Close on the heels of the terrorist attack on a church in Pakistan comes the attack on the famous Raghunath temple in Jammu claiming 12 lives. These killings are no more a novelty 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 dedicated participation of the media in communal politics, shedding its fig leaf of objectivity and impartiality. This is a greater tragedy than the one we have seen in Gujarat in recent weeks. Obviously, the fierce neutrality in reporting news, a great tradition of the Indian press, has begun to dissipate under the pressure of ‘investigative’ journalism originating in the magazine boom of the late seventies. The focus and direction set by the magazine press became a model for news reporting in the daily press. The press began inroads into ‘secularism,’ hitherto a monopoly of the ruling parties. For most dailies, it became the masthead motto and a fashion statement.
The Press Council of India, which always included several leading journalists, not sharing this ‘secular’ enthusiasm of the press severely castigated at length the most venerable English newspaper in the country and its editor for its reporting of the Delhi riots of 1984. Since then, the press has never looked back, graduating into a major player in the politics of the religion. This commitment places the press, and the media generally, in the same category as the political parties which have denied the minority community the benefits of the Shah Bano judgement, sabotaged the women’s reservation bill, shared power with religious parties in coalitions led by them in Kerala and joined coalitions led by religious parties as in Punjab. Stranger than fiction is newspapers openly declaring loyalty to a cause close to the heart of religious parties and finding 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. It is here we find failure and inadequacy marking the performance of the Indian press. Tragedies are not to be measured merely in terms of numbers. The Gujarat backlash is worse than the Godhra arson because more people were killed in the backlash than in the Sabarmati express. But you can condone it by comparing it to the massacre of 31 October 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 ‘secular’ credentials. Can we separate 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 in which some miscreants are trying to break the monopoly of the ‘secularists.’
One also wonders if massacres become more acceptable if they are not related to religious discord. It is also dangerous, almost anti-national; to use terms like pogrom or genocide or to seek international intervention in domestic conflicts without realizing the implications of such sloganeering. 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 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. Or why it has failed to flay the government for subsidising religious pilgrimages or for entering the area of religious endowments.
As a resident in America, I do not have access to 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. 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, which is an exclusive characteristic of the English press today, is that every one of its reporters has become an editor, the views man in the newspaper. Reporters no more report news but make it more often than they report. Print journalists, who take out processions, organise signature drives and visit scenes of communal discord not as journalists covering conflict but as inquisitors, have stopped believing that these activities represent a bias that unconsciously conditions their news judgements. TV journalists compete with each other in overshadowing the performance of the wily politician in igniting communal passions.
A random survey of headlines and reports in the English press on the Godhra and Gujarat violence provides evidence of its unflinching devotion to the cause of ‘secularism’ in its new denotative context. When the mobs in Godhra set fire to a train carrying kar sevaks, reporters of the Hindustan Times, the Times of India, the Indian Express and the Hindu 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. The USA Today, perhaps not as secular as the English newspapers in India, carried this banner: 57 Killed As Muslim Mob Torches Train Of Hindus In India.
After the first reports came the editorial fury. The Hindustan Times blamed the Sangh parivaar and the VHP and not the arsonists that, in its eyes, were the victims. The Times of India found the VHP guilty and warned the government against any witch-hunt of a particular community. Both the Hindu and the Indian Express took an entire day trying desperately to invent a discourse that can convert attackers into victims. The Hindu condemned the Godhra carnage but treated it as a sequel to the Ayodhya movement. The Indian Express, however, admitted that the Godhra “mob assembled there with clear intentions to kill.” Later it made amends to this assessment. A departure from this secular chorus was the editorial of the Free Press Journal that declared the media and the secular parties as the main culprits. The Hindu wrote a second editorial, very soon, entitled “The Guilty Men of Ahmedabad,” which luckily was a criticism of the Modi administration and no majority bashing. The English press was 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 secularism 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? If yes, we also deserve religious fanaticism and fundamentalism. It does no credit to the mainstream press that it does not readily entertain an alternative view that blames the media and the ‘secular’ parties for condoning communalism of one kind and condemning communalism of another kind.