being its irrelevance for other communities. In the case of Muslims, specially, if Hindus don’t get the message the former want conveyed to them, what’s the point of brining out the newspaper?
But can the English press,  that highlights every arrest of a Muslim on terror charges, but generally plays down the sinister and dangerous acts of fanatic and extremist Hindus, and ignores the rare official gestures aimed at restoring the Muslim community’s honour, blame those Muslims who feel that a community newspaper is the only solution?
Look at the way the English press handled the arrest by the Mumbai ATS of four Muslim engineering students from Mohali. Two of them were brought to Mumbai and charged with “impersonating, creating fake profiles and procuring mobile phone SIM cards with forged documents’’. Anonymous ATS officials did nothing to dispel the impression that the students were linked to the July 13, 2011, serial blasts that took place in the city. But just five days later, the ATS told the court that it was dropping all charges except ‘cheating’’’. The ATS didn’t even want their custody any more.
It should be mentioned here that the Times of India reporter in his very first report, did quote relatives of the two students saying they had been hunting for the latter; and the ATS’s refusal to help them and its “suggestion” that they not inform the media as that would “defame” the family.
It’s interesting to look at the way Muslim websites such as twocirles.net and an alternative media portal such as Beyond Headlines reported the episode. They filed the first reports of the arrest, and focussed on the ATS’s illegal methods of operation. It picked up the students on January 1, took them for questioning; released two of them on January 3, and took the other two to Mumbai - all this without informing their families. The two were produced in a Mumbai court only on January 5. Beyond Headlines also reported that the two had to miss their examination.
Surely those (except the TOI reporter) who faithfully quoted the unnamed ATS policemen when the two students were first produced in court as highly suspicious characters, could have met the students’ lawyer to get their version on their second appearance in court, when the ATS withdrew its charges.
Why bother? So what if their academic future is now a mess thanks to the police?  They’re just the usual suspects who have been picked up and then let off.
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