Hindutva’s drumbeaters

Print edition : September 11, 2020

People watching the live telecast of the bhumi pujan, in New Delhi on August 5. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

The media, for the most part, acted as cheerleaders rather than alert watchdogs in the coverage of the bhumi pujan of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

August 5, 2020 will go down in history as the day on which the television’s remote contol was rendered superfluous. Channels across the spectrum sang the same song of unabashed exuberance at the bhumi pujan in Ayodhya as if the Ram temple was part of their long-held agenda. The Congress party was not alone in trying to hitch a belated ride on the Hindutva bandwagon; the media kept it company, even gave it stiff competition at times. Not only the Hindi channels such as India TV or Zee News, but even English channels hopped on to the temple bandwagon with relish. It was not a day to be restrained or modest. It was all about revelling in the moment.

There was no escaping the Ayodhya celebrations, and epithets such as “historic”, “freedom after 500 years” and “moment of national pride” were used through the day on the small screen. It struck no one that Muslims formed part of the nation too and that they could not share the joy of a temple coming up at the site of a demolished mosque.

Sample this: The India Today channel, whose print avatar had called the Babri Masjid demolition “Nation's Shame” back in 1992, now called the foundation stone laying ceremony of the temple “nation’s pride”. It spoke as much about the vicissitudes of politics as the channel’s zeal to play to the lowest common denominator. The channel’s correspondent dug up a report of how the event was being celebrated across the world. “Temples across the United States have announced special events to celebrate the foundation laying ceremony of the historic Ram temple in Ayodhya.” He went on to talk of 3D portraits of the temple and giant billboards beaming them in the iconic Times Square on August 5. It seemed the ceremony concerned the whole world and not just the BJP followers. Then there was a report which called the ceremony “a momentous occasion”. “Shame” was a thing of the past.

“Violation of law”

The report talked unabashedly of “biggest celebration” and “festive fervour”.That a case was going on in the Supreme Court against L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and others for their role in the demolition of the masjid did not matter. Forgotten too was the Supreme Court’s judgment last year which said the masjid's demolition in 1992 and its desecration in 1949 were in violation of the law. “Muslims have been wrongly deprived of a mosque which had been constructed well over 450 years ago,” the apex court noted about the 1992 demolition of the mosque. The demolition “was an egregious violation of the law”, it said.

Nobody asked questions about the significance of August 5 as the day for the bhumi pujan. Was it part of the chest-thumping exercise that followed the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir and the abrogation of Article 370 on the same day last year? Was it meant to deflect attention from the obvious failure to control militancy in the State? Or was the bhumi pujan the most important thing as India faced the Covid challenge? Nobody asked. Not in the Hindi media. Not in the English media, as the lines between the two did not just blur, but disappeared.

For decades many Hindi newspapers and channels have gleefully hopped on to the Hindutva bandwagon, running their vehicle parallel to Advani’s rath yatra since 1990. Since 2014, many have acted as the spokespersons of the ruling party, preferring to target the opposition for the abject failures of the government. But the English media, or at least a section of it, maintained a modicum of dignity, a semblance of balance. For more than 20 years, English channels and newspapers referred to the 1992 demolition as the “demolition of the Babri Masjid”. They did not use the expression “vivadit dhancha” (disputed structure), used by Advani and others. But in some sections, the Babri Masjid-Ramjanambhoomi dispute suddenly began to be referred to as Ramjanambhoomi-Babri mosque dispute. Still, a semblance of distance remained.

But on August 5, the fig leaf was blown away in the Hindutva avalanche. The media, a huge part of it anyway, were happy to slip into the role of cheerleaders rather than being an ever-alert watchdog. The viewers had the mortification of watching an anchor like Navika Kumar on Times Now singing “Sri Ramchandra Kripalu” live on TV a few minutes before the actul pooja in Ayodhya as if the show was a celebration and not a mere report of the ceremony. No questions asked. No answers expected. Life was all about living in the moment, soaking it in. Dispassionate jounalism could wait another day.

Not everybody was impressed. Fellow journalist Manisha Pande of Newslaundry dubbed the Navika Kumar-Sambit Patra show on her Twitter account as “TV ‘news’ ki duniya ki Anuradha Paudwal aur Narendra Chanchal” (Anuradha Paudwal and Narendra Chanchal of the TV news world). The noted author Hilal Ahmed put things in perspective: “Faith is internal and spiritual. Display of faith on TV is professional and ideological.”

India Today, Times Now and Republic TV had plenty of company in the form of Hindi newspapers and channels. Dainik Jagran merged its masthead with the photograph of worship at the temple, backing it up with Ram’s words in the Ramayana: “Ram kaju kinhe binu mohi kahan bisham”. Below the eight-column headline was a three-column picture of Narendra Modi lying protstrate in reverence in front of the deity. At the anchor was the story of Dashrath-Kaushalya and the return of Ram. COVID could well have been on Mars.

Dainik Bhaskar tried valiantly to give competition. It too merged its masthead with the lead picture, this time of Modi in the act of public worship. It conveyed the official line that the temple was a symbol of national unity, with the words “Rashtracharitmanas” as headline. Interestingly, it advocated reviving the more inclusive Jai Siyaram as opposed to Jai Shri Ram, which was part of the temple agitation. The paper, too, had no qualms about bringing out a pandemic-free page 1 of the edition at a time when more than 40,000 Indians had succumbed to COVID and close to 60 lakh had fallen victim to the virus.

Coming back to electronic media, India TV came up with “non-stop superfast news on Ayodhya”. The anchors and correspondents were suitably breathless. In another show, the anchor reminded viewers of the role played by Modi as the shepherd of Advani’ss rath yatra. “It was a result of 29 years of patience,” the reporter said. Republic TV managed to find an “expert” who drew a parallel between the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and contruction of Babri Masjid. “The desire to break down a spiritual place of a religion to build one’s own does not attract the mercy of God,” he said, before going on to wax eloquent about the upcoming Ram temple, and how the temple, and not the Taj Mahal, will become a symbol of India.

Honourable exceptions

Predictably, it was left to Ravish Kumar on NDTV India to restore sanity. His bulletin was just reportage. In a sacrilege of sorts, in his hour-long programme he said that Ayodhya belonged as much to Muslims as Hindus. There was also an interview of a Muslim gentleman who had lost a family member and had his house reduced to ashes in 1990.

His was, predictably, the lone voice that restored sanity to an endless chest-thumping on television. That he had only low-profile Urdu newspapers with limited readership for company said it all. Unlike the Hindi broadsheets, Urdu newspapers such as Sahara, Inquilaab and Siyasat did not go overboard with their coverage. They maintained a dispassionate distance, reported on the foundation stone laying ceremony and reported what the Prime Minister said on the occasion. They did not take recourse to sob stories of the Muslim community feeling let down by the nation or give much credence to the extremist faction from the Hindu community.

Such instances of balance and equanimity were few and far between. Otherwise, for the Indian media, August 5was all about catering to the perceived popular mood of the occasion and pandering to right-wing fantasies. Journalism was on vacation.

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