September 26, 2006

The media's role in communalising Karnataka

(Communalism Combat
September 2006)

Hindutva’s vital organs

The media’s role in communalising Karnataka

by Gauri Lankesh

Marshall McLuhan’s theory that ‘the medium is the message’ certainly holds true when it comes to the role of the media in the increasing communalisation of Karnataka. The tragedy is that some leading Kannada language newspapers have made it a habit to publish false stories, baseless theories and imagined facts as scoop stories. For example, Vijaya Karnataka, the largest selling Kannada daily, recently carried a four-column article about ‘coastal Karnataka’s links with the underworld’ in its coastal edition of September 8, 2006.

The article made interesting reading, for it was written with conviction. The gist of the article was how people in the state’s coastal areas have for long had ties with the Mumbai underworld, how these ties have led to the seizure of explosives, AK-47s, seditious literature, etc. in some of the coastal towns, how these seizures have averted major terrorist attacks and so on. Although it did not mention any particular community by name, any layperson reading the article would automatically make the connection between the Muslim community in the coastal areas and the underworld because it made specific mention of Haji Mastan (former Mumbai don) a few times.

But the reality is that the article did not mention any facts nor any instances or any events... no nothing. It would not be wrong to say that the entire article was pure speculation clearly aimed at tarnishing the image of the Muslim community in Karnataka’s coastal areas.

This is one of many such instances where the Kannada media have overtly pushed the Hindutva agenda. And they have taken this to such lengths that while they give substantial coverage to Hindutva forces they deliberately ignore or ban facts provided by secular forces in each and every case.

To cite another example: the Hindutva brigade issued a ‘fatwa’ four years ago that henceforth all publications should use the term ‘Dattatreya Peeta’ instead of the now disputed shrine’s actual name, Bababudangiri. To our amazement we found that most publications followed this diktat. As a fallout of this, in the public mind the name Bababudangiri is gradually being erased and replaced by ‘Dattatreya Peeta’. So much so that when I was to address a student’s programme at a college in Mandya recently, the compère who was introducing me to the audience said, without batting an eyelid, "Gauri Lankesh has been part of the struggle to retain the syncretic culture of Dattatreya Peeta."

Vijaya Karnataka and Udayavani are the two main publications that have been indulging in such saffronisation of the reader’s mind. Both these publications have not only made it a habit to publish baseless stories as fact, they have also taken to editorialising in their news coverage. In the same September 8 edition I referred to earlier, Vijaya Karnataka carried a news report regarding the recitation of Vande Mataram as its main story of the day. A line in the report read: "Arjun Singh, who is at the forefront of appeasing the Muslim community, was present at the function to sing Vande Mataram." To pass off opinions like "appeasement of Muslims" as news is, by any yardstick, a new "standard" being set by such publications.

Ever since Vijaya Karnataka was launched in 1999, the state has witnessed a media war, fought in terms of both price and content. Unfortunately, the idea that the more ‘Hindutva’ the publication the more readers it will gain has spread its tentacles long and deep within the media. Add to this the fact that often the proprietors and the editorial staff are in fact from the Hindutva camp and the combination becomes even more rabid.

Vijaya Karnataka was launched by none other than Vijay Sankeshwar who, when he began the paper, was already a sitting BJP MP. So it was no wonder that after a few trials and errors he picked Vishweshwar Bhat to be his editor. Bhat was a member of the RSS and maintains close ties with the sangh parivar’s many outfits, including the BJP, even today. Once Bhat took over, he brought in various other "writers" from the saffron brigade. One of these is Pratap Simha who usually rants and raves in his weekly column against "pseudo secularists" or anyone opposed to the sangh parivar. It is not surprising that most of Vijaya Karnataka’s reporters and subeditors are pro-right wing. With the editorial team of Vijaya Karnataka appearing to clone a sangh parivar ‘baithak’, is it any wonder that the contents of the newspaper, sometimes overtly, often covertly, push the Hindutva agenda?

Anxious not to be left behind, Udayavani often competes with Vijaya Karnataka, even publishing baseless rumours as news. In one instance of this some years ago, a news report published in Udayavani’s coastal editions said that Muslim traders were pricking Hindu girls with syringes carrying the AIDS virus. Obviously, this had Hindus up in arms against Muslims and they took their revenge by destroying Muslim houses in about half a dozen villages.

What was particularly galling about this report is that neither the reporter nor the editor or anyone from Udayavani had bothered to check their facts. In fact, the actual incident was relatively minor. At a village fair in a coastal town a Muslim trader had used a common needle to prick a few people who had tried to steal some of his wares. This had caused a commotion at the fair and the police had picked up the Muslim vendor. Yet this was enough to start off the rumour that Muslims were injecting Hindu girls with the AIDS virus. And this rumour appeared as front page news in Udayavani. Even after fact-finding teams investigated the matter and revealed the truth, Udayavani insisted on carrying this baseless AIDS story as if it were a terrorist attack on Hindus in the coastal areas.

In Adi Udupi last year two Muslim men, Hajabba and Hasanabba, were stripped, beaten up and paraded naked by members of the sangh parivar, causing an uproar in the state. With the state government doing little to arrest the main accused in this incident, Karnataka’s secular forces organised a massive protest rally at Udupi in which, naturally, a large number of Muslims participated.

But the local media, including Udayavani and Vijaya Karnataka’s local editions, not only overlooked the utter viciousness of the sangh parivar behind the Adi Udupi incident, but their reports on the rally gave it an entirely different twist by claiming that some of the Muslim youth who had participated in the event carried ‘Pakistani flags’. They even published huge photographs of some youth carrying green flags with the caption "Pakistani flags at the rally" while the accompanying news reports claimed that some of the youth had even shouted pro-Pakistan slogans.

To counter such false reportage, the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum had to approach the local superintendent of police, convince him that the triangular green flags with the crescent and star were not Pakistani flags (which are rectangular and have a vertical white stripe on the left) and that no one had shouted pro-Pakistan slogans. Even after these facts were presented to the newspapers, they refused to carry clarifications the next day. Finally we had to persuade the superintendent of police to organise a press conference where he clarified that neither were Pakistani flags carried nor pro-Pakistan slogans shouted. The papers did carry details of this press conference but not on the front page – the report was carried as a small item on their inside pages!

One could go on and on about the media’s role in pushing the Hindutva agenda by printing falsehoods, biases, rumours and pure imagination as fact, but I shall end with just one more example. A few of months ago, Vijaya Karnataka carried an article glorifying Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar as a great freedom fighter, patriot and so on, the usual jargon pedalled by the sangh parivar. I was incensed enough to call the publisher, Vijay Sankeshwar (who has since sold his publication to Bennett, Coleman & Co., Ltd. of The Times of India) to say, "May I write a piece containing the actual facts about Savarkar for your publication? I am asking you since I am aware that your editor will definitely throw it into the dustbin." To which Sankeshwar replied: "Why all this controversy? Veer Savarkar was a great patriot who fought for the freedom of our country."

I rest my case.

(Gauri Lankesh is editor of the Kannada weekly magazine, Lankesh, and a member of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum.)