By Yoginder Sikand
Ajit Sahi is an investigative reporter with the New Delhi-based Tehelka magazine. He recently published several startling reports clearly indicating that scores of innocent Muslims, including some former members or associates of the banned Students' Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), across the country have been falsely implicated by the police, intelligence agencies and the media as being behind various terror attacks. In this interview with Yoginder Sikand, he talks about how influential sections of the Indian media are playing a major role in demonizing Muslims today.
Q: You have been associated with the media for several years now. How do you see the way in which the so-called 'mainstream' Indian media responds to or projects Muslims and Islam, particularly in the context of the recent spate of bomb attacks, in which the media, despite the absence of evidence, has blamed Muslims and Muslim organizations for?
A: I think the media does not want to recognize or admit it, but it sees these issues from basically a Hindu, or at least a non-Muslim, point of view. I tell my media friends that if they were Muslims they would not believe any of this media propaganda about Indian Muslims taking to terrorism, or at least would be greatly suspicious of these claims, because these claims are largely dubious and false. They typically answer is, 'No, we are secular, liberal and progressive. We are not communal'. But I do not agree, of course. I think the way they respond necessarily indicates that they are influenced by their not being Muslim. A hidden anti-Muslim bias pervades the media, although media persons who like to call themselves secular and liberal would hate to admit this. This is reflected, for instance, in the fact that in most cases of Muslims arrested on grounds of terrorism, all that we have are 'confessions' before the police, which are not admissible as evidence before courts, because obviously such 'confessions' are often false and procured after brutal torture. But the media simply projects these statements as supposed evidence, and then weaves this picture of Muslims as terrorists.
At the same time, there is a distinct lack of willingness in large sections of the media to recognize the very obvious and very deadly fact of terrorism being engaged in by people linked to the Hindutva camp. Thus, for instance, there is huge evidence against Narendra Modi of being responsible for the massacre of Muslims in 2002, and if it was somewhere else in the world Modi would have been tried as a criminal, and would probably have been sentenced to death or a hundred years in prison. (For the record, I am opposed to capital punishment.) I mean, he should be tried under international criminal law and charged with 'ethnic cleansing', but, of course, our supine, so-called 'mainstream' media is not demanding this. You really can't expect anything else from India's week-kneed so-called intellectuals. They do not have the guts to correctly describe Hindutva as it really is—as fascism, in the same league as Nazism.
Q: How do you explain what you have referred to as the deep and pervasive anti-Muslim bias in large sections of the Indian media?
A: One reason for this, of course, is that there are very few Muslims in the so-called 'mainstream' media, even in those newspapers, magazines and TV channels that see themselves as 'progressive' or 'liberal'. Now, some might say that this is because there are relatively very few well-educated or well-qualified Muslims, but I don't buy that argument. Surely, if you have a staff of a hundred people it should not be difficult to find twelve or fourteen educated Muslims to employ to reflect the proportion of Muslims in the Indian population. But I would be surprised if any of the so-called 'mainstream' papers have even half that proportion of Muslims among their staff.
The argument is also often made that ensuring a proper representation of the Muslims or the marginalized castes; the Dalits and the Adivasis, in the media would impact on the media's quality or merit. I think this cry about merit is the biggest hoax. After all, we all know that appointments in government services and even so often in the private sector are often not made on the basis of any sort of merit at all. Give me another story! I'd rather believe that the British are going to come back to rule India than swallow the claim that appointments are always made on the basis of merit.
In India, merit basically has come to stand for those who can speak and write in English. Many of these so-called 'meritorious' people in the media have come straight out of universities or have done some media course in some Western institute. They have little idea of the Indian society. Because they are the English-speaking, they rarely have an insider's connect with the community they report on. In fact, they take pride in that fact and in distancing themselves from 'ordinary' people. They think that not having anything to do with non-English-speaking Indians sets them in a position to comment on our society. I think this is really despicable and tragic. And they style themselves as 'liberal' and 'unprejudiced', and claim to be 'objective' about marginalized groups, about Muslims or Adivasis or Dalits, but actually have deep-rooted prejudices about them, which many of them do not even realize they have. These subconscious biases are often much more dangerous than consciously held prejudices.
Let me cite a personal instance. After I had published some reports in Tehelka exposing the lies of the media and the police about several innocent Muslims, some of who are said to have been associated with SIMI, and who had been wrongly branded as 'terrorists', the TV channel NDTV24x7 did a half hour programme on SIMI. They interviewed, among others, Praveen Swami, who works for the Hindu, and me. They used one sound bite of mine where I said that I had seen the judgments of the previous three tribunals on SIMI and had found them to be bad judgments, because they lacked evidence and had based their opinion on statements made by the accused before the police, which is not admissible as evidence in a court of law. After my sound bite, they showed Praveen Swami who justified the ban on SIMI saying something to the effect that terrorist outfits are not corporate organizations that hold board meetings and pass resolutions authorizing terror attacks, and so obviously would be careful not to leave any evidence. He also suggested that India should modify the law so that statements given to the police is accepted as evidence.
After the programme was broadcast, I sent an SMS to the producer who had recorded my interview. I drew her attention to Praveen Swami's long-standing record as virtually a spokesman for the Intelligence Bureau. I mean, I would not even call him a journalist. He is, at best, an agent of the state, simply parroting the statements of the police and the intelligence bureau. That's copying-and-pasting, not serious journalism. I also wrote this NDTV producer that she ought to be careful before advocating that confessions made to the police be accepted as evidence, for that would unleash mayhem in the country. After all, we all know how false statements are often forcibly procured by the police from innocent people after brutally torturing them.
This NDTV producer replied to me, saying that like all complex questions, this one, too, had two sides to it, and so she had used Praveen Swami's statement to counter my view. Now I fiercely respect her and my editorial independence, but talking about another side to a story about innocent people being wrongly targeted and branded as 'terrorists' would be like seeking to portray the 'other' side to the massacre of innocent people in Jallianwala Bagh by interviewing the man behind it, General Dyer.
Now, mind you, this is the case with a serious TV channel like NDTV24x7, not some irrational, jingoistic channel like India TV or Aj Tak or IBN7. And the programme was sending out subtle messages that clearly appeared to back Praveen Swami's position, with the voiceover commentary on terrorism being accompanied by images of madrasas, bearded men and burkha-clad women that seemed to aim at creating and reinforcing the image of Muslims as terrorists. Now, this is just one example of a huge number of such portrayals of Muslims in the media.
Q: How do you think this sort of portrayal of Muslims in the media can be countered?
A: The media is a reflection of the middle class of any country. It is the middle class that inhabits the media. So, unless the dominant views in a middle class change, the media cannot change substantially. People have to be sensitized to realities, but this is not what the media is really doing. This can only happen when there is a fair representation of all social groups, including religious communities and castes, in the media. But, like India's bureaucracy and the judiciary, the Indian media has a very heavy over-representation of 'upper' caste Hindus, who are otherwise a numerical minority in our society.
I am reminded of a brilliant though acerbic correspondence American journalist Alexander Cockburn recently had with Tom Brokaw, who is now anchoring NBC's Meet The Press show following the death of its host Tim Russert earlier this year. The simple question that Cockburn asked Brokaw repeatedly is: how come Meet The Press always has a white male as its host? Why doesn't NBC appoint a black journalist, of whom there are many who are also very qualified, as the next MTP host? Of course, after exchanging two mails, Brokaw had lost his temper and was hurtling inanities – because there is no convincing explanation except white racism to Cockburn's question.
The Indian news media has become even more blatantly communal and anti-Muslim in recent decades. A turning point came when LK Advani became Minister for Information and Broadcasting in the Janata Party Government under Morarji Desai in 1977. That gave a tremendous boost to the RSS, which started pushing in large numbers of hardcore RSS-walas into various newspapers. Before that, the Hindutva ideology was considered so demeaning that people would not even discuss it in their drawing rooms. It was considered a pathetic contrast to the uplifting moral ideology of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, which aimed at healing our society and nation-building. I mean, sanctifying the RSS ideology with religiosity is like matching Hitler with Gautam Buddha. But things began to change rapidly from the 1980s onwards, and now ultra-chauvinist forces have become very powerful and deeply entrenched all over in Indian media. This has to be seen in conjunction with the way that capitalism has unfolded in India. Rapacious capitalism and neo-imperialism go hand-in-hand with divisive bigoted religious fervor and nationalist jingoism.
Q: In which way does nationalist jingoism feed into anti-Muslim biases?
A: I think there is a very clear and direct relationship between the two. The sort of nationalism that is being projected by the Hindutva lobby is fiercely anti-Muslim. It is premised on a Brahminical worldview. It projects Muslims, but also all non-Hindus and those Hindus who do not agree to its ideology, as 'anti-national'. The Hindutva groups say they are willing to accept Muslims so long as they don't "look Westward". This is a cunning strategy aimed at forever stoking the flames of divisiveness. For what is a Muslim worth if he doesn't look westward, toward Mecca? Isn't it bizarre to argue that capitalism is good to globalize but Islam must only localize?
Also, the Hindutva lobby is obsessed with military power and the desperate lust for India to be recognized as a 'super-power'. But the irony of the thing is that while it brands Muslims as 'anti-national', there are an overwhelming number of middle-class Hindu families in this country whose sons and daughters have gone, or who want to go, to settle in the US and thereby turn their backs to India. Strange as it may seem, NRI Hindus are one of the fiercest backers of Hindutva lobby that pushes son-of-the-soil nationalism. I think that it is these people who have abandoned India for the American life that are pathetically anti-national. Why shouldn't they be first asked to show their patriotism toward India by returning to the motherland? I mean, how do you turn your back on your parents, on the land of your birth, its mountains, the air and the rivers of the country that nurtured you, and defect to America, a country founded on genocide and still practicing it on a global scale, and yet be not considered anti-national?
Q: To come back to the question of how and why large sections of the so-called 'mainstream' Indian media have become so communal, what other factors do you see at work?
A: I think we need to go back a bit in history to understand this. Before 1947, the English-language media was solidly pro-British, including papers like the Times of India, and even many of those that were owned by Indians. They wanted to be close to the centre of power, and that remains the same even today. But an influential section of the vernacular media joined the freedom struggle, especially after the return of Mahatma Gandhi to India from South Africa in 1915. A spirit of social service and sacrifice motivated such publications, as indeed they infested the national mood. Within such media, too, there was this notion that for the sake of the country and truth one should be prepared to put all at stake. So many publishers and editors went to jail for challenging British authority.
After 1947, our law-makers were aware of the dangers of leaving the media completely in the hands of their owners and unprotected journalists who could be susceptible to manipulation. So, they enacted the Working Journalist Act, which determined that journalists' salaries and said their working conditions would be regulated not by the owners of media houses but by rules laid down by a wage board, headed by a retired high court judge, every few years. Journalists could not be sacked at the whim of the owners. For many years, this system worked fine. The modern post-Independence history of the Indian press has very many proud moments of workers' strikes called to force the hands of the proprietors to pay due wages of the workers as prescribed by a wage board. But all this began to change dramatically when Samir Jain, the inheritor of the Times of India group in 1988, began to offer journalists many times their salaries if they willingly left the wage board system and came on board on a simple hire-and-fire contract.
Soon the virus caught on in the entire industry and, as a result, the Working Journalist Act is now dead. So are the trade unions. Media organizations are now typical corporations centered on the profit motive and not on, what Obama called in his victory speech, "service and responsibility". Instead, the goal of all Indian media is to maximize profits.
All this was bound to change the quality of journalists.
Earlier, many newspapers and journals were edited by leading literary figures whose stature went far higher than those of the proprietors'. Editors of The Times of India group, Girilal Jain and, before him, Sham lal, were stalwarts to whom Samir Jain's father, Ashok Jain, duly deferred. TOI publication Dharmyug had the literary giant Dharmvir Bharati as editor whose epochal writings 1950s onwards, such as Gunahon Ka Devata and Andha Yug, are still the benchmark for quality writing in Hindi literature. It is unbelievable today that a group like TOI, which now focuses entirely on profits and publishes the most banal news, published the Hindi journal Dinman, which was the pinnacle of intellectual discourse in Indian society as late as just 25 years ago.
The one not unexpected consequence of journalists losing the protection of the Working Journalist Act is that they have become much more susceptible to pressures and manipulation. They are now hired on a contract basis and can be dismissed whenever the owners want. That, indeed, is the norm in any newspaper or TV news office. Journalists have little or no job protection, and are at the mercy of a class of owners who are hugely compromised, many engaged in dubious business deals, hobnobbing with politicians, aspiring for the Rajya Sabha, running their media houses to further selfish economic interests. This loss of journalistic integrity has provided a tailor-made situation for what I call 'journalistic fascism'.
Q: What do you mean by that term?
A: By this I mean a sort of extreme jingoism to the point of schizophrenia, wholly devoid of reasoning and empiricism, playing on completely wrong and insensible biases and prejudices and seeking to prove these as 'sensible'. And this is well illustrated in the case of the fiercely anti-Muslim biases that characterize large sections of even the so-called 'mainstream' media. Let me give you an instance. When the SIMI case was being heard in the Supreme Court a Muslim friend was sitting at the back of the media room when he overheard some journalist friends – Hindus – abusing India's Muslims in the vilest terms, branding them as traitors who deserved to be expelled from India, and so on. He was stunned. These were his friends, right? I mean, you might expect this sort of stuff to be said in an RSS shakha, certainly not from so-called top national-level journalists sitting in the media room of the Supreme Court?
The most devastating consequence of the changing media ethic that sees maximization of profits, rather than social service, as their primary objective is to be seen in how journalists have been displaced in media houses by sales and marketing teams as effective decision-makers. Often, leading staffs in these teams have stronger bases and far larger pay packets than even the top editorial persons.
And the principle drive of these sales and marketing bosses is to maximize circulation or viewership, which then translates into higher profits. Like the tabloids of London, this can only mean a shortcut to sensationalism, by playing on and further magnifying basest prejudices, and this holds true as regards the issue of anti-Muslim prejudices as well.
Let me cite an instance. After the 19 September Batla House police encounter in Delhi's Jamia Nagar, some friends in an English TV news channel ran a half-hour prime time show raising all the doubts about the police claim that the two alleged terrorists shot down had killed Inspector MC Sharma. The show in the very next half-hour was, however, devoted to the many awards Sharma – a dubious police officer anyway with many "encounters" under his belt – had received in his lifetime. The first show got a viewership of around a fifth of the latter, and so from the next day they decided to adopt only the line on which the second story was based, thus pandering to the prejudices of the viewers because they found that profitable.
So you see, no matter what the hunks and babes of TV news tell you in their TV promos about how fiercely independent they are, the truth is that it is increasingly the marketing and sales teams that decide what shows should be made and broadcast or what articles and views should be published, or what should be 'consumed'. I am sure you know that readers and viewers are now called 'consumers' internally in the media houses. I know that – I grew up in that environment and practiced it until I realised what I was doing and bolted from it. If you go to the office of any of the scores of TV channels that have cropped up you can see this for yourself. The entire process of deciding what programmes to do is based on what ratings, in terms of viewership, they are likely to get. These channels are staffed by men and women barely beyond teenage, who are given hefty salaries but who have little or no knowledge of and empathy for their own societies, particularly for the poor and the oppressed. Many of such journalists are intellectual pygmies, not more intelligent and aware than George Bush.
In other words, all this talk of 'socially responsible media' is just for public consumption. So, to expect any kind of 'society first' attitude from this media is simply foolish.
In the US, if there is the rabidly right-wing Fox News and the Weekly Standard, there is at least a Los Angeles Times, and countless other liberal media projects. But in India, one simply despairs to find a single liberal media outfit that talks the language of sanity and practices the journalism of truth, at least on the issue of Muslims.
Q: What do you think Muslim organizations should do to counter the demonization of the community in the media?
A: To expect that the media, the courts, the police and the politicians would deliver on their own is futile. For this, one has to build public pressure. Muslim organizations and ordinary Muslims must get out of this sense of victimization in which they are trapped. I can empathise with them, given the concerted assaults on their lives and liberties. But they alone can bring themselves out of it. They have to mobilize their community and battle, without doubt in a non-violent way, for their civil rights as Indians. What can they do? Well, if a hundred Muslims were to arrive in a courtroom when an innocent Muslim, falsely accused of being a terrorist, is brought before the magistrate, there would be immense pressure on that magistrate to record the statement of the accused instead of leaning the way of the police and sending him back with the police, to be tortured more. Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly said that none could be a slave if he was not willing. So, Muslims need to get out of their siege mentality, and stand up and speak from a position of fearlessness. After all, how many innocent Muslims can the police keep arresting or shooting down in fake encounters? During my travels, across India and recently even overseas, I remind my Muslim brothers of the non-violent resistance exemplified in the life of the Prophet Muhammad, who agreed to a compromise with his Meccan opponents in the Treaty of Hudaibiyah and risked his leadership, but did not give up the peaceful approach. As an unarmed Prophet it was more difficult for his Meccan opponents to deal with him, and because of this he was able to change their hearts so much that the next year he triumphantly entered Mecca totally peacefully and the Meccans accepted Islam.
I know it is easy to pontificate. After all, I am a Hindu and I don't need to dread the evil state and the public bias that our Muslim brothers face. Yet, my advice to my Muslim brothers is to give up fear, anger and bitterness. This is a moral fight if ever there was one, and we must understand that though we are ranged against them, even the perpetrators of such horrific injustice on innocent Muslims are its victims.
Muslims must seek to build pressure on the judiciary and to engage with the Hindu middle-class and the media. But my biggest fear is, and I sincerely hope this does not turn out to be true, if the oppression of Muslims continues unabated they might find themselves pushed to the wall and might then react through counter-violence. And if, God forbid, this happens, because the entire system has failed Muslims, including the police, the courts, the politicians and the media, and they have been denied justice and hope, then it would spell disaster for them as well as for the country. I am not being an alarmist, just realistic. It is time that the leaders of this country, or those who call themselves so, wake up to this danger ahead.
Q: You have investigated scores of cases of Muslim youth, many of them said to be former members or sympathizers of the banned SIMI, who, you have found, have been falsely accused of being responsible for various terror acts. Can you summarise your findings?
A: I have seen some 150 such cases, and these are meant to be the really serious or major ones. In none of these cases is there much, or, in the vast majority of the cases, any, evidence to establish the guilt of the accused. In fact, if anything, there is overwhelming evidence to establish the innocence of most of the accused.
Q: So, then, who do you think might be responsible for many of the deadly blasts that have taken place across India recently? In some cases, as the recent revelations about the Modassa and Malegaon blasts suggest, could Hindutva terror groups be involved?
A: I can't answer that question without firm evidence, but I would not be surprised if there is a link between the sudden increase in the incidence of such bomb blasts and the nearness of the Parliamentary elections. I think an in-depth study also needs to be made of the timing of such blasts. For instance, Manmohan Singh survives the no-trust vote in Parliament on July 22 and just three-four days later bombs go off in Bangalore and Ahmedabad. Then, a day after the fraudulent Nanavati report on the Godhra train fire is released, Tehelka editor Tarun Tejpal held a press conference showing hidden camera's video of a petrol pump attendant in Godhra admitting he was bribed by the police to falsely accuse Muslims of buying petrol from him to burn the train. Nanavati had premised his entire finding on the testimony of this petrol pump attendant, who we conclusively proved – in his own words – to have lied after taking a bribe. That press conference was broadcast live in the afternoon. It would certainly have become a big story for the news networks in the evening. But just about half an hour after the press conference, a bomb went off in South Delhi's Mehrauli. And the media effectively dumped Tehelka's startling revelations to vacuously report on the Mehrauli blast. So, I think there is an urgent need to do a detailed study about precisely when such blasts happen, and perhaps on the basis of that we can think of some causal relationships.
We must understand that it is not just the hardcore Hindutva outfits that are seeking to cash in on this rhetoric of terrorism. Look at the horrendous way in which even in Congress-ruled states such as Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi innocent Muslims are being hounded in the name of countering terrorism, at the same time as the Congress is soft-pedalling the issue of Hindutva terrorism for fear of losing Hindu votes. The Congress is no less a pathetically scheming party than the BJP.
Q: Some people have raised the possibility of groups like the CIA or Mossad being involved in acts of disruption in India in order to destablise the country and to drive it further into the embrace of America and Israel. How do you see this argument?
A: On this I am wary of speculating anything, because I like to speak on the basis of evidence. But, yes, I would like the CIA's operations in India to be explored. We need to know a lot more about the CIA than we presently do. Unfortunately, many of us are blind to the reality of how shameless America and the CIA have been since the past century. The CIA has for long been involved in engineering internal strife all over the world. US expansionism and imperialist hegemony is premised on promoting internal instability abroad. We know, for instance, how the CIA trained the Pakistani ISI and Osama bin Laden to fight the Russians. And now there's talk about the Americans and Israelis working with the Indian armed forces in counter-insurgency operations, and a separate institution for this has been set up somewhere in Mizoram. America and Israel have done everything in their power to bring hatred upon their own countries. So why do we want to be in their league? Look at where Pakistan has reached—almost to the point of civil war—by siding with America. Do we want to go the same way? I, for one, do not.
Q. What do you feel about the 'Indian Mujahideen' and another outfit with a similar-sounding name that has been blamed for the Assam blasts? Do you think these are real organizations or are they, as some people allege, simply fictitious and perhaps a creation of the Hindutva lobby and/or the intelligence bureau? Is there any sold proof that these outfits do actually exist?
A. Once again, I can't say they don't exist without incontrovertible proof that indeed these are only a figment of the police's imagination. But the fact is that the credibility of the Indian police and intelligence agencies is, as far as I am concerned, questionable, to put it mildly. Can you remember the last time the police in India genuinely cracked a case without public pressure, or came up with the truth, or did not try to implicate a wrong guy? I will take you back six years when Delhi-based journalist Iftikhar Geelani was arrested by the Delhi Police and accused by the Intelligence Bureau of spying for Pakistan. The poor man spent seven harrowing months in Tihar Jail, on which he wrote a book, My Days In Prison. It turned out that the entire case against Geelani (not to be confused with Prof. SAR Geelani of the Parliament attack case) was fabricated by the IB. The secret and classified document that the IB claimed was found on his computer was a document that was published by an Islamabad institute and widely circulated, including in India. In fact, so malicious was the IB that they altered the document to make it a look as if it was from the Indian government.
So, coming back to Indian Mujahideen, if the Indian security agencies and the police have a watertight case against this outfit, then why don't they bring the evidence to the public domain? Why are they always racing to hold a press conference and plant stories of their claims through pliant journalists like Praveen Swami but never forthcoming with evidence? How do we know for sure that the e-mails that the government claims were sent by IM were actually sent by it?
At this point, I must tell my Hindu brothers and sisters of the Indian middle class – many of who appear to be resolutely behind the IB and the police insofar as the Muslim-as-terrorists theories are concerned – that they should be careful in allowing their prejudices to get the better of their reasoning. I mean, just look at how the American white, Christian middle class plumbed for all the deceitful lying that George Bush did in order to get their support to attack Afghanistan and Iraq. When people ask me why would IB and the police lie, I ask them, why do they think George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice lied and continue to lie? After all, these were the top leaders of the world's most powerful 'democracy'. So let's not be naïve and reject the possibilities that the Indian Mujahideen does not exist.
Q. You say the timings of the blasts need to be studied and point to the fact of the sudden increase in these blasts as the elections draw closer, thus suggesting a possible causal relationship. Can you elaborate on precisely which political forces/parties might stand to gain from these blasts, which, in turn, might shed some light on this possible causal relationship?
A. I must make this clear that I am not suggesting that any political party is behind the bomb blasts, though BJP leader Sushma Swaraj did stunningly seemed to suggest that the Congress might be behind the Ahmedabad blasts of July 26 this year. But isn't it obvious which parties stand to gain from the politics of polarizing that follows such terror attacks? It is obvious that the BJP gains a lot from consolidating an anti-Muslim bias among at least the urban Hindus by raising the fear of unchecked terrorism arriving at our doorstep. We now have the very interesting case unfolding in Maharashtra with the arrest of hardcore Hindutva elements for the September blasts in Malegaon. But, as I said, the Indian police cannot be trusted, and the entire Malegaon case could well be a political stunt by a desperate Congress party, which rules Maharashtra, to counter the political mileage that the BJP was hoping to draw from the blaming of Muslims for the other terror attacks.