On Monday morning, Most of us woke up to the news of eight undertrials, who were members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), escaping from the Bhopal Central Jail. Not long after, the police announced that they had ‘encountered’ the eight and they had been shot dead in the village of Eintkhedi. Two days after the incident, many questions remain—how exactly did the prisoners escape, where did they acquire the weapons they supposedly fired at the police from, what happened to those weapons, etc. But what is known with certainty is that the eight men were undertrials awaiting judgement, but that didn’t stop many members of the media from pronouncing said judgement. And that was one of guilt.
Almost all media initially referred to the escapees as “terrorists”. Perhaps due to their links to SIMI—given the current climate of Islamophobia, mere links to a Muslim organisation, no matter how vile is proof of guilt. But, it is imperative to note that according to a 2011 Supreme Court judgement, simply being members of a banned organisation is not a crime. Subsequently, most English dailies and other media used “SIMI members”, “SIMI activists”, “undertrials” or “terror suspects” in their reports.
However, Hindi-language newspapers looked majorly different from their English contemporaries. The Bhopal edition of the Navbharat Times carried a headline on Tuesday that read “Central jail se bhagey aatho SIMI aatanki dher” (Eight SIMI terrorists fled from the Central jail). The usage of ‘aatanki’ instead of ‘aaropi’ (accused) has attracted a lot of flak from the Muslim community.
Meanwhile, Hindustan’s headline that day read “Jail se faraar SIMI ke aath aatankwadi marey gaye (Eight SIMI terrorists who fled from jail were killed)”. Dainik Bhaskar was no different in its approach.
Muslim clerics in Bhopal have issued a joint statement condemning the usage of “aatankwadi” to describe the eight before their trial had concluded.
Today was no different, despite the length and detail of the stories, one fact steadfastly remained—the men were aatanki or aatankwadi.
Speaking to Newslaundry, Mohammed Mahir, president of the Madhya Pradesh Muslim Vikas Parishad said that, they would issue a letter to the Press Council in Bhopal seeking to set guidelines for the coverage of stories where guilt has yet to be ascertained. “We will draft a letter to the Press Council of India asking them to issue guidelines to these newspapers who are calling ‘undertrials’ as ‘terrorists’. This is a clear case of media trial. We will wait after we write the letter and if no action is taken against these papers we will file a writ petition in the high court against the usage of the word without any proven charges”, he said.
The secretary of the Coordination Committee of Indian Muslims, Masood Ahmed, said that given the influence wielded by the media and politicians, they should be cautious in their use of language. “Until and unless charges are proven, you can’t call them [the undertrials] terrorists … If the media had to say these things, why do the courts exist? Muslims are the second largest majority in the country, yet all muslims are called terrorists”, he said. He went to state that they also planned to appeal to the Press Council to curb stories that were seen as maligning the community. They were also engaged in collecting evidence against the killing of the eight for an appeal with the Supreme Court over what they felt were unanswered questions.
Little seems forthcoming about what exactly happened on that hillock in Eintkhedi. All we know is that eight men, who had yet to be accorded the due process of the law found themselves tried, instead, on the front pages.