The Supreme Court is set to take up the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title dispute case tomorrow, when it will hear a clutch of 14 petitions challenging a 2010 Allahabad High Court decision. The 2010 verdict said the disputed site in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya was to be trifurcated between the Sunni Waqf Board, the Nirmohi Akhara and representatives of Ram Lalla, a petitioner in the case.
In October last year, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had deferred the case to January 4. The apex court had also clarified that the date set in January is “not for hearing but for fixing the date of hearing”. We have our own priorities, the CJI had said.
It is interesting to note that in the early 1990s, the Bharatiya Janata Party rose to prominence on the back of the Ram temple movement. The construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya was also a promise made by the BJP in its 2014 manifesto. A delay in the hearing would mean that the verdict may not be available before the 2019 general elections—meaning the BJP will not be able to fulfil its promise. For a party pushing for the criminalisation of Triple Talaq—which is being seen as an effort to consolidate the Muslim women vote bank—the top court’s early decision is essential to efforts targeted at holding onto its Hindu vote share.
This might explain why the top court’s reiteration of its priorities has fallen on deaf ears. While the CJI-led bench said the Ayodhya dispute was not its priority, many thought otherwise.
Some even went on to advise the top court against a delay in the hearing. On November 25, less than a month after the Supreme Court’s decision, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat, during a Hunkar Sabha in Nagpur, advised the court to give its decision at the earliest. According to Bhagwat, the presence of a temple had been proven. And in such a case, he said, “justice delayed is justice denied”.
On the same day, the Vishva Hindu Parishad held a “dharma sabha” while the Shiv Sena rallied its workers to Ayodhya—all for the cause of the Ram temple.
And in all this, our TV news anchors weren’t far behind.
The starting line
On October 29, the day the Supreme Court deferred the hearing to January, Aaj Tak’s Anjana Om Kashyap hosted a show: “Hey Ram! Tareeq per tareeq”. Less than five minutes into the show, Kashyap talked about how the court’s deferral prevents Ram devotees from reaching their Lord Ram. “…Ram mandir ki chaukhat per toh is daesh ka Ram bhakt pohoch nai pa raha hai (Ram’s devotee is unable to reach Lord Ram’s temple gate),” Kashyap told BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra.
Interrogating Patra about the action the BJP will take to ensure the temple’s construction, Kashyap said, “Apke tamam mantri dhamki de rahe the ke jaldi se jaldi nai hoga to sabr ka bandh tut jaega, kuch bhi ho sakta hai, ab kuch bhi kariya na sir, kya kariyega… (All your ministers are threatening that if the temple is not built soon, they will lose patience, anything can happen, do something now, what will you do…).”
It’s anyone’s guess how such provocation feeds into the frenzy. In August 2017, Newslaundry had reported on how sections of TV media amplified the “braid-cutting” hysteria. Back then, it took a murder and an appeal for rational reporting by the Delhi Police for the circus to stop.
Back on the debate, other panellists chipped in on how the court should give its order at the earliest. Mahant Suresh Das said, “Jald se jald Ram Janmabhoomi ka sunwai krke, Supreme Court ko faisla de dena chahiye (The Ram Janmabhoomi hearings must be held at the earliest, Supreme Court must give its verdict).” Interestingly, the same debate was reuploaded on November 12 with new packaging.
But that wasn’t all. About a week later, on November 6, Kashyap hosted another episode, “Ram Mandir Ka Dia Jalega?”. In this episode, she asked if the desire of the devotees of Ayodhya’s Ram temple will be fulfilled. She also asked when the temple would be constructed and whether the delay was testing the patience of devotees.
With questions that align to the BJP’s manifesto promises setting the agenda of a news show, it was no surprise that the statements of a BJP leader acknowledging the party’s support of kar sewaks during the 1992 demolition of the disputed structure went unquestioned. These statements included BJP leader Prem Shukla saying, “Dharmacharyo ke aadesh pe humne kar sewaks ko samarthan dia. Dharmacharyo ke aadesh pe humne waha pe Babri ke kalank ko mitnane mai sakriya sahbhagyita di (On the go-ahead of great saints, we [BJP] supported kar sewaks. On the go-ahead of great saints, we actively participated in the demolition of Babri).”
Kashyap did not deem it fit to question Shukla about the party’s culpability and role in the death of nearly 2,000 people, despite his acceptance of kar sewaks enjoying the BJP’s patronage.
On December 10, Kashyap hosted another debate on the same lines. Ironically, Kashyap, in her opening lines, accepted that the issue has been debated much too often. For her, the solution was adding “swamis” to the panel. She said, “Itne Swami judne wale hai Aaj Tak per, seedhe unhi se baat krein. Kitne baar studio mai baith baith kar Ayodhya mai Ram mandir ban paega ya nai, sidha vartalaap ho, yahi zaruri hai (So many priests are going to join this Aaj Tak panel, let’s talk to them directly. How many times will be sit in the studio and discuss whether constructing a Ram temple is possible or not. Let’s have a direct conversation, that is important).”
But Kashyap is not alone.
Move over Aaj Tak, Republic is here
Over on Republic TV, on November 26 Arnab Goswami was debating “Only Masjid At Ayodhya Warning”. The hashtag #AyodhyaMasjidWarning flashed on the top and bottom of the screen. Unlike Kashyap, Goswami chose a direct approach and advised the Supreme Court to make Ayodhya its priority. “Supreme Court ye na kahe ki ye matter humari priority nai hai, desh ki priority agar Supreme Court ki priority hogi toh woh bhot achi baat hogi (Supreme Court should not say that this matter isn’t our priority, if the country’s priority is their priority, it’ll be a good thing).”
Goswami also took jibes at other channels—while simultaneously taking on Dr Tasleem Rahmani, national secretary of the Social Democratic Party of India, for allegedly provoking a riot. Goswami said: “Is desh mai Tasleem Rahmani ko bachane wale kai channels hai, ye tak, woh tak, abhi tak, wabhi tak … magar Republic koi tak channel nai hai (There are several channels protecting Tasleem Rahmani in the country, this tak, that tak, now tak … but Republic is not a tak channel.)” Yet Rahmani continues to be a panellist on Republic.
On December 24, Republic TV decided to take it up a notch. First, Goswami took potshots at Rahmani—who had returned—for building his “political career at the altar of political decency”. Meanwhile, speaking about the delay in the temple’s construction, his other panelist Acharya Dr Vikramaditya—convenor, Vivekananda Seva Sadan—said, “Parantu ek daer ki bhi andher na ho jae iss baat ka bhi humein dhyan rakhna hai. Dhir ek limit tak hona chahiye, aur agar wo dhir limit se bahar hoga, dhir tutne lagti hai, toh sailaab ata hai, kuch nai bachta hai … sailaab aa sakta hai … 500 saal dhir rakhe hue hai, sailaab aa sakta hai. (This delay shouldn’t turn into darkness. Patience should be limited, once this line is crossed, all patience will be lost and there will be an apocalypse. Nothing will survive. We have waited for 500 years, now the apocalypse can come.)”
The threat of an apocalypse—but Goswami let that fly.
Times Now decided to go with the hashtag #SenaMandirProvocation. The debate was centred on whether the BJP will back “Sena” or “Samvidhan”. With the BJP being the governing party at the Centre, shouldn’t the Constitution be the default answer? The little thought that went into the framing of this debate speaks volumes of what came next.
Shiv Sena’s Santosh Dubey said another December 6 incident will happen if the temple was not built. He emphasised that Hindus will come together to build it. The anchor made no effort to check Dubey on how such encouragement could fuel violence, nevermind that the court’s decision was pending. Times Now’s debate also lacked the presence of a legal expert.
Not to be outdone was News18’s Amish Devgan, who held a debate on “Kaun Ram Mandir ke saath aur kaun Ram Mandir ke khilaaf”—likely inspired by their earlier debate where Sambit Patra had suggested that Devgan make such a list. In the episode, Devgan asked panellists to be considerate of the beliefs of 100 crore Hindus. With folded hands, he requested them not to provoke people as he went on to repeat all the provocative statements the panellists had made earlier.
On Zee News, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s deferral, Sudhir Chaudhary discussed “other ways to construct Ram temple in Ayodhya”, pointing out that general elections are in April-May 2019. “Waqt bhot kam hai … itne kam samay mai Ram Mandir banane ke lie vishesh prayaso ki zarurat hai (The time left is less … in such less time special efforts are needed for the construction of the Ram temple).”
If the time spent discussing Ram Mandir was put together, it could easily result in a a couple of Bollywood films, though their success is doubtful. You can sample more madness in this episode of Newsance where anchors are terribly worried about how much Ram lalla can bear.
(This is Part 1 of a two-part series on news coverage of the Ayodhya issue. Part 2 will look at how journalists covered the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992, and what they think of coverage today.)