Nothing in the Indian media brings out the Grand Opinionator in every journalist, letter to the editor/online comment writer or water cooler-with-half-a-brain than the subject of communal politics. If a generation of journalists made their bones and calling card in the late 80s-90s by standing on either side of the fence during the run-up to the Babri Masjid demolition and the following years that saw the rise and rise not only of the BJP but also of the “secular” vs “anti-Muslim appeasement” journalist (read: “pseudo-secular” vs “Hindutva” journalist), then we have been experiencing a spurt again in these “Narendra Modi: Will he, won’t he make it beyond Gujarat?” times.
A decade ago, the alluring and quite addictive subject of “communal vs secular” politics gave rise to the rather theological discussion of “hard Hindutva” and “soft Hindutva”. During Rajnath Singh’s first stint as BJP president, the media Jesuits took it upon themselves to argue whether – with the Ram Janmabhoomi lemon having dried up – the party would move away from Hindutva altogether or revive it as a last-ditch attempt to gather the support of the proverbial usual suspects for a heave-ho. Even during the Vajpayee years, the nostalgia for seeing politics in the black-and-whiteness of Hindu-Muslim votebanking came across in theories about the affable prime minister being just a mask (mukhota) for the Real McCoy of unadulterated Hindu supremacy in India.
This is not to suggest that communal politics was an invention to break away from the boredom and Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome of political journalism that only fetish-ised caste politics. (In the 90s, if you didn’t talk about intricate caste breakdowns in numbers and groupings, you were fit only to cover the Met department or, worse, “culture”.) But if there was a “I told you!” moment for secularists in the media, the 2002 Gujarat riots was that. Out came Communal Politics Opinionators 2.0.
With “Modi-as-PM?” now the running inter-collegiate debating subject, journalists on both sides of the “communal” divide are shaved and ready again. Which is why I find it extremely intriguing that the news of the Gujarat government last week “seeking” the death penalty for Maya Kodnani, a former minister in the Narendra Modi government, Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi and eight others for their part in murdering 97 people from the Naroda Patiya locality in Ahmedabad during the 2002 Gujarat riots, has triggered so little media and/or “expert” reaction.
Last year in August, a trial court had already sentenced Kodnani to 28 years in jail, Bajrangi to life imprisonment and the eight others to 31-year imprisonment. While everyone covered the Narendra Modi government’s new appeal that they all be dealt capital punishment, only a few couched and rather muted opinions on the matter have been heard or read till date. Where have all the “communal/secular” opinionators gone?
Well, here’s the thing.
In an April 18 news report by DNA’s Roxy Gagdekar titled, “Is Maya Kodnani Narendra Modi’s political jaal?”, the copy quotes the lawyer for the Naroda Patiya victims, Mukul Sinha stating his clients’ opposition to the Modi government’s demand for capital punishment. “We don’t support the [Special Investigation Tribunal’s] application for punishment enhancement”, he said. The report also states that “a victim of Naroda Patiya case, Nasir Pathan told DNA that every victim is satisfied with special judge Jyotsna Yagnik’s judgment and nobody wants to change it.”
And then there was an editorial on the subject with the strident lines: “There can be no two opinions that criminals should be punished. However, when the court has already given a harsh sentence to Kodnani and Bajrangi, what does the Gujarat government want to show to the world by seeking the death penalty?”
This wasn’t from Human Rights Watch or any of the English language dailies usually manned by “secular-minded” editorial writers. This was from last week’s editorial in Saamna, the Shiv Sena party publication.
Modi’s “sudden” desire to see that those guilty of spearheading and participating in the anti-Muslim post-Godhra mayhem in 2002 Gujarat receive the “highest punishment” is being seen by all quarters for what it is: a reaction to the likes of Nitish Kumar never letting go of the Gujarat chief minister’s “communal” tag while he makes his bid for prime ministership. Sandeep Adhwaru captures this “Nitish angle” hilariously in his cartoon column in the April 21 edition of The Sunday Guardian where Kodnani’s lawyer asks her from outside her prison bars whether she’d like a mercy petition to the president filed, to which Kodnani replies she wants to plead to Nitish Kumar not to keep calling Modi communal.
And to get these secular rottweilers like Nitish Kumar off his dhoti-end, Modi needs more than just selective amnesia in the form of scattering “development and governance” pixie dust at the let-bygones-be-bygonewallas. “Getting too close” to Muslims by donning a “Muslim cap” in public isn’t his style. And, in any case, that would have been as damning for his core supporters as “turning electric” was for Bob Dylan’s folk music fanatics. (Which explains the no-apology for 2002 strategy.)
But appealing for the death sentence for the dastardly Kodnani — despite Modi making her a minister in his government after 2002 — should not outrage the “secularists” or make the “Hindu-pridewallas” cry “Judas!” at the Gujarat chief minister. Which probably explains why you can hear the crickets chirp in the absence of any opinion about the matter in the media. It may be “mere eyewash and gimmick” to improve Modi’s credentials as a not-communal-but-fair political leader. It certainly seems, as the earlier quoted DNA report states, that “Kodnani is the state government’s pawn aimed to counter JD(U) leaders, including Nitish Kumar’s allegations that a leader without secular credentials isn’t acceptable to them as the presumptive prime minister of the NDA, which includes his party.”
But to find journos who usually pounce on a “communal” subject and feed off it for weeks on end maintaining a Sonia-like silence is as revealing about how opinions are shared and traded in the universe of the Indian media as it is funny. And I mean “funny” as in comic rather than strange.
Image by: Swarnabha Bannerjee