Manufacturing Hindutva?

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Media Practice | 13/10/2008
The entire story is a web of self-incriminating confessions from the accused that render any need for fair trial that all citizens of India are entitled to, unnecessary.
PADMAJA SHAW is disturbed by India Today’s cover story.

When I read the cover ‘story’: Inside the Mind of The Bombers, carried by India Today, 13 October 2008, as an average reader I expected some minimum credibility in the story. I read the story with increasing disbelief and dismay. It signifies a new and unfortunate phase in Indian journalism. Mr Mihir Srivastava, the Principal Correspondent of India Today, claims to have met the ‘culprits’ twice. They were apparently not allowed to meet with their own families or lawyers but for some reason have been allowed to meet with the journalist and pour their hearts out to this sympathetic listener.

 

What do the interviews contain? 

 

Repeated caution from the ‘patriotic’ journalist to the ordinary Indian on the street: In this 21st century utopia of Hindutva that we are building collectively - do not be fooled by the education, youth or innocent looks of the modern Indian Muslim. He may be sipping coffee at the next table in a Barista, but report him immediately for who knows how many bombs he may have planted in all the cities of India? The blurbs in the story shout at the reader the self-confessed, unrepentant penchant of the accused for evil.

 

One does not see such crass profiling of the ‘other’ at least in major publications that are concerned about objectivity. I am awaiting similar advisories about Christians, Sikhs, Parsees and (after they are sufficiently tamed), dalits, people of ‘other’ regions, ‘other’ castes who settle in any ‘other’ state of India, people who speak a language ‘other’ than the one you prefer to speak, Hindus who worship ‘any other’ gods and not Rama, youth who have fun on valentines day, women with short hair, women who work, women who do not perform kadva chauth …..

 

The second significant thing about the piece is the eagerness with which the stunned, hand-cuffed men have confessed self-incriminatingly about their willingness to kill not just enemies but their own mothers in the name of their God. They not only confessed to waging jihad but incriminated their dead colleague who got killed in the Jamia encounter of indoctrinating them. The story tells us that the dead colleague (who cannot speak) has been proclaimed the mastermind of the day.

 

For some reason, the three accused see a messiah in the journalist and elaborately narrate their movements from city to city, their recces and their final acts of ‘terror’ and provide the much needed motive for their hatred – Gujarat riots and lack of action on Sri Krishna Commission. The story will have you believe that if you are a Muslim worth your salt in India, you really ought to be upset enough about these things to go and bomb your neighbourhood.

 

Thirdly, the story carries just the close ups of the trio, repeatedly splashed across the story, in blood-red for effect. Great journalism was built on legendary interviews with rebel leaders, extremists or inaccessible bandits. But invariably, photos of the journalist speaking with the interviewee would accompany these stories. In this case too, at least one photo of the accused being interviewed by the ‘impartial journalist’ would have set the reader’s mind at rest. I am sure, the police who were kind enough to allow the interviews in ‘public interest’ would have allowed the photographs too.

 

In the entire piece, there is no attempt at corroboration or cross-verification from anyone other than the three accused ‘corroborating’ each other’s confessions. What are the facts in this story? - That these boys have been arrested on suspicion of being party to the acts of terror. Beyond that, the entire story is a web of self-incriminating confessions from the accused that render any need for fair trial that all citizens of India are entitled to unnecessary. The report ignores the fact that these boys are picked up on suspicion and are yet to be proven guilty. There has been outrage at the police jumping the gun and holding press conferences before adequate investigation is done into cases and painting the accused guilty. Now, an independent, fair journalist has stepped forward to do the job for the police. The objective is to render fair trial irrelevant. In the court of public opinion, these men are condemned.

 

Is any of this admissible evidence in a court of law, assuming that the confessional interviews did take place? Whatever the courts finally say, the story has deliberately tarred the image of Muslim youth in popular perception. Human rights laws explicitly prohibit the extraction of self-incriminating confessions. In this case and in frequent instances of the police press conferences that are extensively reported in the media, the journalists dutifully report these ‘facts’, knowing fully well that such stories have a long way to go before their veracity is legally established.

 

In the McCarthy era, the American national media dutifully reported McCarthy’s accusations and the denials of the accused trailed far behind. Herbert Altschull of Johns Hopkins University writes. ‘The McCarthy experience caused journalists to question their traditional value system for it became clear how easy it was for the code of objectivity to be used by unscrupulous politicians to present utter falsehoods to their public’. In such cases, the journalist can be given some benefit of doubt for being an unsuspecting carrier of dubious information and encouraged to be more vigilant.

 

How does one categorise a proactive effort like Inside the Mind of the Bombers? When the journalist takes it upon himself to bolster stories from ‘official sources’ (that are high on fire power and creativity and low on diligence and concern for human rights), the damage to the polity is lasting. We are already gone too far down this path.

 

As if these encounters and ‘fast food’ reports on terror organizations are not enough, the editorial of India Today exhorts the state to adopt a policy of ‘zero tolerance’, ‘get tough on terror’, ‘enact and implement laws required to capture the culprits’. What is the esteemed India Today attempting to do by this cover story?  Shore up the case for POTA/GUJCOC? The same issue of the magazine also carries stories on Hindutva groups. The story on Bajrang Dal quotes the Dal leaders daring anyone to compare ‘nationalists’ like them to anti-national Muslim groups. The magazine can, in a technical sense, claim objectivity. But the treatment is different. It is not sensationalised in its layout or presentation as the cover story is, but powers the cover story by its juxtaposition.

 

The ‘War on Terror’ project has put a potent weapon in the hands of states to erode democratic rights. This is happening elsewhere in the world, but has taken a uniquely Hindutva hue in India. A fear psychosis is being created with active collusion of a section of the media around a particular community while completely diverting attention away from similar militant groups and their activities from the mainstream consciousness. The ‘war on terror’ is also trying to force a civil society consensus by silencing sceptics who are concerned about human rights violations by calling them anti-nationals. Are those who question the media/police versions less concerned about the deaths of innocent people in bomb blasts? Certainly not. However, in a democracy, in the name of special powers in crisis situations, the state cannot deny the right of due process to its citizens. Only the guilty must be punished. The process must be transparent. Today, the Right to Free Speech afforded by a secular, democratic Constitution is being used to undermine the democratic state.

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