Last week was characterized by two noteworthy events. A catering contractor, who served sub-standard food, was force-fed a roti by a Shiv Sena MP. It turned out that the contractor was a Muslim on Roza (fast) .The act was caught on camera and caused a furore. The MP claimed that he was unaware of the man’s religion and consequently his fast. However, the media went on a TRP generating overdrive and spun this as a case of oppression of religious minorities. In TV studios, impassioned, indignant panelists discussed how this was an affront to secularism and decried the loss of the “The idea of India”- a term I am yet to comprehend.
When this incident was first reported, most people were appalled by the fact that an MP was arrogant & uncouth enough to force-feed a citizen. So far the condemnation was justified. However, the outrage in media focused on the religion of the man rather than the act. Would the act have been acceptable if the man was a Hindu, Jain, Sikh or Christian? Would the news have gained traction at all? Was the larger debate not about basic human dignity for all citizens, and the rogue behaviour by a politician? These are questions that remain unanswered.
A few days later, there were riots in Saharanpur, triggered by a land dispute between a Gurudwara and a Mosque. A local court had ruled in favour of the Gurudwara . A group of Muslims who were unhappy with the ruling went on a rampage, burning Sikh shops, attacking people and so on. The Sikhs retaliated. As the matter escalated, it resulted in deaths, injuries and loss to property. The administration and security forces had to step in and impose a curfew. Note that both communities involved in the riot are considered religious minorities in India.
The media coverage of the riots was muted, and rightly so, for it would be irresponsible to fan passions at such times. They mentioned “two communities” without specifying them, but soon there were rumbles among viewers about selective reporting. These were articulated, for the first time, by a senior reporter Gaurav Sawant who tweeted the following:
-‘Secular silence as dangerous as communal violence! Covering up sins of one & highlighting crimes of other by “seculars’ is playing with fire”
-“When an IT profession was killed in Pune we screamed about his religion.Why is religion of those killed in Saharanpur a State secret?”
-“National crisis when a Roze-dar is force fed a roti but no issue when Roze-dar gather outside a place of religious worship and riots”
These were just some of the hard-hitting questions that put a mirror up to the media. These were not politically correct statements but they reflected the naked truth and challenged the selective “outrage” trend.
What followed next was shameful. Some of Sawant’s media colleagues started a campaign of hounding him. They moralized about media responsibility, attacked his views and even complained to his boss Shekhar Gupta, asking for action against him.
Mihir Sharma of Business Standard directed people to the timeline of a tweeter on a rant against Sawant. With his endorsement, Sharma effectively added to the complaint to Sawant’s boss who was tagged in the tweet.
Along with building up a crescendo against a fellow journalist, Sharma also insinuated that the BJP was responsible for the Saharanpur riots. Clearly in Sharma’s book, articulating obvious facts were problematic but finger pointing without evidence was kosher journalism.
Later that day, Rajdeep Sardesia, former editor of CNN IBN, came in with his sly breast-beating:
However, not all journalists were willing to play ostrich. This is what Times Now journalist Aditya Raj Kaul had to say:
Sawant eventually deleted his tweets under pressure. What is noteworthy is that many of the same people had recently made a big issue about censorship when another journalist’s factually erroneous piece was pulled down by the DNA editorial team. Why are there such double standards? Why did the champions of free speech suddenly turn into backbiting snitches? The issue was clearly not about the principle of freedom of speech, so what was the omerta about? I leave these questions with my readers.
I would like to inform my readers that while the media overplayed the force-feeding issue and underplayed the Saharanpur riots, there were many parallel events that went under the media radar. The sacred Kheer Bhawani temple in Kashmir was attacked, and as a Hindu, I must admit I was greatly affronted. In Kerala, pork was served at a Catholic school NCC camp. Protest by local Muslim organizations led to the arrest of two masters. Each of these involved religious sentiments of a community, and they too could have been blown out of proportion to make screaming headlines and generate TRPs. Yet, these issues were ignored. What was the basis for that editorial call?
Any sensible person would know that highlighting sensitive religious issues unnecessarily serve no purpose except to heighten strife. Self-censorship by the media is needed in such matters. What I and many others, including Sawant, question is the selective outrage that is becoming all too common now. If there are rules of reporting, surely they must be applied equally to all. The absence of such uniformity suggests that certain people in the media establishment have an agenda. That contravenes the basic premise of moral and responsible journalism. Those pontificating about media’s “moral compass” might want to ponder on this.