Media coverage

Print media frenzy

Print edition : December 06, 2019

Sadhus reading a newspaper report in Ayodhya on November 10, 2019. Photo: PTI

A newspaper with headlines on the Ayodhya case verdict, in New Delhi, on November 10. Photo: PTI

The Hindi press celebrates a verdict while Urdu newspapers maintain dignity in their coverage.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi title case laid bare what had been suspected for long: that a large section of Hindi newspapers act as the mouthpiece of Hindutva politics. Many Hindi newspapers, with their readership running into millions, greeted the verdict with glee, almost as if it was a matter of national pride. The newspapers had banner headlines and pictures of Hindu ascetics presenting a joyous picture in what appeared to be a deadly mix of linguistic chauvinism and communalism. In contrast, Urdu newspapers displayed sobriety and balance in reporting the verdict.

Dainik Jagran left behind all pretensions of neutrality with its screaming headline “Shri Ram”, accompanied by a big cutout of the mythological hero Rama holding a bow and arrow. It had a cutout of the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya across eight columns. The entire opening page was devoted to the Ram temple, leaving no scope for a discussion on the mosque for which the court had allotted five acres (two hectares) at a “prominent” place in Ayodhya. Page 2 also opened with an eight-column heading, “2022 tak ban jayega bhavya Ram Mandir” (A grand Ram temple will be built by 2022). The following page opened with a simple proclamation: “Wahin banega mandir” (The temple will be built there only). Seemingly innocuous, it was a straight lift from an oft-used slogan of the Hindutva brigade, which for decades has yelled “Mandir wahin banayenge”.

Mercifully, the page had a photograph of a Hindu saint and a Muslim cleric hugging each other, sending out a message of communal harmony.

On the next page, the paper gave an eight-column spread to the contentious report of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) with a small photograph of K.K. Mohammed, the man who claimed that there was a temple under the mosque in Ayodhya. Significantly, the paper made a deliberate effort not to call Babri Masjid a mosque anywhere. In a two-column news item, it referred to it as a “vivadit dhancha” (disputed structure). It did not forget to congratulate the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) for its “35-year-movement” for the temple. With words, photographs, headlines and captions, Dainik Jagran left no stone unturned to show that it was on the Hindutva bandwagon. For years the paper has been at the forefront of the call for a temple in Ayodhya. The November 10 edition was a celebration of a successful campaign. Journalism could wait another day.

Walking the same path with similar zest was Dainik Bhaskar. The paper did not concede an inch to Dainik Jagran in celebrating the verdict in favour of temple construction at the disputed site. Its bold headline on page one said it all: “Ram Lalla hi virajman”, or “Ram Lalla, the deity”. Said to be the highest circulating daily in the country, the newspaper stuck to stereotypes in reporting on the judgment. For instance, in a shoulder on the right side, it stated that the government would give five acres for building a mosque in Ayodhya but used the green colour for the word “mosque”. It claimed that the verdict was based on evidence, not faith. On the inside pages, too, the paper devoted ample space for the Ram temple. If at one place it assured its readers that the trust to be formed for the Ram temple would be like the one for the Somnath temple, at another it criticised the judgment of the Allahabad High Court, arguing that the High Court had given a judgment that was not asked for. Predictably, it got into celebratory mode when talking of how the streets were deserted for the first time in nine years but life came back by evening in Ayodhya.

Amar Ujala, with a huge circulation across Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, did not hold back either in telling its readers where it stood in the dispute. Opening the November 10 New Delhi edition with a photo of the makeshift temple, it stated, “Asli malik Ram Lalla. Mandir yahin banega” (Real owner Ram Lalla; mandir will be built here only). The caption below the photograph was like that in Dainik Bhaskar: “Ram Lalla, virajman”. Its blurb said, “Janamsthhan belongs to Ram…. For mosque the government will give separate five acres.” However, in comparison to Dainik Jagran and even Dainik Bhaskar, it did try to sound a little conciliatory with a cutout of two men from Jaipur, one clearly a Hindu with a big moustache, the other a Muslim with a typical beard, hugging each other. The tone and tenor of the inside pages stuck to the stereotype of a Hindu celebration. Amar Ujala did not certainly want to be left out of the celebrations. However, relatively speaking, the paper did try to give a semblance of balance with small box items headlined “Did Hindus’ claim come much later?” and “Was the mosque built on an ancient Hindu temple?”

Jansatta, for many years considered the epitome of independent journalism and sobriety in coverage, joined the bandwagon. It announced the Supreme Court judgment to its readers with a bold two-word headline, “Mandir wahin” (Temple, there only). Unlike probably every other Hindi newspaper, Jansatta did not devote its entire opening page to Ayodhya. It gave space for the news item on Kartarpur Sahib and a tiny single column report on Maharashtra where the Governor had invited the BJP to form the government. In fact, reading Jansatta a day after the judgment, one could say that there was more to life in India than the Ayodhya judgment.

Note of disappointment

Such blatant advocacy of Hindutva ideology has not gone down well with everybody. The noted multilingual critic and academic Professor Apoorvanand stopped subscribing to Hindi newspapers after they identified themselves closely with the “mandir wahin banega” politics.

Fellow critic Kuldeep Kumar strikes a similar note of disappointment. “The Hindi newspapers reacted to the judgment as if they were waiting for this. The verdict was a fulfilment of their wish. They stopped pretending to be neutral long ago. I remember how at the beginning of the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi movement, newspapers like Jagran and Amar Ujala used such provocative language that the Press Council set up a committee to look into the allegation and passed strictures. When the Babri Masjid was demolished, I remember walking into the press club and seeing some Hindi journalists celebrating. Today, the same story is being repeated. Today, Hindi newspapers take Hindi channels as their role models; the tickers of television become their headlines. The only hope is in some new portals where a few journalists are showing the courage to write the things they want to write.”

Striking a balance

In contrast, Urdu newspapers tried to strike a balance. Refusing to shed tears for the loss suffered by the Central Sunni Waqf Board, many newspapers confined themselves to reporting the event and following up with analytical pieces. No vainglory, no breast-beating. The Urdu newspapers’ conduct was much removed from the days of the Shah Bano judgment. They did then what the Hindi newspapers are doing today: gave an easy platform for radical elements to hijack the discourse. Back in the early 1980s, when the instant triple talaq issue hit headlines with the Hindi film Nikaah, Urdu newspapers showed which side of the divide they stood on by clearly advocating the case of those in favour of instant triple talaq.

It was the same when the landmark Shah Bano judgment was pronounced in 1985. Urdu newspapers pretended to know everything about Islam. Many like Al Jamiat, Dawat and later Qaumi Awaaz spoke out against the judgment, giving very little space to anybody who shared the apex court’s viewpoint. When Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had the verdict overturned in Parliament, he became the darling of the Urdu press, the way Narendra Modi has been for the Hindi press in recent years.

However, when it came to the Babri Masjid verdict, Urdu newspapers covered themselves with the much-needed dignity, sticking to the fundamental principles of journalism. Opening its November 10 edition with the news of the verdict, the hugely popular Inquilab’s headline was to the point. It said: “Hinduon ko Ram Mandir babane ka haq aur Musalmanon ko masjid ke liye zameen” (Hindus get the right to build Ram temple, Muslims get land for mosque). There was no air of despondency across the paper and no feeling of the Muslim community being given short shrift. Such coverage went some way in dispelling the stereotype of Urdu being the language of Muslims.

Its primary competitor, Rashtriya Sahara, was also balanced in its coverage. Its lead headline ran, “Ram Mandir wahin banega, mosque too will be in Ayodhya”. If ever a newspaper made an attempt to strike a balance and send a message across of communal harmony, this was it. Incidentally, a little after the court’s decision, in one of its analytical pieces, Inquilab actually asked the Muslim community to look within and wondered aloud about the mistakes the Sunni Waqf Board allegedly committed in its defence of the mosque in the court.

Significantly, Siasat, with a large circulation in Telangana, refused to upset social harmony by aligning itself with those in favour of a mosque in Ayodhya. Its headline read: “Babri Masjid was not built on a vacant plot of land; now Ram Mandir will be built: court”. On an inside page, Siasat talked about the possibility of the existence of 12th century Hindu structures below the Babri Masjid. Again, this ability to analyse things dispassionately stood out in contrast to Hindi newspapers, which did not allow themselves the opportunity to analyse the pros and cons of the judgment and were happy to be seen as joyous victors in the mandir-masjid saga.

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