Some Comments on the Media Coverage of the Attacks in Ayodhya and London

Newsletter May - Aug 2005

The first reports that started coming in screamed that a terrorist attack had once again stirred up the Ram Janmabhoomi controversy – ‘Aatanki hamle ne Ram Janmabhoomi mudde ko phir jeewit kiya’ (6 July, 2005, Dainik Jagran, Lucknow edition). In the preceding 24 hours, coverage of the ‘news’ on various television channels and other print media, had already presented the attack as an ‘attack on Ramjanmabhoomi’, totally ignoring the decades’ old controversy at the site where once the Babri Masjid had stood. That was until it was torn down by militant Hindutva forces on 6 December 1992, under the claim of it being the location of Lord Ram’s birth, and therefore rightfully the place of a Ram Temple and not a mosque!

NDTV, for example, did all it could to reinforce the attack on the ‘Ram Temple’. On 24x7, following the attack, viewers were shown a pucca structure of a temple (there is no dearth of temples in Ayodhya) to convince the people that there was no damage to the make-shift temple. As SR Ramanujan comments on The Hoot, a media watch website, “Though the anchors did not say that what they were showing was the temple housing Ram Lalla, it was a suggestive visual. Millions of Hindu devotees may not know, especially from the south where NDTV has its major share of eyeballs, that a worn-out tent erected in 1992 is the temporary abode of Ram.” Zee, Star News, and Channel 7 too began feature items on the chronology of ‘militant attacks’ on holy shrines, starting of course, not with the Babri Masjid, but rather, with Hazratbal and Chrar-e-Sharif where Muslim militants engaged in fierce battles with armed forces, and went on at length ‘incidents’ at temples in Jammu and straight onward to Akshardham in Gujarat! Babri Masjid, its demolition by Hindu mobs and the violence that followed found no mention. Again, the viewer is gently but surely given the stereotypical notion of the ‘terrorist’ solely as a Muslim fanatic.

No surprise therefore that even before any outfit claimed responsibility for the attack, there were conjectures (presented as almost confirmed ‘findings’) that “Ram mandir par hua hamla Fidayeeen hi tha” (6 July, 2005, Dainik Jagran, Lucknow edition – The attack on the Ram temple was by Muslim militants only!) Terrorism and Muslim religious fanaticism have come to be inextricably interlinked in the mainstream social discourse – bombings in America leading to the coalition of countries to wage a so-called ‘War against Terror’. Was the cause of war really terrorism, or the long-awaited ‘adequate reason’ to get control over the resource-rich middle-east and contain the growing economic powers of oil-rich countries? Is it just a coincidence that this region also ‘happens’ to be the centre of Islamic religious activity?

The recent explosions in London have only further given justification for this mindless military exercise to be carried on with renewed fervour. Not surprisingly, the BBC and CNN, in their coverage following the bomb attacks spoke to victims who ‘happened’ to be clearly Anglo Saxon. In London’s multiracial and multicultural population, it is surprising that the only bruised, shocked and bloodied faces they could find were ‘white’. And whatever happened to the fourth accused of the London bombings – the sole white person – remains a mystery. Ably assisted by the media, the attackers take shape as bearded, dark skinned Muslim barbarians out to decimate an innocent white populace. The Indian media mindlessly reinforces this mindset. The caption for the cover photograph on Outlook (July 25, 2005) after the London bombings reads, ‘British Police question a Pakistani as a terror-stricken couple passes by’. Firstly, it is two different photographs collapsed into one, so it is doubtful whether the terror-stricken couple (white, needless to say) is actually passing by the ‘Pakistani’ (a man in pathan suit and fez cap, which doesn’t necessarily mark his nationality!). And whether the policewoman is ‘questioning’ the ‘Pakistani’ or he is asking her something is again pure speculation. Needless to say, ‘terrorism’ and the ‘war’ against it is good business. Exchange4media.com reports that gory news gets soaring viewership on the channels. When Zee News covered live a military operation to flush out terrorists from a house in Srinagar on September 24, 2003 its live 4-hour telecast registered an unprecedented television viewership of over 7 per cent rating in Delhi. The same evening the terrorist attack on the Akshardham temple in Gujarat began. That week recorded an overall increase in viewership for all news channels.

While it is understandable that tight deadlines and harrowing events are a severe challenge to nuanced reporting, it is no justification for the media to reinforce and widen schisms between religious, ethnic, caste and class groups. The media must examine its role and complicity in creating needless suspicion and perpetuating stereotypes. The media must introspect about its role in shaping mainstream discourse that does not take into account the context for various forms of expression of social unrest – be it Maoism in Nepal, Naxalite movements in various parts of India or separatist movements in the North East of India. Are these conflicts limited to the assertion of regional, class or communal identities or do they also reflect a deep alienation of these regions and communities from the larger political and developmental process in the rest of the country.