Eyes wide shut : what AajTak’s coverage of Ram Navami violence tells us about mainstream media in today’s India There were violent incidents in many Indian states, yet mainstream media conveniently presented a one-sided narrative

03, Apr 2023 | Tanya Arora

On March 30, 2023, the festival of Ram Navami was being celebrated all over India, a festival that marks the celebration of Lord Ram’s birthday. In the recent times, this the celebration of this festival has created a sense of fear in the minds of most, with the extremist Hindutva outfits appropriating what were, essentially calm and quiet community celebrations, with their members also resorting to violence and belittling provocative tactics. Such incidents peaked after several years in 2022. Again this year, the festival of Ram Navami –again coinciding with the fasting month of Ramzan—was chosen by these outfits to raise tensions especially in states that are poll bound soon. As predicted, several incidents of violence were reported from many states in India, especially from the states of West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Bihar and Delhi. It is crucial to note here that while there was a token alert raised by the authorities, processions –except in Jahangirpuri Delhi where permission was formally refused but was flouted by organisers anyway–and rallies were given permission to be be held, never mind the statutory law and guidelines to restrict their routes. The police were reportedly merely told to be prepared for any untoward happenings.

Despite time-tested institutional warnings not to allow routes in either crowded or diversely populated areas, laws that restrict the flaunting of weapons and arms, such processions today enjoy a special impunity.

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Read The contentious route, a common factor in inciting violence during religious processions in India

Many incidents of stone pelting, violence, offensive hate speeches near mosques, attacks, and vandalism were reported, which was unsurprising, but what was seriously troubling was how these incidents were reported by sections of the media. In recent times, several electronic media channels, especially those in the Hindi language, but many in English too, have been presenting news in a way that is selective and p[artisan, furthering a political agenda of those in power. One was is to conduct “debates” and present a communally sensitive news in a way that it villianises the minority religious communities and portrays the majority Hindu community as a victim!

One such recent example is how Aaj Tak news channel has presented the incidents of violence that took place in various states and regions on Ram Navami. Aaj Tak is the Hindi language channel of the India Today group.

The live broadcast of the news reported by Aaj Tak has been analysed here.

The clips starts with reporting of the incident that took place in Howrah of West Bengal. In Howrah, widely reported incidents on other mainstream media show eyewitnesses record that the trouble started from a procession in Shivpur and by noon there was extreme tension in the area and frequent bombings began. Meanwhile, it started raining. Amidst this, shops were vandalised in various places along with some cars. There were reports of arson, as well. A large police force and RAF (Rapid Action Force) were deployed in the area to control the situation. 

Coverage of West Bengal

In their said broadcast by Aaj Tak News, however, the news about this sequence of events that unraveled at Howrah is presented in an entirely different manner. The reporter in the news said, (without naming a specific religious community), that a Ram Navami procession was being taken out in the area and it is being alleged by the people participating in the procession themselves that stones suddenly started being thrown at them. Images of burning cars and the vandalism that followed were also being shown.

This news clip proceeded with the anchor reporting incidents of violence that were reported from other areas of West Bengal. It is essential to note here, that while reporting these incidents, the words “clash between the two communities” were used again and again, subtly implying that both the Hindu and Muslim community were attacking each other, even while the background clips were showing people, holding aloft the saffron flag, raising offensive slogans, breaking cordons set by police and generally creating chaos. In one such clip, the police can also be seen stopping one youth holding wearing a saffron scarf and waving the saffron flags from creating any chaos. (This is just a description of what is said and showed in the news clipping of Aaj Tak)

Another reporter, reporting from the site of the violence, mentions that while the police has not given any statement, it is being alleged by the processionists that they were the ones that were attacked with stones. Given the on-ground situation, with such processionists backed by powerful outfits taking the law into their own hands in terms of both routes to be followed by the procession and behavior of the processionists, this amounts to reporting based on just one side or version which is counter to all norms of fair reportage. Misleading alerts on the ticker, which subtly implied that stones were pelted at the yatra, were also continually displayed showed even though the channel had no confirmation or official version of what conspired at the site of violence. Throughout this segment, a selective and one sided perspective has been presented and highlighted. It became clear after this segment, that even while presenting a news that was communally charged, the reporters presented the same in a way that portrayed the Muslims community as the ones who started the violence and are responsible for it.

After this segment, the statement of West Bengal’s Chief Minister, Ms. Mamata Banerjee, was shown where she was heard saying that “a BJP goon had said that he will be armed during the Shobha Yatra, and while she has allowed for the Yatra to take place, if any violence happens in a Muslim dominated area, there will be a strict investigation.”

This segment is followed by the anchor quoting senior BJP leaders and top brass who blame the chief minister herself for the violence that took place in West Bengal. A statement given by Amit Malviya, BJP Leader (head of the IT Cell), is then telecast where he can be heard blaming Mamata Banerjee for failing as a CM. he further says that “on the day that ten thousand rallies were being taken out in West Bengal on the occasion of Ram Navami, the CM hurt the sentiments of the Hindus by sitting on a protest”.

The next statement is that of MP Giriraj Singh, a hate offender in the past. He can be heard saying on air that, “Mamata Banerjee has spread a red carpet for Bangladeshis and Rohingyas. Violence on Ram Navami has taken place last year too, but this year it took place under the protection of Mamata Banerjee. And she should not forget, that every time Shivaji rises and takes a sword in his hand, Aurangzeb’s are destroyed.” This is on national commercially television where through the use of tested allegory this BJP leader threatens the Muslim community. The said statement, unchecked and unfiltered, without any counter or rebuttal is shown by the media channel without a second thought.

Through this news segment that telecast the violence that took place on Ram Navami in West Bengal on March 30, Aaj Tak portrayed the said incident in a way that influenced its audience to further the ruling BJP’s propaganda paradigm: that Mamata Banerjee sided (again) with the Muslim community, and is therefore anti-Hindu. Both the BJP leaders claimed that Mamata Banerjee is the “mastermind” behind the violence that erupted in West Bengal, and without even thinking twice, the baseless allegations made by them were shown on national television by the channel. Not once in this bit of reportage has the channel even attempted to portray the incident dispassionately. This style of reportage by Aaj Tak, far from being sober and fact based actually serves the partisan purpose of pushing its audience towards a pre-determined conclusion that suggests that members from the Muslim community were the ones that attacked the procession.

Later, in another segment, a different reporter of Aaj Tak also covered the issue of Shobha Yatras and violence that erupted on Ram Navami in West Bengal. For this, the reporter said “But this time on Ram Navami, the real political riot took place in West Bengal. In Malda, on the one hand, an attempt was made to show the glow of weapons in the Ram Navami procession taken out by the people of Hindu-Muslim community, while in Manikpur, different types of weapons were displayed. There was no unrest due to the display of weapons in the procession, but after Mamata Banerjee made a statement before Ram Navami, political gimmicks started on the festival.”

After this, the speech given by Mamata Banerjee, CM of West Bengal, which was shown previously too, was shown again. After this, the reported said that it was after this statement by Mamata Banerjee that the BJP started proving Mamata Banerjee not only anti-Ram but also anti-Hindu. A highly contentious, derogatory and islamophobic statement made by Rahul Sinha, BJP Leader, was then shown, where he was heard saying that “Pata nahi wo kaun si Mamata hain. Hijaab pehenane wali. Roja rakhne wali Mamata, Pata nahi wo Hindu hain ya nahi. (I do not know which Mamata she is, the hijab wearing Mamata or the one who follows the Muslim fasting during Ramamdan. I do not even know if she is a Hindu or not)”. Showing this statement, which is at the very least anti-Muslim and anti-women, against an elected woman leader of the country demonstrates the type of politics that the Aaj Tak channel is engaging in and known to inhibit and support.

The reporter further said that the BJP has alleged that instead of taking a holiday and celebrating festivals like Ram Navami, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has sat on a sit-in to appease Muslims. Another statement by a BJP leader, Dilip Ghosh was shown, which was anti- Muslim and encouraged the communally divisive ideology being promoted in our country. The BJP leader had said “The festival of Ram Navami is being celebrated all over the country including Bengal. Mamata Banerjee has declared a holiday on Eid but did not keep Ram Navami holiday. On the contrary, they are protesting on Ram Navami.”

During this whole segment, not once did the reporter state that demonstration or brandishing of weapons in a rally or procession was criminal act in India. Instead of criticizing the said act, the reported suddenly deemed the rally of Ram Navami to be a “Hindu-Muslim” community rally, and said that even though the act of brandishing weapons was committed, no violence took place. Ironically, instead of blaming the acts committed by the members of the rally, the reporter blamed Mamata Banerjee’s statement for being the main reason behind the violence.

Coverage of other States

 The news then shows videos and clips of violence that took place in Vadodara, Gujarat. The anchor stated that stones were pelted at the procession, even as the police were lathi charging the ones who were throwing the stones. A clip is then shown where people can be seen running and the police can be seen beating people. It was also stated during the clipping that once the yatra had reached a mosque, people started pelting stones at the procession. Again, it was subtly implied that the Muslim community was the one that pelted stones at the yatra as soon as it reached the mosque area.

The news segment then moves to reporting the violence that erupted in Hyderabad and the hate speech given by the suspended BJP MLA T. Raja. Before the speech by T. Raja Singh is shown, the anchor can be heard saying that “Singh has again used disputed language and has subtly targeted the Muslim community”. A video clip of the speech given by T. Raja is shown, where he can be seen riding an elephant, and making demands for “Akhand Hindu Rashtra” (Undivided Hindu nation.).

Speaking at a Ram Navami Shobha Yatra, Singh added that a separate ‘Hindu Rashtra’ constitution is being prepared and that the country will only allow “hum do humare do” kind of people to vote, not those who are ‘hum paanch, humare pachas’. This statement of his was made to encourage the right-wing agenda and stereotype that Muslim men have more than one wife, and give birth to more than two children.

He also said the capital of this Hindu Rashtra would be Kashi, Mathura or Ayodhya, and not Delhi.

Our sadhu-sants have already started planning on how our Hindu Rashtra will be, a separate constitution is also being prepared…and our capital will not be Delhi, it will be Kashi, Mathura or Ayodhya. I am not saying this, sadhu-sants are saying this,” he added.

 Continuing with his diatribe, Singh then said, “There is a 100-crore Hindu population in India and despite such a majority. Despite such a majority, India is not being declared as an Akhand Hindu Rashtra. There are more than 50 Islamic nations in the world today, more than 150 Christian-majority nations. I want to ask those opposing the idea, ‘why can’t India be declared a Hindu Rashtra? Every part (state or region) that split from India became an Islamic nation’,” he said as the crowd cheered him on.

Singh also said that states such as Kerala and West Bengal, where non-BJP parties are in power, are on the verge of becoming “Islamic countries”.

He also released a song, ‘Jail ka taala toot gaya, baap tumhara chhoot gaya (Jail locks broke open, letting your leader out)’. The song also talks about his demand for a Hindu nation.

Based on multiple media reports, Singh was also seen asking the driver to stop the vehicle when the yatra reached a mosque in the old city, and talking about how his elder son would take forward his legacy of fighting for Hindutva. As reported by India Today, Afzalgunj Police has booked Singh under Sections 153-A (promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion, race, place of birth, residence, language, etc.) and 506 (punishment for criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). The case was filed based on a complaint filed by SI J Veera Babu from Afzalgunj Police Station, who stated that he was deputed in the SA Bazar area for maintaining the law and order situation in the area in wake of the suspended BJP MLA’s address at the Ram Navami rally, Indian Today reported.

The T. Raja Singh segment lasted for a little more over one minute, most of which was covered by the hate speech made by him. As soon as the speech finished, the anchor moved on to reporting other incidents of violence. Not even once did the anchor questioned Singh’s anti-Muslim diatribe, or brought in any critical perspective, like they did with Mamata Banerjee’s speech. In addition to this, the anchor also failed to highlight that Singh is a serial hate speaker, who is facing multiple criminal charges for giving inciteful and anti-Muslim hate speeches. If the anchor, and the channel, thought that it was justified to showcase opinions blaming Mamata Banerjee for the violence that took place in West Bengal, why was the same not done in T. Raja’s controversial and provocative speech?

In the month of March itself, Singh had spoken at two big events and made speeches targeting the Muslim community. On March 10, addressing a gathering at Ahmednagar’s Shrirampur, he had said that if any member of the minority community was found involved in ‘love jihad’ he would cut them into pieces. “I want to tell the ‘landyas’ (anti-Muslim slur) involved in ‘love jihad’ that they are already cut in half (circumcised) and we will cut them in whole.” At the same rally, he insisted that Hindus and Muslims could never be brothers. “Chhatrapati Shivaji and Aurangzeb were not brothers, so weren’t Veer Maharana Pratap and Akbar.”

Singh continued his rhetoric nine days later in Aurangabad when he called for attacks on those found promoting ‘love jihad’. “Want to stop ‘love jihad’, want to shoot them… take your team whenever you come to know about them. First, request the administration for help and if they do not help then complete the work on those who are already cut in half (circumcised),” he had said at the March 19 rally. It was reported that pursuant to his speech, violence had also erupted. But, the anchor, while showing the speech made by Singh on Ram Navami, conveniently forgot to bring all these facts to the notice of its viewers.

The anchor then goes on to report the violence that erupted in Mathura, where a Hindu individual has waved a saffron flag near a mosque, in Lucknow at a University where the ABVP had taken out a rally and in the Malwani area of Mumbai. With regards to the incident that took place in Malwani, the anchor stated that the issue was over the volume of the DJ that was being played and then the stone pelting started. It is important to note here that had this issue been about the volume of Azaan, the whole narrative would have been very different from how it is being portrayed here. It is crucial to remind everyone that this is the same channel that had, in April 2022, dedicated a full segment on the restrictions put on loudspeakers used for Azaan by various nations. In the said segment, the reporter had put forth issues related to noise pollution that have led to ban on Azaan in Indonesia. Another report was also done by Aaj Tak during the same show wherein the discussion on the history of usage of loudspeakers for Azaan was done.

 During these segments, derogatory and inciteful tickers where also run, which are as follows: