Backstory: The Media and the Ayodhya Conflict

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

The tension was palpable as the country awaited the verdict of the Supreme Court on the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi (‘Ayodhya Sees Massive Security Beef-Up Before Verdict, 4,000 CAPF Personnel Deployed’, November 8).

The appeals for calm, far from bringing reassurance, only seemed to flag the fateful nature of this moment of reckoning (‘Ahead of Ayodhya Verdict, Muslim Groups Appeal for Peace, Law and Order’, November 6; ‘In the Wake of Ayodhya Verdict, PM Modi and Ashok Gehlot Appeal for Harmony’, November 10). 

The broad contours of the verdict was anticipated much before it was actually pronounced. A Wire report quoted the announcement of a VHP official “that the construction of the Ram temple was ‘expected to commence from the day of Makar Sankranti (January 2020)’ and ‘end on the same day in 2024’” (‘Ayodhya Verdict: BJP Asks Spokespersons to Exercise Restraint, RSS Appeals for Calm’, November 6).

This timetable is in complete sync with the November 9 verdict from the country’s highest court, handing over the 2.77 acres of land on which the Babri Masjid once stood, to those representing Hindus. Thus an ignominious chapter of India’s post-Independence history comes to an ignominious end, the demolition of a mosque has led to the demolition of the secularism in the country.

The Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi conflict has roiled the country for over three decades; caused innumerable riots and pogroms leading to widespread death and devastation; influenced electoral outcomes, bringing to the national centre stage a Hindu majoritarian party; and, most portentous of all, undermined forever any cogent notion of Indian secularism.

This judgment does nothing to atone for this.

On the contrary, it has provided what could be seen as a final seal of acquiescence to this act of destruction. The commentary titled, ‘Supreme Court Verdict on Babri Masjid Title Suit: What Happens Next?’, was not economical with the truth when it said, “BJP leaders conspired to demolish the mosque on December 6, 1992 and a Congress prime minister, Narasimha Rao, allowed them to get away with the crime. So did the Supreme Court judges of the day”.

One could add, so too did the Supreme Court judges of our day.

This moment provokes the question: did the Indian media, to a lesser or greater extent, actually play enabler to this final outcome?

From the earliest days of the temple mobilisation, the importance of the media was realised by all the main actors in the dispute in their attempt to control the story — either by ensuring that journalists did their job or by ensuring that they did not. In his book, 2014, The Election That Changed India, Rajdeep Sardesai, who happened to have covered that first phase of the L.K. Advani’s 1990 rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya in support of the temple, had some interesting revelations to make.

He recalled, for instance, how Narendra Modi, who was then in charge of organising the first lap of that journey, would suggest storylines and ensure that every day the media received a printed sheet with the exact programme for the next day. Fax machines were made available along the way to expedite the filing of their news reports, with the BJP bearing all the costs. 

But on occasions when media presence proved inconvenient, the Sangh cadres made life extremely precarious for journalists, as for instance on December 6, 1992, as the domes of the mosque started crumbling.

The Liberhan Ayodhya Commission of Inquiry observations on what transpired at that point are telling:

“As soon as the pre-programmed assault on the structure commenced, the journalists were subjected to systematic harassment and they were not only prevented from carrying on their duties as chroniclers of the events, but were also instilled with a real fear for their own safety. Photographs and video recordings could have proved damning for the leadership. Photojournalists therefore became recipients of especially violent treatment at the hands of the kar sevaks. They were physically prevented from taking photographs or videotaping the demolition; their equipment was smashed and their exposed films were ripped open and ruined.”

The media began as observer of the mosque-temple dispute, but over a period of time a section became participants. Vocabularies changed reflecting a creeping communalism. It’s difficult to pinpoint just when the Babri Masjid was referred to as a “disputed structure”, but that expression quickly became the de facto formulation favoured in news reports of that period.

The significance of this cannot be underestimated. It provided credibility to what was, until that point, recognised by at least a broad swathe of the media, as a dispute manufactured for political ends. 

The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Photo: Sanjay Sharma/INDIAPIX NETWORK

Words that emerged from the Sangh stable segued into mainstream reportage. It was L.K. Advani who made common currency the term ‘pseudo-secular’ — said to be borrowed from the now-forgotten work of  Anthony Elenjimittam, Philosophy and Action of the R.S.S. for the Hind Swaraj.

Along with that came the term ‘minority appeasement’. Both labels were extremely convenient ones to beat down arguments for secularism being made in the media. E

xpressions like “liberating” the structure were used deliberated to whip up sentiments in the kar sevak camp, but unfortunately they made their way effortlessly into some sections of media coverage. Even the term “kar sevak” was used without sufficient discretion. That it had its provenance in Sikh, rather than Hindu practices, was hardly interrogated. What it did do was to invest an ersatz spirituality on a riotous rabble. After all, kar seva in the Sikh sense, is all about positive contributions to the community. This kar seva, in contrast, was about naked destruction. 

But the most cynical of all expressions that entered media vocabulary was the construction, “matter of faith”. In the latest verdict it was given full play.

Under the rubric of “matter of faith”, fake artefacts exhumed by the ASI could assume historical authenticity. It was a matter of faith that the birthplace of Ram Lalla was on the exact same spot that the masjid stood upon. It was a matter of faith that a temple was demolished to build the masjid. In other words, all rationality and principles of justice can be held in abeyance when faced with “matters of faith”.

Over the years, the media has allowed themselves to be pushed down this slippery slope. On the day of the demolition 27 years ago, there was a sense of deep outrage and many newspapers carried front page editorials that expressed this. Times of India’s editorial had the heading, ‘The Republic Besmirched’; while that of Indian Express read, ‘A Nation Betrayed’.

Interestingly, today, there is a deep desire, even among the moderate sections of the media, to make their peace with a verdict that demolished yet again the masjid in letter and law, by terming it as “balanced”. The unraveling of the Republic carries on apace.

Nabaneeta Dev Sen

I have always believed that there is a journalist in every litterateur, just as there is a litterateur in every journalist. The renowned writer, humorist and poet, Nabaneeta Dev Sen, who sadly succumbed in a courageous battle with cancer a few days ago, was justly acclaimed for her broad range of writing, from novels to poetry to children’s books to literary criticism and translations (‘Writer and Padma Shri Awardee Nabaneeta Dev Sen Passes Away’, November 10). 

But it is curious to see, amidst her enormous compendium of work, two significant pieces of travel journalism in Bengali, Karuna Tomar Kon Path Diye (1998), an irreverent and charming take on a sojourn to the Maha Kumbh and the idiosyncratic characters that peopled it, and Truckbaahane myaikmahane Macmoheny, a single woman’s trek to Tawang.

The first line of her poem, ‘Memories of a floral clock’ talks about “standing still by the nameless road…” In my conversations with her, the one thing that came across was accounts of the nameless roads she had travelled, both physically and in her imagination. Here was a woman with a lively curiosity about the world, a curiosity that expressed and expended itself in a welter of words and literary forms. 

Farewell, Nabaneeta, it was great knowing you. 

Journalists need to get data literate

When the prime minister made that historic declaration that rural India is now ‘Open Defecation Free’ (ODF), the least one could have expected from media newspapers and channels is a little bit of due diligence in accepting that claim since even the most casual of everyday observations would seem to belie that claim.

A Wire investigation (‘Government Data Proves We Shouldn’t Believe India Is ‘Open Defecation Free‘, October 2) on the subject was one of the few I came across that actually did this. While it acknowledged that the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), under the Modi government, has “achieved much more than all previous schemes aimed at improving the state of rural sanitation”, the verification processes on which the claim were dubious on many counts.

For instance, when the SBM database on September 26, put the number of verified ODF villages (first level) in Odisha was 23,902. After four days, on September 30, that number had increased almost 55% to 37,008. That implies that Odisha had managed to complete first-level verification in over 13,000 villages in four days, at the rate of over 3,200 villages a day.

More interesting was that “all the villages verified so far in 2019-20, 63% were verified in just four days – barely a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to declare India open defecation free.”

Will the Union ministry of Jal Shakti please respond?

Readers’ responses

M.A. Kannan, in a mail to The Wire, has written in about an initiative, undertaken by a group of technocrats that calls itself ‘People’s Participation Movement’, of which he is a part of. The idea behind it is to “create a platform and make resources available to the people of country to be decisive in choosing their representative and dictating the terms on which they would chose them”.

To achieve this, data from all the constituencies in the country will be collected to analyse the number of voters, and other details. Apps for each constituency, city, state, as well as country-wide data, will also be available so that people can monitor the performance of their representatives.

This will help in creating a ‘Report Card of the Representative’ of each constituency, which will then be published online. Interestingly, there will be many features in the app to stop the circulation of fake news. A sample form is currently in circulation. 

One Wire reader, Lizzie Mathias, is frank about how the current obsession with political news (this platform is no exception) is creating an atmosphere she terms as “gloomy”, which she writes “only brings agony and nothing else”. This is why she was delighted with the piece, ‘Why Do People the World Over Celebrate the Dead in Autumn?’ (November 6).

She adds that the writer, however, has “missed an important aspect that in coastal Karnataka Diwali is celebrated to welcome Balindra the demon king. On the previous night of Diwali the Tulu speaking people offer fish and rice to the dead which is their staple food.” Thank you, Lizzie Mathias, for the addition.

Meanwhile, Poojan Sahil informs us that he has  “created a Hindi version of the song Bella Ciao that has been popularised in the Netflix series Money Heist. Bella Ciao is an Italian song traditionally sung against fascism. Poojan’s version is along the same lines and is called ‘Wapas Jao’. He says it was created “against all fascist powers that threaten the liberty of the land we live in… and was shot during the protests of students in Jamia Millia Islamia University against their administration. Access the song here

Reader Chetan Shenoy, much as he appreciates what The Wire is doing, is “still frustrated at there being no mobile app for this amazing platform. I think it is the need of the hour, and would definitely encourage more people to subscribe.” He adds: “Thanks! What you’re doing is great and very important. Keep going!” 

We had Wajed Quadri, and engineer by training, writing in to express his fear of possible unrest in the country after the Supreme Court verdict on Babri Masjid. He also worries that the government  “may use this situation to  crackdown activists opposed to the government and its ideology”. He wants The Wire to keep reporting accurately at this time. He adds that all he wants is “peace in our beloved country with freedom and justice.” 

Finally, I will be on my annual vacation and the column will return late next month. But keep the mail coming…write to