By Mohd Zeyaul Haque
In a blatant case of trial by the press, Muslims are put in the dock
Ever wondered why Muslim journalists of India Today have left one by one? Gone are M Rahman (to the American magazine Time), Javed M Ansari (to The Hindu), Zafar Agha (now free-lancing) and Ms Saba Naqvi Bhowmick (Outlook). There are a couple of Muslims left behind in low-profile positions, youngsters who would not look too conspicuous. The only Muslim with a real standing in the profession left in India Today is Farzand Ahmad, an associate editor who has been with the magazine since it began publication.
There are not many journalists in India who have Farzand Ahmad’s experience in the field, his integrity and his ability to withstand political pressure. However, the way his stories are treated by some of the saffron-tinted senior editors makes us wonder whether he also is on his way out. His story ‘Corridor of doubt’ (India Today, 3 July 2000) makes an interesting study in how editorial doctoring at the desk can change the content and emphasis of a reporter’s story.
It is worthwhile to remember that like any other reporter (his designation is associate editor) Farzand has filed his report and the copy has been “polished” by the desk headed by committed Sanghis like Prabhu Chawla and Swapan Dasgupta. The ominous title, ‘Corridor of doubt’ is, of course, given by the desk (that is the established practice). Why is the corridor between India and Nepal a corridor of doubt? Well, simply because the five districts on the border (which Farzand Ahmad tours and reports on) have too many Muslims, too many mosques, too many madrasas. It is presumed by the desk (contrary to what Farzand’s report actually says) that such a place must be an ISI hotbed. There is nothing in the text that says it because Farzand did not find anything to support this claim. However, that does not stop the desk from casting aspersions on the entire Muslim population.
The desk makes up the lack of anti-Muslim material in the report with transparently dishonest captions. For instance, it has published a picture of local tazia-carrying Muslims and put a caption on it which says, ‘Brewing Disunity: The new ISI game plan aims to create a Hindu-Muslim divide.’ But how does carrying tazia amount to brewing disunity? Or, how is a religious ritual associated with an ISI game plan? Incidentally, the story does not enlighten us on tazia being part of an ISI game plan. The obvious assumption is that practice of Islam itself is a seditious act.
Then we have another picture with a blatantly anti-Muslim insinuation. This is a picture of a mosque under construction. The hurtful caption here is ‘Banking on Religion: Pakistan is allegedly funding the construction of madrasas.’ The insinuation is that mosques as a rule are built with ISI money. Nobody would even think of writing a caption like that on a picture of a temple under construction. Again, there is nothing in Farzand’s story to warrant this caption. Incidentally, the use of ‘alleged’ and ‘allegedly’ is frequently resorted to for creating suspicion like in the case of this caption: ‘Pakistan is allegedly funding the construction of madrasas’. India Today thinks that qualifying a defamatory statement with ‘alleged’ or ‘allegedly’ is a protection against libel, which is not the case.
The malafide intent of the editorial desk is apparent from the following: ‘Two contradictory surveys were conducted on the number and usage of Islamic institutions along the border. The first was conducted by the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, along 76 villages in 10 districts. It said that 249 mosques and 179 madrasas had come up in the region in the past decade. This was followed by a retaliatory survey by the All India Milli Council, a non-political fundamentalist organization, whose objective was to deny that the institutions were being funded by the ISI or were being used for anti-India activities.’ The editors accept the Sangh’s survey without question, knowing that the Sangh can never be trustworthy in such cases.
The intent is obvious from the language of the report (which is as a rule, published only after rewriting by the desk). It does not use any epithets with the ABVP and the RSS, the two most rabidly anti-Muslim organizations, but promptly (and unfairly) labels the Milli Council as a ‘fundamentalist organization.’ It also accepts the report of ABVP without demur, but calls the Milli Council’s explanation ‘a retaliatory survey.’ What else should the Milli Council do? Should it accept the false accusation that madrasas and mosques are run by ISI? There is nothing in the story which gives even a shred of a proof. It is insinuation and libel all the way, a clear indictment of an entire community. You can very well guess whether Farzand Ahmad thinks that the Milli Council is fundamentalist while the RSS is not.
The original report is embellished with a box, yet another handiwork of the desk. The heading of the box is far more threatening and amounts to a blanket condemnation of all Muslims. The mischievous heading is, ‘Crescent Expansion.’ A graph shows the number of mosques and madrasas in five districts of UP bordering Nepal. The number of mosques and madrasas across the border (in adjoining areas) is also shown. The title suggests that there is a conspiracy of Islam in which the entire Muslim population of the two countries is involved. One wonders how all this amounts to ‘Crescent expansion.’ Is it unnatural or criminal for Muslims to have mosques and madrasas? And why should anybody cast aspersions on entire populations? On what grounds?
There are some more scary devices employed to put Muslims on both sides of the border in the dock. There are some highlights with bullets which show Muslim ‘dominance’ in those areas. The media in India call an area ‘Muslim-dominated’ if it has a 20 to 40 percent Muslim population. The fact remains that even if they constitute 20-40 percent of the population, Muslims don’t dominate (how can 20 percent dominate over 80 percent?) numerically or in terms of their share in business, politics, bureaucracy, armed forces or ownership of property.
Now, the point is: does Farzand Ahmad believe that the entire Muslim population of India is under ISI influence, and mosques and madrasas in India are being run by Pakistan? The answer is no. Is Farzand a self-hating quisling? A Nazi Jew? No! No! He is a man of extraordinary integrity.
Interestingly, Farzand himself comes from an adjoining area close to Indo-Nepalese border where all the factors discussed in the story obtain in a strikingly similar fashion. What does that show?
The best part is the last para of the two-page report: ‘Whether or not the institutions are ISI bases is yet to be proved. What is clear for now is that the Indo-Nepal border has become the latest troublespot for India.’ Yes, even after eight years of smear campaign against Muslims (it began right after 6 December 1992), their connection with ISI is ‘yet to be proved.’ However, that does not prevent India Today from indicting the community and its religious institutions. Whether anything is proved or not, thanks to the insinuations, innuendoes and trial by the media, Muslims stand psychologically convicted.
Remember the case of the American reporter in my column last fortnight and how his report on the bombing of a hospital was changed by the editorial desk into bombing of a ‘terrorist hideout’? The reporter had resigned in protest. Also remember that in case of Farzand’s story, too, the mischief lies in the headline, the captions, the blurbs, the bullets and the rewriting all of them done by the desk, not Farzand. The question is: what is he doing about it? Has he protested? Nobody knows. At last, you might be getting some clue to why senior Muslim journalists don’t find India Today an amiable place to work at any longer.