Media Coverage of the Events in Gujarat
-- By Dr Ramesh N. Rao
There has already been much debate on Sulekha over the events in Gujarat. It is time to take a step back and do some “pattern searching” in the US media coverage of the events following the Godhra train massacre on February 27. The New York Times has been repeating what the English language “secular” press in India has been saying about the latest Hindu-Muslim carnage in Gujarat following the gruesome torching of the train. The New York Times, which ignored Prime Minister Vajpayee's visit to the US in November 2001 and barely gave two lines to Advani in the one and only report it published of a visit by him this January to Washington DC, has been the most aggressive in putting the anti-BJP spin to the killing-fields of Gujarat. I am now convinced that The New York Times is keen on providing any and all ammunition to the many groups and individuals, not just in India but elsewhere, who are seeking to bring down the BJP-led government.
The headlines in the NYT these past few days are most indicative of how its New Delhi bureau chief sees the carnage. The first headline, for a report by Celia Dugger, on February 28, reads: “Firebombing of Train Carrying Hindu Activists Kills 57.” The headline does not mention Muslims. The word “activists” provides the “damper clause” to underplay, if not rationalize, the gruesome crime perpetrated by the Muslim mob that carried out the attack. Remember, this is the same newspaper which when reporting a Hindu-Christian conflict led the report with the “catchy” headline: “Shiva vs. Jesus: Hindus Burn Christian Homes.” Wouldn't it have been appropriate for the newspaper to have something like “Mohammed vs. Ram: Muslims roast Hindu train travelers” for this report?
The second headline, to the March 1 report by Dugger, reads: “Hindu Rioters Kill 60 Muslims in India.” Following from the first example, one could have expected the headline to read something like “Torching of hutments kills 60 Muslims in Indian city.” Why mention Hindus in the headline? The third headline, to another report by Dugger, March 1, says: “India Puts the Death Toll at 136 After Hindus Attack Muslims.” The headline does not give the reader the context of the Gujarat riots at all. Only the reader who goes through the report carefully will see mention of the event that started it all. But look at the mischief the headline does: it puts the onus of death and carnage on Hindus.
But continue to read the newspaper that claims to purvey all that is fit to print. On March 5, there was this report, again by Dugger: “Hindu Justifies Mass Killings of Muslims in Reprisal Riots.” In it, we have nothing but the swagger and the vulgarity of a VHP “leader” reported. The report begins this way:
Harish Bhai Bhatt is a jolly-looking man with a round belly and a bushy mustache that turns up like a smile, but his words would chill the soul of any Muslim in India.
According to Mr. Bhatt, a firebrand leader of the fundamentalist World Hindu Council, killing hundreds of innocent Muslims in the past five days of rioting was necessary. All Muslims had to be taught a lesson after a Muslim mob burned a train loaded with the council's members, immolating 58 people.
“Now, it is the end of toleration, ” he said, a revolver on his hip. “If the Muslims do not learn, it will be very harmful for them.”
Each of those lines can be dissected for the anti-Hindu spin, but let me point out just one assertion that Dugger makes. She says that according to Bhatt, “All Muslims had to be taught a lesson after a Muslim mob burned a train loaded with the council's members, immolating 58 people.” Remember, the particular line is not within quotes and we can surmise that she is either paraphrasing Bhatt or “analyzing” his comments. She mentions the train loaded with “council members.” So, the women and children who were burnt alive become VHP members. If you are a member of the VHP you have less of a standing as a human being and so if someone burns you, well, that is bad, but really it is not that bad to burn a Hindu fundamentalist, is it? Also, are all thekar sevaksor pilgrims going to Ayodhya, courtesy the VHP, its members? Don't bother to ask such questions of the fancy reporters from the West for you will not get answers, as I have found out after repeated attempts to get Ms. Dugger to answer some simple questions about how she covers events in India.
On March 6, the Dugger report is headlined, “After Deadly Firestorm, India Officials Ask Why.” In this report on what happened at Godhra, Dugger reserves the District Commissioner's reactions to the end of the report while reserving the major and first part of the report to what local Muslims and Hindus say about the event: “Jayanti Ravi, a decisive, commanding district administrator who wears a thick braid down her back, was the first to enter the still smoldering coach. Determined not to give in to emotion, she was nonetheless moved by the horror of what she witnessed. The fire must have been most intense on the sides of the sleeper car. 'There was a heap of bodies in the middle, ' she said. 'People ran to the middle to save themselves. There on the top was what must have been a lady with an infant sheltered in her hands. I saw skulls black and charred'.”
In this report, Dugger provides quotes from both Hindus and Muslims, from BJP leaders and Congress spokespersons and speculates on the reasons the train was set on fire. She quotes one of the Muslim interviewees as saying that the Muslim vendors in the station were forced by thekar sevaks to shout “Jai Shri Ram.”
But since she could not have completely ignored the reason for the carnage following the train massacre, she does a balancing act by reporting on March 7, of the Muslim children slaughtered and burned in Ahmedabad. The report is titled, “In India, a Child's Life Is Cheap Indeed.” The report is all about how the Muslim community is dealing with the loss of life and it is a series of complaints about how the Gujarat government has been lax or complicit or thoughtless, or all three, following the Godhra massacre. There is no mention of how the Hindu parents (those alive) are dealing with the death of their children on the train.
Today, March 10, there is another report from Dugger, which is titled, “Gandhi's Dream and India's Latest Nightmare.” The incendiary intro to the report says it all: “Over the past few years, Hindu nationalism, once a pariah movement associated with Gandhi's assassination, has become politically mainstream in this nation and in the West.
“Its political leaders have led a national coalition government for most of the past four years. They have mounted a popular military buildup of staggering scale to counter radical Islamic terrorism emanating from Pakistan. They stop in for Oval Office chats with President Bush in Washington and welcome leading lights of the Bush team to New Delhi. They profess a commitment to preserving India's secular traditions and the religious diversity Gandhi championed.
“But recent images of rampaging Hindu mobs torching Muslim neighborhoods in the Hindu nationalist-dominated state of Gujarat -- and of the charred bodies of Muslim children burned alive in those attacks -- have again raised profound questions about what the movement stands for and where its political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is leading the world's largest democracy and second most populous nation.”
Note that in this report only in the ninth paragraph do we find mention of the Godhra train burning. And even there note how she presents the case: “The recent violence in Gujarat was ignited by a ghastly incident on Feb. 27 that also seems connected to the temple campaign. The exact circumstances are not clear, but it appears that after an altercation between sloganeering council members on their way back from Ayodhya and Muslim vendors on the train platform in the small city of Godhra, Muslims set fire to a coach, killing 58 people, most of them women and children.”
In between these reports there is an op-ed piece by Shashi Tharoor and an editorial. Tharoor, on March 6, in an op-ed piece titled “India's Past Becomes a Weapon, ” says “The Hindu zealots who chanted insultingly triumphalist slogans helped incite the worst elements on the Muslim side, who set fire to a railway carriage carrying temple campaigners; in turn, Hindu mobs have torched Muslim homes and killed innocents.” If Tharoor's rationale is extended and applied elsewhere, we can then say that the VHP and BJP people can be incited to burn down the offices of newspapers and magazines and the homes of activists who continuously caricature the Sangh and its leaders as fascists.
The editorial writers of the “most powerful newspaper in the world” then weigh in on March 7 with an editorial titled, “Instability in India.” What is the reason for the riots in Gujarat, according to these wise men and women? “The Gujarat riots, centered in Ahmedabad and the town of Godhra, also echo the violence that erupted in the same region in the 1980's. The main provocation this time has been the attempt by Hindu fanatics to build a temple on the supposed site of the Hindu god Ram's birthplace in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya.” The editorial does not mention that a train was burned and 57 people, all Hindus and mostly women and children, were charred to death on February 27. Instead, they say it all began because of the “attempt by Hindu fanatics to build a temple!”
When Hindus kill Muslims, The New York Times mentions both groups, with the stress being on Hindus who are supposedly doing the killing. When Muslims kill Hindus, Muslims are not mentioned. Many American readers don't go beyond the headlines, especially dealing with international affairs. The NYT, by skewing headlines against India's Hindu majority, seems to indicate to its readers that Hindus are to blame for all religious conflict in India.
Indian reaction in the US:
Indians and Indian Americans have been agonizing about the Gujarat incidents in email forums and discussion lists. I un-subscribed from most of the discussion lists soon after, not able to deal with the deluge of analyses, comments, accusations and counter-accusations. Indians don't know how to reconcile to the gruesome crime committed on Wednesday, February 27, 2002 and the week of rampage, rage and murder following that. We seem to be hearing the news on NPR and watching it on television and we do our daily Internet-surfing to find out what the New York Times and the Washington Post as well as the regional newspapers say about the events. There was one interview/panel discussion on PBS following the Godhra incident. We read the News-India Times, the India Post and India Abroad and whatever else we publish here in the US and we visit our favorite websites.
To some extent Indian-Americans may feel let off the hook because there have been even more deadly and continuing conflicts among the Israelis and the Palestinians. We seem, however, confused about what to think about it all. From what I can see from my “disadvantaged” perch in Kirksville, Missouri, we Indians and Indian-Americans don't seem to know how to convey to our American friends and acquaintances what is going on in India.
How many of us have had conversations where we passed on information about the Babri mosque in Ayodhya and that it was constructed by either Babar, the Mughal emperor, or one of his minions, on the site where a temple to the Hindu God-king Rama stood? We are afraid that we would be either pooh-poohed or ignored if we tried to point out that archaeological diggings at the site confirm the Hindus' belief that the mosque was constructed on the site of a razed temple. We are so afraid about describing the “Hindu” condition pre and post-independence because of being perceived as some kind of Hindu fanatic. How many of us identify ourselves as Hindus anyway? Even the idea of calling ourselves Indians is anathema to some who embrace South Asianism. Thus some Indian-Americans go to extreme lengths to distance themselves from any VHP or RSS version of events lest their secular friends abandon them. They are afraid that if they speak about the Muslim wantonness in burning the train carrying Ayodhyakar sevaksthey will be accused of encouraging or inciting Hindus to kill Muslims.
Add to the fact that there is a lack of the media-savvy among the VHP-ites. How many of the VHPA leaders have tried to gain the attention of national media and train and present themselves or other spokespersons who could be interviewed, say, on CNN or NPR or PBS? Have they even contacted The New York Times and the Washington Post? Instead, what I have received in my mailbox are poorly drafted petitions to Vajpayee asking him not to abandon the temple project in Ayodhya! That the response to the petition contains some vulgar comments by some signatories is ignored on the grounds that the VHPA is democratic and doesn't restrict expression. No doubt that a Celia Dugger was able to get a Harish Bhai Bhatt to wax vulgar! And no doubt this allegiance to “democratic ideals” lets Sangh leaders ignore the violent and the vulgar among them.
On PBS, we had a doddering old Prof. Gould of the University of Virginia (who could not even recall Advani's name and instead referred to him as “that chap”!) and a rather mealy-mouthed Prof. Lariviere of the University of Texas, who compared communalism to racism and who could only refer back to the events of 1992 to explain Hindu-Muslim conflict. When I wrote to him saying he could have referred to the bloody partition of India to provide a more powerful context, he said that my vision was narrow and that the Hindu-Muslim conflict went back hundreds of years. It goes back a millennium, I wrote back. “Why did you not mention it?” I asked, to which I have not yet received a reply. But I see the good professor has already been interviewed by Tehelka (whose correspondent most probably decided that anyone who appears on PBS talking about India and blaming the VHP is ripe for appearance on the hot, spicy and shamelessly anti-BJP portal).
What justification for riots?
Can we justify the carnage following the Godhra massacre? We can't. However, it would be foolish and inconsiderate not to acknowledge that there is tremendous anger among many Hindus, which V.S. Naipaul has alluded to, even after the Gujarat riots and which the politically correct Rushdie condemns (See Rushdie's op-ed piece in the Washington Post, March 8, titled “Slaughter in the Name of God”).
The wounds on the Hindu body politic are old and run deep and when there is a fresh cut on the body there is a wild, visceral reaction. Even the most blinkered of secularists cannot ignore the fact that the Gujarat state government could not have stopped the mayhem as promptly and completely as we, those distanced by ideology and by physical and psychological distance, wished it had done. What we ignore when we read the blaring headlines claiming that 500 people were killed in the post-Godhra incidents is that about one in five of those 500 people were killed by the police trying to control the rioters! But do the reporters and commentators, those who love to bare their bleeding hearts, point out to that very salient fact? NO! Instead we get the recycled nonsense that somehow it is the government that is to blame, that it is the fanatic VHP brigade that is to blame. Sure they are to blame to some extent, but we cannot single them out as if they are the only culprits!
The Indian community in the US has been lax in communicating the information about what happened and why it happened. I don't believe there is any mechanism in place here to convey information to the media in a coherent and coordinated fashion. The Indian communities in the US are as hopelessly divided as are people in India and the same kind of “secular” minority that calls the shots in India does so here too. So, the secularists hold peace vigils and the VHPA types get hot under the collar and draft petitions to the Prime Minister and the rest of us are ready and willing to continue in our apathetic state. In not one newspaper here have I seen repeatedly stressed that Godhra is a predominantly Muslim town and that police now say some of the Muslim town councilors were responsible for inciting the mob to commit this dastardly deed. They don't point out that this was a cold-blooded and calculated act to ignite countrywide conflict between Hindus and Muslims and that this can be confirmed by the fact that the train stops at the Godhra station only for about three to five minutes and the mob that set fire to it had already been assembled by the local Muslim leaders to prepare to commit the mayhem.
The Hindu mobs that have now have been rampaging through Gujarat and that killed four or five hundred mostly innocent Muslims bespeak of cruelty not merely of mobs, whether Hindu, Muslim or Christian or whether they are in the US, England, Pakistan, or India but of the whirlwind we reap when not just hate is sown but also when justice is not rendered. As Varsha Bhosle, in her Rediff column says, “The Muslims who attacked the Sabarmati Express were neither ISI agents nor al-Qaeda jihadis -- they are plain old Indians. Sure, the hand of the ISI *is* deep in there -- but it's now being cited by the politicians to shirk the responsibility for their continuing with the Congress policy of indulging the minorities, to the point that Muslims began to think they are invincible. Just as Osama bin Laden thought he would get away with obliterating the WTC, so did the Muslims of Godhra think vis-à-vis the Hindus returning from Ayodhya.”
So, is Varsha Bhosle ignoring what our secularist press has been saying: that it was indeed the VHP's adamant demand for constructing the Ram temple at Ayodhya that led to the ratcheting up of animosity between Hindus and Muslims and that therefore the VHP basically was asking for trouble that came in the form of the massacre in Godhra? I will let Varsha Bhosle speak for herself: “The razing of the Babri has become the embodiment of everything that's evil in India -- that is, practising Hindus are what's wrong with India. You see, if a Vinod Mehta or a Dilip Padgaonkar can't be bothered to wear ajanoior believe fervently in the existence of Ram, it follows that any Hindu who does can't be a sane specimen. If a Shekhar Gupta or a Kuldip Nayar feels no threat to his self-esteem from a mosque built on land traditionally revered as Ram's janmabhoomi, it follows that anyone who does is an extremist-Hindu-fundamentalist-activist. Problem is, there are far, FAR more Hindus who want to see the Ram temple come up at Ayodhya than there are clutches of 'secular' opinion makers, historians, politicians and socialites. The alumni of Cathedral School or JNU do not an India make. This country also consists of the people who burnt Bombay and are burning Bharuch. The root of the Ayodhya issue is the sacrilege of a masjid constructed at the site of what is held as Ram's birthplace.”
Unfortunately, most of India's entrenched “secular” establishment, including the English language press has reacted to the murder of 57 people the way they are conditioned to: they blame the Hindu victim and absolve the Muslim criminals because, according to their rationale, the 150 million Muslims in India are a “minority” in a Hindu-majority India. These commentators have not bothered to show how it is that the Hindus brought this upon themselves. As one rare contrarian commentator pointed out (Vir Sanghvi writing in the Hindustan Times): “If a trainload of VHP volunteers had been attacked while returning after the demolition of the Babri mosque in December 1992, this would still have been wrong, but at least one could have understood the provocation. This time, however, there has been no real provocation at all.”
Have you also noticed the practice of newspapers in the US repeating that more than 600 people, mostly Muslims, have been killed in the riots? What is the exact toll and how many Muslims and how many Hindus have been killed? None of the Indian newspapers that I have scoured rather closely give me those numbers! The latest report in Rediff says “Death toll in Gujarat violence mounts to 633” (March 9, 2002) but does not give any details. It was the same after the Babri Masjid destruction. We were told 2, 000 people died in the riots following the destruction and that they were mostly Muslim. Why is there such a lack of respect for specifics in India? Or is it some complicity among journalists and editorial writers to not report the exact figures, for that way the sympathy for Muslim victims would not be shared with the Hindu victims? By the way, the figure of 2, 000 killed has been spread without real verification. According to one of Dugger's reports (March 10, 2002), “The mosque's demolition was followed by riots that claimed more than 1, 100 lives, mostly Muslims.”
The government will need time to verify what exactly transpired at the Godhra railway station, but all newspaper reports indicate that it was not the VHP pilgrims who started the violence. No one has established clearly how slogan shouting by Hindus could have so quickly led to the massing of Muslims armed with sickles, iron rods and petrol bombs in the early morning that the train reached and left the station. Premeditation and planning must have led to this unforgivable and indefensible act. Additional Director General of Police, Mahapatra, has said, “The investigations show that the miscreants had kept the petrol-soaked rags ready for use much before the train had arrived at the Godhra railway station.” (Rediff, March 7, 2002, “No women kidnapped in Godhra: Police”)
The police have already arrested a few local Muslim leaders, are in search of others who most probably will turn up in neighboring Pakistan soon. Indian “secular” commentators, among them the editorial board of the prestigiousTimes of India, have condemned the crime but have spent more effort and space blaming the VHP for continuing to insist on building the temple in Ayodhya. The Times of India editors don't see the vulgarity of their rationale because they are too used to believing in their own smug moral grandstanding: their “rational reasons” include the claim that the Muslims are a minority and therefore deserve special consideration; that Muslims already face discrimination; that the reporting of the truth will inflame religious passions all over the country and so on. India's left/secular/progressive “intellectuals” have been singing this same song for a long time, since even before India gained independence from the British.
It is the same kind of rationale that some Muslim leaders have used to justify the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. Muslims are frustrated, they say and Muslims are angry, they rationalize, for what the world has done to Muslims. That India is a secular country where Muslims have prospered and where Muslims have been presidents and chief justices and where a Muslim is the wealthiest person in the country is ignored or brushed aside. They will argue that the Muslim per capita income is the lowest among all religious groups, as is the average Muslim educational standards. They will argue that poverty and ignorance among the Muslim masses and the “discrimination” that they suffer from the Hindu majority are the reasons behind such violent acts.
These same editors and hired hacks like Pankaj Mishra who writes for The New York Times and others blame the VHP and Hindu organizations for attacks against Christians and Muslims but who will not provide any context for those attacks. When, three years ago Graham Staines and his two children were burnt alive by a Hindu mob, the Indian “secularists” did not argue that Christian missionaries had made themselves unpopular by engaging in conversion and so were vulnerable to attack by those who resented such activities. Of course, if anyone had put forward such an argument that person would have been tarred, feathered and driven out of the country. But in the secularists' political lexicon it is okay to demonize the VHP and the Hindu “fundamentalists” who are regularly described as fascists, Nazis and Muslim haters. This is because they have programmed themselves to see Hindu-Muslim relations in the only way that is fashionable: that Hindus provoke and Muslims suffer the consequences. In holding on to these fashionable beliefs about religious conflict in India they ignore even the most trenchant of remarks by a man they consistently use to berate the VHP cadre with: “But as a Hindu, I am more ashamed of Hindu cowardice than I am angry at the Mussalman bullying. Why did not the owners of the houses looted die in the attempt to defend their possessions? Where were the relatives of the outraged sisters at the time of outrage? My non-violence does not admit running away from danger and leaving the dear ones unprotected.” If the secularists had their way, this remark by Gandhi would be censored from all Indian books and it would also let them ignore the reason why the RSS was started by Hedgewar.
Indian secularists are so used to thinking of themselves as good people, as modern and as liberal that they don't see or can't see how their rationalization of such Muslim provocations leads to further polarization of Indian society. Even moderate, educated Hindus are beginning to tune out the blather emanating from India's established academics, editorialists and the ever-ready-to-pander-to-the-Muslim-vote-bank politicians.
Only equal justice, common civil laws and a no-nonsense approach to dealing with religious conflict will help India be a truly secular nation with some modicum of amity between its Hindu majority and substantive Muslim minority. I say “modicum” and don't promise true amity because I would be foolish to presume that in a world where Islam-inspired terrorism is goading millions to wage holy war, Indians and Hindus can get peaceful co-existence for the asking. Lest we forget, India has the second largest Muslim population of any country in the world and one of Osama bin Laden's primary target of hate is India.
(A version of this article appeared in Hamarashehar).
Originally published on Wednesday, March 13, 2002.