New Delhi: On March 15, two stories from the north east featured prominently in the national media, particularly television channels. The first – the swearing-in of Manipur’s new chief minister, the third state in the region to be ruled by the BJP – was a story of great significance for the north east. Yet it got covered as a routine development of little consequence and was completely overshadowed by the sensational manner in which a ‘fatwa’ reportedly issued by 46 Assam-based clerics against a reality music show star, Nahid Afrin, was reported and discussed by angry anchors and angrier studio guests.
Assamese news channels “broke” the news on March 14 and it spilled onto social media by March 15, generating a lot of traction after it was picked up by some online news sites, finally peaking as ‘prime time’ coverage on national channels.
To a media accustomed to highlighting the obscurantist ways of Muslim clerics, the ‘facts’ of the case were too good to verify. And for BJP leaders in Assam and at the national level, the ‘fatwa’ was a tailor-made opportunity to present themselves as the champions of not just the rights of Muslim women but also of cultural freedom. After all, the alleged victim was a Muslim girl studying in class 10 – a singer who had supposedly angered conservative mullahs.
Further pushing the story under the spotlight was Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal’s quick response on Twitter – twice – denouncing the reported “fatwa”, and thereafter calling up Afrin’s family in solidarity and support, with a promise of “police protection”. This happened on the night of March 14.
We strongly condemn putting restrictions on performance by young talented singer Nahid Afrin by some organisations.
— Sarbananda Sonowal (@sarbanandsonwal) March 14, 2017
Freedom of artists are essence of democracy. Spoke to Nahid and reiterated our Govt's commitment to provide safety and security to artists.
— Sarbananda Sonowal (@sarbanandsonwal) March 14, 2017
The state police also dived in by announcing that as per a Times of India report, it was investigating a possible ISIS link to the issue.
More leverage was provided, again on Twitter, by writer Taslima Nasreen who had to flee Bangladesh after a fatwa was issued against her some years ago. She was soon joined by the judges of Indian Idol Junior – the show which catapulted Afrin to popularity.
From appearing in local channels and speaking to various print and online reporters, Afrin was on all TV national channels by the evening of March 15.
“I don’t even know what a fatwa is. Being a practicing Muslim, I don’t think singing is anti-Muslim. I am not afraid,” the 16-year-old girl said.
The watchdog that didn’t bark
The national media’s treatment of the Nahid Afrin ‘fatwa’ story was in stark contrast to the silence which greeted a similar ‘fatwa’ by senior BJP minister in Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma against a popular youth festival in Guwahati in January this year.
Why GMDA allowed Nehru Park for so called winter festival? The park belongs to the children. I will not tolerate atmosphere to be vitiated.
— Himanta Biswa Sarma (@himantabiswa) January 8, 2017
Soon after Sarma issued his f̶a̶t̶w̶a tweet against the youth festival, the police moved in shut it down. Baba M. describes what happened:
“Nehru Park, located before the historic Cotton College was packed with more than 6,000 people when a police unit and CRPF jawans marched onto the grounds and began to shepherd people outside saying that there were orders from the chief minister to stop the event immediately. Some panic ensued but the crowds were soon evacuated. The event was closed down and the gates were locked by the administration and electricity was cut off.”
Far from condemning this assault on the “freedom of artists”, sections of the local media applauded the state government for shutting down what they said was a ‘anti-national’ event. None of the national channels which went to town in defence of Nahid Afrin’s right to perform bothered to even cover the abrupt scrapping of the Guwahati festival.
Looking at the facts
So how did the ‘fatwa against Nahid’ story appear in theAssamese media?
Fatima Ansari, Afrin’s mother told The Wire, “I got a call from a reporter on March 14 evening, around 5.30 pm, and was asked whether Nahid will perform at the musical function in Lanka area of Hojai district on March 25. He said because, as per a news item, she has been barred from doing so.”
Ansari immediately switched on the television and saw the ‘news’ being reported on the popular local channel DY365. “Till then, no reporter had contacted us. I took it to be true because after Nahid got popular through the reality show, many people from our community including the mullahs have said she should not sing; it is against Islam; some even said she should not wear mekhela sador and sing Bihu songs,” Ansari told this correspondent.
By mid-morning on March 15, however, it became clear that the alleged “fatwa” was actually not a fatwa at all. Rather, it was a pamphlet – a “guhari” or “appeal” in Assamese – reportedly pasted in the Muslim-dominated Nagaon and Hojai districts of the state. Importantly, the pamphlet or the so-called “fatwa” didn’t even mention Afrin’s name.
“If an anti-Sharia act like a musical night is held at a place surrounded by mosques, madrassas, graveyards, schools and colleges, our future generations will attract the wrath of Allah,” the pamphlet said.
The pamphlet mentioned the names of those who had signed it, along with the madrasas they were supposed to be attached to. Interestingly, as per a report in The Asian Age, “Some Muslim clerics who are said to have issued the fatwa” as per the pamphlet, “were neither traceable nor could be identified by local residents.”
“We are trying to find out those clerics who issued the fatwa against the singer,” a mosque committee member told the newspaper, adding, “It may be the mischievous act of some anti-social elements.” However, state police raided a few madrasas and picked up some clerics.
So then, who released the “fatwa”? On March 15, Assam state Jamiat-e-Ulama secretary denied issuing any fatwa against Afrin and asked, “Is that how a fatwa is issued? It is not a fatwa.” He said some clerics objected to having musical events near the mosque as they tend to become boisterous and continue well into the night, which disturbs many people and also affects namaz.
So why did the media call the pamphlet a “fatwa?” Some news anchors in Assamese channels suggested that the pamphlet stated that such musical evenings are against sharia law.
Well-known Guwahati-based educationist, author and political observer Dinesh Baishya said, “Yes, the mention of sharia law as the reason for not having a musical evening should be objected to. However, whether that makes this pamphlet a fatwa or not is a question to be asked. Also, I want to point out that Assam has seen many Muslim women singers and Nahid has also been singing for some time but none attracted a fatwa from any of the ultra conservative mullahs. So why now? What it looks like to me is largely a media creation.”
Interestingly, even by March 16, Afrin and her parents had not seen the pamphlet.
“We have not seen it yet, nor read it. Only last night, a news anchor read out two lines from it, which I heard,” Ansari said. She also took objection to the mention of sharia in it.
The news was, therefore, run without verifying whether it was a “fatwa” and, whether the people who were named in it had actually issued it. And, without checking the facts, the chief minister reacted to it.
The tyranny of sensationalism
On March 15, Baishya, formerly principal of B. Barooah College, Guwahati, and a familiar face on local news channels, took to Facebook to criticise the local media for discarding “issues that concern the state” for non-issues, saying, “So time is now to soak ourselves in music alone!”
“Why would a Muslim girl sing songs late evening by the side of a mosque is the most important issue for a section of religious leaders. An even bigger issue for us is, how can anyone stop a girl announced by a television company to be a topmost singer? Teachers are committing suicide because of non-payment of salaries, democracy is being abused, farmers are in a terrible state, hundreds of people are living under the open sky because the government razed their huts, lakhs of youth are unemployed in the state, but these are non-issues for us, only religion is an issue, only a musical event is an issue, we have no other issues,” he wrote.
“I am not surprised by it. Typically, Assamese news channels pick up non-issues and make them sensational to attract viewers and TRPs. They move from one story to another, keeping only sensationalism in mind. … No news story is followed up after some days. But sarcasm aside, media sensationalising such sensitive issues, just to get a ‘scoop’, is a cause of concern. Equally worrying is that such news gets a lot of prominence in the national media while more pressing issues from the northeast don’t,” said Assam-based social activist and former journalist Nurul Islam Laskar.
Many among the state’s Muslim community, however, agree that a section of clerics do involve themselves in issues they should not. Lashkar added, “On second thoughts, I would say what happened, happened for good. Many mullahs will now realise that they have to give a balanced viewpoint on issues and just can’t speak irresponsibly.”
Assamese poet and translator Syed Ahmad Shah felt, “Many mullahs in Assam are caught in a time warp, have no idea about the world outside. I strongly feel that some workshop or some such thing should be done to create awareness in them about various issues.”
Shah though, pointed out a direct fallout of media sensationalising such stories. “The media in Assam, like most parts of the country, is in the habit of making rou tu ke dhou tu (treating a mole as a mountain). Then, if such a story has a Muslim angle, many times, there is an unsaid pressure on the educated Muslims, on social media or otherwise, to quickly condemn such acts. In the process, you will find some Muslims even overreacting to such news, trying to be in a hurry to show how progressive they are.”
Mullah as ‘swach’ envoy
However, all mullahs in Assam cannot be painted with the same brush. For instance, Mufti Nashiur Rahman – principal of the Mangaldai-based Al Jamiatul Islamia Banat madrassa for girls – has been issuing fatwas every now and then but against filth and unhygienic conditions, and also against illiteracy.
“I have been issuing such fatwas for the last 10 years, particularly keeping in mind the Muslim dominated areas in the sand bars (Char-Sapori areas). People there are usually poor, uneducated, so they don’t know the linkages between living in unhygienic conditions and illnesses. Some of my fatwas are against illiteracy of women too.”
Mufti Rahman called himself a swachata doot and said he “is on a mission to make a ‘Swachh Assam’ which will eventually lead to a ‘Swachh Bharat’.” Recently, he was felicitated by the Assam Conference on Sanitation in Guwahati and will soon be organising meetings, seminars and workshops all over the state to talk about the importance of cleanliness, which he said, “is one of the cardinal principles of Islam.”
Reacting to the Nahid case, he said, “The mullahs have denied issuing a fatwa against Nahid, a guhari is not a fatwa but I want to humbly urge all mullahs that instead of just issuing any fatwa they should try to first win over the people with love. In this case, if at all there was an issue of people getting disturbed due to music programmes and jalsas late into the night and affecting namaz, the mullahs should have conveyed such concerns at discussions, not through pamphlets, if at all any cleric has done it.”
Meanwhile, Nahid went to school with tears in her eyes on March 15. Seeing camera persons at the school gate, she broke down and wanted to go back home.
“Her father insisted that she face people, that she has not done anything wrong. He took her inside the school, into the classroom,” Ansari said, adding, “My daughter is very young, affected by what happened to her. Tell me, tomorrow, if something happens to her, who will take responsibility? Will these mullahs do?”
Perhaps the media needs to answer that question too.