Over-the-top coverage, bounty of ads: The saffron hues of Big Media on Ram Mandir

Who’s surprised that TOI junked Jug Suraiya’s column as part of the festivities?

WrittenBy:Kalpana Sharma
The front page of TOI on Jan 23.

This was the first paragraph of the front-page story in The Times of India on January 23:

“100 private jets, rose-petals showering IAF choppers, swanky cars, rich and famous people – Ayodhya on consecration day saw all this and more. But it was the townspeople, forced to live with police bandobast for three decades, who brought life and light – 10 lakh diyas lit Saryu’s banks – to Ayodhya’s celebratory mood.”

It ran under this headline: “Jets, copters, swanky cars, VIPs, 10 lakh diyas: Ayodhya’s changed. So has life there.”

The lead story on the front page, showing a photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Ram temple in Ayodhya, ran under this headline: “Dev to Desh, Ram to Rashtra: PM”. And a strap above it said “Diwali arrives early as nation celebrates consecration of Ram Lalla’s idol with fireworks and festivity, amid calls for harmony and healing”.

Page 1 of The Times of India on January 23.

This is illustrative of the celebratory and frankly over-the-top nature of the coverage of the temple consecration in most mainstream newspapers. The exceptions were the usual suspects, who covered it but were restrained. The Hindu, for instance, carried its lead story under the headline “Rituals done: PM calls it a historic day”. To see the headlines of all the papers, see this story in Newslaundry

See all this report in Newslaundry, which is entertaining and informative. It gives us a glimpse of what it rightly calls the “media circus” in Ayodhya and records the antics of mainstream television channels and their anchors. It also shows us how many journalists have abandoned all pretence of being media professionals as they shouted “Jai Shri Ram” in the media centre while watching the event on television.

The story also records what ordinary people living in Ayodhya thought of the celebration. Not all were in the “celebratory mood” touted by The Times of India. Life in Ayodhya has changed but whether everyone living there is happy about it is another story – one that has been barely reported.

Also lost in the hype around the temple consecration was the fact that violent communal incidents occurred in at least six states leading up to January 22, as reported by The Quint.

We should not have been surprised by the newspapers of January 23, given the hue of these papers on the previous day. They had a distinctive saffron tinge with almost half the printed pages covered with colourful advertisements on the temple inauguration. 

Indian Express, for instance, in a 20-page edition of January 22, carried seven full page advertisements, including on its front page. The lead story on the front page, when you got to it, was naturally focussed on the temple. Pages 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 were all full-page ads on the temple as was page 9.  In between there was some other news, but even news pages included a comment piece by the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat. And the lead op-ed piece was by the BJP MP Rakesh Sinha. The only pages where there was no mention of Ram were the sports and business pages.

The exception to this common theme song extolling the glory of the new temple was an acerbic edit page article by Pratap Bhanu Mehta. Most people these days don’t have the patience to read such articles; they prefer short news stories with catchy headlines and spectacular photographs. 

However, Mehta’s piece stood out because he asked questions and stated what needed to be said. This quote sums up the main drift of his article, which needs to be read by all those who are interested in different perspectives on the January 22 event and not just the hype propagated by mainstream media:

“It is not just a moment where the state, which has pulled all its mighty power behind this event, ceases to be secular. It is also the moment where Hinduism ceases to be religious.”

Amplifying on this, he noted: “Ram has been transformed from a radiant glow of righteousness, compassion, and imaginative power into something merely instrumental: A litmus test for national loyalty. We are now more valorous devotees of Ram – more than Tulsidas or Gandhi, who rejected the logic of retaliation. You now have to swear allegiance to this Imam-e-Hind, or else.”

Another insightful comment, that appeared not in an Indian newspaper but in The Guardian, was by Mukul Kesavan. It also gives us much to think about.  Kesavan points out:

“In this season of Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering that the ethno-nationalism that the temple at Ayodhya embodies isn’t the handiwork of an erratic, populist tycoon; it is a century-old political project backed by militant cadres that number in the millions. The India (or Bharat) that Modi and Bhagwat envision is more like Netanyahu’s Israel, only on a subcontinental scale; as majoritarian and as intolerant.”

The celebratory tone of the legacy print media around the temple was only to be expected, especially as the flood of full-page ads ensured the well-established dictum: “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. But what is extraordinary is that one of them was so afraid that it junked an article by one of its best-known humour columnists.

Jug Suraiya has been writing for The Times of India for decades. What began as a column in the middle of the edit page has now been reduced to a short piece that appears at the end of the editorial column, or the “third edit” as we used to call it. Despite the reduction of words available, Suraiya still manages to infuse his column with mischief and humour. But this time, his paper clearly did not want to take any risks. No place for humour, apparently, when a temple is being inaugurated. 

So Suraiya’s column, reprinted in The Wire, was spiked.  

As LK Advani famously said after the Emergency, the press now has not just bent down, it has prostrated itself at the feet of “Modi sarkar”.

From that position, it obviously cannot ask even the most obvious questions, especially about the January 22 event or what happened before it. Read the Times of India story quoted above. It says flower petals were sprinkled by “IAF helicopters”. That is the Indian Air Force. Who paid for this? Who decided that this is a “national” event no different from the Republic Day parade or the opening of the new Parliament building last year?

For 11 days before this event, the prime minister visited various temples around the country. Every day, this was dutifully reported on television and in print. But again, did anyone ask who paid for this? Should a prime minister’s personal resolve – to fast for 11 days and visit Hindu temples – be billed to the public exchequer?

Perhaps a day will still dawn when the media does the job it is supposed to do in a democracy: ask difficult questions about the actions and decisions taken by the powerful. Sadly, given the current state of the media, as evident on January 22 and 23, that day is not yet on the horizon. 

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Also see
article imageElaborate stages, live shows, saffron flags: Inside Big Media circus in Ayodhya
article imageCinema screenings of Ram Mandir? The dangers of a society driven by religion

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