The Reluctant Fundamentalists: How News Channels in India Are Manufacturing the Muslim Identity

15 January 2016
When it comes to thriving on stereotypes, the spectacle of prime time news television is no different from the make-believe world of Bollywood.

On 3 January 2016, the Anjuman Ahle Sunnatul Jamaat (ASJ), an Islamist organisation, conducted a meeting at Kaliachak in south Malda, West Bengal, to protest a derogatory statement allegedly made by Uttar Pradesh Hindu Mahasabha leader Kamlesh Tiwari, against Muhammad, considered a prophet in Islamic faith. This demonstration soon turned violent. The protestors set fire to around two dozen vehicles and attacked the Kailachak police station. As soon as news of the violence broke, most reports suggested that it was the result of the community’s collective rage over the statements that Tiwari—who has since been disowned by the Mahasabha—had made. But, as The Hindu reported, the outbreak was probably linked to the local dynamics of the area, where workers of the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) are suspected of being involved in opium and cattle smuggling. According to the web publication The Wire, it is also being pitched as a battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the TMC as they attempt to carve out the old Congress party bastion of Malda in the run-up to the assembly elections, to be held later this year.

India’s news channels, however, had their own exclusive take.

On The Newshour, Times Now’s nightly debate show, which was most recently referred to as “Fox News on steroids,” the editor-in-chief of the channel, Arnab Goswami, summoned all the lung power he could muster to ask, “Where is the secular ‘Award wapsi’ brigade?” Goswami also declared, “There is a communal angle to the killing of [Mohammed] Iqlakh [who was killed by a mob in Dadri on the suspicion that he had beef in his house] and there is a communal angle to what happened in Kaliachak!” A little before the show, a dramatically packaged news story played out on the channel with the hashtag #MaldaCoverup. This news report, accompanied by a voiceover that promised to tell the viewers “the story the Mamata government does not want you to know,” questioned the Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s claims that the violence in Malda was a localised clash involving the Border Security Force. Last year, in September, the same channel had played host to Goswami as he dismissed the communal nature of the killing in Dadri by branding it a failure of law and order on the part of the state government.

It wasn’t just Times Now. News X, that inevitably imitates the “most widely watched network”, also panned Mamata for not going to Kaliachak while having the time to attend the Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali’s concert. Rahul Shivshankar, the editor-in-chief of News X, berated the chief minister for hobnobbing with the “cultural ambassador of a country that has made its national mission to bleed India by a thousand cuts.” In stark contrast, the channel did not seem to mind that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Karnataka, tweeting away homilies from the International Yoga Conference even as the attack on the air base in Pathankot was underway. Needless to say, News X wasn’t alone in this regard. No news channel deemed Modi’s faux pas worthy of coverage.

The overall context can hardly be missed. With the Modi government under greater scrutiny than ever before, his devotees in the media have become more strident.

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.

Keywords: news channels prime time television
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