Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
Sandesh: “Something happened”
A starker revelation of the Hindutva mindset at work in Gujarat was soon to follow the encounter with the VHP when we visited the CMD and de facto Editor-in-Chief of Sandesh. If there is one thing that can be confidently said about Mr Falgun Patel, it is that he is honest to a fault. We met this press baron on one of the higher floors of his plush and gleaming new office in Ahmedabad, far above the dust and din of the city sprawled below. Let him tell the story, as prompted by our queries.
The English media, he said, had sided “out and out” with the minority community and the Gujarat papers were, by and large, pro-Hindu. He blamed the English media for throwing all restraint to the wind by citing the religious affiliation of various groups. Others therefore followed suit. Hindus were not temperamentally prone to starting riots. Gujarat had known worse disturbances, as for example in 1969. But this time Hindu anger “irrespective of class” was inflamed by the burning of innocent women and children at Godhra.
“Something happened”. Even Hindu women felt “theek hai, salon ko maro”. Some English papers carried baseless stories that Godhra was not pre-planned and that karsewak misbehaviour at the railway station provoked the Muslims. When it was said that the Times of India ran its story on the basis of an on-the-record briefing by the IGP Railway Police (See Annexure 11, P 19), this was dismissed as “bullshitting”. Mr Falgun Patel described the Godhra incident as “unforgettable” and the reaction to it as justified.
“Can a 20 per cent minority take the majority for a ride? There has to be a limit”. Muslims had done nothing to throw out the Latifs in their community (a reference to a notorious Ahmedabad don who was killed in an encounter some years ago). Dariapur (a Muslim dominated section of the walled city) had a godfather and so the Muslims thought they could get away with anything. When the BJP government assumed office, a clear message went out to the Muslim mafia. Hence they were quiet. But asked by us why innocent persons should be targeted, Mr Falgun Patel said the idea was “to pressurise ordinary Muslims to put pressure on Muslim goons to behave”. After the way “these Muslims” had behaved, “Hinduism ke naam per hum kuch bhi karenge”.
Mr Patel complained that outsiders who had “no feeling for Gujarat” ran the local English papers. It was, however, pointed out to him that these papers hired talent, irrespective of community.
Asked of checks and balances in the production of Sandesh, Mr Patel remarked that all news obtained was “balanced by our own version”. The paper “editorialises the news” as the regular editorials and articles carried later “are too late”. He freely admitted in response to a query that the paper’s reporters did lose balance and were communalised “all down the line, even today” (April 2). This view was proffered as “a general statement” and further amplified by a subsequent remark to the effect that “the Hindu reaction is so strong that we have to be cautious. I get 200 calls a day”. Yet the paper did have a Muslim readership and was not anti-Muslim per se.
Mr Falgun Patel was down to earth in his perception of the Gujarat media scene. Running a newspaper is big business and Gujarat essentially has two newspapers, Sandesh and the Gujarat Samachar, both bitter rivals. The Gujarat Samachar has a circulation of around 8.10 lakhs and Sandesh about 7.05 lakhs. But because of its pro-Hindu stand, Sandesh’s circulation had increased by 150,000 copies since the riots began. This newspaper competition was “not healthy” and it was left to each newspaper to contradict inaccuracies in the other. There was “no ethics or principles”. Gujarat Samachar, he alleged, had a pro-Jain bias. “Hindu protection is my duty”.
Mr Patel complained that authentic and timely information was seldom available from the Home Department, Police or Information Department. The media had not been taken into confidence or fully briefed. The Police Commissioner of Ahmedabad had held his first press briefing only on the 34th day of rioting. The Chief Minister (who we were told personally conducted daily 4 p.m briefings for the first ten days) was, in Mr Patel’s view, fond of TV appearances and ignored the print media. The CM’s TV appearances were, however, inadequate as he would only respond to queries and kept repeating that everything that had happened was a reaction and that normalcy had been restored. Incidents and casualty figures could not be easily confirmed.
Mr Falgun Patel said that on February 28 itself Sandesh appealed for calm. It front- paged a story to the effect that Gujarat was still recovering from last year’s devastating earthquake and a subsequent cyclone disaster and should therefore keep cool despite Godhra. Positive stories of human interest and communal harmony were also run “to send out a humanitarian message”. Sandesh also praised the Bhavnagar SP for his firm and timely action (in preventing harm to a large number of children huddled in a madrassa in imminent danger of being attacked). Incidentally, soon thereafter, this officer was among those who were summarily transferred on what we were told by the CM was “long-pending promotion”.
The Guild Team questioned Mr Patel about some of its more sensational reports in screaming headlines, many of which were unsourced, speculative or without any basis. One of these was a dire warning about Hajis returning to Gujarat with arms and RDX to wreak vengeance. This caused considerable panic and was contradicted as baseless. Mr Patel’s plea was that the report had appeared in the Asian Age a day earlier and that Sandesh had followed it up and made its own inquiries with the Intelligence agencies and others. Thereafter the Chief Minister had been alerted but had taken the report rather casually. (The Team subsequently saw the Asian Age report and found its contents and alleged Intelligence background to be very different in purport and tenor. It in no way justified the Sandesh story). Mr Patel’s defence was that the Asian Age story had not been contradicted.
Mr Patel was also asked about the Sandesh banner headline about the breasts of two Hindu women having been chopped off by the mobsters at Godhra. He replied that the information came from the DSP Panchmahals. This was promptly contradicted and the contradiction appeared in the Gujarat Samachar. This, we were told, was a fall out of “competition” between the two rival papers. Sandesh’s own policy was “not to carry corrections and clarifications”.
Mr Patel countered by referring to the coverage of the destruction of the Wali Gujarati dargah by the Times of India. “Was this right?” he asked. (Wali Gujarati lived in the 17th century and was India’s first Urdu ghazalkar. This well known cultural landmark, dear to all communities, was razed to the ground on February 27 and a paved road built over it within days. Some 240 large and small Muslim dargahs, mosques, shrines and kabristans were similarly vandalised throughout Gujarat and Hulluria Hanuman (riotous Hanuman) murtis installed at some sites. In Vadodara, the tomb of the famous Baroda court musician, Ustad Fayyaz Khan was desecrated.
Asked about the killing of Ehsan Jafri, a former M.P and several others by fire in Gulberg colony despite desperate calls for help over several hours, Mr Patel said that Mr Jafri had a “bad record”. (Many others told us later that on the contrary Ehsan Jafri was a poet and much respected figure who worked for the masses and preferred to live in a cosmopolitan residential area rather than in a Muslim ghetto. Justice Akbar Divecha’s flat was vandalised in Ahmedabad and the residence of Prof J.S. Bandukwala, who teaches physics at M.S. Baroda University and is a votary of communal harmony, was similarly ravaged.
Finally, Mr Patel showed us a letter dated March 18 sent to him officially as owner and chief executive of Sandesh by the Chief Minister. In this, Mr Narendra Modi, personally expressed his high appreciation for the newspaper’s restrained coverage of the recent events in the best traditions of journalism. Mr Modi told us later that similar letters had gone out under his signature to a number of Gujarati language papers. Gujarat Samachar and 14 others were sent such letters according to a hurried listing by the Information Department. The text of the original letter in Gujarati and its English translation is at Annexure 4.
Before parting company, we mentioned that we were going to Gandhinagar to meet the Chief Minister and others. Mr Patel wryly remarked, “The Government dances to our tune. We can get them to do anything”. Others, later, made much the same comment - in reverse.