When Media Ran Riot
That was during the Gujarat riots thirteen years ago. Like most Indians religiously performing the anniversary rites of their departed parents, India’s secular media unfailingly remember the anniversary of Gujarat riots. Barring a bit of rigmarole in Indian Express on the Godhra happenings, this year the mainstream media were either tired or may have considered the election of Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat at that time, as Prime Minister an exoneration of his alleged role in the riots.
But who will exonerate the media, print, film and electronic, which went overboard, replacing facts with fiction about what was happening in Gujarat in the first week of March 2002 and the following days? To say the least, I am disappointed because the media have badly let down their vulnerable minorities’ constituency by their silence.
Let us now take a brief look at the cozy co-existence of fact and fiction that informed the reporting of the 2002 riots: A fact-fiction partnership usurps the traditional story structuring of its functional role. Gujarat riots saw heavily structured and treated reports. The new tradition began with newsmen discovering the delights of creative journalism.
Decontextualization was one glaring feature of riot reporting. Another feature was editorial amnesia. The trouble began in Godhra when mobs set ablaze a train carrying kar sewaks returning from Ayodhya. Next day reprisals started. To attribute the violence to the goings-on in Ayodhya is to drown the real context. I do not deny that hundreds have been killed or do I deny it is a heinous crime. Those are facts but not all the facts. But the constant reference to Ayodhya to contextualize the Gujarat tragedy pushed to the background the original setting that informs all communal riots in the country.
Neither the arson at Godhra nor the riots that visited Ahmedabad were independent of a past or were sudden and unpredicted occurrences. They were waiting to happen. This past has been visiting the people repeatedly and ruthlessly: a past rooted in the partition of the country on the basis of religion.
Now take a look at what leading newspapers wrote on the first day of the riots:
The Muslims were the first to strike at Godhra. The media could not escape the compulsion of condemning the attack. Yet, they could not resist the temptation of blaming the Vishwa Hindu Parishad for providing provocation to the arsonist mob. Every newspaper blamed the VHP. As Vir Singhvi, editor of Hindustan Times said, “Basically, they condemn the crime; blame the victims.”
Alibi for the arsonists
After a ritual condemnation of the arson, an Indian Express editorial blamed the activity of the VHP at Ayodhya for building a temple at the site of the demolished Babri mosque.
The Hindu waited for a whole day to look for an alibi for the arsonists. Luckily for The Hindu, reprisals came the day after the Godhra incident. The Hindu editorial said, “Impelled as the VHP and its allies in the Sangh Parivar are by atavistic passion and revanchism, their high-voltage protest are flash points, given the hate campaign aggressively mounted against the minority community in the pursuit of their political agenda.”
So, the blinkers both newspapers wore did not allow them to see the hate campaigns in the Urdu press and in the English press repeating the same litany of abuses some Muslim leaders hurl at the majority community.
The Times of India editorial said, “There is need to look at the larger political context, which might have provided the unfortunate spark for the attack. In the last few weeks, the VHP and its affiliates have upped the ante on the Ram Mandir (Ayodhya temple) issue, demanding that the Centre unilaterally hand over the disputed Babri Masjid site to them so that they can begin construction of the temple. “Hindustan Times too succumbed to the temptation of blaming the VHP for supplying the spark for the Muslim attack.
Do you agree that the attempt to build a temple at Ayodhya was the immediate cause and the Godhra arson its effect? The temple dispute is 52 years old. The people who travelled in that train set afire on February 27 were returning from Ayodhya after visiting the site where the VHP plans to build a temple. Godhra is 1150 kms away from Ayodhya and the mosque-temple row was half a century old in 2002. How could this be a sudden provocation to people so far away from the disputed site to burn a train?
Here are some examples of fact-fiction fusion in the media on the riots:
Fiction: On March 7, 2002 Hindustan Times came out with this heading: “Modi fiddles as Gujarat burns.”
Fact: The Telegraph report of Feb. 28, 2002 said, “The Vajpayee government ordered deployment of the army in the state. The army has already begun pre-deployment drills in violence-scarred areas and will be out latest by tomorrow morning. Defence Minister George Fernandes is travelling to Gujarat The Godhra massacre occurred on February 27 at 8 a.m. At 8:30 a.m., Chief Minister Narendra Modi visited the railway platform and gave shoot-at-sight orders in Godhra.”
Fiction: Let us first take casualty statistics. All media, Indian and foreign, began with thousands of Muslims killed, enough toll to merit the term genocide.
Fact: They didn’t reckon with a Union Minister of State for Home Sriprakash Jaiswal in the UPA diarchy, playing the spoilsport by spilling the beans before Parliament. He told the MPs that 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed in the riots, a figure that paled into nullity compared to the Suhrawardy’s Calcutta massacre of 1946 or the Sikh killings in 1984 under the very nose of Rajiv Gandhi.
Fiction: Arundhati Roy wrote in Outlook Weekly (May 6, 2002) that mobs broke into the house of former Congress member of Parliament Ehsan Jaffri and molested his daughters.
Fact: T.A. Jaffri, his son, in a front-page interview to The Asian Age of May 2, 2002 (Delhi edition), said, “Among my brothers and sisters, I am the only one living in India. And I am the eldest in the family. My sister and brother live in the US. I am 40 years old and I have been born and brought up in Ahmedabad.”
Fiction: The biggest hoax was this picture of Qutubuddin Ansari, showing him pleading with the rioters for mercy. But the picture doesn’t show a single rioter threatening Ansari. How do you know it was in Ahmedabad? It may be that an enterprising photographer asked Ansari to pose for the picture in return for a hefty sum. This is a favourite media trick. Long ago Blitz faked a picture of Morarji Desai holding a wine cup in his hand. In 1984 a foreign TV outfit shot a scene of street urchins throwing stones at a Delhi gurdwara after paying them small sums during the anti-Sikh riots. Viewers now know all the techniques that Indian TV outfits employ in manufacturing reality.
Lies and fabrications
These are a miniscule part of the lies, falsehoods and fabrications that marked the reporting of Gujarat riots. After the riots ran out of steam, a team of editors visited the riot ruins and, to describe them, coined an elegant phrase for whatever they thought they had seen: Killing Fields as elegant as maut ka saudagar, testimony to Sonia Gandhi’s command over imagery.
The riots broke out two months after I had migrated to the U.S. The reporting of these riots in the English media convinced me that the darkest chapter in the history of the Indian press was not its capitulation during the emergency but the reporting of Gujarat tragedy which descended to the level of criminal activity blessed by editors overburdened by a sense of self-importance.
The reader may ask: who started the riots? One loony kar sevak refusing to pay the Muslim tea vendor for the glass of tea he had? No sooner Alladin rubbed his magic lamp the earth yielded 2000 persons who set afire the Sabarmati Express carrying kar sevaks. Sixty kar sevaks died. No, that is not true. A kar sevak tried to molest a Muslim girl on the train and the word reached Sabarmati before the train steamed into the station.
One reason I am targeting the editors is because without their go-ahead the reporters couldn’t have written the lies we had all read. One instance of the editors’ partisanship is the journey of editors of three national dailies to Pakistan to tell our brothers across the border the “truth” about the riots. Can there be a greater editorial aberration?