April 26, 2002


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Dasu Krishnamoorty

Press, Polity, People

Time and the compulsions of life have dissipated the fires of hatred in Gujarat. But the editorial ire of the English press is still raging, prodding them to send squads of news dogs to sniff relics of the old rivalry and report cases of fresh villainy threatening what S Jaipal Reddy pompously calls the secular fabric of the country discovered by Jawaharlal Nehru. Every day, leader writers, commentators and analysts remind the reader of the real nature of our polity, our society and our press. Obviously, their thirst for bad news is unquenchable.

Riot after riot, the press repeats the performance of our parliamentarians who stall business in both Houses of Parliament to prioritise religious issues. Like the sandhya vandanam for the Brahmin, the editorial parrots must chant the hate mantra every day. Majority, which is the essence of democracy, rankles their 'secular' conscience. Paradoxically, what troubles the English press does not trouble the language press. Less secular?

Jokes apart, let us see the performance of the mainstream Indian media. Did Gujarat happen suddenly or was it in the coming for a long time? Find the answer in the terrorist attack on a church in Pakistan followed by a swoop on the famous Raghunath temple in Jammu claiming 12 lives. These killings are not new or recent because they have been happening with sickening frequency since the direct action launched by Husain Shaheed Suhrawardy in 1946.

What is new today is the affiliation of the media to a new philosophy of religious conflict, which is a negation of the basic tenets of journalism -- objectivity and impartiality. Any erosion of these two values will affect the quality of media content, leading to further conflicts and unrest. Sadly, the fierce neutrality in reporting news, a great tradition of the Indian press, has begun to dissipate. If you are liberal, you can attribute it to the challenges posed by the magazine boom of the late seventies. The focus on sensationalism adopted by the magazine press has become a model for news reporting in the daily press also.

The media's love for religion came in for criticism by the Press Council of India, which always included several leading journalists. Pained by the new trend of conflictual journalism, the Council pilloried the most venerable English newspaper in the country and its editor for its reporting of the Delhi riots of 1984. However, this criticism never made an impression on the press, which continued to highlight the politics of the religion. Thus the press, and the media generally, found themselves in the questionable company of political parties that set one community against another and draw electoral mileage from such divisive politics. Such parties are as good or as bad as the others on the other side.

Who denied the minority community the benefits of the Shah Bano judgment; who sabotaged the women's reservation bill and who shared power with religious parties in coalitions led by them? What secular tradition compels the newspapers to openly take up a cause close to the heart of religious parties and find fault with others for doing the same?

If objectivity is still a desirable goal, the media can ensure it by providing its audiences, among other things, a complete version of not only a single event but also history of such events and treating the single event as part of a serial and not as complete in itself. If tragedies are to be measured merely in terms of numbers, the Gujarat backlash is worse than the Godhra arson because more people died in the reprisals than in the Sabarmati Express. According to this logic, the Gujarat violence merits condonation in comparison to the massacre of October 31, 1984.

The emphasis on killings of one kind and oversight of another kind do not increase the credibility of the press, nor do they strengthen its non-partisan credentials. Can we separate the Bombay killings of 1993 from the Bombay blasts or the Coimbatore killings from the Coimbatore blasts? Can we separate cause and effect and yet arrive at a tenable conclusion? To portray communal conflict as a chapter separate from the history of Partition amounts to rewriting history.

One wonders if massacres become more acceptable if they are not related to religious discord. Using such terms like pogrom or genocide or to seek international intervention in domestic conflicts without realizing the implications of such sloganeering is a sign of mental imbalance. Objectivity is the dividing line between journalism and pamphleteering. Anyone, whether it is a newspaper or a political party, loses its right to be called secular (please see the dictionary for the pristine meaning of the word before it was ravished by both the Indian press and polity) if it takes sides in communal conflicts or is obsessed with religion to the exclusion of such pressing problems like poverty, the status of women or child labour.

The press has to explain to the public why it has failed to report the speech of a Samajwadi Party MP in Parliament declaring that the time has come for the birth of another nation. And, another Jinnah? Or why it has failed to flay the government for subsidizing religious pilgrimages or for entering the area of religious endowments.

As a resident in America, I do not have access to the Indian print media but if I am permitted to treat their on-line editions as their abridged replicas, I get before me a picture not very flattering to them. To quote an eminent columnist, 'Even a cursory glance at the online newspapers convinces the reader of their commitment to partisan politics, contrary to the understanding that newspapers should inform and inform objectively and abjure denominational allegiance in reporting news. If newspapers have a policy, it certainly finds accommodation in the editorial page, though views and opinions today have begun to spill into other pages in the guise of news analyses. A major change that has overtaken the press today is the reporter encroaching upon the domain of the editor, who is the views man in the newspaper. Reporters no more report news but make it more often than they report.'

Going by the headlines and reports in the press on the Godhra and Gujarat violence one finds an unflinching devotion of the press to the cause of denominational strife. When the mobs in Godhra set fire to a train carrying kar sevaks, reporters of the mainstream press were not sure who the arsonists were and therefore called them 'a group of persons,' 'a mob,' and 'unidentified persons.' Next day, when there were brutal reprisals in Ahmedabad, the newspapers found no difficulty in identifying not only the rioters but also their religion and political affiliation. USA Today, perhaps not as committed as the newspapers in India, carried this banner: 57 Killed As Muslim Mob Torches Train Of Hindus In India.

The first reports gave way to editorial fury. The editorials, in the case of the Godhra incident, generally blamed the Sangh Parivar and the VHP to the exclusion of the arsonists who it believed were the victims. One newspaper found the VHP guilty and warned the government against any witch-hunt of a particular community. Two dailies took an entire day trying desperately to invent a discourse that can convert attackers into victims. They condemned the Godhra carnage but treated it as a sequel to the Ayodhya movement. One of them, however, admitted that the Godhra 'mob assembled there with clear intentions to kill.' Soon, it made amends to this assessment. A departure from this chorus was the editorial of the Free Press Journal that declared the media and the secular parties as the main culprits. To me, it seemed that the media were very happy that several hundred members of the minority community were killed because it provided a big stick to beat the majority community with.

Then followed an avalanche of articles, analyses, interviews and reports unearthing incidents that led to the Godhra rampage and evidence to condone the carnage. The essence of these exercises was to show, however paradoxically, that Ayodhya was enough provocation to the mob in Godhra (the two separated by more than 1,000 miles) and not to the mobs in Faizabad, a stone's throw from Ayodhya and witness to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The following weeks witnessed further evidence of the print media's loyalty to politics of the questionable kind, one which does not ask why several lakh Kashmiris are refugees in their own country or why Jammu and Kashmir had never a chief minister belonging to the minority community.

Do we deserve this kind of press? It does no credit to the mainstream press that it does not readily entertain an alternative view that blames the media and the political parties for condoning communalism of one kind and condemning communalism of another kind. One need not study the theory of communication to know the effects of such journalism on social harmony. The performance of both the daily and magazine press stokes the fires of communalism instead of dousing them and worse, the journalists know it.

Dasu Krishnamoorty was a copy editor and an op-ed page editor at three national dailies -- the Indian Express, The Times of India and Patriot. He was also a senior political commentator for nearly a decade at All India Radio. He taught at the country's most prestigious mass communication school, the Indian Institute of Mass Communication as associate professor between 1984 and 1989.

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