Lights, Camera, Jai Shri Ram! A reporter’s account of news debates live from Ayodhya
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Lights, Camera, Jai Shri Ram! A reporter’s account of news debates live from Ayodhya

Here’s what happened when three news debates on Aaj Taj, ABP News and TV9 went live from city after the verdict.

By Ayush Tiwari

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The Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas in Ayodhya is the resting site for hundreds of pink, sun-burnt boulders. After the Supreme Court’s verdict on Saturday, these boulders will soon be arranged into a grand Ram temple at the town’s so-called Ram Janmabhoomi. 

But for the time being, the Nyas has been the parking spot for a great section of Delhi’s television media. Three shows were organised on November 10 by three leading Hindi news channels — and this reporter was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall at all three sessions.

After the verdict, hundreds of people from across North India arrived in Ayodhya the following day. Usually, they first visit “Ram lalla” at the formerly disputed site, and then head right to the Nyas. It is these visitors from across the Gangetic plain, and some locals, who play audience in the TV news shows.

And so, on Sunday evening, ABP News and Aaj Tak occupied the big yard in the middle of the Nyas, setting up their stages, lights, speakers and red plastic chairs for the audience. In the small yard adjacent, TV9 Bharat put together its own set. It was time for some TV news.

Sadhus being Ayodhya’s first-class citizens, they feature in every such show shot in the town. Over the past two days, they’ve been arriving at the Nyas early in the morning in channel-sponsored cars. By day, they give bytes to minor news channels. By evening, they’re panellists on primetime shows on mainstream channels. 

It’s Sunday and Mahant Rajudas, whom we introduced to you in this piece, has been here since 6 am. His associates from Hanumangarhi, where he’s a pujari, tell me he’ll be here till 9 pm. That’s 15 hours. 

“None of them even offer him a glass of water,” one associate says when I inquire about financial inducements. “Only Aaj Tak has taken his signature so far for some Rs. 5,000. The rest, be it ABP or TV9, haven’t offered anything.”

Aaj Tak is seen as respectable by Rajudas’s chelas, but the Maharaj, they claim, is beyond these worldly pleasures. “Rajudasji once went all the way to Delhi for an Aaj Tak show. They put Rs. 14,000 in his account. But he returned it all,” says an associate, his face shining with admiration. 

But Rajudas is only one such flower in this nursery. The ABP News show starts at 4 pm with Rajudas and three other religious leaders on stage. There’s the fully-clothed Brijmohan Das, half-naked Paramhans Acharya, and Kanhaiya Maharaj with his terrifying walking stick. There’s also Rakesh Tripathi, a Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson, and Sharad Sharma, the Vishva Hindu Parishad chief in Ayodhya. 

There’s also the lone Muslim panellist, Babloo Khan, who is associated with the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

The ABP News live show at the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas.

ABP News also invited Wahid Ali, a poet from Lucknow, who sits on the side. With him is Ramanuj, a bhajan singer.

The show is anchored by Rubika Liyaqat, who is much endeared to the Ayodhya audience. She declares at the opening that the show is meant to broadcast a “pledge of brotherhood among all communities”.

The first 30 minutes of the ABP News show are so sickly sweet you could add some ghee and call it a laddu. Ali, the Muslim poet from Lucknow, dedicates many couplets to Ram and communal harmony. Rajudas and Bablu Khan sit on the stage, holding hands. Every panellist is all for Hindu-Muslim ekta. Paramhans greets Muslims on the Prophet’s birthday. Khan delivers  monologues on the greatness of Ram and the perfection of the Supreme Court verdict.

Brijmohan Das, who doesn’t get much airtime, intervenes every now and then and shouts “clapping”. The audience, almost lacking volition, claps. The overhead camera zooms dangerously close.

Rubika, dressed in a pale pink kurta that goes well with the boulders, plays along for the most part. At one point, she says: “I’ve never been to the Ram Janmabhoomi because I can’t see Ram lalla covered under a mere tent.” There’s thunderous, emotional applause. Paramhans, in his typical loud style, says the remark brought tears to his eyes. He then stands up and bows to her.

But Rubika also knows how to drop a stink bomb. Just as Rajudas and Babloo Khan’s onstage dalliance advances from holding hands to awkward hugging, she asks the former if the mandir-masjid issue is now put to rest. “Didi,” begins Rajudas, addressing Rubika, “it was never about a mandir-masjid issue. It was an issue of Janmabhoomi, or place of birth.”

Achha,” Rubika exclaims. “Then why did you always make it about mandir-masjid on my earlier shows?” 

Rajudas is shocked.

The panellists at the shows.

Our anchor then turns to the VHP’s Sharad Sharma. She asks him if the VHP will now keep its political radicalism in check. 

Sharma begins, “Look we’re a part of the Sangh Parivar…”

Rubika interrupts: “Yes, but every family has a quiet child, a lively child and a naughty one.” 

Sharma: “VHP is not the naughty child!” 

This is Rubika’s a-ha moment. “Sharmaji, I didn’t even say that VHP is the naughty child. Why did you assume so?” Sharma tries to ignore the embarrassment so Rubika shouts the same question at him half a dozen times. Sharma is unable to counter her. 

Rubika: 2. Panellists: 0.

After 40 minutes of this milk and honey interspersed by our anchor’s mischief, the Aaj Tak show with Rohit Sardana begins about 10 yards away. Rubika’s audience begins to disperse; they want to explore the market of TV news. Rubika calls for a sudden commercial break. ABP’s audience coordinators desperately try to retain and add audience members. 

One of them tells a group of elderly women: “Maaji, please sit. It’s a great programme. It’s your age to listen to bhajans and couplets. Please sit!” The women chuckle nervously and sit down. 

The panellists shuffle. Rajudas, Paramhans, Tripathi and Sharma stand and walk to the Aaj Tak stage. Kalpatri Maharaj (whom you last might have seen here) and a few other saffron-dipped geriatrics mount the ABP platform. 

At Sardana’s show, the state of affairs isn’t as amiable. Dressed in a white shirt and crisp black Nehru jacket, Sardana tries to reign in an argument between MH Khan — introduced as a “Bahujan Samaj Party sympathiser” — and the rest of the panellists. 

Unlike ABP, Aaj Tak‘s show isn’t live. There’s no on-set 56″ TV where the audience can watch itself. The audio system here isn’t as loud, making it hard for the audience to hear the anchor and panellists over the usual prayers that are blared across Ayodhya from temples at any given time.

The Aaj Tak show at Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas.

Occasionally, the ABP News audience coordinator runs across the set to get a feel of the Aaj Tak show. When I tell him Sardana’s show lacks the tranquillity of ABP’s, he grins. “We are not as provocative as them,” he says. “Aur Rubika bohot pyaari ladki hai (Rubika is a sweet girl).” He smirks, winks and scurries back to his set.

In the ABP audience, whispers of “let’s go see a different show” begin getting louder. One fanboy, mistaking the fleeing audience to be the end of the show, runs up to Rubika to get a selfie. She dismisses him from the distance of a cricket pitch. He sits back down.

But ABP has a new strategy up its sleeve. After the reshuffling, bhajans and poetry go up a notch on the show. Soon, people begin dancing. An old man walks through the audience and dances his lungs out. For him, disorder has paved way for order, disharmony for harmony. The mandir is around the corner. 

Life is good.

But at Aaj Tak, Rajudas is now shouting. Sardana’s having a hard time controlling him. Sharma, meanwhile, is so disinterested in proceedings that he’s talking on his  phone on live television. Sardana snaps at him: “Sharadji, aap phone rakhiye (Sharadji, please keep the phone down)!” 

Back at ABP, the loud chants of “Jai Shri Ram” are way more audible than any of the blokes at Aaj Tak.

Dinesh Chandra, an Ayodhya local, gets up to leave the Aaj Tak show. Seeing me backstage, he says he can’t stick around a full day of TV news entertainment — he’s got work to do. Rajesh Tiwari, who traveled from nearby Gonda with his family, tells me Aaj Tak is usually the better channel. “But today,” he says, “the ABP show is way better.”

Ram Singhar and Chandrabhan Singh, two septuagenarians who traveled from Devaria district to Ayodhya to see Ram lalla, are utterly fascinated by the TV events. “TV bahut dekha hai lekin aaj saamne aakar dekha (I have watched this on TV many times but now I’m watching it up close),” Singhar grins. Singh says in his village, Hindus sold a plot of their land to raise money and build a mosque. He looks very proud of this.

(top) The backstage area, (bottom) Chandrabhan Singh and Ram Singhar.

By now, the ABP News show has drawn to a close. Rubika obliges her forlorn fan with a selfie. Then she walks back to her Press van. A couple of minutes pass and then the screams ring out.

It’s Rubika and she’s shouting at her producer. “You don’t take your work seriously! You are so slow!” Passersby slow down, looking interested. Rubika notices and automatically switches on her smile, returning to selfies. Soon after, her voice rings in the distance: “Tell Amer if my show is not up at 8, I will shoot him!” 

By 6 pm, Ankit Tyagi and India Today overtake Rohit Sardana and Aaj Tak. I approach MH Khan, the Muslim panellist on Aaj Tak. He dismisses the experience with contempt. “Sardana just knows how to do politics,” he says. 

The VHP’s Sharad Sharma has the same complaint. He tells me that TV news channels should not indulge in anything that can “disturb” communal harmony after the verdict. “Even I told them (Aaj Tak) that you shouldn’t do anything that deteriorates the mood, especially after the verdict has brought about peace,” he claims. “It’s too much. So I simply walked away.”

A few feet away from the ABP News stage is Vaidyanath Jha, an anchor with News Nation. “Now your turn?”  I ask. “Nope,” he smiles. “We don’t do this bahasbaazi, just a bulletin.” 

I ask the same question to a journalist near the Nyas gate with a Republic TV mic in his hand. He laughs. “We too will do the tamasha in while!”

India Today’s show has its anchor, Ankit Tyagi, struggling to conduct a peaceful debate. At one point, when a panellist says Ayodhya is “for everyone’,’ he’s loudly contradicted by a gentleman in the front row. Tyagi turns and asks the men to watch the show instead.

India Today‘s Tyagi smites a rogue element as people watch.

Finally, it’s TV9’s turn to have the sadhus to themselves. There’s no stage here, only a dias or two. The audio system leaves much to be desired. Crucially, TV9 doesn’t have TV screens: at ABP when Rubika took breaks, audience members could be engaged by showing them what was appearing live on television. In its absence, TV9’s audience has to content itself with awkwardly listening to a correspondent reporting from the town’s ghats. 

As if to make up for these deficiencies, TV9 installs two children in a corner, dressed as Ram and Sita. Ram is a 12-year-old boy who braves a smile and tells his name to those who ask. Sita, even younger, is played by a boy who seems petrified. He’s silent and looks straight in front of him.

(top) The TV9 set, (bottom) Children dressed as Ram and Sita.

Before the show begins, TV9’s producers ask all panellists to light diyas that are placed on one of the boulders. When only a few are lit and not all 36, the producers almost harass audience members, including this correspondent, to do their bit for their production. Ram and Sita are then taken away to the gates of the Nyas. When the show begins, the two walk slowly towards the set, cameraman in action, with the anchors mouthing platitudinous pieties.

***

As Ayodhya skies turn darker and dusk settles on the city, I walk up to a gallery of paintings near the TV9 set. Organised by the Nyas, it displays scenes from the Ramayana alongside portraits of those who had “sacrificed” their lives for the Janmabhoomi cause. 

Satpal Das sits nearby. An affable sadhu with white and saffron gamchhas and thick locks of hair, Das had regaled me with bhajans during my previous visit to the Nyas. According to him, he’s lived in these premises for many decades.

I ask him what he thought of this spectacle. “What do I say?” he replies. “All this is just a joke. Til ka taad bana rahe hai sab (They are taking small things and turning them big). It is nothing. Jiska zameen tha usko faisla de diya. Those who had the land have now been handed it.”

Satpal Das at the Ram Janmabhoomi Nyas.

Has he ever been invited for TV shows? “Who am I to be invited,” he giggles. “I’m uneducated. My first connection is with God and that’s it. Mandir, masjid, church is none of my concern. I sing bhajans here and get to sleep at a nearby ashram. Someone or the other offers me food.”

He adds: “Some say that they’re looking after dharm through politics. Some say they’re doing it through these boulders. But dharm is only this: to do good to others, and to protect them from harm. Yahi hai bas aur kuch hai nahi (This is it and nothing else).”

“Someone came” — he breaks off when loud slogans of “Jai Shri Ram” echo from the TV9 set — “Someone came to this city once and built a temple, the next one built a mosque. Whoever had power, did what they wanted to.” 

As is his wont, Satpal Das begins humming verses from Tulsidas. I ask him what it means. “It means that satya is that which has no birth and death. Those who take birth and die are not satya. This government is not satya, nor were any of those before it. These TV shows, these sadhus and the journalists. They are all asatya.”

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