Gujarat and the media: inconsistent secularism

IN Media Practice | 19/08/2002


Gujarat and the media: inconsistent secularism


In Kargil the jingoism related to the motherland threatened by a devious and evil enemy, and large sections of the media were pro-government. In Gujarat there is a mythic construction of wronged Hindu majorities now wreaking vengeance for centuries of Muslim barbarism and the media is shocked at government complicity.     




                                              Subarno Chattarji


The horrific events of and following 27 February in Gujarat have received blanket media coverage and have been written about and discussed in detail. In addition there are reports by NGOs, citizens committees, as well as the National Human Rights Commission, the Election Commission, and the IB. Mainstream English media (both television and print) has almost unanimously condemned the communal bloodletting and dwelt on its consequences for the Indian polity. The language of that coverage has been one of outrage. ‘Pogrom’ and ‘genocide’ have been used frequently to characterize the nature of the atrocities committed.


The taboo of not naming the communities to which the victims belong has also been abandoned. In the context of the frequency of communal riots in Gujarat (some 106 major riots between 1987 and 1991)[i][1] and in other parts of the country the media attention might seem excessive. However, as countless analysts have pointed out, this round of rioting has been distinguished by the complicity of state authority (documented in citizens reports such as the one by Chenoy et al) and by a more fundamental collapse of civil society evident not only in the brutality of the riots but in the deliberate disinterest of state authorities regarding rehabilitation and re-establishing of ‘communal harmony’.


The blight affecting civil society seems evident in the lack of remorse and compassion amongst middle-class Gujaratis and is in stark contrast to the spontaneous outpouring of concern and help for the earthquake victims in 2001. Thus not only the state government but also corporate Gujarat seems to have abandoned the riot survivors, further enhancing the ghettoisation and resentment of the Muslim community. I have offered a very bald and necessarily inadequate summary of some of the prime issues of focus and discussion in and by the media. The circulation of these ideas is now a commonplace amongst the so-called liberal intelligentsia in India.


That the media has been effective in creating a climate of conscience with regard to the carnage in Gujarat is perhaps best indicated by the outrage with which members of the government and Sangh Parivar have reacted. While the Prime Minister and Home Minister called for more ‘restrained’ reporting (a euphemism for less critical and graphic reportage), the Vishwa Hindu Samachar, edited by K. K. Shastri, head of Gujarat VHP, lashed out at ‘convent educated journalists who don’t know the geography of Ahmedabad’. The object of ire here is obviously the English language press but it is significant that regional vernacular media was equally stringent in its commentary and coverage of the riots. The exception to this critical media attention is found in the Gujarati language press where publications such as Sandesh led the charge in fabricating gruesome tales of violation of Hindu women and the need for revenge.


It is within this critical context that the government’s obvious attempt to control and/or influence the media becomes significant. The year long harassment of Tehelka and the recent arrest of Anirudh Bahal are perhaps symptomatic of coercive desires and tendencies manifested earlier in incidents in Gujarat.


Recent events including the dissolution of the Gujarat Assembly, the call for early elections, and the disparaging of a constitutional authority such as the Chief Election Commissioner bolster the argument that this is a government that cares little for the niceties of secularism or constitutional

[i][i] Kamal Mitra Chenoy, S. P. Shukla, K. S. Subramanian, and Achin Vanaik, ‘Gujarat Carnage 2002: A Report to the Nation’ (April 2002), 4.











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