When the notion that members of the Tablighi Jamaat were ‘COVID-19 carriers’ popped into the mediascape, Kannada news channels gleefully zeroed in on their favourite pet plot.
In Kannada, this could be described as ‘Arasuttidda balli kaalige todarida haage’, which, roughly translated, means ‘the creeper one desperately searches for lies right at their feet’.
Since then, news coverage has been ramped up in an almost war-like way.
The initial report by Vijaya Karnataka on March 28, by when there had been three COVID-19 deaths in the state, said that all three dead were Muslim and had travelled for a religious event. The report also spoke about Muslims “huddling in masjids to offer namaz”, and of Muslims “violating the curfew”.
The first death linked to the Nizamuddin Markaz event happened in Srinagar on March 26. Soon after, many religious preachers who had returned to their home states tested positive.
With this turn of events, the titles of Kannada news channels took on some colour. The titles of news segments screamed of the ‘Markaz disease’ and the ‘Tablighi Virus’.
One channel called it ‘Tablighi Jihad’, claiming Muslims were hell bent upon infecting ‘Bharat’. Some of the panelists reportedly made sweeping remarks that China had joined hands with Pakistan and Indian Muslims and this was a plan to halt India’s success story. The source of the panellist’s information, as expected, turned out to be a WhatsApp forward.
While reporting on coronavirus, blaming the ‘Tablighis’ and whipping up communal sentiments has become the norm day in and day out. This means that the fact that the virus only came into India via passengers coming in from abroad was completely missed out on as media houses put the focus solely on the communal angle.
Over the days that followed, Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yeddyurappa issued a clear instruction during one of the media interviews he gave – interviews specifically held on channels and anchors known to fan communal flames.
Yeddyurappa spoke about meeting all religious heads, and seeking their adherence to the lockdown. Anybody (media or individuals) spreading misinformation targeting an entire community would be dealt with rather ‘sternly’ by the government, he said.
Despite the warning, most media houses have continued with their anti-Muslim tirades.
According to political and governance expert Professor Narayana A. of Azim Premji University, the chief minister’s statement was routine and not an exception. “Yeddyurappa stands apart in the BJP because of his association with socialist movements. And the BJP often sends out totally contrasting messages to the different groups they pander to,” he said.
Soon after chief minister’s statement, one of his close aides, Udupi MP Shobha Karandlaje, issued statements against Tablighi Jamaat members, stating they had misbehaved with healthcare staff at a hospital. The claims were later debunked. Another MP from Uttara Kannada, Anant Kumar Hegde, also tweeted equally insinuating statements. With ‘CoronaTerrorism’, ‘Corona Jihad’ and ‘CoronaBombsTablighis’ trending on Twitter, the communal fire in Karnataka was only fuelled further.
Communalism in Kannada newspapers (and news channels) has been growing since the late 1990s, observes author and columnist Sugata Srinivasaraju. “Kannada newspapers, which have never aspired for diverse newsrooms, have a long history of communalism and casteism. It became pronounced, though, in the late 1990s, when the Sangh parivar became determined to aggressively push its ideological agenda. They not only engaged actively with the media but also began to make real investments. It also helped the parivar that around this time a popular leader like Ramakrishna Hegde aligned with the BJP.”
Hegde delivered the Lingayat support base on a platter to them and this created an electorally potent blend of caste pride and Hindutva in the state. The Vijay Karnataka was born at this juncture to counter the half-century-old Prajavani, perceived to have a liberal outlook and an essentially South Karnataka influence. P. Lankesh, who was a true flag-bearer of the secular cause in the media space, also passed away exactly at the turn of the millennium.
“The language movement too by then had embraced a cruder variety of chauvinism. First the newspapers were captured, but all of this got amplified many times over with the advent of news television. The majoritarian interest became a default journalistic code of mainstream Kannada media. Some effort to recover the space remained short experiments. Political parties like Congress or the Janata Dal (Secular) did not resist this shift. Politicians from these parties sought personal concessions but didn’t bother much about the ideological air cover the media had begun to offer the BJP with impunity,” Srinivasaraju adds.
By then the progressive journalism had died its death, and so had the movements that kept Karnataka throbbing. Whether it was for language identity in the form of Gokak movement in 1980s, or claiming Belgaum/Belagavi from Maharashtra, Kannada gradually acquired a chauvinistic tone.
Today, a majority of the Kannada media is run by companies/persons with great interest in the ideology of the ruling dispensation. This is how fake news or fabricated news finds traction and validity in the mainstream media.
Star of Mysore, an eveninger that Mysuru had been reading for the last 43 years, called the Muslims (Tablighis) “bad apples”. In an editorial dated April 6, the newspaper said “they should be gotten rid of”, following the examples of Singapore and Israel. The paper faced considerable backlash and issued an apology. Soon after, it stopped publishing its print edition because of the broken newspaper distribution chain. Several newspapers across the country have done this.
These days, the media has chosen to shift between the nomenclature ‘Tablighis’ and ‘super spreaders’, indicating this is an orchestrated effort. A journalist who runs a popular Kannada news channel suggested people violating the lockdown should “commit suicide” instead of affecting others.
The prejudice is not just limited to Muslims; it extends to food culture as well. Segments are created using shots of the general public standing in queues before meat stalls. Programme titles such as ‘should they eat meat even now?’ or ‘can’t they abstain?’ scroll across the screen. This tone changes sometimes, only when a minister like C.T. Ravi is caught on camera buying meat for his family. Suddenly, he is made to be a ‘family man’ who was buying meat for personal consumption.