Backstory: The Media Contributed to Hijab Face-off Spiraling Out of Control

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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Nagpur is seen as the seat of RSS power but one of the regions where it has had its deepest implantation is along the coastline of Karnataka. The saffron tinge to this land straddling the Arabian Sea is imparted not just by the setting sun or the colour of its distinctive sambar, redolent with chunks of pumpkin, it is the arduous, selfless labour of RSS swayamsevaks.

Men like Sanjeeva Kamath, a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin lawyer from a small village in Udupi district, helped set up the first RSS shakha in the region in Mangalore (Mangaluru) in 1940. Today, coastal Karnataka has possibly one of the largest concentrations of such shakhas in the country.

While reporting from this region during the 1996 general election, I met several RSS karyakartas and sympathisers who talked about Udupi – the town lies about an hour from Mangalore – as the natural seat of the Sangh given its history as a seat of several orthodox Hindu monasteries. Such conversations helped me understand how the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was able to wrest the Mangalore constituency from the Congress in 1991 in what was its first essay into southern India.

In many ways, this victory was a fruit ripened in the raised passions of the RSS-driven Ram shilanyas campaign but it is significant that it happened in Mangalore, which in turn became a staging post for the expansion of the BJP footprint in Karnataka and the growth of Sangh affiliates like the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bajrang Dal and more local outfits like the Sri Rama Sena in the region.

Not much of this history figured in the media coverage of ugly stand-off between hijab-clad students and college authorities in Karnataka, and that brings us to the various biases in media coverage on the story. Even after evidence surfaced of the Bajrang Dal having distributed saffron headwear and scarves in campuses, mainstream media houses were not prodded to try and understand the role of the Sangh. What was that they found easier to do was to target Muslim groups like the PFI and its affiliate, the Campus Front of India, for fomenting trouble.

Screengrab of a video showing students in saffron scarves. Their faces have been blurred because some may be minors.

By all means they should investigate the role of Muslim groups in whipping up communal passion and critique their attempts to impose dress codes on women, but it would be gross imbalance to generally overlook the manner in which Hindu groups have also worked assiduously to impose their own dress codes (remember the goons of Pramod Muthalik’s Sri Rama Sena attacking women in a Mangalore pub) and world view (Kalburgi was murdered in Dharwad after being framed as ‘anti-Hindu’). Times Now story titled, ‘Hijab Controversy: PFI ‘Toolkit’ Of Radicalisation Exposed On Times Now,’ is a case in point. Justice would have demanded that the channel should have conducted a similar “investigation” into, say, the Bajrang Dal’s involvement in the counter-protests.

Senior journalist Krishna Prasad, who uses the pseudonym Churimuri, recently wrote that the once-progressive Kannada media “is now an embedded wing. Seven out of the nine dailies have Sangh links, television is a barefoot soldier, and fake news enjoys deep political patronage. So the #HijabRow is just the latest manifestation of a state in deep rot.” He was referring to the Kannada media but the national media, it seems, are no less embedded. Most national coverage, in fact, actually chose to amplify the Karnataka government’s narrative without fact-checking it or issuing even a per forma disclaimer. Instead, we saw unedifying competition between the big national players over who gets to publicise the government’s statements the fastest as seen in this triumphant News18 headline: ‘Govt to Probe PFI Links with Protests’: K’taka Edu Min Tells News18’. This is journalism reduced to government publicity.

Such competition led to homogeneity of response to each development, whether it was in the excoriation of Nobel Peace laureate Malala or the Pakistan foreign minister for their observations, or the faithful publication of statements made by various Karnataka ministers. Even the ridiculous comment of energy minister Sunil Kumar, who said that if the Congress comes to power it would enact a law making Hindus wear the hijab, got full play. It was only some rare and courageous news platforms like The News Minute that attempted to correct the balance and provide information on how the Hindu Jagarana Vedike got the student community in Udupi all riled up against the hijab or how Muslim women students were having their privacy invaded.

Also read: Karnataka: Hindutva Activists Disrupt Christmas Gathering at School, Threaten Administration

Disturbing too was the utter chaos created by the media coverage. There were many sites where flashpoints were reached at different points of time: at the Government PU College for Girls in Udupi, where six students wearing hijab were locked out of their campus followed by a counter-demo organised at nearby MGM college; at the Kundapur’s Government Pre University College, where students donned saffron scarves and headwear in protest against the hijab and students wearing burqa were made to sit in a separate classroom; and at Mandya’s PES College of Arts, Science and Commerce where a young burqa-clad woman was heckled and harassed.

Many other incidents took place over the same span of time, whether it was Dalit students of IDSG Government First Grade College in Chikkamagaluru donning blue scarves and coming out in support of the pro-hijab campaign; the stone-pelting and police lathi charge in Bagalkot district; or the saffron flag hoisting that took place at the Government First Grade College in Shivamogga. These episodes played out in distinct geographies, in different institutions and times but viewers were left confused since most television coverage carried footage from everywhere in a continuous spool of images accompanied by poorly drafted scripts.

Such media coverage made no attempt to internalise the complexities of the situation or try to understand why senior academics argue that the classroom represents in a microcosm the macrocosm that is India. Neither did it gain from the wisdom of feminists who argue that every woman must be allowed “her own path in fighting patriarchy, and deciding what practices are in keeping with her faith and which ones to reject”, according to a recent statement. Most unhappily, there was also no attempt to understand the motivations and experiences of the women who are barred from entering their educational institutions for wearing a hijab.

The six women who were the first to confront their college authorities in Udupi were framed in broad, unthinking strokes as puppets of Islamist groups without any attempt to understand their points of view, their motivations and their trials. Yet, in an interview conducted with them by The Wire (‘Watch | ‘Hijab Is Our Fundamental Right’, Say Students Over Entry Ban in College’, January 21), they came across as articulate, intelligent young women committed to their education and who were pinning all their hopes on the Indian constitution and the country’s institutions of justice.

Today an issue that should have been sorted out at the level of a pre-university college in Udupi has been systematically blown out of all proportion and allowed to open fresh fissures in the country’s social fabric, pitting community against community, young student against young student. An anchor of prime time even emerged in a special afternoon broadcast to spin his conspiracy theories, hinting darkly about the hijab being weaponised by a “hidden hand” even as the publicity line of his channel claimed that it is “setting the news agenda” of the nation. In fact, the channel is doing more than that: it is setting the hate agenda of the nation during a particularly sensitive phase as five states were in election mode.

Also read: In Yogi’s UP, 48 Journalists Assaulted, 66 Booked, 12 Killed: Report

Remembering Sam Rajappa in the time of Fahad Shah

The criminalisation of journalism carries on apace. Towards the end of 2022, we saw how two reporters of the HW News Network were hounded by Tripura chief minister Biplab Kumar Das’s police for their temerity of doing their job of reporting on the large scale anti-Muslim violence fuelled by Sangh parivar outfits in the state last October. Now we have Kashmiri journalist Fahad Shah, editor of news portal Kashmir Walla, thrown into prison by the Pulwama police for reporting on four encounter killings in Pulwama (‘Outrage as J&K Police Arrest ‘Kashmir Walla’ Editor After Portal’s Report on Pulwama Gun Battle’, February 5) on January 30. The arrest takes place against the background of unrelenting assaults on freedom of media expression in the valley, with even the Srinagar press club “disappeared” before an astounded public.

The very fact that Fahad Shah was booked not just under Sections 124-A and 505 of the IPC related to charges of sedition and public mischief, respectively, but also under Section 13 of the anti-terrorist Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, indicates the extent to which the security regime will go to crush independent media voices. And for what reason? Fahad Shah was only attempting to put in the public domain the anguish of a Kashmiri family grieving over the death of a son in that encounter whom they claimed was innocent. Unsurprisingly, this arrest has rung alarm bells not just in India but internationally as well, coming as more evidence of the ugly media repression now in full view in this unfortunate region.

Kashmir Walla editor-in-chief Fahad Shah. Photo: Fahad Shah/Facebook

Fahad Shah is a courageous journalist, driven by a passion to expose the truth no matter the personal repercussions. Such passion, we need to recognise, makes for undying journalism. As I write this, I think of Sam Rajappa, a veteran journalist, largely associated with The Statesman, who died on January 16. As a young media professional Rajappa exposed one of the most notorious state-directed killings to take place during Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule – that of P. Rajan, a student studying in Calicut’s Regional Engineering College and accused of being a “Naxalite”. Taken into custody on March 1, 1976, he was tortured to death. It was the perfect custodial killing – no traces of his body were found.

The authorities simply denied any knowledge of Rajan’s existence, and the case would have remained lost to the world were it not for the intrepid Rajappa, who got himself arrested and jailed in the very barracks in Kozhikode where accused Naxalites were housed, with some assistance from a friendly officer. He could thus access the cell where Rajan’s classmate was incarcerated and could learn from him all the details of what exactly transpired, including the use made of the uruttal, a form of torture where a heavy wooden log is repeated rolled on the body of the accused.

In a recent blog, Sushil Rao who served under Rajappa for a spell in the now defunct newspaper, AP Times, recalled Rajappa telling him about how he went about unraveling the full story: “I met Rajan’s friend in jail. He explained to me what had happened with Rajan. I got it directly from the one who saw it, the only man who knew.”

It was Rajappa’s reportage in The Statesman – one of the few newspapers of the day which had displayed some spine – that allowed Rajan’s grieving father, Eachara Warrier, whose life was completely shattered by the loss of a son to file a habeas corpus petition. By doggedly fighting for justice, the father finally ensured the resignation of K. Karunakaran as Kerala chief minister shortly after the latter came to power with a huge majority in Kerala’s first post-Emergency election in 1977. Karunakaran was the state’s home minister when Rajan’s torture played out.

There may be a lesson in Rajappa’s story for the Kashmir security establishment. Murder will out and those who report on murders will finally emerge with their honour intact.


First, many apologies to those who mailed comments and observations during the spell that I have been on vacation. I will certainly try and accommodate as many as I can over this column and the next. Do keep writing in, a full mail box is a sign of lively minds!

Media control

Noted human rights activist and author Sumanta Banerjee observes: “This is with regard to P. Sainath’s bold and frank letter to the CJI (‘To the CJI, On His Lament that Investigative Journalism Is Vanishing From Indian Media’, December 24). He quite rightly points out that “media ownership (is) concentrated in the hands of a few corporate houses pursuing mega profits.” But this is nothing new. May I draw Sainath’s attention to the following observation made by the first Press Commission of India as far back as 1954, with reference to the major mainstream dailies owned by businessmen or industrialists: ‘The most obvious instance of bias that has been stressed before us in evidence is that the bulk of the persons who own and publish newspapers are persons who believe strongly in the institutions of private property and who in consequence, encourage the expression of views/news which favour the continuance of the present order, while discouraging contrary views and blacking out news from the other side?’ This view was re-iterated by the Second Press Commission of 1978 when it recommended that newspapers should be separated from industrial and commercial interests, to ensure press freedom. The media scene hasn’t changed since then. In fact it has worsened with the dominance of TV channels owned by the same commercial interests  – now linked with the ruling party.”

Don’t stigmatise us

Prince Malik writes in: “This is regarding an article you published about lynching of a Dalit man by a ‘Jat mob’ (‘We Haven’t Eaten for Days’: Family of Dalit Man Lynched ‘by Jat Mob’ in Hisar’, December 24). Being a ‘Jat’, I lament upon and condemn the crime. But my question to you is this: do you hate the Jat community? It appears that you have deliberately stated our community’s name to defame us. The logical fallacy here is similar to that of a feminist branding all men as dogs just because some men commit atrocities upon women. Does no one in the entire The Wire team not know a single ‘Jat’ person who is a good human being? I recognise a pattern of ‘Dalit’ and ‘Muslim’ victim cards as The Wire’s unique selling points. The media constantly portrays ‘Indians’ as ugly, frugal and primitive. Even our accents have been made fun of! Amazon Prime’s ‘Hostel Daze’ depicts the Jat guy as being uneducated and uncivilised. The Wire does not raise such issues yet pours scorn at a particular community to promote the stereotype. Being a Hindu, I am disgusted by OpIndia which often states the names of non-Hindu communities. But articles like this one leave one with the impression that The Wire is another version of OpIndia. Loaded articles don’t suit the reputation The Wire has earned over the years. I’m a very peaceful man! I ask nothing of you apart from urging you to introspect.”


Courts and govt in cahoots?

Ahmed Hemani suggests a correction in terminology: “This is regarding the interview with Pratap Bhanu Mehta (‘Full Text | ‘Damage to Indian Democracy Under Modi Is Lasting‘: Pratap Bhanu Mehta’, December 17). In it, the phrase “the judiciary (especially the Supreme Court) has caved in” occurs. I would argue that the use of this phrase “cave(d) in” is incorrect. It implies agreeing to a view with which one disagrees with, but because of fear agrees to it publicly or outwardly. The judiciary in India has not “caved in”, it has found in this government a soul-mate, with whom it agrees, not under duress, but because of ideological resonance.”


Broken hyperlink

Bharat Sunei writes in: “I was reading the 2018 article “Modi’s Gas for the Poor Scheme Marred by Data Inflation, Poor Implementation“. It was a good article. However, at one point where there was a mention of the Mukhya Mantri Anila Bhagya Yojana, I found that the hyperlink was broken and led to the homepage of some other site. By the way, I am a blogger and I have researched this subject thoroughly (Mukhya Mantri Anila Bhagya Yojana here. I would be more than happy if you could link your piece to my content.”


Modi should learn from Shastri

Joy Makhal finds the SIT report on the Lakhimpur Kheri case absolutely disturbing: “The report stated that the incident was a ‘planned conspiracy’ and that there was a ‘common intention to murder’ (‘Lakhimpur Kheri Violence: SIT Submits 5,000-Page Chargesheet to Court’, January 3). Eight lives were lost in the tragic incident and yet the arrests were made late that only after public pressure and opposition’s outrage. The victims are yet to receive complete justice as new revelations in the investigation point out that the charges under which the accused were booked seems lenient. Moral responsibility lies on the part of the minister, Ajay Mishra ‘Teni’ to resign, but he has refused to do so and is busy trying to save his son. The inaction of Narendra Modi in sacking him speaks volumes about prime ministerial arrogance. While he is busy appropriating leaders like Gandhi, Netaji, Tagore, Patel and Ambedkar, he must also learn from Lal Bahadur Shastri. Shastriji who resigned as railway minister after taking moral responsibility for a train accident in Andhra Pradesh that claimed 112 lives.”

My comment: “Incidentally, Ashish Mishra the son of Ajay Mishra has just been granted bail by the Allahabad High Court.”

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