01, Dec 1993
While many institutions of Indian democracy wilted under Hindutva’s onslaught, the secular press held its ground
Peace-loving, liberal, secular-minded people who lived or ventured inside the Muslim mohallas in Bombay and elsewhere in the country in December, 1992 and in January, 1993 had a tough job on their hands.
Because of Ayodhya and its aftermath, most Muslims felt betrayed by, and enraged with, the ruling Congress governments – at the Centre and in the states -, the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the police force. How to soothe inflamed passions and convince ordinary Muslims that the situation was terrible no doubt but not every Hindu had turned against them?
Whenever other arguments failed to impress, the activist or the intellectual on a peace-promoting mission could always revert to the clincher: “Akhbar walon ke bare mein aap ka kya kahna hai” (What do you feel about the press)? The spontaneous answer invariably was: “Haan, unhon ne apne insaaf pasandi ka suboot diya hai” (Yes, they have proved themselves to be fair-minded). In the darkest moments of despair last winter, the national press and the Indian army were still perceived by secularists, in general, and the battered Muslim minority, in particular, as symbols of hope.
Speaking in a single voice on the morning after the demolition, editorials in the mainline national press gave voice to, echoed and magnified the cry of the secular Indian conscience against the vandalism in Ayodhya. Even the Indian Express, whose editorial slant towards saffron is barely disguised, minced no words in condemning the destruction of the mosque.
In a democratic set up, the mass media shapes public consciousness as much as it is shaped by it. As the communal virus spread rapidly in the country’s body politic during the ’80s and the early ’90s, sections of the erstwhile secular press and some individuals from many publications succumbed to it.
For example, in early 1991, India Today, projected the BJP leader, L.K. Advani as a suave, urbane, well-read man endowed with all the qualities of a statesman. In short, good prime ministerial material.
In 1987, when the committing of “sati” by Roop Kanwar in Rajasthan sparked a nationwide outrage, the Hindi daily, Jansatta (Indian Express group), editorially supported the practice of a widow killing herself on her husband’s funeral pyre.
December 6, 1992, however, jolted out of their stupor otherwise unbiased people who had become victims of Hindutva’s aggressive propaganda. India Today and Jansatta are the most notable examples of this turnaround to an unflinching secular line.
India Today sent its correspondent for a detailed investigation and exposed the Sangh Parivar’s fictitious claims of extensive destruction and damage to Hindu temples in the Kashmir Valley. The report, reproduced by large sections of the Indian press, deeply embarrassed the BJP. Jansatta too, has been merciless in its criticism of saffron politics over the last year.
Earlier, the Sangh Parivar had a field day spreading on a mass scale the myth that Hindus were being discriminated against in their own country, while Muslims were pampered. In the months following December 1992, prominent national dailies – The Times of India, The Statesman, The Telegraph, The Pioneer, The Hindu – and periodicals – Frontline, India Today, Sunday, The Sunday Observer, The illustrated Weekly of India – took upon themselves the task of countering the systematic disinformation campaign which had helped build-up hatred against Muslims and channelise votes for Hindutva.
If some of the oft-deployed weapons from the propaganda arsenal of the Sangh Parivar today stand blunted, much of the praise goes to the county’s secular press. To its credit, when many other institutions of India’s secular democracy all but caved in, the fourth estate held its own.