Coverange of Ayodhya Sparked "Convenient Collective Amnesia"
The noise was all around us. The news was
buried, if at all. For days, most of India’s media were tripping over
themselves to bring us the preparation. When 5 August dawned, there was no
stopping them. Their excitement over the Ram temple in Ayodhya, where the Babri
mosque had stood till the evening of 6 December 1992, paralleled that of the
organisation which had orchestrated the deeply-divisive Ramjanmabhoomi
movement. To mark the day, anchors were fitted out in saffron lest the message
was lost on the masses.
For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose love for
spectacle is legendary, this was the grandest parade of them all. From the
moment he touched down at the airport, fitted out in shimmering saffron, the
media torpedoed him at viewers as if he were a hero. He strode as if savouring
victory on a battlefield-and battlefield it was given that thousands of lives
were lost during the Ramjanmabhoomi movement and communal riots. Without betraying any sense of irony, he
presided monarch-like over the event, as if he owned the movement. He later
told a select audience that an allegedly "centuries-old desire" of Hindus was
being fulfilled. "This day is a unique gift from the law-abiding India to
truth, non-violence, faith and sacrifice," he claimed unblinkingly. Every word
stood for its opposite.
THE HINDU RASHTRA PROJECT:
The ahistorical and dangerous parallel between
India’s struggle for Independence and the Ramjanmabhoomi movement that his
party's parent organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) spearheaded was
deliberate. He was seeking respect for the blood-stained movement by recasting
it in the framework of the pluralistic movement for India's freedom. The
bhoomipujan, in his allusion, was throwing off the yoke of the secular and
democratic republic-Nehruvian India, as it were-just as the freedom movement
had thrown off the yoke of the British empire.
Indians whose primary identity now is that of
aggressive Hindu, who have tied their nationalism to the Hindutva agenda, who
revel in making those unlike them second-class citizens found satisfaction in
the 5 August event. For Modi and his political machine, it was yet another
elaborate spectacle in a rather long list of them which fill up the moment,
generate excitement and drama, but offer little to improve the lives of
millions of Indians in a tangible way.
Those few hours of 5 August, with relentless
visuals, Modi's speech, and RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat's words, mark a cleaving of
post-Independence India-the old one that sought to be secular and
multi-cultural, the new one that does not even pretend to honour the opening
words of the Constitution.
For Modi, Bhagwat and their followers, Hindu
Rashtra became a reality that day unmindful of what India's 170-180
million Muslims and
millions of Hindus who
frown at the temple project, should make of it. A section of the Congress
party's leaders chipped in with Lord Ram's sterling qualities, abandoning
India's secularism in the political sphere. Only the CPI(M)'s Sitaram Yechury issued a statement that pointed to
Bhagwat or Hindutva patriarch LK Advani
presiding over the bhoomipujan would have meant a fitting end to the
30-year-old cynical Ram Janmabhoomi movement. As India's Prime Minister took
his aasan, he fused the RSS agenda with that of the Government of India. On
Friday, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath cemented it by refusing to
attend any ceremony for the mosque rebuilding on grounds that he is "a Hindu".
Indeed, India moved eons away from the time former prime minister Jawaharlal
Nehru refused to grace the Somnath temple programme in his official capacity.
Through this, the media was unmistakably in
high-decibel cheerleading mode. The morning papers, with a few honourable
exceptions, poetically lauded the event-striking a witless contrast to 1992
when most had represented the Babri mosque's demolition as a "shame".
Television anchors were beside themselves with unbridled joy. One channel
invited Swapan Dasgupta, once an editor and now a BJP member and Rajya Sabha
MP, to offer detailed "intellectual" justification for the Ram Janmabhoomi
movement and the 5 August event. Another channel had an anchor exulting about
Ram dhun sung in schools and invited a BJP spokesperson to sing a Ram bhajan.
Figuratively, India had turned its back on the lines "Ishwar Allah Tero Naam,
Sabko Sanmati De Bhagwan" in Gandhi's favourite "Raghupati Raghav Rajaram".
WHAT NEWS DID THIS NOISE DROWN OUT?
Plenty, it appears. One, in those uninterrupted
live broadcasts, breathless panel discussions, newspaper headlines and most
online clickbait-ish banners, there was stony silence or barely a whisper about
the sullied site of the "grand" temple or the blood that was spilt in the
communal riots that the temple movement sparked off in the early 1990s. The
bhoomipujan was at the site of sacrilege and illegality, which even the Supreme
Court of India acknowledged when it called the demolition a "barbaric" and "criminal act". The highly-problematic aspects of that judgement found no
mention in the mainstream press. The movement and rath yatra that left a bloody
trail across India found no mention either.
Of course, there was no recall of the head
priest who was found murdered months after the demolition, ostensibly
for his opposition to the rath yatra and politicisation of the Ram temple, or
that the men and women who helmed the demolition had yet to stand trial in
the criminal case. There was convenient collective amnesia of these aspects among
those who did stories about the reign of the first Mughal, Babar, which ended
nearly 500 years ago. All of this and more was erased from the popular
Two, 5 August marked the completion of one year
of reading down Article 370 of the Constitution, of peremptorily bifurcating
Jammu & Kashmir into two Union Territories, placing it under an
unprecedented blockade and turning it into a symbol of the unmasked
majoritarianism of Modi Sarkar 2.0. The saturation coverage from Ayodhya meant
that Kashmir's tryst with Modi 2.0 got little space. It was, for Modi and the "Modified" media, last year's triumph. The government wanted no spotlight on
the plight of people or the mess there; most media obliged.
Three, the Galwan Valley face-off with China all
but vanished from news. The breathless build-up to the bhoomipujan and live
telecasts with over-the-top commentary meant that serious issues about India's
territorial integrity and foreign policy hardly got news space. A document
detailing the face-off was uploaded and then taken down from
the Ministry of Defence website. It's safe to say, in UPA times this would have
been a scandal and the media would have kept at it without respite.
Four, Covid-19 stories too were pushed out of
news space. Leading up to 5 August, India's count in the global tally was
the highest ever with more than 52,000 cases-a quarter of
all cases in the world that day. India now has more than 2 million cases and
counting, more than 41,000 deaths and counting, in a war against the virus that
Modi had declared would be finished in a few short weeks. That an elaborate
religious event was organised with state resources in the middle of a pandemic did not outrage the media.
Five, millions of migrant workers who were all over the headlines and news spaces after the
Indian government and media suddenly discovered them in the last week of March
barely got a mention. Their wellbeing,
their work and wages, their tryst with the
pandemic lay forgotten.
Six, the economy continues to sputter without a
clear direction for revival, the Rs. 20 lakh crore stimulus package yet to
make any impact,
pre-pandemic unemployment figures that were the worst in 45 years turning
poorer with unprecedented economic contractions and lay-offs, rising fuel and food prices denting household incomes by
the day. News about the economy and heated discussions about the Modi
government's listless response should have dominated news space. However, the
Ayodhya event was brought centre-stage with drama, spectacle and Modi.
As the "festivities" concluded in Ayodhya, the
country's financial and commercial capital was struck by a raging storm that brought record rain and flooding to
South Mumbai. There was widespread damage; the signage atop the Bombay Stock
Exchange was battered and tumbled. Fittingly figurative, as it were.
The ceremony at Ayodhya was a RSS event. Modi
transformed it into a Government of India spectacle without so much as a blush.
The media made Modi celebrity of the day and the Ram temple almost an emblem of
the country. Noise masked news all the way.
The author is a senior journalist and columnist
who writes on politics, cities, media and gender. The views are personal.