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February 9, 1999


E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

An unwilling media

It has taken a seasoned French journalist to deliver the much deserved but much-belated sledgehammer blow to the Indian media. Writing in The Hindustan Times of February 1, 1999, Francois Gautier, the Delhi-based South Asia correspondent of Le Figaro (France's largest circulated newspaper) has delved into the myth and reality of the so-called anti-Christian attacks so widely reported and criticised in this country. His comments should stun and stir the conscience of all newspapers and television networks, which used the Jhabua rape of nuns, the Gujarat incidents and the Stains murder as means of inflicting continuing calumny on the Sangh Parivar.

Says Gautier: "This massive outcry on the 'atrocities against the minorities' (in quotes be it noted) raises doubts about the quality and integrity of Indian journalism." Read that again, dear surfer, to understand how sharp and deep the Frenchman's lance goes. But unlike many of our own, this French journalist doesn't merely throw his opinions around; he backs them with facts and perspective based on knowledge.

Take for instance the rape of the four nuns in Jhabua. Today, India's press is still reporting it as religious rape and using the VHP's instant hotheaded reaction (almost immediately withdrawn) to denigrate the Sangh Parivar for the rape itself. The fact, however, is that those four nuns, along with their bishop, George Anatil, admitted to Gautier that the rape had nothing to do with religion, and that it was the doing of a gang of Bhil tribals who are known to perpetrate this kind of hateful acts even against their own women. If the Le Figaro correspondent could go to Jhabua and ascertain the truth, what prevented the Indian editors from doing so? Lack of integrity? Lack of quality? Or lack of both?

Then there's that episode at Wyanad in northern Kerala. It was reported that a priest and four women were beaten up and a Bible was stolen by "fanatical" Hindus. A First Information Report was lodged with the police, the communists took out processions all over Kerala to protest against the "atrocities" and the press went gaga. By the time a reporter from The Indian Express found out that that nobody was beaten up and the Bible was safe, it was too late: the damage was done. Worse, the incident is still being used by foreigners to defame India and its Hindus.

Finally, there's the Stains murder. Though the antecedents of the prime suspect, Dara Singh, are still clouded in mystery, no elitist pressman of ours is willing to accept the country's home minister's statement that, as per information provided by the Congress ruled Orissa government, none of those arrested so far was a Bajrang Dal activist and that, therefore, the Dal was not involved in the gruesome episode. It has taken Gautier to say that "What is more probable is that, like in Wyanad, it is a case of converted tribals versus non-converted tribals, of pent-up jealousies, of old village feuds and land disputes. It is also an outcome of what --- it should be said ---are the aggressive methods of the Pentecost and seventh Adventist missionaries, known for their muscular ways of converting." Which Indian editor has shown that mental capacity to say so much in so few words?

The problem is not only the media's inability and unwillingness to portray the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; the problem extends to the vile quality of perpetuating untruths. The way our media has repeatedly permitted --- through editorial page articles, news analysis, news reports and readers' letters --- the Sangh Parivar to be lambasted over the so-called atrocities on minorities while simultaneously denying the Parivar people to have its version projected, it would appear to the lay reader that no other major crime is being committed in our country or that the Christians are more important to us than most other things.

A most deplorable example of this attitude was the front page of The Telegraph on January 28, 1999. Its lead story--- spread across seven out of eight possible columns --- that day was about the recall of the Vatican's envoy from India; its second lead was about Sonia Gandhi's apparent willingness to dislodge the Vajpayee government; its third most important report that day was around a quote that Dara Singh was a Bajrang Dal sympathiser (though, in a single-column report on its own page 6 that very day, the same newspaper's special correspondent stated that the UP State intelligence report's probe showed that Dara Singh's name was not found on any Bajrang Dal list). And that brings us to the last major story on the front page of The Telegraph of January 28, 1999.

That story was, hold your breath, on the cold blooded murder of 23 helpless villagers of Shankarbigha in Jehanabad (Bihar) from the bullets of the guns wielded by the private, banned Ranvir Sena.

So, there you have it, the sense of perspective and priority of the leading English language daily of cultured Calcutta: seven columns for the Vatican, four columns (with photograph) for its most faithful female disciple in India, five columns for the overdone Dara Singh-cum-Bajrang Dal bit, and just three columns at the very bottom for the latest and most gruesome tragedy of the last 12months!! Such an attitude to news is beneath contempt and worse; it is positively perverse.

It is precisely such an attitude which prompts Francois Gautier to ask uneasy questions. "Is the life of a white man," he asks, "more important and dear to the Indian media than the lives of a few hundred Indians? Or to put it differently: Is the life of a Christian more sacred than the lives of many Hindus?" Gautier concludes that "It would seem so" because, as he says, "When Hindus are killed in pogroms in Pakistan or Bangladesh, we never witness in the Indian media the like of the tear jerking, posthumous 'interview' of Stains in Star News."

Now here's something, which will churn your stomach. At a village in Bihar's Singhbhum district on the night of February 1, a group of assailants gangraped a pregnant woman, her two minor daughters and killed them as well as her mother-in-law. That report of PTI, a national news agency, has not been seen in any but one newspaper and that too only as a single-column item.

This once again raises not only the kind of uneasy questions which Gautier has put above, but some more as well. "Why," he asks, "does the Indian press always reflect a Westernised point of view? Why does India's intellectual 'elite,' the majority of which happens to be Hindu, always comes down so hard on their own culture, their own religion, their own brothers and sisters? Is it because of an eternal feeling of inferiority, which is itself a legacy of British colonisation? Is it because they consider Hindus to be inferior beings? Is it because the Indian press is still deeply influenced by Marxist and Communist thoughts like it is in Kerala, where the communists have shamelessly and dangerously exploited the Christian issue for their selfish purpose?"

Clearly, if India is not to be split even more than it is, then it is imperative that large sections of the media stop passing off as truth what is heavily tinted and highly jaundiced. The editors of elitist newspapers (with their regional language chain in tow), glossy magazines and television networks (Star and all) must introspect over all the above questions asked, not by the Sangh Parivar, but by a knowledgeable French journalist from a respected stable in France. A related issue over which these editors must ponder is whether they have the right to abuse the rights which millions of their publics have to be accurately informed about events.

The public, which shoots off angry letters to newspaper editors on the basis of the misleading inputs of the media, must also rein themselves in. Seeing one's name in print is a joyful experience, no doubt, but they must also exercise their right to demand from the media only that information which is as accurate as is possible.

Why, even the dignitary by the name of K R Narayanan would do signal service to the nation if he tempered his high sensitivity with an equal concern for the truth, first and last, before issuing emotionally charged statements on the basis of mere media news. As a first step in that direction, the President would appear well-advised to call an urgent meeting of the Press Council of India along with some leading media men and read them the Gautier article.

Tailpiece: In its edition of February 5, 1999, The Mumbai Age (an accompaniment of The Asian Age) carried a banner six-column headline on the front page screaming "Satam to appraise Rane on Budget leak." The reference was to Mumbai's mayor, Nandan Satam, the civic budget estimates and Narayan Rane, Maharashtra's new chief minister. Now, if a reporter, the news editor and the chief sub-editor of a popular English language daily do not know the critical grammatical difference between "appraise" and "apprise," how the dickens can the paper be relied upon for conveying the syntax of the Stains episode?

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