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Backstory: Islamophobia Permeates the Air But For Media It’s Business as Usual

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

Three random dates from the last fortnight:

March 10: The ruling party achieves an emphatic victory in the country’s largest state after weeks of hate-filled electioneering. The swearing-in of the saffron clad high priest as head of the state, held in a cricket stadium, was a carefully choreographed projection of raw power. 

March 11: Vivek Agnihotri’s film The Kashmir Files, based on a communally skewed rendition of the expulsion of Kashmir Pandits from the Valley, gets released and goes on to becoming the top grosser among post-pandemic films with a little help from the Government of India.

March 15: The Karnataka high court dismisses petitions filed by Muslim women students seeking permission to wear the hijab in their educational institutions.

The fortnight also saw…

A Muslim man transporting animal remains under a village cleanliness drive get beaten up by “gau rakshaks” in Uttar Pradesh…

The Assam chief minister arguing that since Muslims constitute 35% of Assam’s population they can no longer be considered a minority and it is their duty to “allay fears of other communities”…

Movie theatres screening Kashmir Files witness numerous incidents of Hindutva activists, pretending to be movie-goers, raising intimidatory slogans and communal slurs…

Newly-sworn in Uttarakhand Chief Minister announcing a committee to implement the Uniform Civil Code…

BJP MLA in Tripura wanting government-supported madrassas to be shut down because they produce terrorists…

The court refusing bail to articulate young Muslim student activists Gulfisha Fatima, Tasleem Ahmed and Umar Khalid

Genocidal calls and communal slurs against Muslims being raised at a rally staged by former MLA Raghvendra Pratap Singh in UP’s Dumariyaganj…

A video screengrab of former Dumariyaganj MLA Raghvendra Pratap Singh’s rally which allegedly saw calls for killing Muslims.

The Gujarat state government making the Bhagavad Gita a part of the curriculum for Classes 6 to 12…

The Karnataka state government mulling over doing the same thing even as the Vice President of the Republic, no less, asks what is wrong with such a step…

The Karnataka government refusing to conduct re-examinations for Muslim girl students who had absented themselves because they were protesting the hijab ban…

The Vice-president of Udupi Government Pre-University College Development Committee, Yashpal Suvarna, terming students “anti-nationals” and “members of a terrorist organisation” because they expressed their disappointment with the Karnataka high court’s hijab order…

Muslim vendors being banned from setting up stalls at Karnataka’s Kote Marikamba Jatre festival for the first time ever…

And, yes, during the UN General Assembly meeting to adopt a resolution to proclaim March 15 as International Day to Combat Islamophobia, India displayed its own Islamophobia by informing the world that it is “not convinced that we need to elevate phobia against one religion to the level of an international day.”

Muslim women in hijab participate in a candle light march during a protest rally over the ‘hijab’ ban in Karnataka, in Kolkata, February 11, 2022. Photo: PTI Photo/Swapan Mahapatra

In the meanwhile…

Several seemingly “everyday” incidents also took place over this fortnight, among many others…

A young Muslim manager of a private company was prevented from accompanying a woman colleague of another faith in Dakshina Kannada’s Bantwal town…

A Kashmiri man tried to check into an Oyo room in Delhi, only to be denied (the hotel it appears had been given instructions not to rent out rooms to Kashmiris)…

Hundreds of Muslims workers and vendors were forced to hide their religious identity in order to earn a livelihood…

Pedestrians were stopped by the police at random and asked their names…

A Muslim woman holding an infant being denied a seat in a local train that had been vacated for her because she wore a hijab – the seat was given to a sari-clad commuter instead.

What do these developments, signify?

Taken singly they reflect how the ground beneath our feet is rapidly shifting; how Hindutva-centred hatred against the Muslim community is fast permeating the space in which we live and breathe. Taken collectively they represent a slashing of that commodious concept, ‘We, the People…’, which we have jointly inherited by virtue of being born Indian.

As a group of senior mediapersons observed in a public appeal recently, “The concerted amplification of hatred has been growing over the past years and months, as has the attendant advocacy of violence. Sometimes, the occasion is an election, at other times it is a political gathering, a so-called ‘dharam sansad’, or a controversy over clothing, or even the screening of a movie.”

Almost all television news programming and an overwhelming and significant section of print and online media have either directly endorsed this onslaught or chosen to carry on as if oblivious to the blood-dimmed tide that is steadily rising around them. Some, far from engaging with the crisis, even find it in themselves to rile those media institutions that are functioning as media institutions are required to do and sounding the alarm when the country is being threatened by a towering tornado that funnels up every bit of energy it can gain from free ranging hate, communalised electioneering and skewed post-election policy making. 

Were the Indian media mere observers of these developments or were they enablers? 

This of course is an extraordinarily difficult conundrum to unpack and would demand a careful scrutiny of our journalistic legacy in the post-Independence years that has, of course, to begin with the Partition and the communal violence it unleashed. But I did go back to some papers I had from an international conference organised by Islamist scholar Ather Farouqui, which had an entire session on media images of Muslims. 

The conference was held in February 2002 – an interesting historical juncture for the consideration of such an issue.

A few months earlier, 9/11 had taken place, an event that had brought out a rich vein of anti-Muslim vituperation across the western world. Farouqui had noted at that point that the media have now emerged as the “new civilized and powerful weapon” to convince the so-called intellectual class of the world about “the new wraith of Islamic atavism” as the main threat to international security.

2002 Gujarat riots. Photo: Reuters/Files

In India, the Babri Masjid demolition and the riots it had caused were recent memory, while the Gujarat pogrom with its dreadful consequences were still a couple of weeks away. The Hindutva project that we see unfurled before us today was still in its nascent stage, but Farouqui did flag the assumption among many, especially in northern India, that Indian Muslims “may eventually become a part of a broader pan-Islamism” – an idea that was being exploited by fanatic Hindu organisations to further their own politics of religion. 

The conference saw two reputed editors and one extraordinary social scientist weigh in on the subject of the media and Muslims in India: Kuldip Nayyar, Rajni Kothari and Vinod Mehta. One of the major insights that figured in all their assessments was the failure of the Indian media to build bridges of communication between Hindus and Muslims; deepening the understanding of each about the other; and dispelling clear misunderstandings and the patina of suspicion about the Other that had coloured a great deal of national and local reportage. 

Kuldip Nayyar spoke about his first job in an Urdu paper, Aniam, in the predominantly Muslim neighbourhood of Ballimaran in Delhi. He captured the pall of tragedy and hopelessness that hung over an organisation that did not know how to recover its relevance in post-Independence India. The colossal ignorance and sustained propaganda by interested parties and newspapers belonging to both communities had, he rued, created an atmosphere in which permanent solutions seemed impossible.

Do the media heighten differences or play them down?

Rajni Kothari argued that politicisation moved in two directions: integrating and differentiating. The Eighties – which he characterised as a “lost decade” for nation building in terms of civil strife, assassinations and genocides –  saw the integrative dimension turned hegemonic and homogenising, while the differentiating dimension becoming separatist and conflict-ridden. The Press, according to Kothari, have both neglected to understand this and contributed to it through their reportage. They have “undermined the diversity and plurality that allowed a multi-cultured, multi-centred polity to be built”. 

Shop owners look at the charred remains of the tyre market in riot affected Gokulpuri area of North East Delhi, March 7, 2020. Photo: PTI

Vinod Mehta’s take drew directly from his experiences as an editor. He pulled no punches when he pronounced, “Most media in this country is run by businessmen and business families who have even less of a sense of responsibility of what the media’s role in this should be.” To add to that was the unassailable reality that journalists were “fundamentally very lazy. If there is a soundbite available from the Imam of Jama Masjid…then why should the TV reporter go looking for the not-so-easily-available moderate’s voice…The rabid and extreme voice is strident and extreme and is more saleable.”

Much more was said but for the purposes of this column, let me leave it here. The three wise men I quoted are, regrettably, no longer with us. The Indian media have chosen to trade in moral gain for monetary gain, with the country suffering as a consequence.

Bhagat Singh, the journalist

The 85th anniversary of Bhagat Singh’s execution has seen a raft of writing on the man who gave us our most enduring slogan of resistance, ‘Inquilab Zindabad’.

The Wire itself has published and republished several pieces (Farewell to Comrade Bhagat Singh Jhuggian, a Lifelong Freedom Fighter’, March 22; ‘Bhagat Singh Is Not the Man the Right Wants You to Think He Is’, March 23; ‘Bhagat Singh and Savarkar, Two Petitions that Tell Us the Difference Between Hindu and Hindutva’, March 23). 

Shaheed Bhagat Singh. Photo: By Unknown author, Public Domain,

As a journalist I was particularly struck by an exposition of his journalism, ‘Bhagat Singh: An Unsung Hero of Political Journalism’ (March 23). The raw force of journalism was recognised as a vital tool by several leaders during India’s struggle for freedom against the British Raj, each looking to harness it in his or her own way. B.R. Ambedkar, for instance, used his journalism to craft a language that could capture Dalit disempowerment (‘The Journalistic Legacy of B.R. Ambedkar, the Editor’, April 14, 2018) and his journalistic activities ran parallel to his political involvements. 

Bhagat Singh’s short and intense career as a journalist tends to be forgotten or overshadowed by his revolutionary legacy. Yet, as this piece reminds us, he was multi-lingual and was associated “with more than a dozen prestigious newspapers and magazines that were published from different parts of the country. These included Kirti, Pratap, Maharathi, Vir Arjun, Matwala, Prabha, Akali, Chand, Bande Mataram, among others”.

The writer also posits an interesting thesis for why Bhagat Singh’s journalism was overlooked. It did not fit comfortably into Nationalist or Gandhian templates, shot as it was with a radicalism “more attuned to the Marxist school of thought”.

Today, as rigorous attempts are being made to shape the Bhagat Singh legacy to fit the Hindutva template, it becomes even more crucial to remember and celebrate this radical young Marxist journalist. As he wrote in ‘Azadi Ki Bheint Shahaadatein (Sacrifices for Freedom)’, published in Kirti in 1927:

“Our aim is to write a chronological narrative of the agitations by the leaders even while publishing their biographies so that our readers can understand how consciousness was born in Punjab, and how the work was carried on and to what purpose, and what was the ideology for which those martyrs gave up their lives.”

These words could apply to his own evolution equally well.

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Unpacking Facebook’s ties with the BJP

I like the descriptor that www.reporters-collective.in has for itself: “Deep-dive journalism. in many languages and formats. without fear.”

Organisations like this could only have emerged in the era of digital journalism and potentially challenge the government-friendly syrup dished out by Big Media. Can you imagine any mainstream newspaper or television channel doing a series that www.reporters-collective.in did recently, one “born out of a year-long investigation by The Collective into the influence of Facebook’s advertising policy on elections in India.”

Over the past year, The Collective, along with ad.watch, a research project studying political ads on social media, analysed data of all the 5,36,070 political advertisements placed on Facebook and Instagram from February 2019 through November 2020, to assess the influence of Facebook’s political advertising policies on elections in India. This period saw campaigning for the 2019 General Election and polls in nine states.

Through it all Facebook allowed a company owned by Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Group to promote the BJP in several election campaigns through surrogate advertisements and these advertisements in turn “lit the fuse of anti-Muslim sentiments, tommy-gunned BJP’s opponents and critics through lies, and eulogised Narendra Modi and his government”.

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Readers write in…

Expose ‘Kashmir Files’

Mohammed Rizwan Siddique weighs in on the ‘Kashmir Files’ issue:

“The Congress Party must organise a press conference as soon as possible and clearly state that during the period that saw Kashmiri Pandits being exiled from the Valley, it was V.P. Singh’s Janata Dal government at the Centre, supported by the BJP. There was no chief minister in J&K then, as the state was under governor’s rule. Rajiv Gandhi was not the prime minister of India at that time. The Congress and its supporters should then file a case in the Supreme Court asking for action to be taken by the film makers to correct their fake narrative.”

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Editing contentions

A contributor to The Wire, N. Jayaram, writes in:

“While I’ve been gratified to have gotten published by The Wire again and have shared the link on social media, a point of reservation, if I might: With the greatest respect for editors of The Wire, who’ve over the years published a few of my contributions – for which I’ve neither sought nor been offered payment – I’d have been grateful if they had retained the mention, in para 1 in the following, that the 38 ‘people’ were Muslim and not relegated that fact to para 4 (‘Death Penalty is State-Sponsored Murder, the Indian Judiciary Must Put a Stop to Executions’, March 8). We are confronting burgeoning Hindu majoritarian fascism, I submit. So every bit of resistance must and ought to count. That said, may The Wire and other secular spaces thrive.”

Siddharth Varadarajan replies:

“I personally edited the piece and felt it was more effective the way I ordered the information. If the piece was specifically on the targeting of Muslims or on Hindu fascism, and not on the death penalty, the way you initially wrote may have been more germane. But this was a piece on the misapplication of the death penalty even as per the SC’s own guidelines.”

N. Jayaram responds:

“Many thanks for your gracious reply. But let’s be clear: that court in Gujarat could not have been unmindful of the fact that they were Muslims. Please don’t ask me about another BJP-ruled state – whose resident I now am. And about the hijab issue (on which you at The Wire have done yeomen service).”

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Learning from Marcus Aurelius?

We received this rather inscrutable mail from Kayle Thompson but take it as some good advice…

“Remember how long you’ve been putting this off, how many extensions the gods gave you, and you didn’t use them. At some point you have to recognize what the world it is that you belong to; what power rules it and from what source you spring; that there is a limit to the time assigned to you, and if you don’t use it to free yourself it will be gone and will never return. – Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)”

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in.