The Karnataka High Court’s recent decision on the hijab row brought out the Islamophobia in Hindi news channels.
On March 15, after weeks of students’ protests, the Karnataka High Court upheld a state order that restricts wearing hijab in government colleges where uniforms are prescribed. The court also said the hijab was not part of essential religious practice in Islamic faith.
Since the “hijab row” and the subsequent student protests in Karnataka have been making headlines across the country, it followed that the verdict would be discussed in debates on Hindi and Urdu news channels.
News18 Urdu, which is part of the Network18 group, debated the issue on the show Keh Kar Hi Manenge (It Has To Be Said), anchored by Abu Hurairah. The panelists were Maulana Maqsood Imran Rashadi of Bengaluru’s Jama Masjid, educationalist Marukh Mirza, activist Tahira Hasan and advocate Sayed Farman Ahmed Naqvi.
All four agreed Muslim students should be allowed to wear hijab to educational institutions and that this judgement could adversely affect the education of Muslim girls. The discussion was civil, with each panelist being given time to make their point, without interruptions.
On Network18’s Hindi channel, News18 Hindi, the mood was very different. Hijab was the topic of discussion on the show Danke Ki Chot Par (Being Blunt) and the title for that day’s episode was “Hijab Controversy: Toh hijab par Dilli se bada danga hota?“ (Was hijab going to cause a worse riot than what Delhi saw?).
Anchor Aman Chopra, who has quite a track record when it comes to bigotry, had three panelists who agreed with the court’s verdict and two who were opposed to it. Chopra was not the neutral moderator. From the way he heckled the panelists who argued against the verdict, it became obvious that Chopra intended to use the verdict to put forward his anti-Islamic point of view.
Bharatiya Janata Party spokesperson Shehzaad Poonawala opened the debate with the claim that the ulterior motive behind the student protests was to cause communal riots. Chopra agreed with Poonawala and threw in a mention of the protests surrounding the Citizenship (Amendment) Act for good measure. Apparently those too were examples of “these people” hiding behind women to further a violent agenda.
For better or for worse, the debate on News18 Hindi didn’t get a chance to elaborate much on either who “these people” are or how spontaneous protests by students – which the state administration clearly did not foresee – could be a planned strategy. Instead, it settled down to making personal attacks.
When Saeeda Falak, the spokesperson from the All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen, raised the question of one one’s right to religion, Chopra interrupted her saying, “Danga karana apka right to religion nahi hai (Inciting a riot doesn’t come under your right to religion).”
The conversation quickly devolved into name-calling and heckling. Chopra made no attempt to tone down the aggression of those who supported the hijab ban and the contrast between the tones adopted by the Network18’s Hindi and Urdu anchors was unmistakable.
On News18 Urdu, anchor Abu Hurairah asked a panelist,”The statistics, when it comes to the education of Muslim women, are already pretty upsetting. Don’t you think such disputes [about wearing hijab] would hinder the education of Muslim girls even further?”
Meanwhile, Chopra at his mildest put forward the opinion that “banning” the hijab made the court a saviour of Muslim women. This perspective denies Muslim women the freedom to decide for themselves what they will wear and how they choose to practice their faith. Ignoring these details, Chopra declared, “This is a win for Muslims, they will be able to live carefree as they’ve been freed from shackles.”
In contrast, Huraira noted the complexity of the debate in his show on News18 Urdu, when he asked, “Just like Sikh students wear the pagdi, what is the harm in Muslim girls wearing hijab?” On Danke Ki Chot Par, Chopra declared hijab was not essential to Islam in the way the turban is to Sikhism.
Unlike the polite debate on News18 Urdu, the conversation on Chopra’s show was a shouting match filled with offensive behaviour, like when Poonawala displayed photos of Falak without a hijab and claimed she was a hypocrite. It took Chopra a while to point out that wearing (or not wearing) the hijab is Falak’s personal choice.
At another point, advocate Dr Rizwan Ahmed said, “Jab aurat natakbazi karne lage, toh usse tameez se baat nahi kari jati (When women start making a spectacle of themselves, there’s no need to treat them with decorum).” Near the end of the 34-minute show, Maulana Ali Qadri got fed up with the proceedings, called Rizwan a “kameena” (scoundrel) and walked out.
Zee Salaam, the Urdu channel in Zee Media Corporation’s network, had activists Zeenat Kausar and Amber Zaidi to discuss the Karnataka High Court’s verdict with Maulana NK Mohammed Shafi, who is the chairman of the Karnataka Waqf Board. Zaidi was in favour of the court verdict while the other two disagreed with it.
The three argued over the judgement politely, much like the panelists on News18 Urdu.
On the other hand, the network’s Hindi news channel Zee News Hindi adopted a tone and stance similar to that of News18 Hindi. The show Taal Thok Ke, anchored by Aditi Tyagi, had seven panelists and the agenda seemed to be Muslim bashing. Like Chopra, Tyagi heckled the panelists who didn’t agree with her.
Taal Thok Ke had advocate Neelofar Masood, AIMIM member Sameena Begum, activist Subuhi Khan, activist Mariya Tabassum, BJP spokesperson Prem Shukla, Congress leader Ali Warsi and lawyer Farah Faiz on its panel. Tyagi began proceedings by asking Masood why there was any disagreement on the verdict when the court had clearly stated hijab was not an essential practice in Islam. When Masood tried to reply, Tyagi cut her off. This would happen repeatedly over the duration of the show, with Tyagi effectively heckling the panelists who questioned the Karnataka High Court’s verdict.
Somehow, the debate meandered towards Kashmir. Tabassum made a reference to a report by an organisation named Genocide Watch, only to be interrupted by anchor Tyagi. Later, Shukla stated the only aggressors in Indian history have been Muslims, who committed genocides against Hindus in 1947 during the Partition, and in 1990 in Kashmir. According to Shukla, Hindus have never been violent towards other communities, which is historically inaccurate.
Leaving aside historical examples, in the present day, Shukla’s own behaviour on the show – which included hate speech like “Genocide toh Allahu akbar keh kar kara gay, na (Genocide was committed to chants of Allahu akbar)” – contradicts his claims of Hindu pacifism.
Tyagi only intervened after Shukla said “Yazido ki aulad tauba nahi karti hai, woh dusro ko dosh deti hai (The children of Yazid don't repent for their sins, they blame others).”
Same same but different
On both Zee Media and Network18, the Urdu channels had measured debates on the hijab and the potential impact of the Karnataka High Court’s verdict. The Hindi channels on both networks were markedly more biased and Islamophobic in their news debates.
It seems both networks tailored the narratives of their shows to match their target audiences. The Urdu channels cater to a Muslim audience and this target demographic decided the tone of the narrative for both Network18 and Zee Media.
The Hindi news channels target a different audience – one that is predominantly Hindu, and it needs no guessing as to what the channel thinks of its audience’s news requirements. No doubt Chopra’s insistence that student protests are attempts to incite riots and Tyagi allowing hate speech against Muslims are part of the effort to cultivate the audience’s favour.
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