Ram Mandir and Kashmir (hyphenated with Pakistan) have obsessed TV news channels like no other issue. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that over the last two years at least, the twin issues have received more airtime than any other matter of national concern, even as the country was battling calamitous flooding, economic decline, rising unemployment, infant deaths, sexual crimes involving politicians.
Newslaundry has taken on the essential work of watching and critiquing TV news shows to illustrate how many of the country’s anchors have simply acted as megaphones for the governing Bharatiya Janata Party’s political vision. It has been a difficult task simply because it has meant watching so many anchors abjure all journalistic values in an effort to build a majoritarian consensus on what was the Babri Masjid-Ram Mandir dispute.
Consider some of the tricks employed by TV news channels towards achieving this “bhavya” goal.
Ram, Ram everywhere
From early in the morning today, major Hindi news channels such as Zee News, News18 and India TV used images of the deity Ram on their ticker.
Zee News took the cake. They had a track of Ram bhajans playing as background score as their reporters and anchors relayed news on the Supreme Court’s verdict.
Not just today, the imagery used by TV channels for their Ayodhya debates has always been unapologetically Hindu, even though the guidelines of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority forbid favouring one side over the side. The other side being Muslim.
The apex court had prohibited the use of images of the Babri Masjid’s demolition but there was no restriction on showing visuals of the Ram Temple proposed to be built on land where the mosque stood until it was razed in 1992. So, you had studio sets replete with Hindu imagery – the proposed temple, sounding of the conch shell by men dressed in saffron, Lord Ram in various poses. The very existence of Babri Masjid was erased, first by karsevaks and then by TV news shows.
The issue now was basically about how long the Hindus would have to wait to get their Ram Temple, not about a title suit between two parties and their contesting claims. Needless to say, the claim of the Hindu side shaped the news narrative.
On cue, the moment the Supreme Court announced its judgement today in favour of Ram Lalla, the Republic TV studio reverberated with the sound of the conch shell as the channel’s editor-in-chief said: “Mandir wahin banegi.” The temple will be built there.
Our beloved Swamijis
Most TV news shows struck a political balance (or so they tried to convey) pitting one BJP supporter against a voice from the Opposition. But swamis or so-called Hindu spiritual leaders served as proxy BJP spokespersons. Many of these “dharam gurus” were introduced as “spiritual leaders”, but scratch a little and you find some of them are associated with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Take Rajudas, who’s featured on Times Now, India Today, ABP News, among other channels. In a rather colourful conversation with my colleague Ayush Tiwari, he said, “Babur was a goon, a pillager. That is the plain truth. The Muslims have tried to contaminate our society by destroying our centres of culture. The British did the very same. That is why we want a Ram Mandir.” This statement perfectly illustrates the purpose the so-called spiritual leaders have served on TV news shows. Their presence allowed channels to air unhinged rants against the Muslims as some sort of a spiritual pravachan — and you could only stop it at the risk of hurting the sentiments of a man of god.
For one of its last two debates before the verdict today, News18 invited two swamis and an RSS idealogue to counter two Muslim scholars. When one of the swamis was questioned by a Muslim scholar, the RSS man called it an insult. This is not to say the Muslim religious scholars weren’t given airtime. They were. But news anchors often cornered them into accepting that the issue was somehow a more emotional one for the Hindus since it was connected to Lord Ram.
As Sudhir Chaudhary put it plainly on his Zee News show, the best solution would be for the Ram Temple to be built on the disputed site in Ayodhya and for the Muslims to agree to the proposition.
Today, when Asaduddin Owaisi, chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, spoke of his displeasure with the judgement, Republic TV invited the yoga guru Ramdev to counter him. Responding to Owaisi’s comment that justice has still not been done in the matter of the Babri Masjid’s demolition, Ramdev said: “Hazaarorn mandir tode gaye thay. Sekdon mandir kyun tode gaye…Kya sekdon mandir nahin tode gaye?” Hundreds of temples were demolished as well, weren’t they?
Anchor as the custodian of Hindu faith
Who can forget Navika Kumar of Times Now staring blankly into the camera and demanding, “Doesn’t Hindu astha need to be prioritised? Shouldn’t the Hindu faith be a priority?” She was not alone. Anchors from across major channels batted for the Hindu community’s faith and desire for a Ram Temple. This, of course, flew in the face of the NBSA guidelines requiring journalists to be non-partisan. But that was just a footnote to the main issue of anchors working as TV kar sevaks to see to the unfinished business of December 6, 1992.
The Supreme Court’s judgement is bound to divide opinions. What is as clear as the imminent construction of the Ram Mandir is the TV anchor’s role in making it a reality.