Anatomy of an ‘investigation’: How India Today’s madrasa sting misled its viewers

The madrasas weren’t ‘violating’ the lockdown. One of them was even lauded by another TV channel for ensuring social distancing.

WrittenBy:Chitranshu Tewari
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On April 10, India Today TV aired a “special investigation” on Newstrack, a primetime show hosted by its news director, Rahul Kanwal.

Called “Madrasa Hotspot”, it “stung” caretakers of three madrasas in the National Capital Region – Madrasa Darul-ul-Uloom Usmania and Madrasa Islahul Mumineer in Madanpur Khadar, Delhi, and Madrasa Jamia Mohammadia Haldoni in Greater Noida.

The report showed that students were staying in the madrasas amid the nationwide lockdown. It also had at least one teacher accepting that he had bribed the police to keep them at bay.

India Today’s theory: the three caretakers deliberately kept students in their madrasas in cramped spaces, violating all lockdown guidelines, and hiding the students from the police. The channel claimed the caretakers had links with the Tablighi Jamaat – whose congregation in Delhi’s Nizamuddin last month has been blamed by the Indian media for causing a spurt in coronavirus cases – and, therefore, were risking the lives of the children.

Newslaundry spoke with the three men stung by Kanwal as well as Delhi police officials to ascertain the facts. Two of the men, Mohammad Jabir Qasmi of Madrasa Islahul Mumineer and Mufti Mohammad Shaique of Madrasa Jamia Mohammadia Haldoni, agreed to speak on record. But Abdul Hafeez of Madrasa Darul-ul-Uloom Usmania was wary of the media and worried for the students in his charge. So, he refused to comment.

Let’s break down the India Today “investigation”.

Why are children staying in these madrasas during the lockdown? Are they violating the lockdown guidelines?

One of the key questions that isn’t answered by Kanwal’s sting, and his monologue, is this: where are the children staying in these madrasas from?

Both Jabir and Shaique told Newslaundry that their students are from Bihar. It is an important detail that India Today left out: that these children couldn’t go back home once the lockdown was imposed.

“Students were supposed to go back home on April 11. Their tickets were booked. But they couldn’t go back because of the lockdown,” Jabir explained.

Shaique, who is himself from Bihar, offered the same explanation: “If there’s a school that is breaking for vacation on April 1 and all of a sudden there’s restriction on travel, how are kids supposed to go back home?”

Train tickets that Jabir had booked for the students to go back home. The date of journey is April 11 and the destination reads Bhagalpur, Bihar.

As early as March 21, the central human resource development ministry had advised educational institutes to let students who were still in hostels to continue staying on campus until the coronavirus outbreak was contained. Since madrasas are educational institutes, this advisory applies to them. Jabir and Shaique weren’t flouting lockdown guidelines, they were following them.

Newslaundry also spoke with Zafarul Islam Khan, chairman of the Delhi Minority Commission. Khan pointed out that most of the children in madrasas come from outside Delhi, from poor families, and their teachers are solely responsible for their wellbeing.

Were the madrasas ‘hiding’ the children? Are the caretakers linked to the Tablighi Jamaat or did they attend its Nizamuddin event? Are the children following social distancing norms?

Newslaundry spoke with Delhi police officials in the South East district, where two of the madrasas are located. The officials, who spoke anonymously because they aren’t permitted to speak with the media, said the news of two madrasas in Mandanpur Khadar “hiding” children was incorrect.

On April 2, the police had provided the sub divisional magistrate with details of the students staying in the two madrasas. Contrary to what was shown in the sting, the police said, Jabir and Shaique neither had any links with the Tablighi Jamaat nor had they visited its Nizamuddin headquarters.

What about the madrasa in Greater Noida?

It turns out that India TV featured the same madrasa and its caretaker in a report — not a sting — on April 10. The report described how the madrasa, with 24 students from Bihar, was setting an example in following social distancing norms.

A doctor who had visited the madrasa told India TV none of the students had any symptoms of Covid-19.

So, the same madarsa and caretaker, Shaique, featured on India Today as violators of the lockdown guidelines, were shown as an example to follow on India TV.

Mufti Mohammad Shaique Qasmi from Madrasa Jamia Mohammadia Haldoni on India Today and India TV, which misspelt his name. A lockdown violator on one and an example to follow on the other.

“By Allah’s grace, we have enough space,” Shaique told Newslaundry, adding that the madrasa was spread over 500 guz, or around 4,456 square feet.

In the context of the Tablighi Jamaat event, India TV praised the madrasa’s preparations to handle the coronavirus outbreak, showing how its students wore masks, and used sanitiser and soap.

Similarly, at Madrasa Islahul Mumineer, Jabir said the campus has three floors. Students have been given separate beds to keep distance.

Newslaundry asked Jabir and Shaique if they had any links to the Tablighi Jamaat or if they had attended its event.

Shaique denied having any connection to the Tablighi Jamaat. Jabir said, “I used to go to Nizamuddin to buy toffees and handkerchiefs, but have no links with the Jamaat.”

India Today’s sting had Jabir saying that he had “visited the markaz” with his students, referring to the Tablighi Jamaat’s headquarters. Why did he say that? Jabir alleged: “They probably edited my audio.”

Did the story need a sting?

Sting operation as a way of breaking stories remains a contested idea, dividing news professionals about its efficacy and ethics. For those who support it, it’s a necessary evil in public interest, designed to expose those in power.

Every sting operation warrants crucial questions for the media outlet’s editor and reporter. One, is the story of such great public interest that it must be told through undercover reporting or it won’t come out otherwise? Is the subject of the story so powerful that the only way to expose them is through a sting?

The India Today reporter who went undercover for the story gave Jabir and Shaique the same story. Jabir said, “His name was Aamir. Dressed in a kurta like us, he came with someone I know on the pretext of helping out the kids during the lockdown.”

India Today’s “investigation” received backlash on Twitter, with many people pointing out that it was a blatant attempt to communalise a pandemic. Rahul Kanwal stuck to his guns.

But the TV channel did leave out questions that were central to the premise it laid out for its viewer: the premise that ignorant maulvis were deliberately keepings students in madrasas, risking their lives and of those they might come in contact with. Not only that, its story was replete with incorrect information. It was a report that misled the viewer rather than inform them.

Just before the sting video rolled, Kanwal proclaimed, “This is the only investigative team across all mediums, not just television but also print and digital, that is out and about, getting you the inside stories of what's really going on.”

If only Kanwal’s team showed the same zeal to answer the most basic questions raised by the report and addressed the glaring gaps in it.

Newslaundry sent a questionnaire to Rahul Kanwal. The piece will be updated if he responds.

Media reports like these take time, resources and perseverance.

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Also see
article imageThe truth about Amit Malviya’s Shaheen Bagh exposé: An Alt News and Newslaundry investigation
article imageWhy India Today’s JNU sting did more harm than good


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