7. Press reporting on Ayodhya
7.1 Reporting on Kar Seva
On October 30,1990 thousands of Kar Sevaks moved to the disputed place in Ayodhya. They had somehow sneaked through the impediments which chief minister Mulayam and his security forces had put in their way. In fact, the saga of how the people did it, is the stuff movies are made of. Hiding in jungles, swimming across the river at night, being caught and then escaping from prison to move on to Ayodhya (as firebrand BJP MP Uma Bharati did, making herself unrecognizable), it must have been quite an adventure for the people who did it.
However, this adventurous aspect of the Ayodhya development has not been given much attention in the press. In fact, what was lacking rather systematically from the reports, was an attempt to see the events from the Kar Sevaks’ side.1 In some places, attention was given to the political assessment of the events from the BJP and VHP leadership’s viewpoint. But mostly, Indian journalists identified with the governmental or the law-and-order viewpoint.
On the evening of Kar Seva day, Doordarshan gave a totally streamlined news bulletin. It said nothing of the storming of the building, nor of the climbing of the domes or the planting of the flags, nor of the damage done to the surrounding wall, nor of the way the police had managed to drive the people back. It declared that no Kar Seva had taken place, that the police had full control, that they had to control a violent mob, that this violent mob had tried to climb the domes and had tried to plant flags on top of them. And it showed a heretic film shot of the Babri Masjid still standing there, unharmed. Then, an extremely boring queue of political leaders came to declare that communal harmony must be maintained at all costs. From a statement by a BJP spokesman, the part on communal harmony was shown but not the actual BJP view on the Ayodhya problem. Finally, a lot of attention was given to human chains for communal amity in Delhi and Kerala.
One sweet is delicious, but a bagful of them is just nauseating. Fifteen minutes of this communal harmony mantra was just insupportable, atleast in a news bulletin. In no free democratic country is the news ever so blacked out by streamlined propaganda. Although the message drilled into the viewers’ heads was a rather harmless one, the news programme was formally a purely Stalinist show. This replacement of news by government advice to maintain communal harmony was of course for the viewers’ own good.2
Now the scandal is that some newspapers, which normally champion the right to information, actually supported this round of censorship. In a column titled Responsible Censorship, Rajdeep Sardesai called the Doordarshan version, including the statement by V.P. Singh,“blatant untruth”.3 What a stern condemnation, you think. But then he continues and starts justifying this lie for the people’s own good, “to shield viewers from the increasing potency of Hindu nationalism”. Those people who had “expected [Doordarshan] to telecast Kar Sevaks climbing the walls of the Babri Masjid” and who “expect Doordarshan to be just a dispassionate observer of events”, have understood nothing of despotic secularism. “They insist that the viewer’s right to know should not be interfered with in any way. Such a line of thought is a victim of some diffused libertarian doctrine where the right to know survives only in unvarnished, absolutist form. However, transporting and adapting such western concepts to the Indian scenario is unrealistic…”
This twisting of concepts to justify despotism, concludes by claiming that censorship was necessary to “prevent our right to information from spreading mayhem in the country”, because “on an emotive temple-masjid issue that threatens to polarize the nation the electronic medium cannot allow the people to live through symbols and inflammatory images”. So this censorship has prevented riots ? One wouldn’t say so, judging from mr. Sardesai’s own remark:“That the possibility of communal violence erupting was great has been proved by subsequent events.” Without accepting his implied assumption that the subsequent riots engineered by Muslim communalists in Aligarh, Hyderabad and other places were consequences of the Kar Seva, I do notice that mr. Sardesai’s “subsequent events” have not merely proved “the possibility of communal violence”. They have proved that this communal violence was going to take place even after Doordarshan censorship. Everybody knows that Doordarshan is telling “blatant untruth”, so rumors become the chief source of information, and they are usually a lot more “inflammatory” than a reliable and accurate news bulletin would have been.4
On the newspaper front, there have been some more startling events. When seven local U.P. dailies published realistic estimates of the death toll on November 2, instead of Mulayam’s “sixteen”, all issues were rounded up from the bookstalls, and a number of scribes and editors were arrested. Moreover, during the Kar Seva week, journalists in U.P. were continually harassed and prevented from doing their job. The Press Council, the Delhi Journalists’ Association, the Himachal Pradesh Working Journalists’ Union, and many other journalists=92 organizations’ Union, and many other journalists’ organizations, have strongly protested against this attack on the press. On the other hand, some organizations and ad hoc platforms have condemned the U.P.papers for giving “highly exaggerated figures” and otherwise “inflammatory” reporting. In other works, they repeated the U.P. government justification for its anti-press measures.
Another startling fact is that the English-language papers refused to come up with the correct figures of the Kar Sevaks killed in police firing. In the afternoon of November 2, I was visiting someone who has connections with a well-known daily. He called the office and was told by one staff reporter that the death toll was already 125. Now, if a reporter of a secularist paper says 125 got killed, no one is going to make me believe that the number is less than 125. Yet, the following day, the headlines of the same paper put the death toll at 17.
I have inquired about the massacre among many people in Ayodhya. Common local people, including eyewitnesses, said invariably that thousands had been killed : two thousand, five thousand. I guess that even eyewitnesses were not in a position to count very accurately. However, the different accounts given to me by hospital personnel, policemen, Hindu activists, converge to a death toll of about 400. The official death toll of 45 for the different days of shooting together is quite untenable, considering that the VHP cremated 76 bodies, of which the ashes were taken in procession through India, while some bodies had been taken in procession through India, while some bodies had been taken for cremation by the families, and many more had been collected and taken away by the security forces (three trucks full, according to VHP sources). The figure of 168 which the BJP gave the day after, gives the correct order of magnitude, but probably on the low side.
So, if some papers stick to figures below 20, they are just telling lies. Some of them have been so adamant in their misinformation campaign that they refused to mention any other figure even when quoting from speeches by BJP or VHP people, replacing”500 were killed” with ” a number were killed”. Yet, it seems no one has had the courage to file a plaint with the Press Council against this blatant misinformation. On the contrary: two months after the massacre, the Press Council has condemned the dailies that gave three-digit figures (even if as low as 120).
Mani Shankar Aiyar has tried to ridicule Uma Bharati’s concern for the Ram bhaktas killed in Ayodhya, arguing that the “real issue” is: what were they doing there is the first place?5 After all, they wanted to break the law and demolish the “mosque”, didn’t they? And if you want to demolish a mosque, you deserve to be killed, don’t you ? Several press people I talked to, defended the shooting with the same argument: after all, the structure had to be saved “at all costs”.
The point is not merely that these people overlook the fact that normally the Kar Sevaks could have been driven away with far less killing, and the other fact that the VHP had declared it had no intention of demolishing the structure. The point is that they are deadly serious when they declare that hundreds (or for them, at least, some twenty) of human lives are worth less than secularism, here embodied in the brick structure. This means that they contend that bricks can be the embodiment of some mental projection, some god (in this case : Secularism, the Merciful), which is the very principle of idolatry : a material object becomes the archanavatar (worship-incarnation) of a spiritual reality. But their idolatry is of the barbaric type: this embodied principle of theirs sometimes requires human sacrifice. The JNU historians had once scornfully written that the Hindu view is better expressed by the openness of the Upanishads than by “worshipping bricks”.6 But who is worshipping bricks now ? Who is bringing human sacrifices now to an idol of brick ?
If you keep this dispute in its proper historical perspective, the ruthless anti-Hindu and pro-slaughter stand of the secularist press becomes only logical. They defend killing not just for the sake of a piece of property protected by the law of the land: when the police is communalized and guilty of atrocities. Here, they defend killing of unarmed people suspected (against the VHP’s own assurance) of intending to “demolish” a masterpiece of the Muslim campaign to exterminate Hinduism. I must grant them consistency : it is indeed logical that mass killing is resorted to in order to honor and protect this brick idol of anti-Hindu fervour, built for the god of Jihad by a mass-murderer.
To be sure, there are press people who honestly and in good faith disbelieve the established historical fact that the Masjid had forcibly replaced a Mandir. They don’t realize that the Masjid is a product of the most cruel and violent communalism. They really believe it is an innocent mosque stolen and singled out for demolition by Hindu fanatics, and that it must be defended as the nation’s last stronghold against a Khomeini-like religious dictatorship. A meta-press is needed to inform these misguided press people.
7.2. Foreign press reporting
The foreign press has not added any extra facts or perspective to the reporting on Ayodhya. It has mostly copied the bias of the Indian press. Time Magazine gave a not too unbalanced report, but quoted two of the JNU historians without telling its readers that these are not neutral academics but highly involved parties in the controversy. Newsweek had done the same at the time of the Shilanyas. Then, it had quoted Romila Thapar as saying that “the BJP may be more interested in cow protection than in people protection”, without anyhow putting this heavy allegation in perspective or hearing the BJP’s own stand.
This time, Newsweek gave an unbelievably biased report. It simply did not mention the shot-out against unarmed Kar Sevaks on November 2, following the Indian secularists’ line that you should grant the Hindus nothing, not even their martyrs. But it did mention a selected part of the Gonda carnage, a colorful description of the murder of Muslims in Kanje Mau (Gonda), concealing the fact that this carnage had started with an attack on a Hindu procession.
This reporting on a riot without telling how it erupted, is like starting the history of World War II with the Allied aggression in Normandy or the bombing of Dresden. Of course the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima were unjustifiable war crimes, but they are judged less harshly because they were part of a war effort which had been forced on the Allies by the Axis powers. Normally, any report on a conflict, no matter how summary, relates how it began, and who started it. If this is not done and one act of violence is presented in isolation, then that is a case of wilful distortion.
About the dispute itself, the foreign press has not relayed the Hindu viewpoint at all. Most papers and weeklies have at no point informed their readers that the disputed place is functionally not a mosque but a flourishing Ram temple. It has continually given the impression that the Hindus want to take a mosque (often mistakenly called a Muslim “sacred place”) from the Muslims, the way Jewish fundamentalists have wanted to take the mosques on the Temple Mount from the Muslims. In fact, it is the BMAC and BMMCC who want to snatch a sacred place from the Hindus, but hardly any foreign reader has been informed of this. On the whole, the foreign press has taken exactly the same attitude (distortions and concealment and all) as the secularist press in India. I have never seen before that all the papers for weeks on end reported something that was so diametrically the opposite of what was really happening.
This is at first sight very strange. The Western readership has no love lost for Islam. It is not only that Muslim terrorists have killed quite a few Westerners, or that they have persecuted and put to flight many of the remaining Christians in the Muslim world, or that they continue to threaten Israel (with which most Westerners keep sympathizing). The distrust is deeper. Compare the uneasy reaction of Europeans when they see a woman in burqa on their streets, with their pleasant surprise when they see a woman in sari: that tells the story in a nutshell. The Westerners’ natural sympathy would be with the Hindu rather than with the Muslim side. Yet, almost all the Western papers have chosen to blacken Hinduism almost as thoroughly as the secularist Indian press has done.
The first reason is that the Western correspondents in Delhi just don’t know very much, and also don’t feel the need to find out more. Their work is not considered important by their editors, because India is still perceived as a backward and economically unimportant country. Western correspondents in Delhi are very lazy. I have been to some press conferences concerning this Ayodhya affair (which involves principles, has generated an unprecedented mass movement, and has toppled a government),and not met any foreign press persons there. In Ayodhya and in the offices of those very people that could give authentic background information, again I did not see any foreign correspondents. I don’t know what they tell their employers, but I can testify first-hand that they are not doing any journalistic work here, except for copying the Indian English-language papers.
The second reason is that they very uncritically swallow that version of the facts which happens to reach them. Since they hang out a lot with the westernized clique that controls the media, education and the government, they don’t know better than that those people’s viewpoint is authoritative.
Here, one cannot fail to notice the utter failure of the Hindu movement to present its case. They could have sent a bundle of copies of relevant articles to the foreign press corps, as well as some relevant books, like Hindu Temples : What Happened to Them by Arun Shourie and others. The VHP leaders have not even thought of the importance of publicizing their case. Rather, with their Janmabhoomi campaign they have unintentionally managed to blacken Hinduism in the face of the world. They have not cared to check whether they were getting their message across. Their movement has behaved like a dinosaur with a lot of muscle but little brain.7
The third reason why Western correspondents have sided with the Nehruvian Babri Masjid advocates, is that they still entertain the colonial attitude that those backward Hindus have to learn the European civilized ways that Nehru so far-sightedly tried to transmit to them. In the wake of the Leftist-inspired wave of political anti-colonialism of the last decades, a cultural anti-colonialism has come up, a sympathy for other cultures (which was new : Leftist anti-colonialism, following the arch-colonialist Karl Marx, meant protest against the too slow westernization of the Third World). But that only concerns those cultures which have been beaten to near-death (in the New World), or those of which we are economically or physically afraid (Japan, Islam). When the last remnant of a Native American tribe wins a court case to reclaim ancestral burial ground, everybody sympathizes. But when a culture really and substantially asserts itself, not in terrorist attacks or export surplus, but in its intrinsic otherness, then the old colonial bias turns out to stand unshaken.
This anti-native and pro-westernizing bias is quite systematically present in India reporting. It generally takes the from of gross misrepresentation of Indian culture. For example, time and again those correspondents write to the homefront that there are still many dowry deaths. Now everybody knows that dowry deaths typically occur in the westernized circles (the dowries concerned are seldom the traditional jewels, but mostly video-machines etc.): they are not a traditional phenomenon that still exists, but are a typical case of the perverting and poisoning of a native custom by the invasion of Western consumerism.8
I will refrain from giving some names of Western correspondents who after years in Delhi didn’t know the first word of Hindi or any other native tongue, and consequently limited their background information gathering to some talks with the anglicized elite, not realizing that the latter has been cultivating an utter ignorance about Indian culture for decades. But I do want to point out that the result is a very derogatory style of reporting, reflecting not only journalist’s prejudices, but also the anglicized elite’s utter contempt for their indigenous culture.
Meanwhile in the Western news studios, indologists have been invited to comment on the communalism issue. But those people are steeped in art history (like publishing books about Hindu temple architecture without even mentioning that most samples are only indirectly known since the Muslim rulers destroyed them) and similar ancient stuff, and they too have the Times of India as their only source for contemporary news. Moreover, with all their orientation towards culture, they positively dislike Hinduism, or an innocent Gandhian kind of Hinduism, and they readily buy the secularist story that an assertive Hinduism is not the “real Hinduism”.
Finally, there is one more kind of India-watcher or India-fan in the West, with a typical and remarkable attitude to the Ayodhya affair: the “seekers”. Some people staying in India for spiritual things, and who were told that I was writing about this Ayodhya affair, immediately came out with their superior scorn for such unspiritual quarrels : “What are those Kar Sevaks going to Ayodhya for? To lay the second brick?”
What these people should realize, is that the society which has allowed ashrams to flourish, has only survived because it also had a martial component. Why are they not going to Afghanistan for yoga? because Hinduism in Afghanistan got militarily defeated and annihilated . Because Islam, which in their own woolly world-view is just as true as any other religion, has weeded out the kind of Pagan practices that they come to India for. If there is a part of the world left where the gurus can continue their traditional, it is because Hindus have fought. It is a non-violent part of the same martial tradition, that today Hindus are asserting themselves in Ayodhya.
Sunday Observer, 4/11/1990, carried an article Diary of a ‘Kar sevak’ : Journey to nowhere. But it is fake, it is written by a reporter who at best put on the apparel of a Kar Sevak, but made absolutely no effort to understand the mind of the people he had spied on. ↩
In its 10/12/1990 issue, even the American weekly Newsweek took note of the unpalatably streamlined news mores on Doordarshan, and explained why Indian viewers increasingly watch News videos made by private studios. ↩
Times of India, 14/11/1990. ↩
To mr. Sardesai’s collaboration with falsehood, I prefer this commentary by Amit Agarwal, in Times India, 4/11/1990: “Governments, when they suppress information in this manner, always say they do so in the national interest, that they soften things so that riots don’t break out. Well, Doordarshan news itself is a riot.” ↩
Sunday, 2/12/1990. ↩
Times of India, 23/12/1989. ↩
But they have been learning. The text Evidence for the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir, presented to the government on December 23, was sent to all the press people and many others besides. ↩
For another example: the story that Indians understand nothing about sex, because,as a Dutch correspondent wrote,“there is not even a Hindi word for orgasm” (as in most languages before the sexologists took over). Moreover, women don’t enjoy it, for they call love-making kaam karnaa, i.e.do work(as if this terminology is specific to woman; and here kaam comes not from karma, work, but from kama , erotic enjoyment, as in Kama Sutra). ↩