Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages, said Spiro Agnew. I wonder what the late US vice president would have thought of Indian media, especially the cacophonic television channels forever obsessing over the long vilified Indian Muslim. As if being Muslims in Modi’s ‘new India’ was not challenging enough, they now have to suffer the frenzied assault by an incredibly hostile media. As a Time magazine article headline recently summed it up, ‘It Was Already Dangerous to Be Muslim in India. Then Came the Coronavirus!’
For far too long, India’s ruling elites, as represented by the governing BJP and various arms of the establishment, have waged an undeclared war on the country’s largest minority. Now much of the media has also joined this blood-fest, this onslaught on a long-persecuted minority, absurdly blaming it for the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
Since the great Communicator swept to power, Hindu mobs have been hunting and lynching Muslims like animals in broad daylight in full view of television cameras and the police and administration. As Rohan Venkataramakrishnan notes in Scroll, over the last few years, the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sought to weaponise hate and prejudice against Muslims in a deliberate effort to build a majoritarian Hindu vote bank that shuns older Indian ideas of secularism and tolerance. The coronavirus crisis has turned into yet another opportunity to build on this project.
This explains why Modi’s India has managed to turn even a devastating global public health emergency, perhaps the country’s biggest crisis since Independence, into an epic opportunity to vilify and demonise Muslims. Of course, popular concern over the Tablighi Jamaat meet in Delhi would be understandable. Even many Muslims have been upset over its timing. However, as it has been pointed out by the Jamaat, the ijtama had already been underway when Modi chose to abruptly announce the nation-wide lockdown.
Secondly, after the ijtama, the Jamaat had repeatedly approached the Delhi Police – the Nizamuddin police station is located less than 100 yards from the Markaz – and administration for necessary permission for the delegates to leave. However, they were repeatedly told to stay put. Third, who issued visas to all those foreign delegates in the first place and why weren’t they screened when they arrived at the New Delhi airport or wherever they landed? Fourth, if the Tablighi meet really flouted the norms of social distancing, why was the permission granted for such a gathering in the first place?
Of course, you will never get the answers to these basic questions. The media is not interested in raising these questions. All it is interested in is mounting a vicious witch hunt against the usual suspects.
What began as concern over the Tablighi meet soon degenerated into a blitzkrieg of hatred and an open call to arms against the entire community. The Arnab Goswamis, Sudhir Chaudharys, Anjana Kashyaps, Rahul Kanwals and their numerous avatars in Hindi and other Indian languages jumped on the opportunity to launch a blistering inferno of abuse, hate and pure vitriol against a defenceless minority. All these men and women who claim to be journalists have collectively concluded that the disparate Muslim community is conspiring to destroy India from within by waging what they call “Corona jihad!”
Going by this logic, Muslims have got themselves deliberately infected en masse to pass on the virus to the rest of the country by travelling through the length and breadth of the nation. If you find this reasoning bizarre, well, there must be something wrong with you. For much of the country seems to believe in these accusations, as you can clearly see from the increasing attacks that Muslims have been facing throughout the land.
These nightly kangaroo courts on Indian TV are so intolerably vicious, malevolent and mean that no normal person can bear to watch them without losing his/her sanity. By inviting some obscure, self-styled “Muslim leader”, who cannot put together a single sentence without appearing like an idiot, to their court-martial proceedings, they unleash their hateful vitriol against the entire Muslim community.
This farce has been going on for years and has played a significant role in poisoning the hearts and minds of a significant majority in the world’s largest democracy and paving the way for the resurrection of the ‘messiah’ after the Gujarat 2002 pogrom.
For years, these leading men and women of the Indian media have been grovelling before the Dear Leader and obsequiously eating out of his hand. All their powers of penetrating inquiry and zealous interrogation are reserved for poor, helpless Muslims or opposition politicians. You would never hear them demand answers from those in power. They are yet to wake up to the media’s primary role of speaking truth to power.
Arnab Goswami, who appears like a hungry, bloodthirsty hound ever ready to pounce and maul his quarry in the presence of bearded men, acts like a whimpering pet puppy before the Dear Leader during his so-called interviews. So-called because journalistic interviews involve genuine encounters and real questions and answers, not one-sided monologues based on a ready script, as Arnab’s interviews have so far been.
But that is understandable, I suppose. Like all worldly-wise journalists, he knows which side his bread is buttered. After all, Republic TV is financed and owned by a BJP MP. Who am I to come between a muckraker and his master?
Hate, however, has real and inevitable consequences, as some have been increasingly discovering across India. From Muslims being attacked as ‘corona carriers’ to Muslim patients being turned away from hospitals, bigotry has everyday consequences. Now even Muslim vendors and shops are being actively boycotted or attacked in the BJP-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh.
Words can kill. Literally! There are enough examples to prove this from recent history. In its 2003 verdict, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda found Rwandan journalists Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza guilty of genocide, incitement to genocide, conspiracy, and crimes against humanity. The case against Nahimana and Barayagwiza raised important questions about the role of the media and their social accountability.
For the first time since the Nuremberg trials, hate speech was prosecuted as a war crime. The judgment declared that the way the journalists had acted constituted “journalism as genocide”. The tribunal held that the Rwandan media “relentlessly, targeted the Tutsi population for destruction” and portrayed them as a “political threat”.
For the uninitiated, more than 800,000 people were killed in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Cultural anthropologist Charles Mironko analysed confessions of a hundred genocide perpetrators confirming that hate messages in the media had a direct effect on the dehumanisation of the population that was subject to persistent slander. Several months of this behaviour conditioned the population to hate, and kill.
In her report, ‘Journalism as Genocide’, in the Polis Project, Suchitra Vijayan points out that the behaviour of sections of the Indian media over the past few decades has an eerie similarity to the behaviour of Rwandan newspapers in the run-up to violence, ethnic killings, and genocide. The sinister parallels were evident in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom.
A 2002 PUCL study found that newspapers like Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh ran false stories, fabricated sensational headlines with the intention to “provoke, communalise and terrorise people”, which incited and encouraged Hindus to kill Muslims. Rather than perform the ethical duties that journalism demands, these papers published doctored material without evidence, and furthered arguments that incited violence.
India has come a long way since 2002. Hate against religious minorities, especially Muslims, has grown billion-fold, aided and abetted by our own answer to Rwandan media. If we do not wake up to the clear and present danger that hate poses to peace, India may very well walk into the footsteps of the African country. Given the country’s size and complexities, it would be nothing short of a global nightmare. Hate is a far virulent and potent virus than Covid-19 and all the rest of them put together.Aijaz Zaka Syed, "Indian media and the war on Muslims," The News. 2020-04-18.
Keywords: Political science , Religious extremism , Indian Muslims , Media role , Coronavirus crises , Public health , Social distancing , Muslim community , Social accountability , Political threat , Narendar Modi , India