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Vernacular mischief
By M. Zeyaul Haque

M. Zeyaul HaqueWhile the English language press in India has been lauded for its impartial and competent coverage of the Gujarat pogrom, much of the Gujarati vernacular press has come in for a thoroughly well-deserved condemnation. The worst offenders have been the widely circulated Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh. 

On February 28, Sandesh carried the following fabricated story on its front page:
"Vadodara, Thursday: The details of the information 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. As part of a cruel inhuman act that would make even a devil weep, the breasts of both the dead bodies had been cut. Seeing the dead bodies one knows that the girls had been raped again and again, perhaps many times. There is a speculation that during this act itself the girls might have died.

Sandesh went on to create another record on March 7 with its story titled "Chances of attack by returning Hajis with help of terrorists." With this the newspaper tried to create the impression that Hajis were a bunch of hoodlums hand in glove with terrorists -- a Muslim version of the rowdy kar sevaks.

The police, however, have kept quiet and have not spoken about this sensitive event. On account of that, various speculations during an already tense situation are like adding ghee to the fire.

According to the talk heard during the night one more dead body of a girl, also in a terribly mutilated form, had been found. After being raped and mutilated, the body of the woman was set on fire with petrol. Is there no limit to the lust?"

It has to be noted that this story was totally false.

Much of the vernacular press went to town claiming that the Godhra attack was a "pre-planned", ISI-sponsored act of terror. The implication was that all Gujarat Muslims were ISI agents and fifth columnists. Later independent enquiries, however, showed that the attack was not pre-planned. There was no proof of ISI involvement either. Gujarat home minister and VHP activist Gordhan Zadaphiya, who was among the first to talk about the ISI connection, failed to substantiate his claim. However, the damage had already been done: Godhra and Gujarat Muslims were tainted as Pakistani agents and set for ethnic cleansing, with the support of newspapers like Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar.

Sandesh did not bother to mend its ways even after creating great havoc with its story about breast cutting. This figment of editorial imagination could very well have played a part in the atrocities on Muslim women.

Sandesh went on to create another record on March 7 with its story titled "Chances of attack by returning Hajis with help of terrorists." With this the newspaper tried to create the impression that Hajis were a bunch of hoodlums hand in glove with terrorists -- a Muslim version of the rowdy kar sevaks.

The pattern of mischief mongering by Gujarat’s vernacular press was identical to the mischief of Hindi dailies Jagran and Aaj in north India. These two dailies have often triggered or aggravated communal violence with their irresponsible reporting. Aaj is infamous for having launched one of the most vicious anti-Muslim pogroms with its false story titled "400 school children did not return home". The story published at the peak of the Sangh’s hate campaign said that 400 Hindu school children had been ambushed and killed by Muslims in Varanasi. A similar story published by Jagran said that several hundred Hindu patients had been killed in the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College hospital at Aligarh Muslim University. This false story sparked off one of the most vicious anti-Muslim pogroms at Aligarh in the early 90s.

Although a dozen or so independent enquiries have taken some note of the villainy of a section of Gujarati media, the Vadodara-based Shanti Abhiyan and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), Vadodara chapter, have documented vernacular media’s misdeeds in great detail.

This study says it had the following framework for analysis:
» Headlines: were the headlines provocative or inflammatory?
» Photographs: where did they appear? what kinds of photographs were used?
» Sources: Where does the paper get its information from? are interviews referred to or sources identified? who are the people interviewed?
» Rumours: are the news reports substantiated?
» Editorials and analytical articles: what are the perspectives offered to the readers? Incorrect reporting: are there reports which we know to be false?

The study finds Sandesh and like-minded newspapers to have failed on all the above counts. "According to our above framework, the Gujarati newspaper Sandesh, Baroda, had crossed all limits of responsible journalism and has been at its inflammatory best", says this study.

Next to Sandesh in viciousness and irresponsibility was Gujarat Samachar (Baroda) with its provocative headlines, fabricated reports (sometimes without a clear attribution to some source) and frequent recourse to insinuations against common Muslims. The following is a small sampling of the analysis of some of Gujarat Samachar reports as per PUCL-Shanti Abhiyan:

"Main report on page 1 on 28 March: 3-4 young girls have been kidnapped.

"The source of information is not mentioned. Again on page 10 there is a report of the VHP leader Kaushik Patel saying that 10 girls have been kidnapped. The reporter has not cross-checked the information either with the IGP or Railway police. The report does not give names of any of the girls or any other details. One more report on page 2 gives details of an eye witness Hetalben, when the train reached Baroda. She said, ‘young girls from Amaraiwadi travelling with us are lost’.

"Main report says that 4 bogies of the train were torched. The report says that incident was pre-planned, based on information given by a railway employee. Name or other identity of the source does not appear. 

"On 2nd March there is a report that Sandesh carried a bogus news item.

"There is no news from shelter camps nor are there any interviews with victims.

"On 6th March the last page carries a report with the headline: THE PLAN WAS TO TORCH THE WHOLE TRAIN, NOT JUST ONE BOGEY. In yet another box item on last page a report states that ‘a mob was ready for the second attack.’ The source of the information is not mentioned. It seems that they story is based on a conversation with some Railway Police Force jawans. The way these reports have been presented is instigative. This is the day when the top story on last page is about how gradually the situation is returning to normalcy.

"On 7th March the last page carries a news item presented in a box that claims that ‘…ISI is creating trouble in Gujarat, Kalota and his colleagues are important links, Dy. Commander of Huji arrested in Calcutta has confessed the conspiracy.’ The report uses the term Rambhakt several times for the travellers on board Sabarmati Express on the fateful day.

"On 6th March the headline of a report says, ‘Torching of the train at Godhra was pre-planned. Kalota was tipped by a railway officer how to cut open the vacuum pipes’. Source of information not mentioned.

Caption of a story on last page, 7th March: What was purpose of the youths roaming in white Tata Sumo with 12 bore rifle in position. The sub heading cries: They carried news clippings of the Godhra incident being pre-planned.

"The report of the Chief Minister’s visit to Baroda carries the caption: ‘Mysteries of the Godhra conspiracy are opening up slowly…’ However, the story does not open up a single mystery. (Page 3,8-3-2)

"Another news item presents a story in the first person singular form. A girl who saved herself from the torched bogey narrates how she could do it, ‘…The mob tried to pull me out, but could not succeed…’ She adds firmly while sobbing, ‘sacrifice and hard work put up by my parents would not go waste’. (Last page, 8-3-02)

"‘Indiscriminate firing from Fatehganj Mosque’: the headline of an 8 column story on page 8 on 16th March.

"Main accused Bilal Haji is described as ‘SUTRADHAR’ even before trial."

Amidst this unnerving display of journalistic cussedness, some Gujarati newspapers tried hard to sustain professional standards. One such publication was Gujarat Today, an 11-year-old vernacular newspaper launched by Gujarat’s liberal Muslims. This newspaper (circulation: 70,000) has a low print quality, does not have colour, and its pictures are often blurred. Otherwise, its comes in for a favourable mention in the PUCL-Shanti Abhiyan analysis:
"Based on a quick and by no means exhaustive analysis of coverage of the riots by Gujarat Toady from 28th February to 16th March, we feel that the paper has, on the whole, managed to maintain a good balance in its reporting, and has been fair and even-handed in its commentaries. This is more significant since Gujarat Today is a Muslim-owned paper which is primarily read by Muslims. The paper has been restrained in its reporting and its choice of visuals, temperate in its language and has eschewed shrill and potentially provocative matter. Where rumours were mentioned, they have been presented as such and not captioned with misleading headlines, as was done by some other newspapers. It has regularly carried items highlighting interdependence of communities and incidents of help and co-operation extending across community barriers. It has investigated incidents and carried detailed information which did not appear in other newspapers, thereby providing a useful service to its readers.

"Overall, our analysis suggests that Gujarat Today has played a responsible and positive role during the violence in the state, for which it deserves to be commended."

We wish we had more publications like Gujarat Today. If newspapers like that could also afford improved printing, design and visuals, they would be better able to douse the communal fire spread by the richer and more powerful publications like Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar.

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