Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
The Other Side of the Fence
A number of civic and human rights groups and NGOs in Ahmedabad and Vadodara have been monitoring the media and shared their perceptions and findings with the Guild Team. Among these, the People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Shanti Abhiyan in Vadodara and a number of other community groups in Gujarat have meticulously tracked media trends in Gujarat.
The attitude of Sandesh has been noted earlier. Gujarat Samachar (Vadodara edition) is again shown as using provocative, instigative headlines for unsourced, unverified, exaggerated or even fictitious stories. (See Annexure 11A). A lack of objectivity and balance is evident in much of the coverage, though some positive stories were also published. The Muslim-owned Gujarat Today is seen to be more restrained and balanced and mindful of carrying stories of communal harmony despite the violence. The Times of India and Indian Express are commended on the whole. But some matters could have been more adequately covered such as combing operations, atrocities against women, conditions in relief camps and the involvement of persons named by local people in various areas. The Express is cited for some of its investigative stories but there is criticism of headlines such as ‘Dial M for Modi, Murder’ and ‘Modimeter’, the latter being a daily tally of casualties.
The overall conclusion of PUCL-Shanti Abhiyan is that “When Muslims were at fault, names were taken, perpetrators were clearly identified. When Muslims were the victims of murderers, arsonists, looters, etc, then it has not been clearly stated who attacked whom. No sources have been quoted for headlines, even when they have simply been lifted from speeches by VHP leaders (like “Khoon ka badla Khoon”). Headlines are also misleading and often followed up by reports that do not substantiate headlines…. The anti-minority stand is obvious in the slant in news reporting. Editorials and news items are often written in a way that implicitly and explicitly justifies carnage after the Godhra incident”. (Annexure 12).
The Memorandum presented by the Anjuman-e-Imdad-e-Bahami, Vadodara, is revealing. The mendacious reportage of Sandesh is exposed. Yet the representation concludes with a reaffirmation of the secular ethos of the average citizens of Gujarat”. (Annexure 13).
Another Memorandum presented by the Shahpur Seva Samaj, Ahmedabad, on “Provocation and Instigation of Violence ….” contains a detailed analysis of the Gujarati press. It lists a number of fabrications prominently published and subsequently not corrected when officially denied. (Annexure 14).
Still another Memorandum against Sandesh in particular was submitted by K.R.Kazi of Vadodara together with copies of offending stories along with a gist of offensive passages/inferences given in English. (Annexure 15). A representation by residents of Tandalja, a Muslim majority area in Vadodara, speaks of a media campaign in Gujarat Mitra and Sandesh to have the locality declared a disturbed area" as it is a “mini-Pakistan”. (See Annexure 16).
Sandesh (Bhavnagar edition, March 1, 2002) is cited as inciting Hindus to avenge Godhra. An unsourced report reads: “Hindus were burnt alive in Godhra and leaders in Bhavnagar did not even throw a stone in the name of bandh. Ahmedabd, Vadodara and Rajkot partly avenged the killing of Hindus in Godhra. In the case of Bhavnagar, the gutless leaders are hiding their faces under the guise of non-violence. (Annexure 17).
Gujarat Today was found to be generally balanced and moderate in tone. The visuals it published were sober. The paper sought to promote communal harmony and carried editorial page articles by liberal Hindus and Muslims including translations of columns from the mainline English press.
Zee TV, Aaj Tak and ETV (Eenadu) operate Gujarati channels in addition to Doordarshan. There were few critics of ETV and its coverage was described as balanced. Aaj Tak in particular received a lot of flak for its candid coverage. It had earned praise during the earthquake for going off the beaten track and picking up special nuances. This same approach possibly proved an embarrassment to some on this occasion. Like the other networks it used mobile OB vans that allowed quicker and more exhaustive coverage.
Star TV (NDTV) carried some graphic footage and interviews in the thick of the riots – in Ahmedabad and along the Vadodara-Godhra highway where a number of industrial establishments and trucks were burnt. There were strong critics of its coverage, including what was termed as the arrogant and hectoring tone of its correspondent while interviewing a tired Ahmedabad police commissioner at the end of a long day and its insistence that the Army’s deployment was unduly delayed. Rajdeep Sardesai, NDTV’s Political Editor, responded to this criticism in a subsequent newspaper article.
Star also carried an extremely moving interview with Professor J.S Bandukwala in Vadodara, a man whose secular ethos continues to burn bright even after going through a terrible ordeal. There is little doubt that some of the television coverage unmasked the State Government. It hit back by banning Star on March 2 for several hours.
In an interview to “Outlook” (March 18, 2002), Mr Narendra Modi was asked why he had sought to muzzle the press. His response was that “There was no ban on the media. I blacked out just one channel because of the provocative reporting methods used. Traditionally the print media has used its own methods of self-censorship, taking care not to mention the names of communities while reporting riots. If every half an hour names of communities are going to be mentioned, without any substantiation or any attribution, it inflames the situation instead of allaying it. It is not difficult to see what impact it will have. I must also tell you that since then the channel has tendered an apology and made amends”.
Asked about this, Star News commented that it met Mr Modi at a press conference and requested him to lift what it termed an unfair ban. The Chief Minister complied. It must also be added that Mr Modi was given opportunity on the channel to air his point of view on events in Gujarat by prior arrangement before the ban.
The coverage by Doordarshan and AIR’s Ahmedabad kendras was staid. There were viewers and listeners who said that they appreciated this though others expressed dissatisfaction. One of our interlocutors said that while AIR reported the facts, Doordarshan siad the situation was under control. The Chief Minister’s peace appeal was replayed several times by Doordarshan. Peace rallies in different parts of the State and programmes emphasising communal harmony were aired. These included sound bytes in Gandhiji’s voice, culled from archival material, and stories of Hindus sheltering Muslims.
Efforts were made to counter rumours and scenes of joint Holi celebrations were screened. According to a report in the Indian Express (March 8, 2002), AIR, Delhi was quizzed by somebody in the Prime Minister’s Office regarding an English discussion that was critical of the manner in which the Gujarat riots had been officially handled. This is said to have resulted in an inquiry and the transfer of the concerned Programme Officer. The discussants, Bhishma Narain Singh, a former Governor, Prof. Imtiaz Ahmed of JNU and Amulya Ganguli of the Hindustan Times were admittedly critical.
However, if the issue was an alleged lack of balance in the programme, the answer is that Prasar Bharati cannot be totally anodyne about stark events and hope to enjoy any credibility; nor is balance always possible in a single programme and may often only be achieved over a series of broadcasts that allow all legitimate points of view a fair airing.
Many cities in Gujarat have local cable-television channels that broadcast several hours a day. Gujarat Samachar has such a channel in Ahmedabad. There is another in Anand known as the Charotar Area Network Link or CAN-Link which is a 24-hour channel and also publishes a local newspaper, Naya Padkar. What subscribers wanted from their local media was positive stories of community living and hard information about incident-prone areas, curfew hours, safe routes for commuting and so forth. This was not forthcoming and such information as was provided was sometimes confusing. Vadodara has four cable channels. While they did carry some official peace messages, it is alleged that they were politically exploited and some of their coverage amounted to incitement. PUCL and Shanti Abhiyan were particularly critical of the JTV and Deep channels. (See Annexure 12 P 27).
The Police Commissioner Vadodara felt the cable networks had “played havoc” and warned them. The licenses of two operators were suspended on March 17 after they showed live footage of rioting in the sensitive Macchipith area on March 15, when the VHP celebrated news of the performance of shilinyas at Ayodhya. This same live footage was repeated the following day. The licenses were restored after 48 hours. FIRs were, however, registered against News Plus and the VNM Channel respectively and the operators released on bail.
On the other hand, some observers told us that the cable coverage exposed violation of Section 144 or curfew by large crowds and instances of police inaction. However, even these sources admitted that the live coverage did arouse passions. Cable Networks are subject to rules framed under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995.
Operators have to seek registration by an authorised officer who may be a district magistrate, sub-divisional magistrate or police commissioner within his/her area of jurisdiction. The Rules prescribe a code for programmes and advertisements. No programme may be carried which offends good taste or decency, attacks religious communities, incites violence, contains false and suggestive innuendoes and half-truths, or is unsuitable for unrestricted public exhibition. Any authorised officer may prohibit certain transmissions infringing the code or otherwise if expedient to do so in the public interest. Penalties include fines and seizure of equipment.
The Guild Team was informed that during long periods of curfew between March 1 and 15, some cable channels made it a point to screen “patriotic” or “nationalist” films such as Gadar, Border, and Ma Tujhe Salaam.
The new media was actively used for positive and negative ends through the Gujarat riots. Computer generated or more crudely and clandestinely printed pamphlets and handbills, without any imprint line, were brought out and widely circulated. Some of earlier vintage were recirculated. Among those we met, some testified to seeing handbills being openly distributed in large numbers at street corners and traffic intersections. The dissemination of such material was reported in the press. Their authenticity is difficult to establish and it is entirely possible that some are products of disinformation wilfully distributed with diabolical intent. Others appear more plausible in view of circumstantial evidence from other quarters. Either way, this is a most dangerous development, even if not altogether new, as means of instant and widespread dissemination are now technologically available.
A pernicious piece of hate propaganda, officially disseminated by the VHP, calls for the economic boycott of Muslims. This was admitted to the Indian Express by Mr Chinubhai Patel, the Parishad’s Gujarat treasurer. (See Annexure 18). A more recent four page pamphlet circulating in Ahmedabad by this same organisation carries an appeal for funds to provide security for Hindus. It reads: Your life is in danger, you can be murdered any time… We are collecting funds for securing the interests of the Hindus..…there are thousands of more Godhra carnages being planned”. Mr Chinubhai Patel has confirmed that these pamphlets are in circulation. (Times of India, April 26, 2002).
PUCL/Shanti Abhiyan has summarised the content of several other pamphlets (See Annexure 12, P 30-31). The most damaging of these is an alleged secret RSS circular listing ways of killing or debilitating minorities. The economic boycott theme figures again and was found to be circulating by chain distribution in Sadhari, Pali district, Rajasthan. The Express, March 24 (Delhi edition) reports the police seizure of a pamphlet urging Hindus to create a “jagrut Hindu rashtra”, allegedly circulated by the Bajrang Dal president, Hastimal, who is said to have been arrested. The theme: “Don’t purchase anything from Muslim shops, don’t travel in their vehicles or visit their garages; don’t watch films which feature Muslim stars. In this way we can break their financial backbone”. The same news item says that the police seized a pamphlet in tribal-dominated Banswara, exhorting Hindus to hang a saffron flag outside their homes to help identification during Moharram.
A bunch of vicious handbills was handed over to us in Ahmedabad by one of the groups we met. These call for economic boycott of Muslims and warn Hindus against Christian schools and praying at dargahs. Others appeal to the police and Army and salute Narendra Modi. One handbill has a message for Muslim youth and instructs them on how to deal with kafirs. This is attributed to a Dr K.M.Farukh but carries no address or other identification. All the other handbills are unsourced. (Annexure 19).
A Hindi leaflet attributed to the Bharat Bachao Sangh, Allahabad and said to have been found in Coach No S-6 of the Sabarmati Express was also given to us. (Annexure 20).
Gruesome coloured photographs depicting the charred and mutilated remains of Sabarmati Express victims are reportedly being circulated at meetings, accompanied by fiery speeches. (Hindustan Times, April 9). The Guild Team was officially given a set of such photographs with provocative captions at the VHP office. This evoked extreme horror and disgust.
In Ahmedabad we were told of the seizure a booklet titled “In Defence of Hindus” purporting to be a “riot manual” from Nagpur containing a list of do-it-yourself brutalities.
Corresponding reports have appeared of pamphlets allegedly circulated by Muslims. One of these, titled “Give Challenge to Open Terrorism by Covert Terrorism”, is said to have been distributed at the Shah Alam refugee camp in Ahmedabad, a charge denied by organisers of the camp. It is said to be attributed by intelligence sources to an unknown organisation called Lashkar-e-Khelendeen and calls for guerilla strikes to destroy the “Narendra Modi terrorist organisation”. (HT, April 9).
In Ahmedabad, the National Medicos Organisation on April 2 gave the Guild Team a “provocative” Hindi leaflet ending with the slogan “Pakistan Zindabad”. The same “medico” representation was strongly critical of the English press and spoke of “a … series of events like Kargil, hijacking of Indian Airline plane, attack on J&K Assembly and Indian Parliament, capture of RDX and other weapons at various places and series of bomb blasts. It said “we need to break this pattern in order to protect security and integrity of this country and national self-respect”.
To counter these sinister campaigns, Shanti Abhiyan and the Baroda Chamber have sought to disseminate positive messages. But the day the Guild Team left Vadodara, the papers reported that large billboards sponsored by a citizen’s group with messages of communal harmony had been defaced. The advertising agency contracted for the job was also threatened. (Times of India, Ahmedabad, April 6).
Equally significant is a widely distributed publication entitled “Godhra and After” produced by the Vishva Samvad Kendra, Gujarat, and given to us at the VHP office in Ahmedabad. It lists “facts” that give “several reasons to believe that this (Godhra carnage) was a pre-planned conspiracy”. Travellers of a particular religion were asked to get down at the previous station, namely, Dahod; patients of a particular community were discharged from the Godhra civil hospital a day before February 27 and not a single case from that same community was registered that day; and no student or teacher of a particular community was present in Godhra’s schools on February 27. From this it is surmised that not only was the torching of S-6 a pre-planned attack but there was forewarning of something untoward likely to happen that fateful day. The Guild Team checked these “facts” with district officials, the Railway authorities and local journalists. There was no corroboration whatsoever.
The Gujarat riots probably mark the first occasion when digital media has been so extensively used, if at all. Rioters and middle class looters were directed by mobile phone. Accordingly to some who monitored it, the Gujarat State web site had little reference to the riots, barring information about forthcoming examinations. SMS messages were reportedly sent to some people warning them that milk supplies had been poisoned. Others received telephone calls about a threatened rocket attack, setting off alarm and pancic. Chain messages were sent by email.
A liberal Muslim, M.H. Jowher of Manfin Infotech Ltd, started a web site www.riotinfo.com on March 7 following the eruption of mass violence. He preaches communal harmony and writes of the law and the Constitution. Here is someone trying to build fraternity anew amidst the smouldering ruins of hate and despair. He advertised for support on April 12 and received a dozen positive responses from Hindus interspersed with some threatening calls. He has sought to put out correct and authenticated information about the riots and specific events in order to counter mischievous propaganda. He has done this in part by mailing assumed addresses. Many have bounced back but others have scored hits.
Mr Narendra Modi too is something of an internet buff and has a personal web site www.narendramodi.org. This has posted ardent fan mail with some messages hailing him as a god and “asli mard” for protecting Hindus. (See Annexure 12, P 28-29). It is conceivable that a hacker may have broken into Mr Modi’s domain to post material calculated to cause him embarrassment. Even so, it would appear incumbent on someone in his position to have a web manager to monitor the site and remove any offending material rather than assume legal and moral ownership by letting it remain on his site.
We were told of a number of e-mail boards such as E-fore from Ahmedabad and Vadodara which carries an account of Gujarat developments with daily updates. This was started at the time of the Kutch earthquake in 2001 and is said currently to network about 1000 persons. Teesta Setalvad’s Communalism Combat from Mumbai operates a portal known as www.sabrang.com. Help Asia is the name of another e-group; ekta.online.com is said to be run by an NRI group based in California.
Film too has come to play a role in Gujarat. An NGO, Concerned Citizen’s Initiative, has 22 hours of video footage on Gujarat compiled from various sources. An edited version of this has been screened in Delhi and is available with Sahmat. Such scenes captured by amateur filmmakers can offer candid and revealing information, unobtrusively obtained. (See Annexure 21).
The Police too have also now started employing videography more intensively than before. This has enabled them to film rioting and crime and garner material evidence for identifying criminals, making arrests and launching prosecutions.
Email, like the telephone, has been used to threaten, intimidate and send hate mail. Hindus sheltering their Muslim neighbours received threatening calls which had a chilling effect. Two serving Muslim Judges of the Gujarat High Court, Mr Qadri and Mr Akbar Divecha were threatened and had to flee their homes. The residence of one was attacked and burnt. A Hindu brother judge who offered him a safe haven in his own home was reportedly the recipient of threatening calls. The greatly respected Dr J.S Bandukwala of M.S. Baroda University, who has devoted his life to communal harmony, was similarly threatened. Ehsan Jafri frantically phoned for assistance repeatedly, but in vain. He was cruelly tortured and burnt alive with others in the Gulberg Society colony in Ahmedabad.
Nothing flies as fast as rumour, now given wing by electronic technology. Reference had already been made to rumours of milk supplies being poisoned and a possible rocket attack on Ahmedabad. According to Ahmedabad’s Police Commissioner, vested interests spread rumours which created tension and in certain cases became a self-fulfilling prophecy. What is worse, he says, educated people have “repeatedly been disobeying curfew restrictions and moving out of their houses just to participate in rumour-mongering”. He felt that many incidents in Juhapura and Gomtipur were “initiated” by rumours. (See Annexure 22). Rioting is becoming an instrument of information war.
Such mischievous tendencies are best countered by timely and authenticated information.
We heard many accounts, possibly apocryphal, and saw some handbills of “quiet” districts being marked out for “action” and local politicians and activists being sent bangles to stigmatize their pusillanimity. This evoking of the macho spirit must be linked to the feats of “manhood” exhibited by mass rape and bestiality towards women.