The Pseudo-Secularism of the Rampur molestation coverage

Media indifference to the religious profile of the accused might be healthy if only it wasn’t selective

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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It is never easy to admit that you have missed an opportunity, and more so if it was an easy target. The tendency is to sulk while downplaying it with a sense of banality. Take, for instance, the national media’s response to the report of two women’s molestation by 14 men at Kuwan Kheda village of Tanda in Rampur district of western Uttar Pradesh and posting a video of the act online.

The national English dailies’ initial response to the crime had all the makings of a story which could attack the state government’s poll promise—prioritising the safety of women including the failings of the anti-Romeo squads. Even though the media’s expectations from the preventive nature of policing are often unrealistic, this is something to which the government is accountable. In fact, early media reports, as expected, targeted the Chief Minister for the incident. As the video went viral, NDTV tweeted– “In Yogi Adityanath’s Uttar Pradesh, 14 men molest 2 women. They make a video and post it online”

Then something happened which made the media less keen about this opportunity. The 14 molesters identified through the video, (12 of them have already been arrested) are Muslims, including two minors. The victims were Hindus. As a consumer of Indian media, you could very well imagine what the headline would have been if there was a reversal in the religions of the perpetrators and the victims- ‘two Muslim women molested, Hindu mob posts the video of the act online’. Such selective religious profiling of crime in media explains why the media didn’t sink its jaws into the story- the kill wasn’t what the smell had misled it to believe. So a large section of the media decided to report it as a run-of-the-mill crime story. The only problem was that such duplicity was too obvious to go unnoticed. Responding to NDTV’s tweet, Prasanna Viswanathan, CEO of the right-of-centre monthly publication Swarajya tweeted: “How about an alternate but a factual headline? In Azam Khan’s Rampur, 14 Muslim youth molest 2 Hindu woman, make a video and post it online”

In addition to revealing the fault lines of selective media reporting, Viswanathan also took potshots at Rampur strongman  and MLA Azam Khan who reacted to the molestation by advising women to stay away from places where they may be targeted. Interestingly, in a district with a large Muslim population, Azam Khan’s son Abdullah Azam is the legislator from Swar-Tanda constituency, the area in which the women were molested and filmed.

But, that’s only a part of the discomfort that national media faced while dealing with the story. On May 30, UP Police had identified the victims as Dalits and early morning, they tweeted that along with other acts, the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocity) Act has been added to the charges against the accused.

In the news reports that were published in the major English dailies the next day, the fact that the victims were Dalits was not highlighted at all. It wasn’t part of the headline, while the body had an insignificant mention like in the online report of the Hindustan Times. The sections of the national press which were simmering with reports of alleged violence against Dalits in Saharanpur district of UP last week suddenly chose to downplay the molestation of two Dalit women because the perpetrators weren’t useful for the kind of outrage they seek. The religion of molesters certainly didn’t suit the script of a possible headline which would have been different if the perpetrators were upper caste men- ‘Dalit women molested, filmed and shamed online’. Somehow the Bhim Sena activists also thought that the religious profile of the molesters isn’t going to earn them the brownie points they need in early stages of their political career.

Such indifference, however, to the religious profile of all the accused could be healthy only if it wasn’t selective. It’s this selective nature which makes it striking, though that didn’t stop Hindu organisations from discovering the untold story. On May 30, Dainik Jagran reported that Hindu organisations staged a demonstration in front of the District Magistrate’s office demanding immediate arrest of all the accused and later submitted a memorandum to the Superintendent of Police.

The communal underpinnings of such incidents aren’t new to western UP. It has often led to communal flare-ups as seen in Muzaffarnagar in 2013 or more recently in Bijnor in 2016. In fact, reports suggest sexual harassment of girl students had contributed to the school drop-out rate of girls in Bijnor. Assessing the positive response to the idea of anti-Romeo squads in terms of the scale of the problem which often leads to communal flare-ups, the Hindi daily Hindustan remarked: “Eve teasing of girl students is a daily occurrence. Girls are too frightened to protest or to file police complaints. When offenders belonging to a particular community are arrested, it often leads to a situation of communal tension”.

As media narratives choose to be selective in identifying the religion of the victim, journalistic account of such incidents are warped by convenient profiling. So for a headline saying ‘ Muslim cop beaten’ in Madhya Pradesh, you don’t have headline that says –‘Hindu women cops were molested and stabbed by Muslim mob’ at Azad Maidan in Mumbai in 2013. Instead, the headline was restrained enough- ‘Women cops molested’, and that too after Mumbai police brought it to media’s attention. Perhaps keeping religion out of the headline was a sensible thing to do, but one could easily guess its tone if the victim had a different religion.

Even headlines of reports carrying clear cases of hate crime reflect this selective approach. Two months back at Gopalpura in Madhya Pradesh, for instance, Shivam Rai and Ayush Shreewas were stabbed by Mohammad Nagori and Faizan Khan for their Facebook post supporting singer  Sonu Nigam’s  azaan tweet. The headline, predictably, in all the dailies reporting on the incident was ‘2 stabbed in Madhya Pradesh for backing singer’s comments’- the religion of the victims obviously isn’t meant for such cases. You can imagine the headline if the attackers were stabbed for protesting Sonu Nigam’s tweet.

Similarly, when social media rumours about child abduction claimed seven lives in different incidents of mob lynching in Jharkhand recently, certain sections of the media were keen on highlighting four victims as Muslims. But, three Hindus who also lost their lives somehow had no religious identity in the headlines.

Having a default setting of batting for the perceived underdog, with indifference to disturbing facts, is a sure sign of lazy journalism. The obvious trap of political correctness could be seen in the cherry-picked debates the media chatterati indulge in. Often the dangers of such political correctness is a kind of prudishness which shields it from the inconvenient truth that should be its primary calling. The media reporting on the Rampur molestation case is another stark reminder of how the headlines reveal or alternatively conceal, media’s selective ‘secular’ battles.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @anandvardhan26



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