Press and Prejudice
Vidya Bhushan Rawat
Rs : 130
Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi - 110025
Hindi newspapers, taken together, have a multi-million readership in India today. Yet, their role in shaping public opinion is often overlooked. While some Hindi papers are known for their balanced reporting, the vast majority, as this incisive book shows, are notorious for their blatantly pro-Hindutva leanings, not even making a pretence of secularism, as in the case of many of their English counterparts. In fact, as Rawat indicates, the Hindi media has played a central role in promoting Hindutva, spreading anti-Muslim hatred and further entrenching prejudices against other marginalized groups such as Dalits, Backward Castes, and Tribals.
This book, based on a content analysis of several leading Hindi papers, focuses on the deeply-rooted biases of the Hindi media in its representation of various communities. Rawat notes that, despite notable exceptions, most Hindi newspapers are now avid promoters of ‘upper’ caste Hindu interests, generally thinly camouflaged under the guise of Hindutva. In recent years, several papers have switched from being somewhat even-handed in their approach to religious questions to unabashedly supporting a range of ‘Hindu’ causes. Hindi papers are today providing much more coverage to Hindu religious festivals and all manner of ‘god-men’ than ever before. All this works to create a more conducive atmosphere for the fascist political project of the Hindutva camp.
This process of the overt Hinduisation of most of the Hindi press has gone hand-in-hand with a concerted effort by large sections of the Hindi media, now heavily infiltrated by Hindutva supporters, to actively promote hatred against Muslims by circulating baseless rumours and misleading propaganda. Muslims have come to be represented as ‘enemies’ of India, as evil terrorists conspiring with outside forces to destabilise the country. The history of Islam and the Muslim presence in India are deliberately distorted to create the impression that Muslims and Islam are synonymous with violence and bloodshed. Muslim institutions, such as mosques, madrasas and colleges, are routinely branded as ‘anti-national’, and, contrary to all available evidence, Muslims are portrayed as an unfairly ‘pampered’ community. Such vicious propaganda, Rawat shows, prepares the ground for violent attacks on Muslims. Numerous Hindi newspapers give greatly distorted accounts of ‘communal’ riots, apportioning the blame entirely on Muslims, overlooking the role of Hindu communal organizations, local politicians and the police. During such incidents, several papers deliberately present Muslims as the culprits in order to justify further violent attacks on the community, even when Muslims are actually victims and the greatest sufferers, as is most often the case.
The deeply rooted anti-Muslim bias of large sections of the Hindi media, Rawat agues, must be seen in the broader context of the readership, patronage and ownership patterns of Hindi newspapers. Most papers are owned by large industrialists, many of whom are staunch RSS supporters. Some politicians also have large stakes in newspapers, while most newspaper owners also have political links. Aware of the power of the press, many political parties have even nominated media magnates as members of parliament. This nexus between politicians, industrialists and newspaper owners explains, to a large extent, why much of the Hindi press is so blatantly anti-Muslim, for it appears to serve the interests of all three groups. Adding to this, Rawat says, is the fact that many employees of newspapers are not trained journalists at all. Many of them are local goons, who use their access to newspapers to promote their own political agendas. Obviously, they, too, have a vested interest in communal politics. Further, many lower ranking journalists apparently find their chances of promotion blocked if they refuse to toe the line of their editors who ardently support the Hindutva cause. This works to stifle dissent and to perpetuate existing communal, particularly anti-Muslim, prejudices in the press.
Providing a fairly representative overview of the Hindi press, Rawat argues for the need for regular monitoring of the media in order to promote a professional and truly secular ethos. While this suggestion is indeed useful, perhaps much bolder steps than that are required if communal prejudices in the press are to be countered. Of particular importance here, and this is something that Rawat perhaps inadvertently forgets to suggest, is the need for more Muslims, Dalits, tribals and Backward Castes to take to journalism as a career, and also to start newspapers of their own which could compete with existing papers. Given the overwhelmingly ‘upper’ caste background of Hindi (as well as, of course, English) journalists today, and the fact that Hindutva supporters already have such a strong presence in the media, it would be naïve to imagine that the existing press could somehow be convinced to suddenly turn secular. What is needed, therefore, is an alternate Hindi media, controlled by marginalized communities and reflecting their own voices.
This book is probably the first on the subject, and so, despite its numerical grammatical errors and, at times, somewhat clumsy language, it serves a valuable purpose. Readers searching for a comprehensive study might be apt to be a little disappointed, for while it sets out to uncover the communal prejudices in the Hindi press, it focuses almost entirely on the representation of Muslims in the Hindi media. Rawat mentions, but only in passing, the deeply entrenched Brahminical bias in the press, reflected, for instance, in how other marginalized communities, such as Dalits and tribals, are portrayed. As can be expected, this is not very different from the ways in which Muslims are depicted. And that, once again, is explained by the overwhelmingly ‘upper’ caste control of the Indian media, a fact that is well known but rarely openly broached in the media itself.