The Ram temple wasn’t the story, it was Modi. And the Babri Masjid demolition was merely a footnote.
Has some of India's mainstream media, especially electronic media, sunk so deep into the swamp of sycophancy that it will never be able to pull itself out?
August 5, 2020 may well be remembered for many reasons. Not just for the bhoomi pujan for the Ram temple in Ayodhya by the elected head of a "secular" state, but also for the most vivid exhibition of hero worship with not even a hint of balance or independence by much of the country's mainstream media. As always, there were exceptions, but their numbers diminish by the day.
Newslaundry has already commented on the breathless and over-the-top coverage given to the event in Ayodhya on August 5.
Print media, by virtue of its very format, tends to be a little more restrained, particularly the English language newspapers. But read the newspapers in the Indian languages, especially in Hindi, and the story is very different. They were uniformly a sea of saffron on August 6, the day after the laying of the foundation stone by Modi. The favourite image was of the prime minister, dressed in a gold silk kurta and dhoti, prostrating himself before the idol.
Indian Journalism Review, an often caustic and insightful blog by senior journalist Krishna Prasad, compiled the front pages of several Indian language papers that illustrate this. The temple is not the story, it is the man dedicating the temple who is. And that is clearly how it was meant to be.
The question we have to ask is, how did we in the Indian media reach this point? How much does it have to do with the way politics has played out since 2014, and how much with our willing surrender to the agendas set by the governing party at the Centre?
One could argue that the media has no option but to report on an event such as the foundation ceremony in Ayodhya because the prime minister was central to it. But it was not an official event. And it represented a troubled and violent history. Should none of that have found a mention in the headline, something that most people read and remember?
For instance, the Telegraph, which often has arresting front-page headlines and graphics, did not disappoint this time with this headline:
Others ranged from "Modi lays first brick for Ram Rajya" in Deccan Chronicle to "PM fulfills national aspiration" in Hitvada. The Times of India mentioned Modi equating the mandir campaign with the freedom movement and the Indian Express simply stated, "Modi marks the mandir".
Compare this to "Modi initiates temple at mosque site" in Financial Times or "Modi sets Hindu temple in stone at razed mosque site" in the Times, London. Several other international publications included mention of the mosque, referring to the Babri Masjid that was demolished by Hindutva foot soldiers on December 6, 1992. By doing so, these headlines place the context of the event right at the top, rather than as an afterthought.
And that context — as well as this headline in the Washington Post,"In Modi's quest to transform India, a Hindu temple rises" — is the real story of August 5. To be fair, in the reporting in several newspapers, the history relating to the demolition of the Babri Masjid was included. But in these days of shrinking attention spans, it is the headline and the photographs that make an impression and not necessarily the text beneath.
The editorials, which signify the stand taken by different periodicals on this kind of event, are read even less. But they are important nonetheless as they reflect some of the thinking during these times. Historians in the future would read them to grasp how far the Indian media supported uncritically not just the construction of the temple on the ruins of the mosque but the heightened importance given to the process with the prime minister who represents all the people of India, not just the Hindu majority, choosing to lay its foundation stone.
Modi compared the movement to build the temple with the freedom movement. He spoke about a "new India" and spoke of freedom from "1,200 years of slavery". Some questions were asked about this, but precious few. The iconography of an incumbent prime minister comparing a divisive and violent movement that led to its culmination on August 5 with the freedom movement is what will be remembered.
What is the shape of this new India that the prime minister promised? One of the most prescient articles on this appeared in Indian Express a day before the bhoomi pujan. Suhas Palshikar, the well-known political scientist, analysed what he saw as the beginning of a new republic with the laying of the foundation stone in Ayodhya.
He outlined the five pillars that will hold up this new republic. These are, according to Palshikar, transforming India into "a repository of repression"; the delegitimisation of "ideas of dissent and critique"; the "willingness of the judiciary to look the other way"; "the politics of avoidance displayed by most political parties"; and the foundation of this new republic "on a militant culture of majoritarianism".
How does all this apply to the media? What role has it played, and continues to play to build this "new India" of Modi's dreams or the new republic that Palshikar predicts?
A decade back, or even six years ago before 2014 and the ascendance of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party, would the media have been so pliant and unquestioning? Wouldn't more people have voiced their concern about this event being elevated to one of "national" significance despite its obvious sectarian nature? Would we not have reminded readers about the events of 1992 even as they observed the celebrations around this temple? Instead, as Mihir Sharma points out in this article in Bloomberg, "Now, Hindu nationalism’s capture of the soul of India is so complete that television anchors broke into devotional song and newspaper front pages looked more like religious calendars than broadsheets."
Does this mean that August 5 marks game, set and match to the victory of Hindu nationalism in all spheres, including the media?
It need not and it should not. The cornerstone of not falling into the trap of reinforcing this majoritarian narrative that assaults us each day, especially by way of the electronic media, is for the sections of the media that still hold that an independent media is essential to a democracy to inject the necessary context and scepticism into the manner in which events like the Ayodhya spectacle are reported. The editorial decision is reflected in the headline, the choice of photographs, and the amount of space given to the event, as well as the tone of the reporting and not just the editorial comment.
In conclusion, I should also point out that August 5 was also one year since the clampdown in Jammu and Kashmir with the reading down of Article 370. People there, including the media, have struggled to keep their heads above water, cut off as they are without internet and with so many in jail. A year later, it is shameful that the court and the government are still debating whether 4G internet connectivity should be restored.
This deserved more than just a mention on August 5. Yet once again, barring the usual exceptions, mainstream media did what was expected of it by erasing from our consciousness the continuing sorrow and suffering of the people in that region.
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