A Muslim view of media and Ayodhya

by Iqbal Masud


The role of print media in building up a communal ambience before and after Ayodhya:

By 60’s and 70’s the media had become sophisticated. The crude communal propaganda of pre- and post-47 period was avoided. That still continued to an extent in the vernacular press and became noticeable in the period after 1985 in the reporting of riots. But in the English press the effort was to create a climate of "exclusion". It was a kind of what Edward Said called "Orientalism" but it was an internal one under the guise of a critique of "Muslim culture" it "exoticised" the Muslim into ignorant, blighted, unpatriotic people inhabiting ghettos. It was done subtly in the name of secularism. Eminent columnists like Girilal Jain and Arun Shourie with a show of scholarship, ploughed anti-Muslim furrows. Very few of their columns could be called specifically communal. But by their writings on Ummah, the exclusive Islamic world outlook, the Babri Masjid, they created an anti-Muslim climate of opinion in the urban middle class. Besides, the manner of reporting changed. The number of "Hindu Nationalist" reporters increased.. Instances of "Muslim fundamentalism" - Babri movement, Shahbano Case, Salman Rushdie agitation, child bride Ameena Case, Kerala "skull cap" enforcement, and later Friday holiday for Muslim Majority schools - were played up in headlines. Hindu and Muslim fundamentalisms were equated and it was said that one fed off the other. This whole exercise in the name of secularism was really communal because it had been recognised by Nehru that there was no "balance" in these communalisms. By setting out such a balance the press legitimised Hindu communalism.

There’s an another important aspect - our press is overwhelmingly capitalistic. So at some level, it has to cater to the consumer - basically the urban (including small town) Hindu middle class. As this latter class falls under the sway of Hindu nationalism (why this happened goes beyond the parameters of this submission) the press "managements" began to feel that an unchecked display of secular liberalism would not be "paying". So we began to get writings that legitimised Hindu nationalism in the name of coming to terms with "history", with the great "churning" process, with the psyche of the Indian people. This process, combined with the decline of the Left, has produced a swing towards conservatism which in Indian conditions is only two steps away from communalism.

Post-Ayodhya developments:

Dec. 6 was a kind of Crossing of the Rubicon - politically and socially. There was initial revulsion but with some kind of "reverse justification" the victims were blamed. All inhibitions of politeness were broken. "They" the Hindus had been humiliated, "they" the Hindus were powerless. So the presumed or real sense of "injustice" suffered from the minorities (appeasement etc) came to surface. Scores of Muslims right across the board heard such talk on the streets, offices and clubs and media, directly or indirectly, reflecting this hostility. Some vernacular papers in Bombay protested against compensation payment to riot victims because they were "terrorists" or "Bangladeshis". False stories were spread about Dilip Kumar, Shabana Azmi and Muslim sympathisers like Sunil Dutt and A.K. Hangal.

The theory of balance afflicted many news reports. "When Bombay Burned" (edited by Dilip Padgaonkar), a collection of Times of India reports and comments is an important document for the Tribunal purposes. While generally a fair- even bold - account of Bombay riots, the book also contains important lapses.

See the account of the rioting and police firing at Imamwada (p51-53, paperback). The tone is that of dramatic crime reporting. "Feisty" or "resolute" Muslims, "energetic" Hindus, wiry lieutenants with flashing eyes saying "shoot the bastards" (Muslims). Unintentionally such writing can be inflammatory. Second, from the same book, is the account of the arrest of Muslims alleged to be involved in the Jogeshwari torching of a Hindu hut, an incident which was one of the incidents to have sparked off the January riots (p 49-51). The account implicates one of the arrested, now a TADA detainee Fatima as saying "I wanted to teach those Hindus a lesson". There is no supporting evidence that Fatima said this. Her advocate, Mr. A.S. Uraizi denies it. Other accounts of the arrest (Independent Feb 1, 1993) and Jyoti Punwani’s ToI report (dated 4-2-93) give vital different accounts both of the guilty persons and of the quote. But this account has appeared in a book and is likely to be treated as "evidence".

Similarly, there’s another report of AK-47 firing on police on Mohammed Ali Road and police retaliation resulting in death of seven Muslims (p 57-58). In fact, there’s no evidence at all of an Ak 47. The police version is accepted uncritically. The report also mentions the murder in cold blood of an arrested man but no details are given.

The last two items are in enquiry before the Sri Krishna Commission.

My point is: When such reports appear in papers of repute (may be bona fide errors or in complete enquiries) then the role of media in reporting riots becomes questionable.

Role of Audio and Visual Media:

Audio cassettes have long been used both by Hindu and Muslim radicals for preaching particularly in the Hindi belt in North India. After the rise of audio visual cassette culture, the most abusive kinds of messages are being spread. Even the quality video news magazines slant messages. Witness the notorious anti-Mandal stance of Newstrack. The worst offender has been the government itself. It may not have preached direct communalism but the religious TV epics like Ramayan, Mahabharath and Chanakya fueled the religious fervor which directly led to the Ayodhya calamity. Recently Doordarshan has again started using the religious card using whole days to telecast religious ceremonies.

Communalisation of popular film industry: In retrospect the Munich pact of March-April imposed by BJP-Shiv Sena on the film industry at Bombay is beginning to seem less important. It may turn out to be nothing more than opportunistic political blackmail and extortion tactics. The truth is popular cinema surrendered to obscurantism long before. The influence of the TV epics made popular cinema less syncretic. There has been a merger of violence including sexual violence against women, vulgar titillation and religious frenzy in cinema since the late 80’s. Many studies of popular cinema are already out of date. There’s a general tendency to glorify "family values", status quo, patriotism, tradition ("Roja", "Parampara", "Damini" etc) but this is served up with a hefty dose of pop, disco and rape.

Resources at popular and folk level:

There is not much promising material at this moment. There is no life or fire left in the old syncretic shrine or bhakti and sufi cultures. The global satellite culture has made its impact; the BJP/RSS have made inroads (with their various yatras and pujas) at the popular level.

Concrete Steps:

(1) Stop all religious serials and extended religious coverage on Doordarshan with immediate effect. There was a time when we got along perfectly well without them.

(2) Encourage secular TV serials, updated versions of "Hum Log", "Buniyaad", "Nukkad". In fact, "Ujale Ki Ore", "Dek Bhai Dek", "Tara" (Zee TV) are not bad from this point of view.

(3) Stop pandering to so-called "Entertainment". Engage in meaningful TV discussions on current economic and social problems. Such discussions should be designed to catch popular attention and avoid the twin abysses of academicism and banal talk shows.

(4) A new cinema movement, away from the ghetto of art cinema, should be encouraged. It should be "modern" in a basic sense, show how coexistence already exists, how there are other problems besides the Hindu-Muslim one. Two recent films are excellent examples of this. "RudaaIi" and "Maya Memsaheb". For this purpose NFDC should be strengthened and the scheme of Little Theatres revived (or "commenced").

(5) The problem really goes beyond the orthodox confines of media. There should be a "reaching out" between the communities, an awareness of and education in each other’s cultures. I remember in 1947 despite the bloody riots, Hindus and Muslims were instinctively more alive to each other’s cultures than they are today. To cross the gulf, a massive effort - both spontaneous and organised - is necessary. The instruments can be mass media, small gatherings, a creativity which lives at the heart of the storm.

This sounds like a tall order. But once we grasp both the magnitude of the task and its cruciality, a beginning can be made.

(Submission Before the Citizens’ Tribunal on Ayodhya)