Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
Criticism of the “Secular Media”
The vocabulary of discourse, like much else in Gujarat, has come to reflect the deep emotions and divisions aroused by events in the State. Thus, the term “secular media”, is used pejoratively to describe those papers and channels which are only critical of violence against the minority community. One critic wrote to the Guild as follows after its Fact-Finding Mission was announced: “Till date, only politicians were coddling and flattering this (Muslim) community under the cover of “secularism” for their selfish motive of securing votes. But now, media people, especially Xavierites and convent-ites having recently entered this field, have also joined their bandwagon and have given completely biased and one-sided coverage… Not a single educated and forward Muslim like Shabana Azmi or Dilipkumar have defamed their fanatic and downtrodden member in very clear and true words (sic). While our own journalists have played pivotal role in depicting VHP members as hardliners and fanatics causing great harm to the prestige of our community and of our nation…. Try to understand one thing – “If you are defaming your family member, you are undermining your own interest…..”.
Sections of the media have been criticised for directly or indirectly linking the Godhra incident to Ayodhya. Vir Sanghvi, Editor of the Hindustan Times had this to say: “The sub-text to all secular commentary is the same: the kar sevaks had it coming to them. Basically, they condemn the crime; but blame the victims”. (Annexure 8)
Others, like Jaya Jaitley, the Samanta leader, argued in the Indian Express that “there is a whole mass of feelings out there that these people (Opposition/intellectuals) are missing and will continue to miss if they remain comfortably secluded in their make-believe worlds”. Her conclusion: “If Godhra had been adequately condemned, perhaps the retaliation would have been more easily contained. If the intellectuals and the so-called secular Opposition leave it to the fundamentalists, violence is all we will get. Whether we like it or not, they were the only ones who reflected the anger against Godhra, when both secular media and politicians had failed”. (Annexure 9). Not only is the logic flawed, but Godhra was roundly condemned by all. Leaders of 11 prominent national Muslim organisations denounced “the barbaric and brutal violence in Godhra” on February 28. (Muslim India, April 2002). The Prime Minister and Leaders of the Opposition were signatories to a joint appeal to maintain peace and communal harmony the following day.
Sandhya Jain, writing in the Pioneer of April 23, 2002 under the heading “Perceived fair play will cool Hindu rage”, opines that “majority bashing has assumed such alarming proportions that there is growing concern among analysts that the proverbial Hindu patience may be reaching breaking point. Serious commentators are of the view that political parties and the media should understand the Godhra-Gujarat conflagration from this point of view, and resist the temptation to fish in troubled waters”.
The Guild Team received a letter from Bhopal labelling marked portions of “Outlook” (March 18, 2002) a gross misuse of the right to freedom of expression. The impugned reports included several reports and columns by the Editor, Vinod Mehta, Prem Shankar Jha and Priyanka Kakodkar (reporting from Godhra). Vinod Mehta wrote: “ ….Are we equating state terrorism with an act of terrorism committed by a group of crazy, bigoted individuals?…When law-abiding citizens are being burnt alive by mobs, objective journalism needs to be jettisoned; the media has no option but to tell the story from the side of the victims so that the country can see the grisly events”.
Others are sore because the media did not se through the sinister plot underlying Godhra, namely to bring about the economic destabilisation of India, beginning with Gujarat. At the same time, some critics are of the view that the media has carried exaggerated accounts of the economic loss suffered by trade and industry in Gujarat. A letter to the Times of India calls for balance. It reads: Please refer the Sunday Times, March 10, P 1. “Razed dargahs pave roads to mystery”: it is a title biased against Hindus. The report under the title states that Hanuman Mandir was also razed. So the correct title is “Razed dargahs and Hanuman Mandir pave roads to mystery”.
Hotline, a Gujarati weekly published from Surat, carried a long piece in its edition of April 6 by its editor, Vikram Vakil, under the heading “English media exposed”. He cites and comments on 10 examples of “indulgence in gossip” citing the Times of India, Indian Express, Outlook and Star TV. Particular mention is made of reports on the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra on February 27 and on a Times story (March 19) of 150 persons being burnt alive and thrown into a disused well. Hotline says this was just a rumour and was denied by the police. (See summary translation at Annexure 10). This is precisely what the Times had said too. (See Annexure 11, P 13).
The Gujarat Janhati Rakshak Samiti of Vadodara led by Ajay Dave represented to the Guild Team against the pro-minority mind-set of the English media. It noted their failure to cover and analyse the reasons for adivasi anger against Muslims in rural Vadodara and spoke of “provocation” such as the azan being called 40 times a day in a single village (eight mosques each calling the faithful to prayer five times). The Hindus were “oppressed and suppressed”. “White collar indignation” over Godhra had spilled on to the streets, taking the form of looting instead of killing ! The “topiwalas” were at the root of all wrongdoing and thought they had license to crime. The backlash being witnessed was “a natural reaction” to Godhra. The Samiti presented a memorandum, with a number of newspaper clippings appended, excoriating the “nasty role” of certain English and minority language newspapers and TV channels. They were charged with “one-sided coverage”. Their aim was to defame Gujarat and bring it down to the level of Bihar “so that industrial investment in Gujarat is inhibited and its economic prosperity suffers a setback”. (See Annexure 11).
A Muslim liberal in Ahmedabad complained, more in sorrow than in anger, that many contemporary and contextual articles he had sent in recent times to the local English newspapers were never used. He pleaded that the media, especially the English language press with its national reach, should find space for local liberal, modern Muslim voices and enable them to network. Muslim Indians must know that there is an alternative discourse to what they hear from traditional sources or radical forces. Likewise, it is imperative to rebuild inter-community links and bridges that have been destroyed. The point, made with feeling and eloquence, is well taken.