Media & Minorities


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Asghar Ali Engineer

In this age of information technology media plays very crucial role in projecting images. What appears in media - print or visual - is widely accepted by people as true. There are very few discerning readers or watchers who would critically look at what appears in the media. It is also true that media plays very important role in modern democratic society. More often, it plays god. It is a vehicle for opinion making. Hence its role has to be very careful in projecting images. Unfortunately, it is not, at least, in majority of cases. There are very few papers - if we refer to print media - which take pains to write about minorities after thorough study and with positive and constructive attitude. 

The English papers - though more careful - also often throw caution to the wind while reporting crucial events pertaining to minorities. The language papers, are (with honourable exceptions), much worse. They never observe any caution and often display crude prejudice in reporting about minorities. And there is yet another category, mouth organs of communal outfits like Samna, who deliberately, and even maliciously, project distorted image of minorities and thrive on this. In the north, central  and western India, the Hindi, Marathi and Gujrati papers, which this writer keeps on studying from minority perspective, are the worst culprit. They often display crude prejudices against minorities in their reporting or the stories which they publish.

Samna, the Marathi mouth organ of the Shiv Sena, uses highly provocative language against Muslims and Christians, specially against Muslims. During the Bombay riots this paper openly called Muslims pro-Pakistani traitors and wrote several highly provocative editorials against Muslims. The campaign was so vicious that the ex-chief secretary of Maharashtra shri J.B.D'Souza filed a public interest writ petition in the Bombay High Court to punish its editor under Criminal Procedure Act.  It should be borne in mind that the Samna is read by lakhs of Maharashtrian every day and their opinion is formed by it. Even the policemen read it regularly and form their perceptions about minorities from what appears in Samna. No wonder if they have very jaundiced views about them.

And what is sad that the Samna is no exception though other language papers may not be as crude. One thing which one feels after reading these papers is that they stereotype every minority community treating as completely homogeneous. A social anthropologist or even a discerning and conscious person knows that the minority communities like Muslims, Christians, Sikhs or Buddhists, are not homogeneous at all. All these communities, like others, are quite heterogeneous. There are, among themselves, sectarian, linguistic and cultural differences and their political attitudes also greatly vary.

It is, for example, assumed by even well meaning scholars, that all Muslims supported Partition in 1947. It is highly questionable assumption. The print media also frequently writes along these lines. The fact is that the Muslims too were polarised on this question. The partition project was supported, by and large, by middle and upper classes of Muslims from U.P. and Bihar where Muslims were in minority. In these states also, a large number of middle and upper class Muslims who were popularly known as 'nationalist Muslims' were vehemently opposed to partition. And, in these states, the lower caste and lower class Muslims like Ansaris and others, who saw absolutely no benefit in creation of Pakistan, also opposed the partition. The Ansaris were well organised and politically conscious and voiced their opposition to partition through public demonstrations.  Many prominent Muslim theologians led by Maulana Husain Ahmed Madani were also opposing partition and substantiated their stand from religious perspective. This is hardly projected in the media. Throughout the eighties when communal conflict was at its height, all Muslims were seen by the media as not only supporters of Pakistan but also loyal to it.

The other notorious example is of cricket. When Pakistan won and some Muslims rejoiced at the victory of Pakistan, the media projected as if all Muslims did so. Unfortunately the cricket match which is deified by the media and projected out of all proportions, became a holy war not only between two countries but also, according to a section of media, between Hindus and Muslims. And this despite the fact that Indian Muslim like Mohd. Azharuddin would lead the Indian team.

The minorities are often stereotyped as 'fanatical' and 'fundamentalists' and acts of few individuals would be seen as of entire community. Even if a religious leader issued any appeal to the Muslims, it will be described by a loaded word like 'fatwa' and as if fatwa is binding on all Muslims. Hardly any one will bother to find out that no fatwa, even if issued by a prominent theologian, is at all binding on all Muslims. There is no concept of priesthood in Islam. And to describe a political appeal as 'fatwa' is also very irresponsible.

The way the Shah Banu movement was projected in the media including the secular media gave an impression as if only Muslims mistreat their women and deny them their basic rights. Article after article was carried to this effect. Suddenly the national press became champion of Muslim women's rights. It is true that some orthodox Muslims and particularly the Muslim leadership took rigid stand. The Muslim leadership was taking rigid stand not out of love for Islamic orthodoxy but, and it is important to note, to grab an opportunity to become 'towering leaders' and to project themselves as 'champions of Islam'. This aspect was almost missing from media reporting. Also, there were many liberal progressive Muslims who were opposing the fundamenalist Muslims and upholding the Supreme Court judgement. This was also not adequately projected in the media. The media mostly indulged in Muslim bashing at the time, particularly, the regional press. There is much that is progreesive in Islam about women though it was not practiced due to male-dominated values. This aspect that Islam treats women better than many other religious traditions or legal systems, was never brought out in any media analysis. The only thing projected in the media was that Islam meets out worse treatment to women.

The Babri Masjid-Ram Janambhoomi controversy is another example in this regard. Undoubtedly, some Muslim leaders were trying to exploit the issue for their own benefits. But there was much more than this in the way the media was handling this issue. The language press particularly gave an impression that it is a settled fact that Babar had demolished a Ram Temple in Ayodhya and now it is time the Hindus vindicated their honour by constructing a Ram temple by removing the mosque. The regional media, particularly the Hindi media gave a distinct impression that it is ironical that Hindus cannot construct a Ram temple in their own country. The leading Hindi news papers from U.P. published highly exaggerated reports of incidents in Ayodhya in 1990 when Mulayam Singh, the then chief Minsiter of U.P.  tried to prevent kar sevaks from reaching Ayodhya. Highly emotional stories were published with an exeggerated account of the police brutalities. And it was reported that hundreds of people were shot dead. This was all totally false and even the National Press Commission reprimanded these papers for publishing false account of what happened at Ayodhya.

The press also does not adequately project the positive aspects of Indian Muslims which can create a different image of the community. For example, Col.Wajihuddin laid down his life fighting in Kargil along with others. And on hearing the news his mother said with pride that my son has laid down his life for the country and I wish I had more sons to give for the sake of the country. This was not carried even by the Englsih media. I read this only in an Urdu paper Inquilab. The Asian Age did report the event but did not project it properly and prominently.

Also, even committed secular papers who are sympathetic to the minorities do not have reporters and commentators who specialize in minority affairs and have intimate knowledge of minority communities. Even these secular commentators often homogenise these minority communities ignoring their differing religious and political perceptions. When Punjab was faced with Khalistani movement, many papers wrote as if all Sikhs were supporting the militants and stood for Khalistan. Even those Sikhs who complained of serious human rights violations in Punjab were suspected of Khalistani sympathies. Even a cursory study of the Punjab problem could have shown that a large number of Sikhs, particularly Mazhabi and other Sikhs, were totally opposed to creation of Khalistan. It is only a section of Jat Sikhs who felt their political and economic aspirations were being thwarted, were supportive of the extremist movement. It was very similar to partition plan. It was supported by upper class Muslims in minority provinces who felt their aspirations in independent India will be thwarted by the Hindu majority and it was this fear, and not religious fanaticism, which induced them to support the partition plan.

Recently there have been attacks on Christian minority by the Sangh Parivar. The main issue was conversion. The Christians were also similarly stereotyped and the media projection, particularly the language media in north and western India, wrote as if every Christian in this country was for conversion. I have spoken to several Christians throughout India who are opposed to conversion as the focus of Christians in India. They favour dialogue rather than conversion. Today what we refer to as 'inter-faith dialogue' has been popularised by the Christian organisations in the contemporary India. Though Akbar had started it in medieval period but the tradition was lost and in our own times it was certainly revived by some Christian organisations. Thus it is wrong to describe all Christians as conversion-enthusiast. So much so that even an attempt was made by a section of language media to accuse Mother Teresa of inducing conversions forcibly.  Also, this section of media projects as if all conversions are induced by 'coercion', 'fraud' and 'inducement'. Whatever communally inclined politicians say about minorities is carried by a section print media as if it is an established truth.

When the Christian establishments and churches came under attack in the Dangs by the VHP and Bajrang Dal activists the mainstream Gujrati media openly wrote anti-Christian articles and published hostile news items. Not only views but he news was also generally biased. During communal riots also many language papers publish highly coloured stories about Muslim fanatics and rumours are published as if these were verified facts. Some riots in Ahmedabad, particularly in 1969 and 1985 spread like wild fire because some Gujrati papers carried rumours in headlines as if these were true stories. Next day these items were contradicted in a small corner on inside page and that too when all the damage was dome.

In every religious community there are all sorts of people - liberal, secular and fanatical and fundamentalists. Neither all can be liberal secular nor all can be fundamentalists. Yet when it comes to minority communities and few vocal elements among them indulge in fanatical acts the entire community is held responsible. The voice of liberal secular Muslims or Christians or Sikhs is marginalised as some kind of exception. A vast majority among them which is voiceless for number of reasons, is thought to be fundamentalist or fanatical.

There is another aspect which also has to be seriously considered. There are very attempts to project positive contributions made or being made by the minorities in the process of nation building. A large number of Muslims made supreme sacrifices during the freedom struggle. Who can forget the sacrifices made by Pathans under the leadership of Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan and many other nationalist Muslims. This hardly comes through in our media. Even today there are many Muslims in various fields - political, academic, scientific  as well as social wherein Muslims are making important contribution. It is hardly ever highlighted. There are quite a few academics from social science stream like Prof.Irfan Habib, Prof. Mushirul Hasan, Prof.Imtiaz Ahmad and several others (it is impossible to name all of them) who have taken liberal secular stand on many controversial issues and have made seminal contributions in their own respective fields. But this is not adequately projected in media. 

The Sikhs and Christians have also made very significant contributions in the process of nation-building. The Christians have contributed maximum in the field of education. But for their institutions thousands of Indians would not have acquired the educational attainments they have acquired. But when some politicians started controversy about conversions a section of the media also began to write as if all Christians are doing in this country is to convert others to Christianity.

It should be born in mind that all communities in India are making contribution to the process of nation-building. It is certainly not the monopoly of any single community or caste. Also, the problem of minority should be seen in a dynamic frame-work, not in static frame-work which media often does. The behaviour of the community changes according to the newly emerging contexts. The attitude of Muslims in north India, for example,  has undergone sea change towards Pakistan. The political developments in Pakistan in recent years have brought about tremendous change in their attitude. Also, today there is much greater enthusiasm among Muslims about modern education and they have realised that education is a must for them for betterment of their lot. If they are behind in the race, it is more because of poverty than their resistance to education. The ground realities are changing fast and these changes are being absorbed by all whether minorities or majority. The media should not see the minorities in a static frame-work.

It should also be mentioned here that there are several papers which are sympathetic to the cause of minorities and they defend them courageously through projection of their cause. Many renowned papers like The Hindu, The Times of India, The Statesman, The Telegraph and some other papers can be cited as an example. Even a small section of language media has also played a positive role in this respect. It is these papers which have done journalism proud in India.

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Last updated: October 29, 2000 .