There are several questions that come to your mind when you watch anchor Rahul Shivshankar on Times Now every night. Is this the best one of the country’s leading news networks has to offer to its viewers? What has become of television journalism? How did we get to this point of no return? But even by the anchor and indeed the channel’s usual programming standards, what passed off as news last night achieved a new low in journalism.
In a ‘Super Exclusive’, accompanied with the hashtag #CaliphateConvertsHindus, Shivshankar and the Times Now team passed off a year-old WhatsApp message and an even older conspiracy theory as some sort of an investigative report.
Few minutes into the show, Shivshankar said, “…Hindus are being hunted…and turned, ladies and gentlemen, turned into ISIS terrorist,” adding that “young Hindus are being radicalised in coaching centres and tuition classes…”
What followed next was a rambling attempt at telling his viewers that so-called “rate cards” show how Hindus were being converted for a price. In the span of a minute, Shivshankar says “ladies and gentlemen” about three times, presumably in an attempt to lend the report an air of sincerity. Sample this:
“Mysterious rate cards…mysterious rate cards…like the one on your screen are being distributed…it’s these rate cards, ladies and gentlemen, that are being held out as intended…look at what this rate card says…it puts a price on religion…on your faith…if you look closely at the rate cards, you will see, ladies and gentlemen, you will see interesting details…I don’t…I don’t…I can’t even begin to tell you…I can’t even begin, ladies and gentlemen, to tell you the kind of insidious fine print that is on this rate card to convert Hindus…caste Brahmins, you have to pay 5 lakhs…you get paid 5 lakhs, ladies and gentlemen, a Hindu Brahmin girl…5 lakh.”
What Shivshankar doesn’t tell his viewers is that a similar “rate card” with the exact same prices had surfaced a year ago as a viral WhatsApp message. Zee News, in fact, had reported on this “shocking” rate card in February 2016. While Times Now alluded that this rate card was the handiwork of the “Caliphate” in Kerala, Zee News indicated that this was spread by “Students of Muslim Youth Forum” in Ahmedabad. ABP News had run a show debunking this so-called rate card.
Alt News put a piece last night on this rate card cropping up on propaganda websites.
Interestingly, a 2015 Deccan Chronicle story speaks of the exact same prices being paid to convert women. It traces the origin of the “rate card” to a 2011 book published by Sanatan Sanstha, a right-wing organisation, one of whose members was named the key conspirator in the murder of rationalist Narendra Dabholkar, by the Central Bureau of Investigation. The story has quotes from spokespersons of the organisation who say the rate card was sourced from a website called Muslim Youth Forum – but the Deccan Chronicle story states that it could not find such a website.
Newslaundry could also not find this website, but there is a Facebook page by the name of Muslim Youth Forum. As far as we searched, we could not find “rate cards” on the page.
Note that the Deccan Chronicle report has the exact same prices as Times Now’s ‘super exclusive’: “The boy will get Rs 7 lakh for marrying a Sikh girl, Rs 6 lakh for Punjabi and Gujarati Brahmin girls, Rs 5 lakh for a Brahmin girl, Rs 4.5 lakh for a Kshatriya girl, Rs 3 lakh for Gujarati Kacchi, Jain and Marwadi girls, Rs 2 lakh for a backward class girl and Rs 1.5 lakh for a Buddhist girl.”
Propaganda is evidently immune to the vagaries of price rise.
Coming back to the Times Now report, what is more worrying is that it strings the narrative of the dubious “rate card” along with an interview of a girl, who Shivshankar says has “escaped from the clutches of the Caliphate”.
We aren’t provided with any details about the girl and going by the edited excerpts of the interview, she seems to be talking about a boy she met at a class:
“First when I went to coaching class, he followed me, first three days he was doing like that…only some days I went there…fourth day the friendship…like hi, hello, only like that…only week or five six days I went there…then the continuity was sloshed…then I met the same guy in July when I went to the school…so it continued like that…Hindu girl she left from there within two weeks, then I was the only Hindu girl there…then the care was to the maximum level, purdah system, messages, Quran…they told me many things like this.”
The girl goes on to talk about this guy and how he spoke to many girls — she adds that she has no affection for him.
It isn’t clear who the girl is talking about or who this boy is. Times Now offers no explanation apart from theories like she could have very well left for Syria to fight for ISIS.
Then the channel shows the interview of the girl’s mother. She talks about her daughter joining a coaching class, Wisdom International Academy, and observing changes in her — like going for long walks and talking on the phone. She says she overheard those conversations and suggests that her daughter was asked to convert to Islam, learn Syrian (Arabic, presumably) and read Quran.
Shivshankar takes this as proof of Wisdom International Academy being the hub of conversion in Kasargod “where they force you to pick up Quran”.
We reached out to the Academy and were told by one of its Academic Directors, Mohammed Yunus T A, that Times Now’s story is baseless. “We offer Science coaching to +1 and +2 students. We have about 120 students and many of them are non-Muslims. Half of our faculty is also non-Muslim. This girl was in our coaching centre for about 22 days. The police has investigated the claims of her mother and found nothing. You can come here and see, we operate in a public space. There is no question of things like conversion.”
In a petition to the Chief Minister, Mohammed has alleged that the girl’s mother “knew that her daughter was in a relationship with someone but deliberately tried to establish that it happened after she joined our classes to malign our institution”.
He says, “She not only used her daughter’s relationship to destroy us but also alleged that our institution has connections with ISIS – an outfit hated by humankind. Police’s preliminary investigation has revealed that we have no connections with ISIS or religious conversions. Hence I request that an enquiry be done…”
We spoke to another teacher in the academy, Susmitha K, who told us that the media was creating a false impression. “There is nothing like that [in the context of Times Now’s allegations]. In the +1 batch itself, only about five students are Muslims, rest are Hindus. There is no question of all this [conversion].”
Mohammad told us that Times Now made no attempt to reach out to them for their version of the story.
Newslaundry also reached out to the Circle Inspector (Kasargod) Abdul Rahim, who is investigating the case based on the mother’s complaint. He said that he could not disclose the details but asserted that there is no “ISIS angle to the case”. He added that the girl would give her statement to the district magistrate in the next few days (she is a minor) and that the boy she had been speaking to was not from Kerala and possibly not a Muslim. The officer told us that the boy’s friends and colleagues have told the police that he is Hindu, but that the police has to conduct a thorough investigation into the identity of the man.
Newslaundry also reached out to a clinical psychologist in Kasargod, who according to the police, had met the mother and the daughter about a month ago. He did not wish to be named but said that during his interaction with the girl and the mother, allegations of ISIS recruitment or conversion didn’t crop up. He added that the mother had sought help from him, as she was worried about her daughter’s behaviour.
When Newslaundry reached out to the mother, she asked us to reach out to the Times Now reporter Nikhil Joshi, who had interviewed her. She did not wish to comment on the case. Joshi said that the prime complaint that the mother had was the radical change in her daughter’s behaviour after her interactions with one man over the phone. Joshi told us that the mother wants the police to investigate who this man is and why he was trying to get her daughter to read Quran and convert. He said she does not want this to happen to any other girl.
As things stand now, the complete truth of the matter will only be out once the police have finished the probe and the girl gives her statement to the district magistrate.
But the whole episode certainly puts a blot on the credibility of Times Now as a journalistic organisation. The channel had a reporter on ground in Kasargod. Why, then, did it not seek out the version of the academy, the police circle officer and the counsellor? On what basis did it extrapolate the testimony of one woman to talk about an organised ISIS racket in the state? How did it link an old WhatsApp message to the story about the mother’s police complaint? We reached out to Shivshankar with these questions. Below is his response.
Channel has responded [Shivshankar is referring to Times Now’s response to Alt News’ story]. Our response is on Twitter as regards the first few questions you have posed. Let me tell you that the story is not based on a conversion rate card. Please get your facts right. They is only a addendum to the story. The story is based on what is a ground report from an area in which the ISIS has a hold.
As regards your other query about the circle officer. Well we conducted an interview with a whistle blower who risked his life to speak to us. He says a culture of APPEASEMENT has blinded local authorities to the plight of those who are being preyed upon. Hence the outright denials by the administration. In fact he says that the ‘police don’t dare enter the area’.
TIMES NOW has also managed to penetrate a WHATS APP group that extensively documents attempts at radicalisation. In these groups rate cards etc are prominently circulated. It is our responsibility to bring out these facts so that people are aware of these insidious attempts at brain washing the unsuspecting. TIMES NOW has not claimed that the rate card is genuine. We have only said it is being distributed to sway locals.
Let me remind you that two young girls have been trafficked from this area to Khorasan province in Afghanistan. More than 20 young men have been radicalised and became a part of the Caliphate. For local authorities to play down the threat is negligence. Instead of denying out right they must probe.
As regards your other queries we have tried to get in touch with the study circle [Wisdom International Academy] on phone as our reporter was not allowed entry. The study circle has still not responded. The CPM spokesperson on our show thanked TIMES NOW for the expose and has promised to conduct an inquiry. This is the outcome we desire.
It is not clear who this “whistleblower” is. But that is the least of the problems with Shivshankar’s response. If Times Now “has not claimed the rate card is genuine”, as he says, why on earth were they flashing it for hours without so much as mentioning that they could not confirm its authenticity?
The journalism of noise is a TRP generator and the ticker at the bottom of Times Now screen tells the viewer how much of the market share they get thanks to their “journalism”. In the competitive hysteria, an entire generation of aspiring journalists are the ones being corrupted or radicalised. That is a loss for us all.
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The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MnshaP