Reporting Ayodhya -III

BY Ajitha Menon| IN Regional Media | 23/10/2010
The minority perspective got virtually no space in both the Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph in the run up to the Ayodhya verdict.
Considering the two crore two lakhs Muslim population that West Bengal has, it was surprising, says AJITHA MENON. Pix: Anandabazar Patrika Page 1,on October 1.
Comparative coverage
How do different parts of the country cover the news? How do English and regional language newspapers cover the same story? Over the next two months the Hoot will report the finding of a two- month qualitative and quantitative newspaper survey in five states.
Reporting Ayodhya in Kolkata
Minorities got a raw deal from both the Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph in the run up to the verdict.  With both papers coming from the same stable, the coverage was more or less along similar lines  with full space to the Sangh Parivar statements. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party versions got carried diligently with neither paper bothering to seek the Muslim perspective on the case. Considering the two crore two lakhs Muslim population that West Bengal has, it was surprising that neither paper bothered to get views from even local Muslim leaders on the issue.
On September 15th, both newspapers gave space to RSS chief Mohan Rao Bhagwat’s demands related to the issue.  The Telegraph came out with a two-column story on his demand that "it was incumbent on Muslims to repair and restore their relationship with Hindus because Ram was a ‘cultural icon’, not just an object of veneration, and, therefore, ‘certain cherished values were hurt when a temple was demolished on that spot". 
However, Anandabazar was muted, carrying  largely legal copy within which there were some quotes from Bhagwat’s press conference. It said, "Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat had asked for the cooperation of the Muslims to build a Ram Mandir". It quoted Bhagwat as saying, "this not a matter of social division. Nor is it a matter of Hindu-Muslim division. It’s a matter of respecting ideologies. If the temple is built there will be unity in society". The Bengali paper said Bhagwat had assured that the RSS would react within the Constitutional, legal and democratic norms.
The Telegraph choose to publish Bhagwat’s more provocative statements in its story, highlighting the fact that he gave no assurances on whether the Parivar would abandon demands for a temple on the site of the Gyan Vapi and Shahi Idgah mosques in Varanasi and Mathura respectively and also pointing out that he refused to issue a categorical peace appeal to the VHP and other militant Hindu outfits.  
Though the policy followed by both papers from the Anandabazar Group is same, the choices they have made in picking up and highlighting certain points make for an interesting review. On September 22nd,  Anandabazar had an interesting political story on Ayodhya which said that the Congress party had decided to keep in abeyance all policy decisions related to minorities till the verdict because it did not want any controversy in the matter. The story also made mention of the role of the Narasimha Rao government during the demolition of the Babri Masjid.  The Telegraph, however, gave the story a complete miss.
The priority  to Hindu opinion continues in both papers with Anandabazar opting  for a background piece related to Kalyan Singh on September 25th. The story was on  Kalyan Singh losing his former glory and standing but the statements made by him on Ayodhya, which the paper carried during this sensitive period, amount to provocation.  It carried a quote from him saying , "There is no sadness, no shame, no regret over the demolition of Babri". The paper also carried a front page anchor story  on VHP reiterating its demand for a Ram Mandir on the disputed spot, quoting Ashok Singhal as saying, Lord Ram was above courts and even if the verdict was against it, the Ram Temple will definitely be built and not just where Ram Lalla is kept, but on the entire 70 acres.  The Telegraph also gave space to  VHP’s venom but hid it in the inside pages.
It is finally on September 29th, on the eve of the verdict, that Anandabazar found space for the minority view, that too within a larger story on the Congress party’s reaction to the Supreme Court order. The story just had one sentence saying, "the Sunni Waqf Board,  the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and other Muslim organizations had expressed support for the verdict not being deferred".  And Telegraph conceded the same on September 30th, with a story on the inside pages quoting the All India Muslim Personal Law Board Leaders saying they would abide by the rule of law and a discussion on the post-verdict possibilities, somehow most of which revolved around the Muslims allowing a temple to come up on the disputed land. The Telegraph also gave preference to the war of words between the Congress and the BJP on Ayodhya by putting the story on the front page. 
Both papers had good pictures post-verdict. On Oct 1st  the Telegraph had an elderly Muslim woman with hands raised in prayer. Anandabazar had  a smiling Hindu and a smiling Muslim together on the front page. It was the first time that the Muslims got adequate space on the front page! 
 Reactions in the Telegraph indicated that there was an underlying sense of injustice and disappointment amidst the Muslims whereas the Hindus were jubilant.  The paper quoted MP Shahid Siddiqui as saying, "the crime of the demolition of 1992 had been completely washed aside". The Anandabazar satisfied itself by saying that Muslims were looking towards the Supreme Court for a final decision and were not fully disappointed because they had been given partial stake over the disputed land.  Anandabazar also mentioned ‘Ramjanmabhoomi’ in one of its front page headlines  on the verdict, saying ‘Despite Ramjanmabhoomi existence, door for settlement open’.
Both papers had responsible banner headlines on the verdict, with Anandabazar saying , ’Verdict for Equal Rights’, and The Telegraph saying, ‘Verdict : Divide Land, Hope : Unite Nation’.
On Oct 1 Anandabazar had a story from the Commonwealth Games village carrying reactions only from Pakistan team members on the Ayodhya verdict. The headline said ‘Ayodhya shadow removed, Pakistanis focus on medals’. It had quotes from Pakistani Hockey captain Zeeshan Ashraf saying that  he knew the verdict was imminent but was reassured on seeing the security arrangements, and by their Chef d’ Mission Md. Ali saying the Indian government would do whatever needed to be done, and now after the verdict focus can be on the medals. The story implied that other than the Pakistanis, participants from other countries were not bothered about the issue at all.
The Telegraph too carried a story from the Games Village which said most of the 5000 plus athletes and officials at the CWG village were indifferent to the verdict. It had quotes from participants of countries like Australia, Pakistan and Maldives and chose reactions from Pakistani athletes like Pakistani wrestler Md Salaam saying, "yes I know it was to come today, but I did not enquire about it as it did not concern me much", rather than focusing on the worry/concern/security issues picked up by Anandabazar. However Telegraph added a twist and said Pakistani grappler Md Inam suspected an international hand in the long-running Ayodhya dispute and quoted him as saying "big people are involved in it…maybe America… you never know".
The Telegraph also had a half-page reaction story on the verdict, ‘Voices Then and Now’, giving voice to the common man’s opinion all over the country, cutting across religions and generations. The Telegraph carried stories on the media coverage of the verdict, while Anandabazar gave that a total miss. The English daily had a story on lawyers flashing V-signs outside Allahabad Court in full media glare as the verdict came in, with a photograph and also another on TV channels showing restraint in their coverage of the verdict. It also carried a story on Oct 2 on how Urdu dailies had reported the verdict, calling for restraint and being cautious in their editorials.
Post-verdict, the maximum space that both papers gave to the  minority view was on Oct 2 in a story which carried reactions from Muslim leaders exhorting the minority community to remember the sacrifice made by   Hazrat Md. The Telegraph said during the Friday sermons, some Imams cited the Hudaibiya treaty dating back to the early period of Islam when Prophet Mohammed  signed a treaty with the opposing non-Muslim Quraish. The paper interestingly introduced a Shia-Sunni angle by saying a band of Shia Muslims , grouped in an outfit called Hussaini Tigers, today requested the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to let the matter end here and offered Rs 15 lakh as donation to construct a temple.
Anandabazar had the same story about Hazrat Mohammed’s sacrifice, but quoted Justice Khan as making a mention of in the verdict. The story was a brief in the inside pages.  The Bengali paper’s front page had a political Congress-BJP story on the Babri demolition and another on the Ram Lalla custody battle in the Akharas.
Conclusion :  Both The Telegraph and the Anandabazar Patrika avoided taking overt sides but failed to give equal space to Muslim opinion on the Ayodhya issue in their coverage of the run-up to the verdict. In the post-verdict coverage, the message that came through was that even though Muslims are looking towards the Supreme Court, the larger sentiment was towards a compromise. The Telegraph bringing in a Shia viewpoint on something that’s largely a Sunni issue among the Muslims was significant.  

   Confusion confounded:  ABP versus The Telegraph
Both papers are published by the same group but reported the same story differently. Anandabazar was more careless in its court reporting.
·         Sept 18 ??" While reporting on the Allahabad High Court’s dismissal of the petitions requesting postponement of the verdict, The Telegraph says "For a while, the court even considered imposing a fine of Rs 5 lakh on the petitioners but later changed its mind".
- Reporting the same story on the same day Anandabazar Patrika says, "The High Court talked about imposing a fine of Rs 5 lakh on Ramesh Chandra Tripathi. His lawyer Prashant Chandra said they were waiting for the written order to decide whether to move the Apex Court or not".  Anandabazar implies that the fine was imposed.
·         Sept 21 - Anandabazar’s story on Justice Dharamveer Sharma’s dissent over the earlier judgement says "Justice Sharma has sent a note in support of a mutual settlement in this case and also, objecting to the fine amount imposed on Tripathi, Justice Sharma said the latter would not have to pay the amount." Anandabazar did not specify the fine amount in this story and continues the line that the fine was imposed.
- The Telegraph which has a detailed story on the dissent by Justice Sharma, springs a new fine amount, saying, "He ruled that petitioner Tripathi need not pay the fine of Rs 50,000, a penalty the other two judges had initially discussed before postponing a decision". The story now also implies that the decision on the fine was postponed instead of the court "changing its mind" as reported on Sept 18.
·         Sept 23 - Anandabazar becomes more confused now. Says, "Last Friday the High Court rejected Ramesh’s petition. Not only that, for obstructing court judgement and also for trying for an out-of-court settlement, Ramesh was fined Rs 50,000 by the Justice Dalbir Sharma, S U Khan and Sudhir Agarwal bench". Its now that Anandabazar discovers the fine amount of Rs 50,000! It also differs from its own story on Sept 21 where it had pointed out Justice Sharma’s dissent and ruling that the fine need not be paid. Anandabazar also very carelessly names Justice Dharamveer Sharma as Justice Dalbir Sharma in this story! And it  erroneously says that the dissenting judge was Justice (Sudhir) Agarwal in the same story!
- The Telegraph story on Ayodhya case hearing in the Supreme Court says as background information that "the three judge bench dismissed his (Tripathi) plea on Sept 17 and slapped costs of Rs 50,000 on him. One judge later disassociated himself from the judgment saying that the costs imposed on Tripathi were too high. Only costs of Rs 3000 could be imposed, Justice D V Sharma said". Here Telegraph is again back to saying that the fine was actually imposed on Sept 17.
·         Interestingly two other Bengali dailies also reported differently on the fine issue. ‘Pratidin’ on Sept 18th said Tripathi had been fined Rs 10 lakh! Then said on Sept 21st that Justice Sharma wanted that amount to be commuted to Rs 3000. Another daily, ‘Aajkal’ says on Sept 18th that Tripathi will have to pay Rs 50,000 as costs.
Facts, it would appear, are flexible.

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