29, Jan 2019 | CC Team
The following piece that first appeared in the Nov Dec 2002 edition of Communalism Combat examines the role of media in spreading hate during the Gujarat 2002 communal carnage.
The Tribunal recommends that all the recommendations made by the Editors’ Guild in its report on the Gujarat carnage be implemented. India; Rights and Wrongs the Editors Guild Report is available here.
On February 28, the two largest circulation, multiple-edition Gujarati newspapers, Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar, which are fairly dependent on the state government’s largesse, played up the unsubstantiated official version of there being a ‘foreign hand’ behind the Godhra tragedy. It was only 3-4 weeks later that reports rubbishing this theory began to appear in newspapers. But by that time, the damage had already been done.
Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar have been playing a blatantly communal role since the BJP returned to power in Gujarat in 1998. The BJP government’s patronage of these dailies needs to be looked into carefully, so that they do not continue to act as mere government agents. In the recent carnage, too, the role of Sandesh was particularly mischievous, while some smaller circulation newspapers like Gujarat Today, Sadhbhav and Gujarat Mitra acted responsibly.
On February 28, the day after the Godhra tragedy, Sandesh published photographs of the burning coach of the Sabarmati Express with the headline, ‘Fifty Hindus burnt alive’ above the masthead. Besides, it also had a gruesome colour spread of photographs of the Godhra corpses. This was the first major breach of media ethics and law in the context of the Gujarat carnage. Witnesses told the Tribunal that copies of this issue of Sandesh were widely photocopied and flaunted by cadres of the RSS/VHP and BD in rural areas, to provoke anger and prompt the participation of ordinary people in the carnage that followed.
In the same issue, another front page headline that read, ‘From among those abducted from the Sabarmati Express, two dead bodies of Hindu girls found near Kalol in mutilated state’ had the following report: “Vadodara, Thursday: News about the dead bodies of two girls, abducted from the bogies during the attack on the Sabarmati Express yesterday, found in a mutilated and terribly disfigured form near a pond in Kalol, has added fuel to the already volatile situation of tension, not only in Panchmahal, but in the whole state. In an act of inhumanity that would make even a devil weep, both girls had their breasts cut off. It is evident from the dead bodies that the victims had been repeatedly raped. There is speculation that the girls might have died because of gross sexual abuse.” After investigations, the police found the report to be entirely baseless.
The police, too, stands indicted in this case by choosing to remain silent and doing nothing to expose the newspaper and initiate action against it for publishing a totally baseless but highly inflammatory story. Meanwhile, Sandesh continued, unchecked, to paint Muslims as murderers and traitors. On March 1, a report titled, ‘Call from the mosque: Slay the non-believers — Islam is in trouble’ told its readers: “On February 27, at 11.30 a.m., a mosque located along the railway tracks incited a crowd with the call: ‘Slay the non-believers… Islam is in danger.’ Responding to the call, the crowd attacked the surviving Ram sevaks from the torched train compartments, who were sitting by the railway tracks.” This, too, was a story without any basis.
On March 7, Sandesh carried a report with a damaging headline, suggesting that Indian Muslims returning from the Haj pilgrimage could be a potential ‘terrorist’ threat to Hindus. Titled, ‘Hindus in danger! Possibility of attack with terrorists’ support! Frightening scheme of attack by returning Hajis!’
‘When Muslim leaders shouted slogans like ‘Hindustan Zindabad!’, read a Sandesh headline on March 8. The report said that the Circuit House witnessed ‘an unprecedented event’, when Muslim leaders of the city came together to shout slogans like the one mentioned above, and appeal for peace. The implication was clear: that Muslims are inherently anti-national and violent, whose raising of patriotic slogans and appealing for peace was ‘unprecedented’.
Typically, the opening lines of most reports concerning the post-Godhra violence began with, “In the continuing spiral of communal rioting that broke out as a reaction to the demonic (or barbaric) Godhra incident…” The denunciatory words used liberally to describe the Godhra incident were strikingly absent when reporting the subsequent genocide. Clearly, like the Gujarat government, Sandesh, too, continued to justify the carnage in the rest of Gujarat as a ‘reaction’ to the heinous arson in Godhra.
Inflammatory tactics were used consistently by Sandesh. Reports on gruesome acts, like the burning alive of people, were published in bold letters, under banner headlines. Photographs of burnt, mangled bodies were a regular feature on the front page, or the last page reserved for important local news. In the first week of violence in the state, Sandesh published colour photographs of scenes of the carnage, superimposed with a ‘burst’ giving readers the latest figure of casualties. Photographs of trishul-wielding ‘Ram sevaks’ were splashed on the front pages in the first week. The photographs served to instill terror amongst Muslims and to provoke intense passions and mutual hostility between the two communities.
Sandesh did worse than ignore the journalistic code of conduct that prohibits naming the communities involved in violent conflagrations. It published reports like: ‘a mob of religious fanatics’ (read Muslims) who were abducting tribal women, having to face the wrath of the people; or: ‘religious fanatics’ about to attack a temple causing tension in certain areas in Vadodara city, bringing ‘devotees’ (read Hindus) out on the street to protect their place of worship.
Throughout the violence, Sandesh cynically propagated the idea of Muslims being anti–national and pro–Pakistan. Areas in the city or the state with a sizeable Muslim population were described as ‘mini-Pakistan’. On March 7, a report claimed to have discovered Godhra’s ‘Karachi connection’: an entire area in Karachi named Godhra. On March 1, the headline of a news item claimed that a ‘mini-Pakistan’ was in existence in the Navayard area of the city. The article went on to say that such ‘pockets’ were being created in the city, and asked the police to take note of the ‘criminal’ UP migrant labourers who lived in this area. That Muslims in such bastis were living in complete terror at the time, was a trivial detail the Sandesh reports had no use for.
On March 1, a report claimed that the entire Sabarmati Express would have been put to flames had it not been delayed. The headline claimed, ‘A mob of 7-8,000 was waiting for the Sabarmati Express to arrive at Godhra.’ The mob, Sandesh reminded its readers, was made up of ‘religious fanatics’.
Gujarat Samachar, the other leading Gujarati paper, also played a role in inflaming passions, though not as consistently as Sandesh. Reportage on the Godhra incident, in particular, was inflammatory and irresponsible. But it also carried reports highlighting the need for communal harmony.
On February 28, the lead story on page 1 carried the headline, ‘3–4 young girls kidnapped.’ The source of this information was not mentioned. On page 10, a report quoted VHP leader, Shri Kaushik Patel, who claimed that 10 girls had been kidnapped. The reporter, evidently, had not cross–checked the concocted claims, either with the IGP or the railway police. The report did not mention the names of any of the girls or any other details about the alleged kidnapping.
On March 6, the Gujarat Samachar carried a report on the last page with the headline, ‘The Plan was to torch the whole train, not just one bogie.’ A box item on the last page stated that, ‘a mob was ready for the second attack.’ Again, the source of information was not mentioned; the tone and tenor of the reports, however, suggested they were reports based on careful investigation.
On March 7, Gujarat Samachar carried a box item on the last page, claiming that, “ISI is creating trouble in Gujarat; Kalota and his colleagues are important link; the deputy commander of ‘Huji’, arrested in Kolkata, has confessed to the conspiracy.” The report uses the term ‘Rambhakt’ several times for the travellers on the Sabarmati Express on that fateful day. On March 6, the headline of a report read ‘Torching of the train at Godhra was pre-planned. Kalota was tipped off by a railway officer on how to cut open the vacuum pipes.’ The source of information was not mentioned.
On March 16, a page 1 story titled, ‘Indiscriminate firing from Fatehganj Mosque,’ was a complete fabrication.
On March 18, a photograph on page 1 showing bombs recovered by police during combing operations in the Danilimda area of Ahmedabad, had a caption that said: “People talking of secularism should be asked if protecting criminals is secularism.”
There were many other stories that contributed actively to the belief that Muslims were mobilising on a large scale to attack Hindus. It is evident from the communal pogroms and conflicts in recent years, that a section of the mass media is being increasingly used to peddle the familiar communal tactic of depicting the victim as the aggressor and vice versa. On March 24, a heading on page 1 of GujaratSamachar read, ‘Sat Kaival temple receives threat; Sarsa temple and pathshala under threat of being blown up using remote control.’ And a heading on page 2 in the same issue read, ‘Possibility of attack with deadly weapons; Secret agencies receive information; Religious and educational institutions will be targeted. All DSPs alerted.’ On March 26, Gujarat Samachar had a story on the last page, ‘Sabarmati Express incident was nothing but a pre–planned incident; many youths ready to commit crimes on just one signal from Bilal.’ There was absolutely no basis to any of these reports.
However, unlike Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar also carried some positive stories. Here are some examples:
Ø Muslims saved a Hindu shopkeeper’s shop in Halol. (March 2, p.5)
Ø Residents of Ram–Rahim tekra in Ahmedabad are an example of communal harmony. (March 5, p.1).
Ø Hindus saved the life of a Muslim woman in Halol. (March 5, p.5).
Ø No one wants riots. Rare scenes of communal harmony in sensitive areas of the city. (March 6, last page).
Ø Elol village near Himmatnagar is an example of communal harmony. (March 6, p.5).
Ø A Muslim woman offered shelter to a Hindu family. (March 7, p.3)
Ø At Bhoj village in Padra taluka, Muslims were given shelter in a temple. (March 7, p.8).
Ø “Oh! He is our Rahim Chacha… our guruji…” and they saved him. (March 10, p.11; An article by Bhaven Kachchhi in Sunday supplement.)
Ø At Lilapir Dargah of Talaja, devotees include all — Hindus and Muslims. (March 11, p.5).
Ø An old Muslim woman saved from a mob by a Hindu youth. (March 22, p.2)
Ø A pregnant lady taken to hospital by a Muslim youth risking his life. (March 28)
Gujarat Today is an 11–year–old Gujarati daily with a claimed circulation of 70,000. It is published by the Lokhit Prakashan Trust, Ahmedabad. The paper was started by Muslim liberals, and is probably the only Gujarati daily with a large Muslim readership. The paper carries news from villages and district towns that are not generally covered by the mainstream media. Given that Muslims constitute the vast majority of the readers of Gujarat Today, the role it played during the carnage is particularly noteworthy and significant
There was no editorial on the Godhra carnage on February 28, to condemn the heinous crime of torching a train compartment, whatever the provocation. Principles apart, the daily, it would seem, was even oblivious to the enormous communal consequences of what had happened. However, thereafter, the extensive coverage of the incidents, helplines and information about the police and the administration was factual.
The daily also made a consistent effort to report on instances of communal harmony, and to project the view of Hindu liberals and progressives who were critical of the Hindutva project in Gujarat. Some examples are reports on: how the lives and properties of 175 Muslims of Naroda in Ahmedabad were protected by local shepherds; how Hindu doctors in Bhavnagar saved properties from burning and made efforts to treat the injured; relief in the form of foodgrain and clothes provided by Hindus to victims in Jhagadia; a group marriage of Hindu and Muslim youths in Mangrol.
Also reported was news from Prantij, where a woman sarpanch successfully stopped riots occurring in her village. The March 8 edition carried news items about peace committees in Vagra, Palej, Dholka and Bharuch. On March 10, the paper had a report on how Hindu families saved the lives of 15 Muslims in Kavitha village near Borsad. While there were reports from Juhapura, of how Muslims saved Hindus, there was also a report on how looting of both Hindus and Muslims took place.
The March 12 issue carried news of a Hindu family in Dehgam, which sheltered 20 Muslims in their house, and a boxed item about a relief camp in Bhalej village, Kheda district, run by Hindus and Muslims. The March 15 issue had a report of how Muslim women saved the lives of Hindus. News of unity among the Hindus and Muslims of Lambadia and Sami was reported in other issues of the paper.
The Gujarat government, the Tribunal notes, was selective about action against TV channels and publications. While it banned some local TV channels, and also a national channel — Star News — on March 2, because it had exposed the government’s inaction, it took no action against newspapers like Sandesh. The ban was lifted on the assurance that the CM would be given a chance to air his views on the channel.
The English language newspapers, with their local editions in Gujarat, did a commendable job through most of that period.
(These excerpts were first carried in Communalism Combat, Nov-Dec 2002, Year 9, Issue No.81-82)
The full report by the tribunal may be read here.