Ordeal by Fire in the Killing Fields of Gujarat
Editors Guild of India Fact-Finding Mission Report
Two major negatives
Much has been said one way or the other about the media’s role in Gujarat. This Report, among others, addresses these issues. However, two glaring negatives stand out.
Ever since Independence, whenever there has been a national disaster or emergency, natural or manmade, there has always been an appeal for funds – from the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, Governors, chambers of commerce and industry, Rotarians, NGOs and, above all, the newspapers. Such an appeal serves two purposes. It helps raise sorely needed money for relief and rehabilitation or to meet the emergency in question. More than that, it provides opportunity for thousands and millions of other citizens to reach out to the victims or those in distress in a gesture of fraternal solidarity and sympathy and to mobilise support. Newspapers have often vied with one another to lead the field.
This time there was not a single appeal from any quarter, anywhere in or for Gujarat, some small local groups excepted. The silence was deafening. On being queried about their strange reticence on this occasion, newspaper editors and others gave the same reply. On further consideration it was felt that few contributions might be forthcoming and if this did indeed happen, that would send out a wrong message. Not all will agree. The relief camps in Gujarat, all basically privately run with no more than rations being supplied by the government, need funds. The media has covered the distress but has unfortunately found itself unable or unwilling to help reach out.
We recommend that that the Guild issues an appeal for a Fund for Gujarat through its members .
Some in high authority have chastised the Indian media for its role in Gujarat, contrasting this with the manner in which the American media covered the events of September 11. Then two situations are not comparable and the reasoning underlying the homily is specious. What was notable about September 11 was the alacrity with which the US national and state leadership, led by the President and New York Mayor, used the media immediately and repeatedly to offer words of comfort and reassurance and make known their steadfast resolve to deal resolutely with the crisis. Attacks on some individuals by bigots were immediately condemned and prosecuted.
In India, the Prime Minister did not consider it fit to broadcast to the nation, though he was advised to do so; nor did any senior Government leader. Neither did the Governor of Gujarat. The Chief Minister did certainly broadcast one or more peace appeals and met the press for routine briefings. But none of these functionaries reached out to the bloodied, fearful, tortured people of Gujarat to give them solace and a solemn assurance that all criminal elements and their mentors would be put down with a stern and even hand and the guilty brought to book.
Two most potent means of rising above the storm, binding India, healing the wounds and rallying the nation to live by the cherished ideals of the Constitution were pointedly ignored. In this, the leadership failed the media and the media failed the people.
The Prime Minister did, however, speak at a public meeting in Goa on the occasion of a BJP conclave. It was said his remarks were not fully reported and misinterpreted by the media. A clarification followed. The full text of his remarks are with us. It is true that Mr Vajpayee did indeed refer to two facets of Islam, the compassionate and the militant jehadi. But he too spoke of cause (“the Godhra”conspiracy”) and consequence (“the subsequent tragedy”). The latter was “no doubt condemnable but, he asked, who lit the fire? How did the fire spread?”
At other points, the Prime Minister spoke of “we” and “they”. He said, “India was secular even when Muslims hadn’t come here and Christians hadn’t set foot on this soil”. “They” came with their own modes of worship and “they” too were given a place of honour and respect. No one thought of converting “them” with force, because this is not practised in “our religion; and in “our culture” there is no use for it. (Annexure 25).
This is not the language of a prime minister and certainly not the language one is accustomed to hearing from Mr Vajpayee, who spoke with genuine anguish at the Shah Alam camp in Ahmedabad some days earlier. The words were possibly inadvertent, but the occasion and the context were certainly misplaced.
The BJP President spoke of “the provoked and the provoker”, later that same evening when Mr Narendra Modi’s handling of the situation in Gujarat was proudly acclaimed by the ruling Party. He appeared to justify medieval vendetta, placing it above the Rule of Law.
Happenstance perhaps, but on April 23, the Pioneer carried an article by Prafull Goradia, a BJP notable, suggesting what he thought would be a neat solution – that Indian Muslims migrate to Pakistan. (Annexure 26).