Pyromaniacs and brass knuckles

We should beware of making Vijay Kumar into our own Terry Jones.

Is India about to create its own Pastor Terry Jones? Jones did not publicly burn the Quran on 9/11 as he had threatened to do but for more than a month the world’s media gave him the sort of projection and coverage that film stars and rock stars rarely get. A pugnacious pyromaniac pastor was given massive airtime whereas the various conflicts, wars, famines and natural disasters facing the world were relegated to page two. Today India has legions of 24-hour news channels and despite the fact that there is no dearth of news, often a lot of channels focus on sensational stories.

Recently a popular English news channel devoted a news segment to announce that Vijay Kumar is arriving back in India within a week. Surely, the return of this man to India does not merit much coverage? We should beware of making Kumar into our own Terry Jones.

Kumar was arrested on his way to addressing a Hindu Mahasabha conference in America. He was caught with "brass knuckles" (perhaps unaware that Texas has more guns than people) and "jihadi" literature. The books were reference material for his lecture. He claims that he has been researching jihadi organisations for the last four or five years and is about to make a documentary film. Kumar was asked for a sound byte and he was only too happy to announce that he was sympathetic with American problems with "jihad" because "we Hindus are facing the same problem."

When Kumar flies back to Delhi the Indian media will have two options. Firstly, they can ignore a patently prejudiced person with a clear anti-Islamic agenda or they can give him the same sort of coverage as Terry Jones received. A hitherto unknown filmmaker could be given a platform that will be detrimental to India’s democratic and secular fabric. It is ironic that on doing a web search on Vijay Kumar, one mostly finds articles about an anti-Islamic American Indian who is seeking to run for the American Congress on a Republican ticket this year. This Vijay Kumar, however, is bald, has no beard and attends Bellevue Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee. There is an audience for people like the bearded Kumar in India. In fact it could be argued that Kumar will now also receive political patronage. It is the responsibility of our media and civil institutions not to make a hero out of Kumar.

There is a huge wave of anti-Islamism throughout the world. Tony Blair has been awarded the US Liberty Medal for peace. Recently he made the statement that "radical Islam is the world’s greatest threat." He could have just said "terrorism in the name of any religion" but the fact is that Islam is squarely in people’s gun-sights. Kashmir is in flames and Kashmiris are virtually living under martial law. There have been unprecedented levels of demonstrations and violence. The Enemy Property Bill was seen as "anti-Muslim" and was vehemently opposed as such by Mulayam Singh and others. The Communal Violence Bill, termed "unacceptable" by many people, was drafted earlier this year. The BJP has announced that someone openly anti-Muslim like Modi will campaign in Bihar for the upcoming elections. To top it all, Kumar has decided to return to India a few days before the opening of the Babri Masjid verdict. He has already been given press coverage!

Today everyone is tense and worried about the aftermath of the judgment. Anyone can see that the situation is precarious and the last thing that India needs is a vociferous filmmaker with a overdose of eloquence about radical Islam and Jihad. The mayor of Gainsville, Florida, urged the media not to give Jones any attention but he was ignored. Now Western newspapers have printed articles wondering ‘whether the media created this monster.’ In 2008 another pastor wanted to burn the Quran in America and no one even remembers his name.

Today, in the era of instant noodles and instant celebrities it is important to take a step back and address fundamental questions about the role of the media in civil society, the need for serious journalism and not sensationalist tabloid news. The world has been bowled over by "big brother" programs. However, this phenomenon is becoming much more dangerous as it is encroaching on very real issues. It is almost as if the episode of Terry Jones was a giant reality show with 24 hour coverage. Jones was the willing participant in a show that had very real and dangerous ramifications. Ignoring such divisive and radical figures is not a suppression of free speech. It is what common sense demands. The power of the print, electronic and web-based media is unprecedented. However, with this power it is crucial to remember an increase in responsibility. The Indian media is cited the world over for being fair and impartial in its coverage. I hope that is lives up to this reputation.