BY GAURI LANKESH
Marshall McLuhan’s theory that ‘the medium is the message’
certainly holds true when it comes to the role of the media in the
increasing communalisation of Karnataka. The tragedy is that some leading
Kannada language newspapers have made it a habit to publish false stories,
baseless theories and imagined facts as scoop stories. For example,
Vijaya Karnataka, the largest selling Kannada daily, recently carried
a four-column article about ‘coastal Karnataka’s links with the
underworld’ in its coastal edition of September 8, 2006.
The article made interesting reading, for it was written
with conviction. The gist of the article was how people in the state’s
coastal areas have for long had ties with the Mumbai underworld, how these
ties have led to the seizure of explosives, AK-47s, seditious literature,
etc. in some of the coastal towns, how these seizures have averted major
terrorist attacks and so on. Although it did not mention any particular
community by name, any layperson reading the article would automatically
make the connection between the Muslim community in the coastal areas and
the underworld because it made specific mention of Haji Mastan (former
Mumbai don) a few times.
But the reality is that the article did not mention any
facts nor any instances or any events... no nothing. It would not be wrong
to say that the entire article was pure speculation clearly aimed at
tarnishing the image of the Muslim community in Karnataka’s coastal areas.
This is one of many such instances where the Kannada media
have overtly pushed the Hindutva agenda. And they have taken this to such
lengths that while they give substantial coverage to Hindutva forces they
deliberately ignore or ban facts provided by secular forces in each and
To cite another example: the Hindutva brigade issued a
‘fatwa’ four years ago that henceforth all publications should use the
term ‘Dattatreya Peeta’ instead of the now disputed shrine’s actual name,
Bababudangiri. To our amazement we found that most publications followed
this diktat. As a fallout of this, in the public mind the name
Bababudangiri is gradually being erased and replaced by ‘Dattatreya Peeta’.
So much so that when I was to address a student’s programme at a college
in Mandya recently, the compère who was introducing me to the audience
said, without batting an eyelid, "Gauri Lankesh has been part of the
struggle to retain the syncretic culture of Dattatreya Peeta."
Vijaya Karnataka and Udayavani are the two main
publications that have been indulging in such saffronisation of the
reader’s mind. Both these publications have not only made it a habit to
publish baseless stories as fact, they have also taken to editorialising
in their news coverage. In the same September 8 edition I referred to
earlier, Vijaya Karnataka carried a news report regarding the
recitation of Vande Mataram as its main story of the day. A line in the
report read: "Arjun Singh, who is at the forefront of appeasing the Muslim
community, was present at the function to sing Vande Mataram." To pass off
opinions like "appeasement of Muslims" as news is, by any yardstick, a new
"standard" being set by such publications.
Ever since Vijaya Karnataka was launched in 1999,
the state has witnessed a media war, fought in terms of both price and
content. Unfortunately, the idea that the more ‘Hindutva’ the publication
the more readers it will gain has spread its tentacles long and deep
within the media. Add to this the fact that often the proprietors and the
editorial staff are in fact from the Hindutva camp and the combination
becomes even more rabid.
Vijaya Karnataka was launched by none other than Vijay
Sankeshwar who, when he began the paper, was already a sitting BJP MP. So
it was no wonder that after a few trials and errors he picked Vishweshwar
Bhat to be his editor. Bhat was a member of the RSS and maintains close
ties with the sangh parivar’s many outfits, including the BJP, even today.
Once Bhat took over, he brought in various other "writers" from the
saffron brigade. One of these is Pratap Simha who usually rants and raves
in his weekly column against "pseudo secularists" or anyone opposed to the
sangh parivar. It is not surprising that most of Vijaya Karnataka’s
reporters and subeditors are pro-right wing. With the editorial team of
Vijaya Karnataka appearing to clone a sangh parivar ‘baithak’,
is it any wonder that the contents of the newspaper, sometimes overtly,
often covertly, push the Hindutva agenda?
Anxious not to be left behind, Udayavani often
competes with Vijaya Karnataka, even publishing baseless rumours as
news. In one instance of this some years ago, a news report published in
Udayavani’s coastal editions said that Muslim traders were pricking
Hindu girls with syringes carrying the AIDS virus. Obviously, this had
Hindus up in arms against Muslims and they took their revenge by
destroying Muslim houses in about half a dozen villages.
What was particularly galling about this report is that
neither the reporter nor the editor or anyone from Udayavani had
bothered to check their facts. In fact, the actual incident was relatively
minor. At a village fair in a coastal town a Muslim trader had used a
common needle to prick a few people who had tried to steal some of his
wares. This had caused a commotion at the fair and the police had picked
up the Muslim vendor. Yet this was enough to start off the rumour that
Muslims were injecting Hindu girls with the AIDS virus. And this rumour
appeared as front page news in Udayavani. Even after fact-finding
teams investigated the matter and revealed the truth, Udayavani
insisted on carrying this baseless AIDS story as if it were a terrorist
attack on Hindus in the coastal areas.
In Adi Udupi last year two Muslim men, Hajabba and
Hasanabba, were stripped, beaten up and paraded naked by members of the
sangh parivar, causing an uproar in the state. With the state government
doing little to arrest the main accused in this incident, Karnataka’s
secular forces organised a massive protest rally at Udupi in which,
naturally, a large number of Muslims participated.
But the local media, including Udayavani and
Vijaya Karnataka’s local editions, not only overlooked the utter
viciousness of the sangh parivar behind the Adi Udupi incident, but their
reports on the rally gave it an entirely different twist by claiming that
some of the Muslim youth who had participated in the event carried
‘Pakistani flags’. They even published huge photographs of some youth
carrying green flags with the caption "Pakistani flags at the rally" while
the accompanying news reports claimed that some of the youth had even
shouted pro-Pakistan slogans.
To counter such false reportage, the Karnataka Communal
Harmony Forum had to approach the local superintendent of police, convince
him that the triangular green flags with the crescent and star were not
Pakistani flags (which are rectangular and have a vertical white stripe on
the left) and that no one had shouted pro-Pakistan slogans. Even after
these facts were presented to the newspapers, they refused to carry
clarifications the next day. Finally we had to persuade the superintendent
of police to organise a press conference where he clarified that neither
were Pakistani flags carried nor pro-Pakistan slogans shouted. The papers
did carry details of this press conference but not on the front page – the
report was carried as a small item on their inside pages!
One could go on and on about the media’s role in pushing
the Hindutva agenda by printing falsehoods, biases, rumours and pure
imagination as fact, but I shall end with just one more example. A few of
months ago, Vijaya Karnataka carried an article glorifying Hindutva
ideologue Veer Savarkar as a great freedom fighter, patriot and so on, the
usual jargon pedalled by the sangh parivar. I was incensed enough to call
the publisher, Vijay Sankeshwar (who has since sold his publication to
Bennett, Coleman & Co., Ltd. of The Times of India) to say, "May I
write a piece containing the actual facts about Savarkar for your
publication? I am asking you since I am aware that your editor will
definitely throw it into the dustbin." To which Sankeshwar replied: "Why
all this controversy? Veer Savarkar was a great patriot who fought for the
freedom of our country."
I rest my case.
(Gauri Lankesh is editor of the
Kannada weekly magazine, Lankesh,
and a member of the Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum.)