#BabriMasjidDemolition: ‘I was probably the only Muslim woman journalist in Ayodhya’

Three journalists weigh in on what it was like to cover the 1992 demolition, and what they think of news today.

WrittenBy:Cherry Agarwal
Date:
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(Read Part 1 of this series here.)

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When the Babri Masjid demolition took place, senior journalist Sajeda Momin was The Telegraph‘s Uttar Pradesh correspondent based in Lucknow. “If I go back to 1992, the atmosphere created in Ayodhya was very, very frightening … The workers of the Sangh Parivar, which was there to demolish the mosque, herded all of us journalists into groups and took us away from the disputed site,” Momin told Newslaundry. From this temple terrace, Momin would witness the mosque’s demolition. “We were taken to the terrace of a temple which was next to Babri mosque. So we had a fantastic vantage point if you want to look at it from a journalistic point of view—we saw the demolition happen.” You can read Momin’s first-hand account here.

Momin recalls how—to protect her Muslim identity—she would be referred to as Sujata Menon. “I was probably the only Muslim woman journalist in Ayodhya on that day … to keep my identity hidden from kar sewaks, my friends would call me by a non-Muslim name. They had realised I was more vulnerable than anybody else.” Despite attacks on journalists by the kar sewaks, she had her fraternity’s protection and support.

“On December 6, TV crews, cameramen and photographers—including my photographer, Alok Mitra—were attacked. His camera reel was taken, he was attacked and he was hurt. His necklace and wallet were stolen: that sort of petty crime also took place.”

Momin says reporting on the demolition was tremendously difficult. In a bid to avoid documentation, journalists’ cameras were taken away. “Our cameras and reels were taken away. We were not allowed to take out our pens and papers to even take notes. They didn’t want any documentation. In fact, they searched through our bags.”

Momin says most journalists were a lot more neutral in those days. “They didn’t take sides, they reported what they saw, they were not affiliated to a party. The majority of them were neutral. Secondly, we were a lot more fearless: we didn’t care if we were attacked for writing the truth.”

Momin thinks the advent of 24×7 news has impacted the quality of news coverage. “Earlier, you had time to digest and write and take the situation into account. You knew your words could inflame passions, so you’d weigh your words responsibly.” The 24/7 news cycle has brought in desperation to be the first one to break news, Momin says, adding that this leads two problems: lack of quality research and lack of perspective. “You do not have stories breaking 24/7. To fill dead air, young journalists, who do not have experience, simply say whatever comes to their mind. This results in poorly-researched content being aired. Also, lack of research means journalists today fail to provide much-needed perspective when covering historical and sensitive issues such as the Babri Masjid demolition.”

For coverage to change, Momin says journalists need to learn the history of the subject they are reporting on. “They need to question. And as a rule, stop taking comments from politicians at face value.” She adds that journalists need to have an understanding of their subject rather than “just wanting sound bytes”.

Giving an example of this shift from old-school journalism, Momin says in 1992, if Ashok Singhal (the then VHP secretary) was to be believed, then the attack on Babri Masjid was completely unplanned— just an outpouring of passion. “But that’s was not what we saw on the ground. You don’t have a spontaneous outpouring of passion with all the equipment to bring down a building—ropes, axes and explosives. If we were like journalists who are working today, we would have probably written only what Singhal said, but we didn’t.”

She says another reason for this shift is because of the changing pattern of media ownership and a shift in the media’s alliance. “This means that media houses owned by companies, who have other business interests, dictate newsroom agendas. They are told who they can write about and who they can’t. When we were reporting we were never given orders like this. Neither from our newspaper owners nor from the editors. We were neutral and wrote exactly what we saw” She adds that the new crop of reporters needs to train in media ethics and the usage of the English language.

Newslaundry also spoke to Asian Age’s Sanjay Kaw, who had gone to Ayodhya as an undercover kar sewak. Back then, Kaw had a letter of introduction from the Ambedkar Nagar unit of the BJP as his identity proof, this was equivalent to the parichay patra carried by kar sewaks. He pretended to be an engineering student from Kashmir who had run away because of the militants.

Kaw recalls how he had been grilled for this lie several times during his stay at Ayodhya. “I was staying in a tent very close to the disputed structure. There were hundreds of people shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’. They were holding boulders. They started breaking these gravestones which were located very close to the disputed structure.” Kaw says he also participated in Kar Seva. “I did this out of fear. I helped them to dump the debris in the nearby pond.” Just a day before, Kaw had been told that they were keeping an eye on all the journalists who were staying in Shaan-e-Awadh hotel in Faizabad.

Kaw says the present-day news coverage of Ayodhya on TV news is “all biased debates. Everybody is taking one line or the other. Hardly any person is giving any perspective or talking in all fairness about any contentious issue.” He says anchors speak as if they’re all spokespersons of the party, often speaking more than the spokespersons themselves. “I really don’t understand why. They are independent; they need not go that far to please their masters.”

Kaw adds that there are two reasons why newsrooms have come to this position: the madness of TRPs and social media. Placing the responsibility with the audience, Kaw says, “Look at sober news channels, respond to them instead of participating in and seeing the same faces appearing for different political parties on different channels.” He warns that we need to draw a line or it might be too late.

For journalists covering sensitive issues like Babri Masjid, Kaw says, “They should bring out the facts in the public domain and let people decide what’s right and what’s wrong.” He says there’s a need for sensitivity while covering issues like the Ayodhya land dispute. “We also need to respect institutions like the Supreme Court at least, instead of playing in the hands of goons.”

Anil Yadav, writer and freelance journalist, agrees with Kaw and Momin. He says, “The media as a whole acted professionally; that is why journalists present in Ayodhya on December 6, 1992, were attacked by the RSS men with great planning and brutality. The RSS feared that its volunteers and leaders involved in demolishing the mosque could get convicted through photos and other evidences being created by the media.”

However, Yadav says, there were some exceptions to the rule. “A large section of Hindi and other regional media were working as a propaganda wing of RSS and the BJP.”

In 1992, Yadav was working with Dainik Jagran. “A section of the Hindi media reported things that never happened, distorted historical facts, wrote opinion pieces based on mythology and spread rumours leading to communal clashes all over the country,” he says. Over time, the media has become more “sensational, unethical, insensitive and biased all together hand in glove with the power”, he adds. “The media’s current coverage is aimed at creating communal polarisation for the BJP’s gain.”

He describes the current coverage as a “sort of paid news manufactured with poor skills for the electoral needs of the ruling party”. He says this is due to quick monitory dividends with no concern for consequences. “Very little options are left for reporters since the owners of media houses and guideline-makers themselves are conniving with wrongdoers for quick gains.”

Yadav warns that this will further erode the media’s credibility. It will also confuse the audience and add to the prevailing communal frenzy. He says to bring change, journalists need to stick to facts and write or show what they see.

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