Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Media, Modernity and the Minorities

Early September 2009, the Metropolitan Magistrate in the city of Ahmedabad, released his report on the killing of four suspected terrorists by the Gujarat police in June 2004. His finding was simply that the killing had been staged: that far from being an armed engagement in which the police personnel returned fire in legitimate self-defence, the four – who included a woman from Mumbai, Ishrat Jahan – had been shot dead in cold blood by the police and their bodies planted at what later was claimed as the scene of an “encounter”.

The Magistrate’s inquiry report set off reverberations across the country. Inevitably, it cast a long shadow over the one-year observance of a similar “encounter” in Batla House, a south-eastern suburb of Delhi in September 2008, in which two supposed terrorists – ostensibly responsible for a series of bombings in the city just six days prior – were killed. It also exposed a curious opportunism in the ruling party at the national level: while it was prepared to excoriate the Gujarat state government for its lawless and indiscriminate actions, it showed little willingness to concede the demand for a judicial inquiry into an event that happened under its own jurisdiction.

Counsels were divided within the Central Government on the Ishrat Jahan encounter. The Home Ministry was willing to stand by an intelligence input it had provided the Gujarat government, identifying the four persons killed in the encounter as suspected elements of the Lashkar-e-Toiba, a group with claims to involvement in various terrorist incidents. But the Law Ministry was seemingly in a hurry to condemn the Gujarat government and little inclined to entertain these reservations about shared culpability.

These uncomfortable schisms within the apparatus of governance prompted an editorial in the Indian Express, which criticised the “political opportunism” of the Central government and its “craven disregard for the sanctity of intelligence inputs”. Rather than play politics, it demanded that the Central government clarify the status of the four killed in Ahmedabad. Their possible intent to commit a terrorist act had no bearing on judging the fairness of the Gujarat police’s action in killing them in cold blood. Yet this knowledge was vital in preserving the processes of intelligence sharing that national security demanded.

These locutions show a surfeit of moral indignation, but little respect for realities. To refer to the “sanctity” of intelligence inputs is to speak of the agencies that gather and disseminate these as dispassionate, objective and neutral, devoid of any narrow, corporate interests. The intelligence agencies in other words, are the “universal class” in the Hegelian sense, without interests other than representing the general public. This would seem a rather fanciful description for anybody who is familiar with the bureaucratic jealousies, the turf battles and the evasions of responsibility that are everyday occurrences in these agencies.

“Sting” operations as an incitement to crime

Indeed, as reported in The Hindu, the story of the encounter was complex and multi-layered, involving a possible “sting” operation by the intelligence agencies to infiltrate suspected terror rings and identify individuals with the inclination to commit terrorist acts. It is now common knowledge that a sting operation is a form of entrapment. It has some legal value only if it can be proved that the target of the operation had a prior intent to commit a crime. Unless the predisposition exists, the executor of the sting operation could be held liable for instigating a crime.

This is a reality that two journalists who carried out a sting to expose the “cash for questions” scandal in the Indian Parliament recently found, when they were charged under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA) for abetment of an offence. There is little question over the fact that the journalists’ efforts yielded information that was in the public interest. Also, their targets had clear prior intent, to commit the offence that earned them expulsion from Parliament and indictment under the PCA. But the charging of the two journalists who carried out the sting under the same law has justifiably been condemned by all bodies concerned with civil liberties and the right to free speech.

If similar criteria are applied to the intelligence agencies, it could be asked if they have, in ensnaring participants in a plot to murder high political functionaries, really been guilty of instigating a crime. When grievances are rife and perceptions of the involvement of these functionaries in crimes against humanity are widespread, an overture of this nature from the intelligence agencies is likely – sooner rather than later – to attract some willing accomplice. In the process, the agency would have overstepped the limits of its mandate -- which is to preempt a crime -- and become an active participant in crime. From there to the criminal “encounter” is just a short step.

There are in this respect, very fine judgments of intent and responsibility to be made, and a host of delicate issues to be negotiated. Given the obsessive preoccupation over “jihadi terrorism” within the media, few of these questions are likely to be posed, far less debated in public. The intelligence and security agencies face no imminent threat that they will be subject to oversight and public scrutiny. Counter-terror operations will continue in an environment of impunity. The agencies engaged in these will continue to overstep the limits imposed by law. And as seen over the last two decades, counter-terror will be transformed into its own form of terror, fuelling an escalating cycle of indiscriminate violence. And a religious minority with ample grounds for grievance, will continue facing the brunt of the stigma that comes from being identified uniquely and solely as the source of terrorism.

Looking back to Ayodhya

The immediate precursor to this particular phase in the stigmatisation of India’s main religious minority, is quite easily forgotten. Indeed, memories of the fevered days of the Ayodhya campaign, which was perhaps the single greatest national trauma in the six-decade career of independent India, have begun to fade. But it is important to understand certain continuities between Ayodhya and the current concerns over “jihadi terrorism”, to appreciate how the media produces and reproduces images of a minority that somehow stands apart from what may be called a “national mainstream”.

Right through the Ayodhya campaign, the burden of the charge levelled against the Muslim community was that it was intent on maintaining its separate and “more equal” status, that it had little regard for the primordial identity and the cultural ethos that made the Indian nation what it is. Ayodhya left a trail of blood across the country before climaxing one infamous day in December 1992. And as the reverberations from that day of shame slowly abated, Ayodhya was banished discretely into the background, by precisely those political formations that had been in the vanguard of the campaign and found that it could not be milked for further political advantage. Yet, the issue has continued to simmer, with the potential to set off periodic eruptions of political insanity and communal violence.

The unrequited crimes of Ayodhya sowed a bitter harvest of hatred and resentment across the country. Extraordinary laws were deployed to deal not with the crimes, but with the sporadic, inchoate and rather disorganised efforts by those who were the victims of these crimes, to make their voices heard and in some cases, strike back. In the process a new stereotype of the religious minority began to take shape – as a community prone to random and insensate acts of violence, born out of its own inability to adapt and adjust to the opportunities that modernity opens up. Well before “terrorism” became a global concern, India’s Muslims were already being disproportionately targeted under the draconian Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (or TADA) -- introduced in the early-1980s to combat violence in Punjab, but soon enough transformed into a tool for the persecution of the religious minority.

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the U.S., and the inauguration of the sole superpower’s “global war on terror”, the stigma cast on the community mutated rapidly. From being in denial of what made India unique as a nation, they were now deemed to be in disregard – for cultural and historical reasons -- of the civic compact appropriate to the citizens of a rapidly emerging superpower. Hence, their proclivity to engage in terrorism, wanton acts of destruction targeted at the vital nodes of civic life in urban India. Needless to say, the State, that sat back in blissful indifference through the horrific violence of the Ayodhya days, has shown extreme alacrity in applying the most draconian laws against the supposed protagonists of the new phase of terrorism.

Manufacturing consent

The coercion of a minority cannot take place without the consent of the majority, in some cases willing, in most cases forced. And that consent is created through the media. Two days after the deadly September 13, 2008 bombings that struck busy commercial areas in Delhi, an editorial in the country’s largest circulated English daily pronounced a rather sombre assessment, while also sounding a call to action: “We are at war. The string of blasts (in Delhi) .. which killed 30 people and injured 90 is the fourth attack by terrorists on a major Indian city in the span of four months”. The people of India, the newspaper advised, should get used to the idea of surrendering some of the liberties they had become accustomed to. This was a necessary, short-term sacrifice, since the enemy they faced was an even greater threat to human freedom.

This was not the first time that Indians had been fed the narrative that they would necessarily have to give up a few of their civic freedoms in order to defeat a mortal threat to all civilisational values. Few paused to question how real the freedoms they enjoyed were and whether these were shared and experienced equally by all social classes and strata.

The atmosphere of impunity and overwrought nationalism was best represented after a so-called “encounter” in Delhi in November 2002, in which two alleged terrorists – supposedly of Pakistani origin – were shot dead. Though the sequence of events as narrated by the Delhi police challenged the meanest intelligence, the uniformed personnel who carried out the operation remained in high standing in the force. Civil rights advocates and activists who demanded greater transparency and accountability, were ticked off in no uncertain terms by the political powers of the time; the Union Minister for Law describing them rather famously, as the “overground face” of the terrorist underground.

Thus it was that soon after the Delhi blasts of September 2008, amid a mass of confusing and speculative stories in the media, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police, raided a fourth-floor flat in a tenement in Batla House, neighbouring the campus of the Jamia Millia Islamia university. The “encounter”, elements of which were covered in real time by the electronic media, resulted in the killing of two youths, Bashir alias Atif, aged in his mid-twenties and Sajid, aged in his mid-teens. Another person of twenty and odd years, Mohammad Saif, was taken captive. And to square the account, since the supposed intelligence report that led to the police raid had identified five known terrorists hiding out, the Delhi Police admitted with great regret, that two of their quarries had escaped their cordon.

Beyond this summation of results from the dramatic swoop on terrorism, a tale emerged of the Batla House operation that verged on unimaginative fantasy. And the media continued to peddle the fantasy because it was consistent with the reigning narrative of “jihadi terrorism”.

As reported in one of Delhi’s newspapers, the team of the Delhi Police “Special Cell”, numbering about 60 – all draped in bullet proof vests – entered the “fifth-floor flat” at 10:15 that morning, accompanied by commandos of the National Security Guard. In the vanguard of this expedition into the unknown was Inspector Mohan Chand Sharma of the Special Cell, who went knocking on all the doors in the tenement. As the report puts it: “Around 10:30 a.m., the door to (flat number) L-18 opened and Sharma was shot thrice”. A gun-battle ensued in which the Delhi Police fired 22 rounds to register two kills and one capture. Eight rounds in all were fired by the opposing side.

The encounter at Batla House in the construction that soon afterwards emerged from the Delhi police, rendered the closure that citizens had long been waiting for, to the cycle of violence that began with serial bomb attacks in Jaipur on May 13 and Ahmedabad on July 26. The September 13 atrocity in Delhi was in this construction, the third in a sequence executed by the same dastardly plotters.

This claim was embroidered and amplified by the media, which however, seemed to have little inclination to look at the troubling inconsistencies in the narrative. At the centre of the narrative was the Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), a once obscure body of uncertain provenance, vaguely believed to be affiliated to the Jamaat-e-Islami-e-Hind, banned in 2001 and except for a brief interlude following the change of government at the Centre, an outlaw organisation ever since. As a series of fine investigative articles in the weekly magazine Tehalka documented through July 2008, every notification renewing the ban on the organisation for the maximum period allowed under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, had been a virtual copy of the earlier one. No additional evidence, in other words, had been produced to support the ban, other than the material in the original notification of 2001.

Inconsistencies feed public scepticism

When Safdar Nagori, the SIMI general secretary, was arrested in March 2008, a security analyst well-known for his feverishly speculative commentary, observed that “SIMI cadre have been involved in almost every Islamist terror strike since (2000), ranging from the Mumbai serial bombings of 2003 and 2006 to attacks in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Delhi”.

Despite the seeming certainty behind this pronouncement, obviously inspired by driblets of information leaked by the intelligence agencies, a tribunal constituted to review the extension of the ban, held on August 5, 2008, that there simply was no evidence connecting SIMI with terrorism. The Central Government on that occasion, secured a face-saving stay from the Supreme Court on the application of this ruling. Media comment was muted and the public, still under the pall of fear spread by the Jaipur and Ahmedabad bombings, remained indifferent to finer points of legality and fairness.

The pursuit of the terrorists picked up momentum with the mid-August arrest of Abu Bashar Qasmi, a 25-year old cleric, snatched from his home in Azamgarh district of Uttar Pradesh by four men who came visiting on the pretext of exploring a matrimonial alliance. Taken immediately to Gujarat, he was identified by the state police as the man behind July’s Ahmedabad attacks. He also reportedly, confessed to an undefined role in the Jaipur bombing. The media meanwhile, had tied in the name of Abrar Ali, a medical student in Jaipur into the plot, with fanciful epithets such as “doctor of terror” being freely floated. Yet, within five days of his detention, the Rajasthan police felt compelled to release Ali since there was no evidence against him.

On August 24, the Rajasthan police announced the arrest of Shahbaz Husain, a computer software expert who ran a small business in Lucknow. As the Lucknow-based civil rights campaigner Sandeep Pandey recalls, the house that Shahbaz shares with his parents, was raided by about 50 personnel of the Anti-Terrorism Squad of Rajasthan Police. Apart from impounding a computer, the raiding party took away all the literature they could find, as also some currency and a cheque made out in favour of Shahbaz’s business. The next day, the same team revisited and compelled Shahbaz’s father, Abdul Moid, to sign two blank sheets of paper.

Pandey visited the local police station the following day to ask what possible use the blank sheets of paper would be put to, only to be unceremoniously turned out. Press reports that he later saw, blazoned the claim of the Rajasthan Police that sophisticated electronic chips and circuits of bombs resembling those used in Surat had been found in Shahbaz’s premises.

With Shahbaz’s firm implication in terrorism, an elaborate chain of linkages began to be drawn between the Jaipur and Ahmedabad blasts. Nagori, Shahbaz and Qasmi – the media reported -- were all reportedly, members of a secretive cell that underwent explosives training in camps as far afield as Kerala and the jungles of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Brooding over the whole conspiracy was the presence of Mohammad Altaf Subhan -- later identified as Abdul Subhan Quereshi, and variously described by the alternative names, Taufeeq and Tauqeer, by which he was allegedly known in jihadi circles -- a computer hardware specialist missing from his home in Mumbai’s distant suburb of Mira Road, since 2006.

Subhan is supposed to have been the technical brain behind the ingeniously designed bombs and the e-mail messages -- replete with graphics and intense Islamic religious symbolism -- sent out celebrating each terrorist strike in the heart of urban India. When Delhi was gutted by three simultaneous bombings on September 13, 2008, Subhan – or “Tauqeer” which had emerged as the consensus name within the media -- was the chant on every investigating agency’s lips. Working its way through the chain that connected Subhan with Qasmi and Shahbaz, the Delhi police quickly identified the other links in the terrorism plot, all from Uttar Pradesh: Abdul Rajib, Mujib, Alamjed Afridi and Qayamuddin. Acting in concert with their Gujarat counterparts, the Delhi police secured access to Abu Bashar Qasmi for a round of interrogation.

When the Delhi Police began their operation in Batla House on September 19, the media were convinced that “Tauqeer”, the ultimate trophy of the terrorist hunt was being sought and would soon be eliminated. When the dust had settled, the story took a dramatic twist: it was no longer Tauqeer, but Atif – one of the two youths killed that day – who was the terrorist mastermind.

A month later, a senior policeman from Maharashtra’s anti-terrorist squad could claim, with complete insouciance, that Tauqeer was a fiction, a creation indeed, of the media.

Media creations and police disavowals

This bland disavowal of the fiction that the police had been instrumental in creating and feeding to a credulous media, followed the Maharashtra police’s own rewriting of the script, just a few days after the Batla House killings. With the arrest of five in Mumbai on September 24, the Nagori-Qasmi-Shahbaz chain of culpability, was history. The Maharashtra Police now definitively identified 31-year old Sadiq Sheikh, a resident of the Cheetah Camp slum sprawl near the city’s north-eastern suburb of Chembur, as the inspiration and the mentor for all the terrorist actions of the preceding months. Four others were arrested alongside, including a computer software expert, an alleged car thief, and supposed specialists in bomb making and in rigging the circuitry for explosive devices.

The media needless to say, has repaid the stinging rebuke that it was administered in the Tauqeer matter, with even greater loyalty, living up ever more abjectly to its accustomed role as a lapdog of the police. If a public that is united and well-informed is the key requirement for a successful struggle against terrorism, the media clearly is doing its very best to ensure the opposite circumstances. And despite the many contradictions in the official narrative on terrorism and its protagonists, the police agencies have successfully managed to evade any serious scrutiny by the media, and derivatively, the public.

“Made for media” investigations, rather than building confidence that the authorities have a proper grasp over the problem of terrorism, are creating a public hysteria and betraying the cause of justice. But because the overarching narrative – of “jihadi terrorism”, of a community that is averse to modernity and resentful of the positive changes that liberalisation and globalisation have brought – is consistent with the hegemonic narrative created by the U.S.-led “war on terror”, it passes muster with the media.

Terrorism has been a frequent visitor to Indian shores over the last two decades and more. And each visitation has been an instantaneous blow that has stunned and staggered. It is conceivable that in the aftermath, the media and the public may be disoriented, unable to attain their bearings and regain focus on basics. To give the media the benefit of the doubt, the pattern of misreporting on terrorism could be attributed to this. And with one news cycle being typically isolated from another, and news-reporters living for the moment on account of the institutional modes of functioning of the media, there is very little opportunity for media persons to connect the dots, to iron out the anomalies and to demand answers for all the tough questions that tend naturally to arise.

There is no denying though, that there are other forces in play which skew the portrayal of the religious minorities in a manner that meshes with a priori notions among the media audience. There are certain social exclusions and conditional inclusions, that are unstated premises of media functioning. It is not necessary to go any further than the news coverage and editorial comment on the Rajinder Sachar committee report, submitted in 2006, on the status of India’s Muslims, to grasp the processes through which this works.

Sachar report and after

The presentation of the Sachar report in Parliament coincided with an outbreak of violence in Maharashtra over the vandalisation of a statue of B.R. Ambedkar in Uttar Pradesh. The country’s largest English-language newspaper, the Times of India (ToI), confined the Sachar report to the news digest section, occupying about 3 column-centimetres on the first page. Considerably more attention was devoted to the violence of the Dalit protests in Maharashtra, with the picture of a train that had been set afire between Mumbai and Pune getting marquee space on the front page.

Both the Sachar committee and the Dalit protests earned significant space in the inner pages of the ToI that day, with the latter enjoying by far the greater prominence. What the ToI chose to put front and centre in its coverage of Sachar was the government’s uncertain resolve about introducing reservations in education and employment for the minorities. Thus the issue of the institutionalised discrimination suffered by the Muslim minority was transformed in the ToI discourse into a concern over keeping India’s enclaves of modernity secure from the ingress of the underprivileged.

There could be various alibis offered for the relative inattention with which the report was received by the media. It could well be argued that the social and educational handicaps of the Muslim community are not exactly a news flash. But then, neither was the choice of the Indian cricket team a news flash. In a situation that involves a choice between two supposedly jaded news items such as these, the tie-breaking vote belongs to the advertiser. And unlike the Indian cricket team, the minorities in India do not enjoy the patronage of a corporate sponsor with a generous advertising budget.

Those familiar with the dynamics of competition in the newspaper business, might ascribe the relative neglect of the Sachar committee by the ToI to another factor. The Indian Express (IE), a rival newspaper, even if much more limited in reach, had as the media jargon has it, “scooped” the main findings of the Sachar committee well over a month before its report was formally presented. The IE coverage appeared in a compact series of articles on the front page, through the last week of October 2006.

IE newspaper began this series of articles with an editorial flagging the danger that the committee’s findings could be used as a basis to argue for reservations for the religious minority in employment opportunities. It chose to pronounce its final editorial verdict on the issue by urging the political leadership to acknowledge the undeniable verity, that economic growth was the way out of social backwardness. In effect, the IE succeeded in submerging the complexities of the Sachar committee’s findings in a simplistic nostrum much favoured in today’s neo-liberal climate.

While the IE was constructing this narrative of discrimination on its news pages and editorially paying obeisance to the virtues of globalisation, a quite different picture of willing thraldom to superstition and stubborn refusal to adopt basic norms of modernity, was being assembled in another quarter of the print media. Between October 24 and 29, the ToI carried no fewer than 6 articles – both news reports and comments, of which two were on the front-page and one on the editorial page – on the case of Imrana, the young woman who had been raped by her father-in-law and stigmatised by the Muslim clergy for her temerity in seeking to bring the criminal to account.

On October 25, the ToI ran a story on Imrana on page one, right alongside another one on the confusion within the Muslim community about when precisely the Eid festivities were to be observed. This latter story led off with a description of the subjectivity underlying the precise date on which the most significant of Muslim religious observances is celebrated and the tension that this set up with modern notions of scientific objectivity.

The Imrana story and the accompanying article on Eid enjoyed roughly the same priority in terms of space allocation and placement. But these stories were topped off by a large photograph, occupying marquee space on the front page, which showed the touring Pakistani cricket team offering Eid prayers at their port of call in Chandigarh. The picture was rather boldly captioned “Champions of the faith?”. With this rather mystifying juxtaposition of stories and visuals, the ToI managed within about a third of the space on its front page, to reinforce several stereotypes about the Muslim community.

Yet the ToI could not remain oblivious to the news emerging from another quarter on the findings of the Sachar report. On November 4, 2006, it ran an editorial giving its take on the main findings. It began by deprecating the policy of reservations as a “blunt instrument” that failed to reach the core of the problem. Instead, other forms of “positive discrimination” could be thought of, including building “quality schools” and “providing healthcare” in “backward districts” that have high settlement densities of Muslims, dalits or tribals. Government contracts again, could be preferentially allocated to these disadvantaged social groups, to “facilitate their participation in the modern economy”. In turn, the ToI chose to place a special onus on the “Muslim leadership” to “encourage the community to take to modern education in larger numbers”.

On November 8, 2006, the ToI carried an article on Islamic schools or madarsas on its editorial page. Titled “Beyond Terror”, the article argued that the debate on these institutions had been confined too long within the issue of terrorism. Because the Muslim community was under pressure in a time of global concern, it had responded with a spirited defence of these institutions and the learning they imparted. This attitude in turn simply evaded the reality that the madarsas have a tendency to “promote a narrow, insular mindset”. And as long as security concerns remained the principal impulse behind the debate, there was little chance that matters of immense import to the “welfare of millions of children studying in madarsas” would be addressed.

Though not formally released at the time this article was published, many of the key findings of the Sachar committee were in the public domain by then. On the issue of madarsas, the committee’s conclusions were fairly clear: fewer than 4 percent of Muslim children in the school-going age group attended these institutions; at an all-India level, their number is not the “millions” as the commentator in the ToI suggested, but just marginally over one million, of which three-quarters were in the primary stage. Far from being an institution of choice, madarsas were “often the last recourse of Muslims especially those who lack the economic resources to bear the costs of schooling, or households located in areas where ‘mainstream’ educational institutions are inaccessible”. And for all the odium heaped on them, madarsas had very often been found to “have indeed provided schooling to Muslim children where the State (had) failed them”.

Granted, the commentator in the ToI could not possibly have reflected the complexity of these findings which were at that time unavailable in the public domain. But in his sweeping denunciation of madarsas he seemed intent to not let a few inconvenient facts stand between him and a compelling narrative of social backwardness by choice among the Muslim community.

It was mid-November by the time the ToI returned on its news pages, to the theme of the Sachar committee. On November 17, it reported that the committee’s recommendations had put the ruling coalition, the United Progressive Alliance, in a “fix”. The following day, it frontpaged a report arguing that the committee’s recommendation that the Muslim share in several vital sectors be increased, would in effect “give rise to the demand for a community quota leading to a fullscale political confrontation”. Having begun its coverage of the Sachar report by viewing it through the narrow frame of the reservations issue, the ToI undoubtedly saw no reason to change course when more details of its findings were available.

To look at the media today is to consider a quantitative explosion unaccompanied by qualitative change for the better. The explosion of news channels has not led to a diversity of choices for audiences – rather every channel seems locked into an imitative mode of programming – which consistently seeks out the lowest common denominator of audience tastes.

In its approach to religious sectarianism, the media may well have ironed out some of the rough edges visible in the early-1990s. That was the time that the Muslim minority was deemed to bear responsibility for the numerous injuries that had been inflicted on India’s original cultural identity in times distant past. Today, the same minority is portrayed as an impediment to the glittering promises of modernity that lie ahead for India.

It was this predisposition to view an entire religious community as unsuited to the onerous tasks and responsibilities of national progress, that was ramped up several notches in the context of the “war on terror”. Investigations into the recent terrorist attacks in India, with all the media spectacle they afford, have done little else than fuel public hysteria. The process of the law has been wilfully shredded while a case is made for broader powers of detention and investigation for the police. As contradictions in the official narrative on terrorism and its protagonists become manifest, public confidence will inevitably be eroded. And if a united and well-informed people are the only guarantee of public security, then the heavy-handed approach in evidence today seems designed to open the door towards greater terror. Tragically, the media which could have administered the necessary antidotes to the growing culture of impunity in the law enforcement agencies, seems intent on playing along.