November  2001 

The idiot box as peace maker

A journalist–cum–cable network owner from a riot–hit, curfew bound small town in Rajasthan turns his medium into a unique peace messenger

He is a local journalist from Beawar a kasbah, a small town in central Rajasthan, bringing out a small publication, Nirantar. Started as a weekly 22 years ago, Nirantar grew into a daily in 1990. And some 18 months ago, RP Kumavat launched his Nirantar Cable network, telecasting 40 channels in this small Rajasthan town.

On April 16 this year, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad organised a procession in the town, in support of local government servants who had been beaten up by Muslims from the nearby Ravla Baria village while attempting to pull down the unauthorized Masooda masjid. The procession deteriorated into stone throwing and attack on property from both sides, resulting in a curfew that remained in force until May 7.

The procession started from the main bazaar. As it wound its way through the small town, slogans were raised to taunt Muslims: "Hindustan mein rehna hoga, to Vande Mataram bolna hoga" ("If you wish to live in India, you’ll have to chant Vande Mataram").

As it was passing through a Muslim basti, the procession stopped, someone turned the mike towards the basti and the slogan raising continued. The moment this happened, two youths from the basti began throwing stones. The mob in the procession scattered and also began throwing stones back. All shops closed down in fear and the markets shut down, too. In the melee, rumours began flying thick and fast; there was no responsible or sensible person to counter the lies being deliberately spread. Muslim shops in Hindu areas and Hindu shops in Muslim areas were attacked and burnt.

In the tension–charged atmosphere then prevailing in his kasbah, Kumavat turned his cable network into a unique channel of genuine communication, reaching out to people on both sides of the communal divide, dispelling rumours, removing misunderstandings.

Here is Kumavat’s own account of the entire episode, as recounted to Communalism Combat:

VHP ne is cheez ko is roop mein uthaya ki ‘dekho Mussalmanon ki himmat! Hinduon apne aap ko asurakshit pate hain’ (The VHP gave the issue a special twist saying, ‘Look at the effrontery of Muslims! Hindus now feel insecure!).

All kinds of stories about the sequence and rationale behind the events were flying around. Something inside made me want to make use of the medium of communication at my disposal to quell the violence. To let people speak and be heard. To let the ‘other side’ listen to what ‘this side’ had to say.

That is how I began relaying my daily city news programme, ‘Shahar Ki Ghatnayen’ (City News), for an hour every evening at 10 p.m. I began the second day after curfew was imposed. I met people from both sides. I asked them their opinions about the events, the rumours being fuelled. People had a chance to convey their sentiments, express their feelings, their opinions. I showed visual clips of destroyed property. I took my video camera and went to Ravla Baria village, met local residents who let me in. I informed the rest of Beawar about when the masjid had been built, where wazoo is done. People appreciated what I was doing. But the administration did not like it.

Every night the city would watch my programme that attempted to raise questions, air opinions and dispel rumours. The idea was to show, to both sides, that rumours were baseless, that by believing them and not dispelling them, fanaticism grows (kattarta badhti hai).

In Ravla Baria, I asked the villagers who were Muslim: "When you know it is an illegal masjid, why are you objecting to the demolition?"

I was shocked and stunned by their reply. I must quote a school–teacher with whom I work closely. She runs a school for girls. She said, "Yeh jo tamaam mandir highway par aap dekhte hain, kya unke paas municipality ki ijaazat hai? Aur agar nahin hai to masjid hi kyon sabki aankhon mein khatak rahi ha?"’ ("The numerous temples that you see lining this highway, do any of them have municipal permission? And if those, too, are not authorised, why is the masjid alone an issue for everyone?")

"I know that the masjid is illegal. But first, break all the illegal mandirs. I will, then pull down the masjid with my own hands," the school teacher added.

This interview stunned everyone in Beawar when I telecast it on the cable network. People were stunned at the facts unearthed by the coverage.

I interviewed one family in Ajmer at the time when the violence had broken out. What would you have done if you had been in Beawar, I asked. "I would have gone to the leaders of the procession and begged the VHP to stop this madness. Where will it all stop?"

I asked many Muslims, "What about the issue always made about Vande Mataram. What objection do you have to it?"

"Nothing, no objection at all," a good many of those I interviewed replied. "We have no objection and will say so willingly. But what is this threat, ‘bolna hoga?’ What do you mean when you say it? Yeh dabav hai (This is pressurising us) and that we resent."

Another Muslim added, "Ek doosre ke dharm mein saath rah rahe hain hum; hamaari to Ganga Jamuna ki sanskriti hai; Kya desh ke azaadi mein hamare haath nahin hain? To baar baar aise ghatiya naare kyon?" ("The two faiths have co–existed for centuries. Ours is a genuinely inter–linked culture. Have we not fought for Independence? Then, why these provocative slogans always?")

The interviews were powerful and candid and they made positive stories. We explored life under the curfew and what it meant for people. We showed how police tortured innocent people, detained selectively, and how their families lived through these detentions. We showed the harm caused to both sides but did not gloss over the truth.

Yeh itna prabhav poorna tha ki sara shahar das baje raat ki raah dekhta. (This was so effective that people used to wait for 10 pm every night). I received many appreciative letters, too, from my viewers.

But the administration was clearly not happy. Why? Because we showed how women and children living alone, especially Muslims, were harassed. Overturning beds and vessels in small homes. Will the man be hiding inside a pitcher or what? These are filthy techniques that the police and administration uses in the name of questioning that we exposed.

How could we make it work? There was honesty and sincerity in the interviews and the versions telecast. Apart from interviews we also telecast views of the leadership from all sides. For ordinary people, however, our effort served as a sensitive channel for grievances. Unko laga ki hamara dukh dard koi sun raha hai; hamaari sunvai ho rahi hai. (People interviewed felt that there is someone to listen to our woes, share our pain; we have a channel to express our grievances).

I believe that Nirantar’s Shahar Ki Ghatnayen programme contributed to restoring peace to Beawar. At the end of each telecast, we would end with a message of toleration and harmony. A Lok Katha or Kabir’s Doha — carrying the message of humanism — would come at the end of each evening’s telecast.

Today Shahar Ki Ghatnayen runs every week. But heaven forbid, if there is tension any time in future, we will ensure that there is ongoing communication and less misunderstanding again. n


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