Peddling hate

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The role of the dominant Gujarati language media during the genocidal anti-Muslim pogrom was chillingly communal and provocative.

"If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth."

- Joseph Goebbels, Minister for Propaganda in Nazi Germany.

ON February 27, a coach of the Sabarmati Express was set on fire at Godhra, killing 59 people. Gujarat was in a state of hysteria. People feared the worst. The Hindutva forces in the State were all set to target Muslims. With rumours flying thick and fast, people were desperate to get accurate news. But truth was a scarce commodity.

The role of two prominent Gujarati dailies, Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh, during the recent round of troubles has been in critical focus.-

Gujarat Samachar Sandesh

Gujarat's two leading newspapers, Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh, were hardly instrumental in spreading peace. "Avenge Blood with Blood" was one of the headlines on the front page of Sandesh the day after the Sabarmati Express massacre. The article that followed was a statement issued by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Both newspapers carried reports about how 10 to 15 young women were pulled out of the train and kidnapped by 'religious fanatics'. Sandesh also mentioned that two women's breasts were cut off. This was later denied by Chief Minister Narendra Modi. But neither newspaper carried a correction, retraction or clarification. Gujarat Samachar published a report saying that the article that had appeared in Sandesh regarding the kidnapping of women was false, but there was no mention of its own blunder.

Throughout the subsequent communal carnage in Gujarat, the State's leading newspapers have been locked in a peculiar kind of competition. It is not about who gets the news and facts first. It is about who can be more communal and provocative. Both Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh have raised the anti-Muslim pitch. They have published several articles during the past few months that have in many ways aided the VHP's propaganda machinery.

"Hindus Beware: Haj Pilgrims Return with a Deadly Conspiracy", said another headline in Sandesh on March 6. "In reality, hundreds of terrified and anxious Haj pilgrims returned accompanied with heavy police escort to homes that could have been razed to the ground," says a report by the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Shanti Abhiyan in Vadodara. Another snippet in Sandesh on March 1, the day the VHP called a Bharat Bandh, reprimanded Bhavnagar's leaders for maintaining peace. "Hindus were burnt alive in Godhra and leaders of Bhavnagar did not even throw a stone in the name of bandh. Ahmedabad, Vadodara, and Rajkot had partly avenged the killing of Hindus in Godhra. In the case of Bhavnagar, the gutless leaders are hiding their faces under the guise of non-violence," the report stated. Another headline in Sandesh on March 2 said: "Bapunagar reels under blind private firing all day. If you do not kill the enemy they will kill you."

In several instances, Sandesh misreported or selectively reported events to portray Muslims as the perpetrators of violence, when in fact, in most cases, they were the victims. Feeding prevalent stereotypes, Muslims were denounced as 'terrorists' and 'religious fanatics' while Hindus were glorified as 'devotees'. Areas with a large Muslim population were described as dangerous 'mini-Pakistans'. The residents of Tandalja in Vadodara were so upset by the campaign against their neighbourhood, which is predominantly Muslim but houses 7,000 Hindus, that they filed several complaints, including one with the Editors Guild of India. A false report about firing in the area was published. Sandesh printed a clarification after the residents complained. But the damage had been done. A sub-heading in Sandesh (March 4) stated wrongly that the Collector had proposed to declare the neighbourhood a 'disturbed area'. As a result, people were scared to go to the area. Milk vans and autorickshaws kept away, although there was no curfew or violence there.

Not even the relief camps were spared. A banner headline in Sandesh on March 15 warned: "In the name of shelter, migrants from other States enter city." It alleged that Muslim leaders were using relief camps as an excuse to set up illegal colonies. In reality, thousands of Muslim refugees who were hounded out of their homes had no choice but to live in miserable conditions in the camps.

Sandesh's pages were filled with the colours of blood and gore. Red stars were used to report death counts. Horrific photographs were used, many tinted red. "Alternatively, photographs of militant, trishul-wielding kar sevaks are splashed across the front page. Both kinds of photographs serve to instil fear or terror," says the report of the PUCL and Shanti Abhiyan. It adds: "All RSS and VHP statements are given pride of place in Sandesh. Appeals for peace, instances of Hindus and Muslims protecting each other, are given short shrift." Gujarat Samachar, on the other hand, did carry positive stories of communal harmony and of communities helping one another.

TELEVISION coverage also followed the same pattern. While national channels like Aaj Tak and Star TV updated viewers with accurate reports, a few local television channels aired VHP propaganda. J TV, one of Vadodara's local channels, was apparently the most vitriolic. "It regularly broadcast provocative speeches by VHP leaders. It kept repeating gory footage of the Godhra massacre," says Rohit Prajapati, a human rights activist. He points out that during the Ram Dhan rally on March 15, another local channel, Deep TV, selectively broadcast footage of the participants. Also, the coverage did not reflect the tense situation that existed in Vadodara at the time. Nor did it mention the fact that the rally was banned because several places in Vadodara were under curfew. Yet, Narendra Modi wanted to move against Star TV, which was providing the real picture.

While this was the first time that many people here saw communal speeches and footage of actual violence on their television screens, the provocative tabloid style has been a standard feature of the Gujarati press. Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar have had a history of communal coverage and were indicted by commissions of inquiry probing into the riots of 1969, 1981 and 1985-86. But no action has been taken against them. This time, social activists have been trying to file a criminal case against Sandesh under Section 153(a) of the Indian Penal Code for inciting communal hatred. But the police refuses to lodge a first information report (FIR). "We have been trying for a week, but they have not yet registered the FIR. We even approached the Police Commissioner, but nothing has happened," says Valjibhai Patel, one of the activists trying to bring to justice one of Gujarat's most powerful newspapers.

While J TV remained unpunished, the Vadodara Police Commissioner registered FIRs against two local channels, News Plus and VNM. He also suspended the licences of two cable operators. The Commissioner felt that the cable networks had "played havoc" by showing footage of rioting in Macchipith on March 15 and by repeating the footage the next day. The local channels are small fry compared to the powerful owners of Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar.

In an interview to the Editors Guild Fact Finding Mission Report, the Chief Managing Director and Editor of Sandesh, Falgun Patel, described Gujarati newspapers as "pro-Hindu" and criticised the English media for siding with the minority community. He admitted that his reporters did sometimes lose the balance and were communalised down the line. Sandesh, he said, "editorialises the news" by "balancing the news with their own version". Falgun Patel also said that it was their editorial policy not to carry corrections and clarifications. He described the Godhra incident as "unforgettable" and the reaction to it as "justified". Patel received a letter from Chief Minister Narendra Modi expressing appreciation for the newspaper's 'restrained' coverage of recent events in the best traditions of journalism.

Gujarat Samachar has a circulation of 8.10 lakhs and Sandesh sells 7.05 lakh copies, Falgun Patel told the Editors Guild team. He claimed that owing to its "pro-Hindu" stand Sandesh's circulation had increased by 1.5 lakh since the violence began. Gujarat Samachar's owner-Editor Shreyans Shah told the Editors Guild team that his daily's circulation had increased by around 50,000 during the course of the carnage.

Are these newspapers popular because of their communal stand? Are they telling people what they want to hear? "Yes, people do like to read sensational stories. But during the riots when there is so much uncertainty and rumours, people want to know the truth. They want to know if it is safe to go out, to send their children to school. But these newspapers are failing to deliver the facts to their readers," says Prajapati. "Their circulation may have gone up because during such times people want to know what is happening around them. And since these two newspapers are the market leaders, they are bound to gain the most by this sudden interest in the news. It has nothing to do with their communal leanings," he adds.

IN true Goebbelsian style, Hindutva propaganda pervaded the average Gujarati mind in different forms. The VHP's street propaganda was complemented by the Gujarati dailies, which launched anti-Muslim campaigns that were even more vicious. Pamphlets calling for an economic boycott of Muslims were distributed throughout the State. Others asking Hindus to awaken and stop bearing with Muslim atrocities were circulated just before March 15 when trouble was expected during the Ram temple foundation stone ceremony in Ayodhya. Another VHP fund collection appeal warned Hindus against attacks by Muslims, and asked for funds to defend legally VHP activists who were arrested during the violence.

The VHP also used technology to further its cause. It distributed CD-ROMs with gory footage of the carnage. In posh shopping centres, when shops were looted by affluent residents of Ahmedabad, the news of the free-for-all plunder was spread through SMS (short message service) on mobile phones. Narendra Modi's website has fan mail praising the 'asli mard' for 'protecting Hindus'. However, false news that kar sevaks kidnapped a young Muslim woman from the Godhra station platform was also circulated widely through e-mail.

But, undoubtedly, the Gujarati print media, with its wide reach, had the most lasting impact. Its anti-minority (not only anti-Muslim) and casteist venom, even during peaceful times, has ensured a slow and sustained indoctrination of the Hindutva ideology. The key role that it plays in aiding the fascist propaganda machinery ensures it immunity from the powers-that-be. It can continue to twist reality and keep the wheels of hate turning.

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