Give media credit where due

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Opinion | 03/01/2015
When it comes to overt anti-minority actions by Hindutva organisations, the English press has rarely pulled its punches.
But it has been more than indulgent towards the PM’s own communal utterances, says JYOTI PUNWANI
HERE’S LOOKING AT US
Jyoti  Punwani
 
Despite the ruling party’s overwhelming majority, we remain a functioning parliamentary democracy with a strong opposition and a critical press. This is the conclusion we must draw from the winter session of Parliament.
 
This Parliamentary session proved our worst fears wrong. The scenario we had all been dreading -- the BJP with its overwhelming majority sailing its way through Parliament, passing its controversial pro-industry legislations -- did not come to pass. 
 
There are two reasons for this: the opposition’s determination to object to every communal act by the ruling party, and the press’ coverage of such acts. 
 
Every poisonous utterance by members of the RSS and BJP, to both of whom our prime minister owes allegiance, has not just been reported, but reported in a way that has exposed the speaker, the organisation and the intention behind it. So has the triumphalist yet desperate conversion spree that the RSS has begun indulging in. 
 
Would the winter session of Parliament have been so dramatic had the press not reported these rabid actions of the prime minister’s followers? Or did the press reportage seem more explosive because the Opposition used  these reports to take on the ruling party?
 
Perhaps the latter premise is true.
 
For, when it comes to overt anti-minority actions by Hindutva organisations, the English press has rarely pulled its punches. Indeed, the media’s exposure of Adityanath’s love jihad campaign in UP made many Muslims in Mumbai, who had  started regarding Modi positively, wary of voting BJP in the Maharashtra assembly elections.  
 
But we have to admit that the press has been more than indulgent towards the PM’s own communal utterances. Indeed, the press’ infatuation with Modi began even before he started his election campaign late last year. Despite his Gujarat record and his divisive election campaign in some states, the media contributed to his electoral victory and continues to portray him positively. Even today, few commentators call the PM communal, despite reporting his actions which betray his Hindutva, non-secular ideology  (his "1200 years of slavery" speech in his Motion of Thanks to the President’s address in Parliament; gifting the Gita to foreign heads of state-to give just two instances). Even today, the press bemoans the fact that his supporters are derailing his "developmental agenda". 
 
But increasingly, editorials and commentators are asking whether his silence over the communally provocative acts of BJP and RSS members signifies consent.
 
Perhaps the turning point was minister Niranjan Jyoti’s "Ramzade vs. haraamzaade" speech.  The PM’s refusal to sack her, and his half-hearted intervention, explaining away her remarks by referring to her rural background, convinced none but the Times of India, which immediately editorialized that with the PM having expressed his disapproval, the Opposition’s demand for her resignation seemed "excessive".  
 
Vitriolic speeches have been made by BJP MPs Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj and even minister Maneka Gandhi over these last six months. They too attracted attention and censure. In the last session of Parliament, Adityanath, chosen by his party to lead the debate on communalism in the Lok Sabha,  had made an inflammatory speech. The Opposition protested as he spoke, but did not derail the Session. In fact, the Budget Session of Parliament was described as a very productive one. And except for the Hindustan Times, other papers did not strongly criticize Adityanath’s speech in their edits. 
 
But the "Ramzaade vs. haraamzaade" speech became a landmark encapsulation of all that the ruling party stood for. And surprising all us cynics, the divided and decimated Opposition responded fittingly. Its performance showed that though the representation of minorities in the Lok Sabha is the lowest this time, there are enough MPs to take up their cause. It also showed that however small their numbers in Parliament, the Opposition has not forgotten that the Constitution lays down that India is secular and minorities are equal citizens. Nor has the media. 
 
The question is: what happens when Parliament is not in session? The media will continue to expose the PM’s followers, but will the Opposition act on these reports in the same way? Or will it be left to the same old handful of secular voices to do so? The media thus has an even greater responsibility to report on every attempt to hound the minorities by the RSS and its affiliates. 
 
Side by side with such attempts is also the reality that not everyone is being swayed by the RSS’ propaganda. The press itself has been reporting Hindus and Muslims living harmoniously together:  a Muslim building a temple; Hindi-Muslim kidney swaps (TOI, Dec. 27 );  and also where potential converts have refused to give up their deeply personal faith (TOI, Dec. 25). But these have been tucked away in the inside pages. Had they been given page-one status, they would surely have reassured readers overwhelmed by news of the Hindutva onslaught.
 
This session of Parliament threw up one disturbing question. Was it a deliberate ploy by the BJP to go on a hate agenda while Parliament was in session, knowing that the press coverage of rabble rousers would make the Opposition disrupt Parliament and stall discussion on the government’s controversial bills? This sounds like a far-fetched conspiracy theory. But look at the haste with which the ruling party passed three ordinances on contentious issues which will have very disturbing consequences, though there was no urgency to do so.
 
This conspiracy theory would mean that throughout the winter session, the press and the Opposition played into the hands of the ruling party. Be that as it may,  the press has to fulfil its responsibility by continuing with its brilliant exposure of communal acts, be they by the RSS, Azam Khan, Imam Bukhari or the AIMIM. Only, it’s time they took on the PM too -- both on his actions and his inaction.
 
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Around 1300 newspapers have benefitted from full page colour insertions by The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting  commemorating former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.  Some also got a full page insertion from the govt of Rajasthan. DAVP also worked to ensure that the blog the PM had penned got published, reaching out to some 125 newspapers late in the evening. Most of them obliged.               
Doordarshan News did not adhere to Prasar Bharati's existing police guidelines of not covering political party functions live on August 15 this year, reportsThe Print.  It telecast live BJP president Amit Shah's efforts to unfurl the national flag at the BJP headquarters. Unfortunately for Mr Shah DD only succeeded in telecasting to the world his gaffe in pulling at the wrong rope which made the flag fall to the ground before it was unfurled, reports the website.      
 
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