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

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

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.

However, the problem runs deeper, and is related to the manner in which news content is generated. It is no longer dependent on field reports by reporters or morning newsroom editorial meetings but on what Twitter says. It is to the Twitterati that most networks seem to be pandering to. It is a self-contained media ecosystem that relies, at most, on generic visuals—buses burning, women crying, or shots of arson—to tell a story. News that is driven by Twitter works in this manner—the lack of a proportionate “sickular” response to the Malda incident as opposed to the national outrage over Dadri is pronounced anti-Hindu online, following which Hindutva trolls work overtime towards making this sentiment trend, in some cases, even posting photo-shopped pictures to inflame passions. This train of thought is soon picked up by an articulate right-wing commentator such as Swapan Dasgupta and from here, the specious binary finds its way into prime time discussion. Those anchors, editors or journalists not falling in line are harassed and abused. The Twitterati serve as the new measure for Television Rating Points (TRP) in town.

This modus operandi can be easily observed through a quick glance at the Twitter timeline of Sudhir Chaudhary, the editor of Zee News. Chaudhury frequently retweets the compliments he gets from his viewers. Most recent among these accolades is the lavish praise that he has been receiving for “exposing the Malda riots” and for his “brave reporting.” In the aftermath of the violence in Malda, on his show Daily News and Analysis, Chaudhury had declared that news channels in India were attempting to cover up the incident. He went on to insinuate that the attacks had been pre-planned.

When it comes to thriving on stereotypes, the spectacle of prime time news television is no different from the make-believe world of Bollywood. Central to this caricature of communities, is the search for “Muslim-looking” and “speaking” guests to aggressively counter the Hindutva trolls-turned-studio guests word for word, rhetoric for rhetoric. An amalgam of sorts of what the Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure calls the “signifier”—the language—and the “signified”—the image the language evokes.

As is evident by now, prime time television is based on manufacturing endless binaries. These include but are not restricted to: the Congress versus the BJP and its infinite variations; the left versus the right; Nehru versus Patel; Nehru versus Bose; Pakistan versus India; and the massacre of 1984 versus the communal violence of 2002. The haste with which these channels have displayed in pitting Malda versus Dadri comes as no surprise. The visually “Hindu-looking” and “speaking” guests—such as the Hindu Mahasabha president and TV studio regular Swami Chakrapani—complete with a saffron outfit, beads, long hair and forehead smeared with holy ash, belonging to unheard-of religious organisations, are available dime a dozen. However, the visually “Muslim-looking” panellists—such as Maulana Maqsood-ul-Hasan Qasmi, a member of the Imam Council—with a flowing beard, a Turkish fez or a skull cap, and conversant in Hindustani that is laced with Urdu, havebeen loath to speak as radicals despite provocative anchors.

This has thrown a spanner in the works. How should “Hindu” excesses such as Dadri be framed without a shouting talking head from the Muslim camp? Similarly, how does a prime time debate relating to the Islamist militant attack in Paris last year play out in a country in which stories about the Islamic State are largely, if not entirely, Intelligence Bureau fantasies that have been planted on obliging beat reporters?

Barkha Dutt, the consulting editor of New Delhi Television (NDTV), recently showed how this was possible on her show, The Buck Stops Here. Since no Muslim “looking” guest would defend the mass killings in Paris, a stray comment made by senior Uttar Pradesh minister Azam Khan at a rally was used as an entry point for the discussion moderated by Dutt. Khan, while condemning the terror attack, had said that it could have been a “reaction to the killing of innocents in Arab countries by the superpowers.” Dutt opened the show by saying that Khan’s comment “almost rationalises the act of the Islamic State.” This declaration was accompanied by a full-screen graphic of Khan’s face, followed by a display of the question,“Azam Khan a terror apologist?” The posturing of Dutt’s statement immediately put Khan in the same league as the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris. While I hold no brief for Khan, it is important to note that he only represented a stance that has been spoken of widely in liberal sections of western media. The timing of his intervention and his choice of words, it could be argued of course, were in utterly bad taste.

Barkha’s loaded question was a sufficient cue for Dasgupta, who sealed the debate in its twenty-seventh minute by declaring that Khan’s statement was a reiteration of the Islamic State’s perception of Muslim victimhood. Such statements, he further inveighed, have led the Islamic State to declare a war that amounts to a modern day re-enactment of medieval crusades on the West. There was little clarity on how either Dutt or Dasgupta established the link between Azam Khan—a sub-regional Muslim leader from Uttar Pradesh who largely represents the Muslims of Rohillkhand, Rampur and Bareilly—and the Paris killings. Even more dubious were the grounds on which he was projected as a leader representing India’s 172 million Muslims.

This could be an effect of aping the market leader, Times Now. The channel and Goswami have transformed Khan into India’s definitve archetype of a Muslim, and the Samajwadi Party into a party of Islamic fanatics. Whenever prime time television has to entertain its viewers with some Muslim bashing, Khan, Gaurav Bhatia—the spokesperson of the SP—or sundry “Muslim looking” figures are hung out to dry. When Iqlakh was lynched by a mob in September last year, Goswami began The Newshour by putting the SP in the dock and asking, “Why is the state government subjecting the meat recovered from Iqlakh’s refrigerator to a forensic test?” It was a curious question to ask on the day the lynching had been reported for the first time in the national media—especially in the backdrop of the heightened Muslim bashing by rampant elements of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Even if one were to take a leap of faith and assume that this was a “newsier” peg, Goswami was not clueless about the nature of the meat—which was conclusively proven to be goat and not beef in December last year. Ten minutes into the show, a window opened up on the television screen to reveal two people. One of them was Iqlakh’s sister, who said, “It wasn’t beef. It was goat’s meat.” By pitching the story as a “failure of law and order” Goswami ensured that the discourse during his show was focused entirely on the culpability of the government. Soon after, Siddharth Nath Singh from the BJP latched on to the cue and asserted, once again, that the state government’s failure to maintain law and order had resulted in the killing. Coincidentally, this position also became the BJP’s official party line.

But Khan is not the only one news channels have tried to pin the stereotypical Muslim identity on. Unsuccessful attempts have also been made to force-fit the President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, (AIMIM) Asaduddin Owaisi, into a militant, even Jihadi, frame. A number of Owaisi’s speeches tend to be shared widely on social media. One such speech from 31 May 2014 gained traction online for his reference to Modi as a dog. He made this comment after the prime minister—in 2013, a year before the BJP was elected to power—responded to a question on the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat that occurred during his tenure as chief minister of the state, by saying that when “someone else is driving a car and we're sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I'm a chief minister or not, I'm a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”

In November 2014, the news channel India TV’s owner and editor, Rajat Sharma, brought up Owaisi’s comment on his show Aap Ki Adalat. Owaisi cited Modi’s original remarks in the interview, without taking his name. It would be foolish to deny that Owaisi is given to rabble-rousing, just as the prime minister is, as was clear when the prime minister thundered at an election rally in Bihar recently. Modi waxed eloquent about the presence of the terror-mongering “Darbhanga Module” in the state and effectively damned the entire population of Muslims belonging to a district in Bihar.

Barkha Dutt has not been far behind in writing off an entire community since Modi’s accession to power either. This tendency is best exemplified in an open editorial that she wrote for the Hindustan Timesin October last year. Dutt identified Owaisi’s Hyderabad-based organisation AIMIM as “the precursor of Muslim League” that attempts to “ghettoise Muslims.” Dutt appeared to have overlooked the fact that the AIMIM won 25 seats in the Aurangabad Municipal Corporation election held earlier that year based on a declared Dalit-Muslim combination. Her slanted piece tellingly appeared on the same day on which she proudly clicked a selfie with the prime minister.

The selfie is a powerful indictment—albeit symbolic—of how those representing television media and Modi are increasingly framed together. Several minorties in India—not just Muslims—appear distant and even marginalised. Those who dare to speak, are silenced, as actors Shah Rukh Khan and Amir Khan were, last year

This frozen image of Muslims as essentially Jihadists, is at best a caricature and at worst a denial of citizenship rights to India’s largest minority. The editorial push to manufacture a Jihadi in the absence of one conveys a reckless desire to privilege debating format over content. It also appropriates the dominant global discourse spawned by a combination of journalists, academia and security wonks, that was first identified by literary theoretician Edward Said more than three decades ago in his seminal work, Covering Islam. This approach is then combined with myths and prejudices propagated by the Sangh and its ideologues about Hinduism—which is itself a product of what Said termed “Orientalism,” the frame through which the West sees the Orient.

Muslims are far more likely to be radicalised because of the injustices meted out in Malegaon, the Akshardham terror case, and in Telangana where five Muslim youths were shot dead in cold blood early this year. It is difficult to remember when, if at all, electronic or the print media—barring The Indian Express—interrogated the excesses of the state on the minorities as a campaign, as was done with reportage on the rape case in December 2012. The new-age Twitter driven television content is based on anger, hate, unreal binaries, and banal stereotypes. It is merely re-enforcing cultural prejudices that now enjoy the ideological backing of a state that appears to be shaping itself as a Hindu Rashtra.