Friday, April 27, 2007

The Media and Communalism: Changing scenarios, unchanging predilections

The media function in society was for long studied almost exclusively in terms of a “transmission” model, which emphasised the autonomy of the institution and the anonymity of its audience. Its central focus was the influence exerted by the media on social perceptions, through a process of “indoctrination”.

The passage of years has brought in a more sensitive approach, which concerns itself not with the transmission of a message that is passively absorbed by a mass of recipients, but with the meanings attached to the message at the point of reception. In this sense, the modern sociology of the media tends to view it as an apparatus, or more so, a process, of creating shared meanings that an audience can identify with, that equip them with the vocabulary and the empirical knowledge to engage in a public conversation. The media is not just about answering a community’s needs for information; it is as much about constituting that community.

To the extent that “communities” are defined by negative association, the media would reflect, sometimes subtly though often rather crudely, the perceptions of “otherness” without which communal boundaries would remain uncomfortably fluid. But there are also sections of the media that claim to represent a “national” perspective, untainted by narrow pulls of community loyalty. Penetrating the subtleties of the “national” media discourse is often a challenge, since it succeeds in most cases, in disguising communal predilections in the pretence of a larger solidarity.

Several of these features emerge from a comparison between two crucial reference points in India’s recent history, when the communal virus was rampant. The first is the period between 1990 and 1992, when the country was convulsed by the conflict over the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya. If the media in most parts of the country was guilty of not opposing the communal adventurism of the Hindutva forces with sufficient passion or principle, the media in the Hindi speaking region was engaged actively in abetting them. This is no subjective judgment, since it was the firmly established view of the Press Council of India, which in 1990 went into the news coverage and editorial comment of four of the largest Hindi language dailies and passed severe strictures against all of them.

Moving forward from those dark days to 2002 and the communal carnage of Gujarat, another pattern of media conduct is evident. With the exception of the Gujarati press – where a clear tilt was evident towards blaming the victims, towards lurid exaggeration and incitement to violence – the rest of the press nation-wide, both in English and the bhasha, earned wide credit for their unflinching portrayal of the brutalities of Gujarat. Indeed, the pressure was severe enough for the Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi, to lash out at the media for creating what he called “secular riots”. If it could elicit this manner of a response from the man widely identified as the architect of the carnage, then the media must have been doing something right.

There had evidently been a significant cultural change in the media over the preceding twelve years, especially in the Hindi language press. The crucial factor here could well be the tremendous growth in the reach of the Hindi press since the days of Ayodhya. One estimate puts the total number of readers of Hindi dailies in 1990 at around 7.8 million. By the year 2001, it was over 21 million. Today, the two leading newspapers in Hindi alone, are estimated to have a total readership of 40 million. This quantitative explosion has led to significant qualitative changes.

The need to bring larger numbers of readers on board, for one thing, has induced Hindi newspapers to go beyond traditional notions of audience taste and take in cross-community interests. There is a theory in the sociology of the media, which likens the daily ritual of reading a newspaper to the erstwhile practice of prayer, a mass ceremony which individuals in their social isolation pursue, without direct knowledge of others who are similarly engaged. But the implicit knowledge that others too are going through that mass ceremony serves as a form of social solidarity. In this sense, the growth of the Hindi language press in the 1990s may be both the cause and consequence of these emerging new forms of communal solidarity.

At the same time, there are other forms of social exclusions, other kinds of particularities, that are unstated premises of media functioning. It is not necessary to go any further than the news coverage and editorial comment on the Rajinder Sachar committee report on the status of India’s Muslims, to grasp the processes through which this works.

The presentation of the Sachar report in Parliament, coincided with an outbreak of violence in Maharashtra over the vandalisation of a statue of Dr B.R. Ambedkar in Uttar Pradesh. The country’s largest English-language newspaper, The Times of India (ToI) confined the Sachar report to the news digest section, occupying about 3 column-centimetres on the first page. Considerably more attention was devoted to the violence of the Dalit protests in Maharashtra, with the picture of a train that had been set afire between Mumbai and Pune getting marquee space on the front page.

Both the Sachar committee and the Dalit protests earned significant space in the inner pages of the ToI that day, with the latter enjoying by far the greater prominence. What the ToI chose to put front and centre in its coverage of Sachar was the government’s uncertain resolve about introducing reservations in education and employment for the minorities. Thus the issue of the institutionalised discrimination suffered by the Muslim minority was transformed in the ToI discourse into a concern over keeping India’s enclaves of modernity secure from the ingress of the underprivileged.

Where the Dalit protests in Maharashtra were concerned, perceptive media critics have pointed out that the consistent refrain of the mainstream press, in both English and the bhasha, was the inherent violence of the Dalit agitators and the ease with which they could be provoked into serious acts of depredation. There were oblique references to the Khairlanji massacre of September 29 in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra -- in which four members of a Dalit family, a mother and three children, including a visually challenged young man, were killed -- as a contributory factor in the upwelling of Dalit rage. But no effort was in evidence to make amends for a shocking record of media neglect of the egregious crime. Indeed, the record of the media since the massacre was to underplay it, to not see in it the unrelenting social prejudice and persecution that Dalits suffer, but to cast it as a regrettable case of moral vigilantism carried to excess. And it speaks eloquently of the blinkers that the media willingly dons on account of ownership pressures and the social conditioning of its staff, that it took a Dalit-owned newspaper in Maharashtra to investigate and bring the crime to light after weeks of arduous effort.

Similar acts of wilful social blindness were in evidence in the media’s approach to the Sachar committee findings. There could be various alibis offered for the relative inattention with which the report was received by the media. It could well be argued that the social and educational handicaps of the Muslim community are not exactly a news flash. Again, those familiar with the dynamics of competition in the newspaper business, might ascribe the relative neglect of the Sachar committee to another factor. The Indian Express (IE), had as the media jargon has it, “scooped” the main findings of the Sachar committee well over a month before its report was formally presented. The IE coverage appeared in a compact series of articles on the front page, through the last week of October. The newspaper then chose to pronounce its final editorial verdict on the issue by urging the political leadership to acknowledge the undeniable verity, that economic growth was the way out of social backwardness. In effect, the IE succeeded in submerging the complexity of the Sachar committee’s findings in a simplistic nostrum much favoured in today’s neo-liberal climate.

While the IE was constructing this narrative of discrimination on its news pages and paying obeisance to the virtues of globalisation editorially, a quite different picture of willing thraldom to superstition and a stubborn refusal to adopt modernity, was being assembled in another quarter of the print media. Between October 24 and 29, the ToI carried no fewer than 6 articles – of which two were on the frontpage and one on the editorial page – on the case of Imrana, the young woman who had been raped by her father-in-law and stigmatised by the Muslim clergy for her temerity in seeking to bring the criminal to account.

On October 25, the ToI ran a story on Imrana on page one, right alongside another one on the confusion within the Muslim community about when precisely the Eid festivities were to be observed. This latter story led off with a description of the subjectivity underlying the identification of the precise date and the tension that this set up with modern notions of objectivity.

The Imrana story and the accompanying article on Eid enjoyed roughly the same priority in terms of space allocation and placement. But these stories were topped off by a large photograph, occupying marquee space on the front page, which showed the touring Pakistani cricket team offering Eid prayers at their port of call in Chandigarh. The picture was rather boldly captioned “Champions of the faith?”

With this rather bizarre juxtaposition of stories and visuals, the ToI managed within about a third of the space on its front page, to reinforce several stereotypes about the Muslim community, not least among these being their supposedly extra-territorial loyalties.

Yet the ToI could not remain oblivious to the news emerging from another quarter on the findings of the Sachar report. On November 4, it ran an editorial on the main findings of the committee. It began by deprecating the policy of reservations as a “blunt instrument” that failed to address the roots of the problem. Instead, other forms of “positive discrimination” could be thought of, including building “quality schools” and “providing healthcare” in “backward districts” that have high settlement densities of Muslims, dalits or tribals. Government contracts again, could be preferentially allocated to these disadvantaged social groups, to “facilitate their participation in the modern economy”. In turn, the ToI chose to place a special onus on the “Muslim leadership” to “encourage the community to take to modern education in larger numbers”.

Article 350A of the Constitution mandates precisely this manner of positive discrimination in favour of minority communities where State investments in education are concerned. Backward area development policies adopted by the central government, not to mention various states, have also sought, without overtly assuming the colours of a class or community-based approach, to direct attention preferentially towards regions of economic stagnancy. The ToI has shown admirable percipience in waking up to the reality that backward areas are in most parts of the country, also predominantly populated by people who would fall within the broad rubric of “backward classes”. But this realisation is not informed by any effort to understand why backward area development policies have also proved fairly ineffective in redressing disparities, indeed, why they have proven an even blunter instrument than reservations.

On November 8, the ToI carried an article on Islamic schools or madarsas, on its editorial page. Titled “Beyond Terror”, the article argued that the debate on these institutions had remained for too long confined to the issue of terrorism, but because the Muslim community was under pressure in times of global concern over the issue, it had responded with a spirited defence of these institutions and the learning they imparted, as uniquely imbued with a moral and spiritual sensibility. This attitude in turn simply evaded the reality that the madarsas have a tendency to “promote a narrow, insular mindset”. And as long as security concerns remained the principal impulse behind the debate, there was little chance that matters of immense import to the “welfare of millions of children studying in madarsas” would be addressed.

Though not formally released at the time this article was published, many of the key findings of the Sachar committee were in the public domain by then. On the issue of madarsas, the conclusions were fairly clear: fewer than 4 percent of Muslim children in the school-going age group attended these institutions; at an all-India level, their number is not the “millions” as the commentator in the ToI suggested, but just marginally over one million. Far from being an institution of choice, madarsas were “often the last recourse of Muslims especially those who lack the economic resources to bear the costs of schooling”. And for all the odium heaped on them, madarsas had very often been found to “have indeed provided schooling to Muslim children where the State (had) failed them”.

Granted, the commentator in the ToI could not possibly have reflected all these findings in their complexity since they were yet to be made public in an official sense. But to admit that gaps exist in the level of public information is one thing, to leapfrog into realms of conjecture, quite another. A few inconvenient facts could not evidently, stand in the way of constructing what seemed a compelling narrative of social backwardness by choice among the Mulsim community.

It was mid-November by the time the ToI returned on its news pages, to the theme of the Sachar committee. On November 17, it reported that the committee’s recommendations had put the ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, in a “fix”. The following day, it frontpaged a report arguing that the committee’s recommendation that the Muslim share in several vital sectors be increased, would in effect “give rise to the demand for a community quota leading to a fullscale political confrontation”. Having begun its coverage of the Sachar report by viewing it through the prism of the reservations issue, the ToI undoubtedly saw no reason to change course when more details were available.

To look at the media today is to look at a complex, dynamic and evolving scenario, to consider a quantitative explosion that has not quite been accompanied by a corresponding qualitative change. While the media can be relied upon to raise its voice against overt and violent attacks on minority communities, its resolve in dealing with systemic discrimination that is less visible, is not quite so clear. Some of the rougher edges that were evident in the early-1990s may well have been ironed out. That was the time that the Muslim minority was portrayed as the legatees of the numerous abuses that India’s culture and civilisation had suffered in the past. Today, they are portrayed as an impediment to the glittering promises of modernity that lie in the future for India.

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