Why the Hindi Press in the ’90s saw Ayodhya the way it did 

The distance between Hindi and English media at the time made the ground fertile for Hindi publications that could understand Hindu sentiments and give space for its articulation.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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There has been a considerable interest in how the Hindi press wasn’t only confined to chronicling the Ayodhya temple movement in the late 1980s and 1990s, but also had a significant impact on it. In the first decade of the current century, there have been studies examining the coverage of the Ram Janmbhoomi movement mobilisation and the factors shaping it. Different factors directed the approach of Hindi dailies—ranging from the demographic nature of the readership in Hindi heartland states and the commercial turf war for higher circulation to the ideological tilt of major dailies. 

The impact also has to be seen in the context of the fact that it was a period of significant expansion of newspaper readers in the language press—a period that Professor Robin Jeffrey has described as  “India’s newspaper revolution” in his eponymous work.

The way kar sewa mobilisation in Ayodhya was covered in the Hindi press, especially in dailies published from different places in Uttar Pradesh, has been interpreted in many ways. Some of those could be seen in Professor Arvind Rajagopal’s work Politics after Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India (Cambridge University Press, 2001) and six years later, media analyst Sevanti Ninan added to such interpretations in her study Headlines from the Heartland: Reinventing the Hindi Public Sphere (Sage, 2007).

To begin with, however, it should be remembered that almost two years before Babri Masjid was demolished, a sub-committee was constituted by the Press Council of India (PCI) in 1990 to examine “the role of the press, and role of the authorities in dealing with the press relating to the coverage of Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue”.

It [the sub-comittee] was to primarily see how the press reported on kar sewa mobilisation. On October 30 that year, police firing had resulted in the death of kar sewaks and a few Hindi dailies had evidently reported an inflated number of deaths. The sub-committee’s report, published in 1991, named Dainik JagranAajSwatantra Bharat and Swatantra Chetna as dailies that had published irresponsible accounts of the October incident.

To add to that, Professor Zoya Hasan (Quest for Power, Oxford University Press, 1998) says PCI’s report also observed that Dainik Jagran and Aaj had in their “reports, editorials and published appeals” exhorted readers to take a stand on kar sewa. However, years later, Vinod Shukla, resident editor of Dainik Jagran, in an interview to Ninan, said the paper had corrected the figure of deaths after being misinformed by a new reporter.

Despite such defence, there was always a view that Dainik Jagran entered the race with rival Aaj for competitive use of Ayodhya temple issue and the paper’s rise almost coincided with the ascent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s Hindutva identity politics in Uttar Pradesh.

In the process, Dainik Jagran replaced its formidable competitor Aaj as the most read daily in the state. In a state where the Ayodhya movement had made significant political inroads as well as occupied centrality in social conversations of potential newspaper readers, Dainik Jagran was seen to have beaten Aaj at its own game.

That, however, didn’t explain the close chord that dailies like Dainik Jagran struck with readers of Hindi-speaking regions. In his work, Arvind Rajagopal tries to see it as the outcome of the cultural distance between the English print media and the Hindi print media. That distance made the ground fertile for Hindi publications that could understand Hindu sentiments and give space for its articulation; they weren’t held back by political correctness and the disconnect in English press from the thoughts, beliefs, language and everyday religious expressions of the masses—many of whom were adding to the number of media consumers. 

“If the English media treated issues of religion … as peripheral to their concerns, and the Hindi media treated it as a relatively familiar, living presence and as a sociological fact, the latter could become an organising ground for the Hindu right,” Rajagopal writes.

It’s interesting that in recent years, social scientists like Shiv Visvanathan have further developed this line of argument. It has sought to explain the recent rise of right-of-centre politics as a long due counter to the disconnected modernisation, seen as hypocritical affairs and inaccurate reflection of masses, and also as people’s search for authentic and home-cooked representation in the public space.

Besides these explanations, the market logic could still be one of the key drivers of the news priorities the Hindi dailies of the period opted for. In the early 1990s, Dainik Jagran’s Muslim readership was estimated to be around two to three per cent.

Beyond these two newspapers, Ninan has cited examples of other Hindi dailies to show how understanding and respecting Hindu sentiments became important for sales during the peak period of the Ayodhya movement. For instance, the then managing director of Amar Ujala attributed the loss of subscriptions to the perception of the paper being seen as anti-Hindu. According to him, this perception had a lot to do with his paper sticking to 18 as the number of deaths in riots triggered by Babri Masjid demolition. Similarly, Ranchi-based Prabhat Khabar’s sales declined following its report in 1990 that only six kar sewaks were killed in police firing at Ayodhya.

In Madhya Pradesh, which was believed to be the home of pro-Congress Hindi dailies, the Ayodhya movement proved a game-changing period. In outselling Nai Duniya and becoming the most read paper in the state, insiders told Ninan that Dainik Bhaskar went the extra mile in its Ayodhya movement coverage and even brought out four special editions in Indore. In Rajasthan, the market leader Rajasthan Patrika had by that time already been known as being sympathetic to Right-wing causes.

One interpretation that seems to fit the bill for an explanation is that Hindi dailies needed to speak the language of mass sentiments, as well as a market imperative of higher circulation. But, did that mean that the ideological tilt of the owners or the editorial outlook didn’t play any role?

There are no easy answers for this. Take, for instance, the case of the country’s most read daily Dainik Jagran. Like Aaj, the founder of Dainik Jagran worked with the Congress in the pre-Independence period. Puranchnad Gupta, the founder of that newspaper, followed Mahatma Gandhi in the national movement and his attachment to the Congress was limited to his fondness for Gandhi. He even suspended the publication of the newly-launched Dainik Jagran in 1942 in Jhansi, answering the Mahatma’s call for the suspension of newspapers as part of the Swadeshi protest. 

The publication was resumed when the suspension was over and the paper moved to Kanpur in 1947. Gupta parted ways with the Congress after Independence as he was disappointed seeing party-men disobeying Gandhi’s call to resign from Congress. He then diverted all his energies to his newspaper business. 

The paper’s early Right-wing image was perhaps shaped by the fact that its founder saw himself as a devoted Hindu and Arya Samaji. In its early years in journalism, Dainik Jagran chose to highlight the suffering and poor living conditions of refugees from Pakistan. Such reports caused discomfort to the governing party. A combination of such factors were early signs of the paper being seen as inclined towards right-of-centre politics.

The Jagran group has also sent mixed signals in overt acceptance of party affiliations or favour. While its former Chairman and Managing Director (CMD) Narendra Mohan was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the BJP in the early 1990s, his younger brother and the current CMD Mahendra Mohan Gupta was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the Samajwadi Party (SP) in 2006. Gupta accepted the latter offer despite the fact that in 1994, SP chief Mulayam Singh Yadav had called for a Halla Bol (attack) on Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala, for what he alleged as their encouragement to the separatist movement in Uttarakhand. Following the call, a number of journalists working for the two papers were beaten up, and even hawkers and newsagents selling and distributing the two papers were attacked.

It would be interesting to recall something remarkable that the then owner of Dainik Jagran and Rajya Sabha MP Narendra Mohan told the staff of the paper in an editorial meeting. Having interviewed people present in the meeting, Ninan writes: “Insiders in Jagran describe an editorial meeting that Narendra Mohan called, perhaps the only known case of a politically aligned newspaper proprietor and editor calling a meeting of editorial staff to tell them that his party affiliation should not reflect on his newspaper’s political coverage. Jagran’s vichar dhara (ideology) was Bharatiya (Indian), he is supposed to have clarified, not Hindutva. He also made a stirring defence of Muslims, asking if they were not the paper’s readers, and criticising attacks upon them. He said, ‘I am a BJP MP but let all remember that Jagran is not of the BJP. Ali Mian and Shankaracharya should be treated the same. Jagran should not become Panchajanya’.”

If not such efforts for editorial clarity, it was the market itself that made Hindi dailies adjust their commercial ambitions to the growing number of a section in their readership demography. By the early years of the current century, the number of Muslim readers who read right-of-centre dailies like Dainik Jagran and Rajasthan Patrika was growing. It made sense for both the papers to not be overtly hostile towards communities of their potential readers, though they stuck to some core elements of their editorial outlook.

For instance, under the leadership of its editor-in-chief Sanjay Gupta, Narendra Mohan’s son, Dainik Jagran has been clear on its editorial position on the Ayodhya temple issue. It sees it as a test case of historical justice for the cultural vandalism suffered by Ram Janmbhoomi and a bellwether of how the sentiments and cultural heritage of the majority of Indians would be accommodated by the Indian state. In that sense, the newspaper is blending elements of continuity with change.

Beginning with the late 1980s and intensifying in the early 1990s, in reference to coverage of the Ayodhya movement, Hindi dailies embodied a sense of “local” factor in the news universe—thereby somehow putting the market and nature of readership at its very centre.



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