Has Republic TV’s Shahabuddin exposé helped expose a media bias?

A question of political patronage, media leanings & minority appeasement.

ByAnand Vardhan
Has Republic TV’s Shahabuddin exposé helped expose a media bias?
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A generation of young people in Siwan district of western Bihar,140 kilometres from state capital Patna, have grown up wondering why a jail inmate is addressed with the feudal title of Shabu Saheb. Everyday life experiences in the state must have solved that puzzle for them. For the rest of the country, Republic TV gave a clue on Saturday, May 6.

The channel aired a taped telephone conversation between governing alliance partner Rashtriya Janta Dal (RJD) chief Lalu Prasad Yadav and former Siwan Member of Parliament, mafia don Mohammed Shahabuddin. The call was allegedly made by the dreaded don from Siwan jail in April 2016. In more ways than the rival national media houses would like you to believe, the aired tape mirrors the influence of minority appeasement politics in the power games of the state.

While, almost as an afterthought, the spin doctors of the RJD chief were quite late in predictably doubting the authenticity of the tapes, the governing alliance partner Janta Dal (United) didn’t question its veracity despite attributing to it the motive of destabilising the state government. The next day what was clear, though not surprising, is that the major national dailies of the English press tucked the news story in their inside pages – The Hindustan Times ( page 13), The Hindu ( page 10), The Indian Express ( page 7) and The Telegraph ( page 9). The ongoing war of words between the Times group and Arnab Goswami ensured that the market leader, The Times of India didn’t even register the existence of the news story. Is it too much of a coincidence that none of the major English dailies thought it deserved to be on front page, particularly on a day when it wasn’t competing with other major news breaks?

Some news portals like the Catch News and The Quint chose to echo the whataboutery of the governing alliance in questioning the motive of airing the tape.

Such response, or rather the lack of it, in a significant section of the media, reveals its faultlines on various counts.

First, with its red herring of scrutinising the newly launched channel or even indifference to the aired tape, the media failed in asking the larger question – what empowers a murder accused in multiple cases to talk from the premises of a jail to a former Chief Minister (father of the incumbent Deputy Chief Minister) and the chief of the party sharing power in the state? The answer to it, obviously, is too inconvenient for the blind spots of political correctness in the left-liberal media space to see.

What the brazen act of the call from the jail, leave alone its content, reinforces is the extent of minority appeasement which has always been pivotal to RJD’s power equations in the state. It’s this factor that has made the party cultivate and harbour influential Muslim leaders like Shahabuddin as an indispensable component of the party’s electoral arithmetic.  The Shahabuddins of the world, who hold sway among the Muslim voters of the state for their carefully crafted image of the armed feudal benefactors, always fit in Lalu’s famed Muslim-Yadav (MY) electoral formula.

In a state where Muslims constitute 16.9 per cent of the total population (1.7 crore in absolute numbers) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) account for 46 per cent (Yadavs -11 per cent) of the population, the formula was electorally effective in post-Mandal politics. Whenever RJD managed to consolidate that formulaic base, it reaped electoral dividends as in the last 2015 assembly polls. It has, undeniably, come at the cost of governance and law and order.

In 2003, the then-Director General of Police, D P Ojha had submitted a 265- page report on Shahabuddin to the state government. Among other charges, the report had details about Shahabuddin’s links with underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, procuring AK-47 Assault rifles from Kashmiri militants and Pakistan’s Intelligence agency ISI. Expectedly, the Rabri Devi-led RJD government couldn’t risk the Siwan don’s influence on Muslim votes by acting on the report. The casualty, obviously, was DGP Ojha who was removed from the post soon after submission of the report. Ojha later went on record attributing his removal to his willingness to act against Shahabuddin. In fact, the state government’s indifference emboldened the Siwan don to such an extent that in an interview to The Times of India he said that he would “settle scores” with the DGP after the police officer retired from service in six months’ time.

In the aired tape, the context of communal flare-up during Ramnavami in April 2016 and Shahabudin’s assessment of a potential riot have also become quite banal in the minority appeasement politics of Bihar.

Last month, for instance, the district town of Nawada in south Bihar, about 100 km from the state capital Patna, was under the grip of violent clashes and communal tension following the tearing up of posters of Lord Ram and dismantling of celebratory flags allegedly by miscreants belonging to Muslim community on the eve of Ramnavami festival. Yet, the Nawada violence didn’t find much space in the Ramnavami reporting in English national dailies. It was restricted to agency feeds on their websites, while the print pages were preoccupied with alarmist script. Such script had a narrative that the English press had woven in wake of the unprecedented Ramnavami celebrations seen in the neighbouring state of West Bengal this year. The evident naivete and hypocrisy of such an alarm were something I addressed in a different piece for this site last month.

Shahabuddin, however, is not the lone beneficiary of Muslim-Yadav strategic patronage. Mohammed Taslimuddin, the current RJD MP from Araria, has dozens of cases ranging from extortion to murder against him. That never stood in the way of RJD ensuring he become Union Minister of State in Agriculture Ministry in the UPAI government. To facilitate his legal hassles-free stay at the seat of power in Delhi, RJD-led Bihar government had withdrawn criminal cases against him in 2004.

In the hard-nosed political calculations of appeasement, the appeal to then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s conscience didn’t work. The reasons are not far to seek.

Taslimuddin comes from the Seemanchal region in north-east Bihar which has a large Muslim population. The four districts constituting the region – Kishanganj, Katihar, Araria and Purnia – have Muslims constituting 68 per cent, 44.5 per cent, 42.9 per cent and 38.5 per cent of the total population respectively (the figures are based on 2011 census). His utility as a force multiplier in the electoral politics of the region is something RJD has been keen on retaining.

Second, despite professional issues with journalist Arnab Goswami, co-founder and Managing Director of Republic TV, the media fraternity wasn’t expected to be so callous to political patronage extended to the jailed don who has been accused of involvement in the murder of Hindi daily Hindustan’s bureau chief  Rajdev Ranjan. The murdered journalist’s wife has alleged that her husband was eliminated at the behest of Siwan don. In relegating the latest evidence of Shahabuddin’s blatant disdain for law to their inside pages, the media houses of Delhi have revealed a thing or two about themselves.

Third, there is a question of aesthetics which sometimes comes in the way of evaluating the valid points that even a noisy television anchor may be making. You are entitled to cringe at Goswami’s melodramatic performance, but while disparaging the Arnab Goswami school of acoustics, you should also be asking what determines the different benchmarks which media critics have for different forms of melodramatic journalism? It seems that it has more to do with ingrained assumptions, or you may call it inherited “common sense”, about civility, public reasoning (a euphemism for convenient “liberal” posturings) and educated “refinement” which defined the terms on which news and views were expected to be delivered.

One way to look at it would be through the cultural prism of embedded Nehruvian aesthetics which serves as the default yardstick to measure the “civility” of media debates. As an echo chamber of their aspirational and perceived civility, a certain kind of television performance gains traction for such sections of media consumers. That, however, shouldn’t be a tool to discredit anything which is not so soothing to the ears.

In downplaying the clear patterns of political patronage to flagbearers of muscle power, a significant section of the media is guilty of either being indifferent to or contributing to normalisation of minority appeasement politics in the country. To use a cliché, it’s a convenient case of shooting the messenger because the message has a disturbing subtext. It reveals a thing or two about the selective production of outrage in the times we are living in.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @anandvardhan26

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