We in the news media should always get the other side of the story, as this case suggests.
On January 3, The New Indian Express carried a story about a teacher in a Kolkata Madrassa “being viciously assaulted by maulanas and their henchmen, for training students to sing the national anthem for the Republic Day”. The reporter’s sources apparently also told him that “many of the radical Muslim clerics who attacked Akhtar are rooting for the ISIS”.
The Huffington Post even carried a column on it by Sandip Roy, asking the media to ensure the “case is not just a local news footnote”. “Hopefully the media will also stand up for him,” Roy wrote.
Soon, Twitter’s outrage brigade jumped on the story and a hashtag was born: #NationalAnthemInsulted.
Roy is right. If a schoolteacher was beaten up for teaching his students the national anthem of the country, it definitely warrants more coverage. But since most stories have two sides to them, we figured we’d seek out the other version too.
In that bid, we spoke to the current teacher-in-charge of the school, Ferdousi Begum. Begum, who is a School Service Commission examination qualified teacher and has been teaching in the Madrassa since 2012, has a version significantly different from Akhtar’s. According to Begum, Akhtar had run into trouble with certain conservative parents last year because of his outspoken nature. “He was extremely critical of Islamic traditions and that irked a few parents as most of our students come from quite disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds,” she explained.
On March 26, 2015, Begum said, Akhtar had a run-in with some parents, when they barged inside the school compound, holding him hostage. “However, the police was called in soon, and other teachers shielded him.” Begum admitted that while the police was escorting Akhtar out of the Madrassa gate, he did get roughed up and his head was injured in the process.
Was the parents’ ire a result of Akhtar teaching the kids to sing the national anthem? “Not at all, the national anthem has always been sung in the school – and it continues to be done so. You can come, check any time you want to and even ask the students.”
Also, did anything happen recently that led to the media reports? “He hasn’t stepped foot inside the school since that day, so I don’t understand how he could be beaten up for training students to sing the national anthem on Republic Day.”
Another teacher in the Madrasa, Sudipto Kumar Mondal, who has been with the school since 2005, echoed Begum’s claims. “The national anthem features in the school diary. It has been a practice to sing the national anthem in the morning assembly much before Akhtar joined,” he said
Akhtar’s version of events, as recounted by him over a phone call, predictably differs from his colleagues’. Curiously though, his version doesn’t even reiterate the various news reports on the matter. He said he wasn’t beaten up recently (as news reports seem to suggest quite explicitly); he maintained the only time he was beaten up was on March 26, 2015. “I was persecuted because I hold liberal views and tried to reform many wrong practices like child marriage. He claimed his co-teachers are conspiring against him because he was a hard taskmaster and “disciplined” them. “I wanted to make the Madrassa like any other school – and fundamentalists with vested interests have targeted me for that.”
But what about his colleagues’ claims that the national anthem has always been sung in the school? “That’s not true, I started this nationalistic tradition,” he maintained. Also, does he believe it was his insistence on students singing the national anthem that led to him being attacked? “It was one of the many things.”
He insisted that the attack on him in March last year was pre-mediated and was a result of him challenging status quo. “They wanted me to grow my beard and wear a skull cap.”
Shirajul Islam Mondal, member of the Madrasa’s managing committee, rubbishes Akhtar’s assertions. “There are about seven Hindu teachers in the Madrassa. No one has ever claimed such a thing. This is completely false.” What about the national anthem? “We are Bharatiyas – why would anyone have a problem with the national anthem?”
In this story – essentially Akhtar’s word against his colleagues’ and employers’ – there are some facts that are not contestable: Akhtar was roughed up in March last year; he has not stepped inside the Madrasa since then and so the question of him training students to sing the national anthem this Republic Day doesn’t arise.
Why then did The New Indian Express make its story sound so? The story does not mention the year, leading readers to believe Akhtar was roughed up now. What made the journalist report almost a year-old story all of sudden when there were no new developments? When contacted, the reporter of the story declined to comment. When we enquired with Akhtar, he said the reporter had gotten in touch with him. Did he know the reporter? “Yes, he is an acquaintance.”
Even more peculiarly, none of the other news organisations, which followed up on The New Indian Express’ story, bothered to get a reaction from the other side. Roy, one of the country’s most readable journalists, wrote a full column, basing it on glaringly one-sided news reports, in the process giving the story much oxygen and credence.
This is not the first time an opinion columnist has written a column too soon. Last year, Rana Ayyub wrote an opinion piece in DailyO, linking the rape of a nun in West Bengal to the RSS, barely days after the incident, when hardly any facts had emerged. The police, soon after, arrested four Bangladeshi men for the crime.
Quick response-to-news pieces in the digital era are inevitable. But basing them on reports that at least attempt to be fair would still not be a bad idea. It would save not just the reader’s time, but also the writer’s.