Fanning the flames
The role of media, audio, visual and print is always a critical factor during times of internal conflict. Fanning flames of hatred through provocative headlines or relaying rumour and stereotype, these are the two main areas where the media has often faltered; becoming an agent, a participant in the conflict, not a rapporteur, an analyst, an observer.
So it was after the Godhra tragedy. The Gujarat government under Modi decided to undertake quick postmortems of the slain passengers in bogey S6 and take the bodies to the Civil Hospital, Sola where a crowd of bereaved family members and angry sanghis greeted them. There was a public display of the corpses before the cremation; the badly charred remains, especially of women and children, provoked anger and revenge.
The state-controlled media was used quite deliberately for this entire project. The time the corpses would arrive by train was broadcast on the radio, ensuring that a large and inflamed crowd would gather at Ahmedabad station. Such a crowd did gather; there was shouting of many provocative slogans like "khoon ka badla khoon se lenge." (We will avenge blood with blood.) This is when the post-Godhra plan was set into motion. The media too played a critical role in its effective implementation.
It was on Akashwani radio that CM Narendra Modi first stated that the "ISI or a foreign hand was behind the Godhra tragedy," a version that soon became the much-touted semi-official and official version. (Recordings of the Akashwani broadcasts therefore need to be carefully examined.) The tragedy was that the State executive used this without any investigative proof and large sections of the media touted it as irresponsibly, asking no critical, indicting questions.
The English language newspapers, which in the past six weeks played a commendable role in tracking the violence and investigating various issues that lie behind its orchestration, faltered slightly on the whole question of Godhra and the ISI link. The same Times of India, which carried a report debunking the ‘pre-planned theory’ in the last week of March, had been completely uncritical of statements made by ministers saying that the ‘Godhra attack could not have been spontaneous,’ soon after the tragedy. (The Times Of India, March 6, 02.)
Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar went the whole hog.
As a result, the Ghanchi Muslims of Godhra were held responsible for the criminal actions of a few from the mob who had burned and killed and they are still being victimised today. (See Section on Godhra.) Moreover, they were dubbed Pakistani ISI agents by the executive–CM and State Home Minister Modi and Zadaphiya and this line was passed on, without critical analysis, by most of the media to it’s readers. It was only three or four weeks later, that alternate reports, exposing this theory gradually began to appear, by which time much of the damage had been done.
The display of the remains, the public grief and anger at the funerals, the organisation of Ram Dhuns in different parts of Ahmedabad in the early morning of February 28— all served to fan an anger that created a fitting backdrop for the preplanned and well-coordinated massacre by armed militias in different locations all over the state.
Two major Gujarati dailies, Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar have been playing a blatantly provocative role for the past four years now, especially since the BJP came to power in the State in February 1998 (See CC, October 1998, Welcome to Hindu Rashtra.) In the recent genocide too, Sandesh played a proactive role which, in effect, aided the armed militias in galvanising support for violence, murder and loot. (Incidentally some smaller circulation newspapers like Gujarat Today, Sadhbhav and Gujarat Mitra have played responsible roles).
On February 28, Sandesh carried photographs of the burning coaches of the Sabarmati Express with the headline "Fifty Hindus burned alive" above its masthead, a gruesome colour spread of photographs of the Godhra corpses was the first major breach of media ethic and law. On the front page on the same day, February 28, an entirely concocted news story read thus, "From among those abducted from the Sabarmati Express two dead bodies of Hindu girls found near Kalol in mutilated state" was an entirely fictitious report. The police investigated the story, searched the village and found the story baseless. "Vadodara, Thursday: The details of the information about the dead bodies of two girls abducted from the bogies, during the attack on the Sabarmati Express, yesterday, found in a mutilated and terribly disfigured form near a pond in Kalol, has added fuel to the already volatile situation of tension, not only in Panchmahal, but in the whole State. As part of a cruel inhuman act that would make even a devil weep, the breasts of both the dead bodies had been cut. Seeing the dead bodies one knows that the girls had been raped again and again, perhaps many times. There is a speculation that during this act itself the girls might have died.
The police, however, have kept quiet and have not spoken about this sensitive event. On account of that, various speculations during an already tense situation are like adding ghee to the fire.
According to the talk heard during the night one more dead body of a girl, also in a terribly mutilated form, had been found. After being raped and mutilated, the body of the woman was set on fire with petrol. Is there no limit to the lust?"
Thereafter, several articles in Sandesh kept fuelling this image of the non-trustworthy Muslims, traitorous to the country. This article that appeared on March 1, 02 titled,
"There was a call from the mosque: "Cut the non-believers—Islam is in trouble…" and a crowd attacked the ramsevaks reads thus: "On 27th February, at eleven thirty, a Masjid located along the railway line incited a crowd with the words "cut the non-believers….Islam is in danger," which then attacked the survivors of the torched train compartments who were sitting by the railway tracks. The divisional railway manager, B.B. Mohgile, informed journalists that a bigger carnage was prevented by the timely arrival of the police commissioner D.S.N. Pandey and his staff whom he ordered to shoot.
"While giving details of the Godhra incident, Mohgile further informed that the chain on the Sabarmati Express was pulled twice within a distance of one and a half kilometres and after the second time, the train was stopped and one compartment was torched immediately. While attempting to torch a second and third compartment, the miscreants were stopped when a unit of the RPF, which was patrolling there, started firing and the passengers were safely helped out of the compartments by off-duty RPF jawans who rushed to the spot.
"The survivors of the carnage were sitting by the railway line when they saw a few shops near the mosque go up in flames and by 11:30 a.m., the call from the mosque was heard and a crowd of about 3,000 to 4,000 rushed to attack the survivors. At that time, on the instructions of the Divisional Security Commissioner, the RPF jawans fired 12 rounds as a result of which the crowd dispersed and a worse carnage was averted. The ASI of the RPF saved the lives of at least eight people from the burning train and a jawan, Nawabsinh, who was off-duty and had rushed to the site and started helping in the rescue operations. The survivors including the injured were put on the Anand Passenger and the Sabarmati Express."
The government’s calculated decision to make full capital from the Godhra murders was ably aided and abetted by these two newspapers which regularly fed stories questioning the integrity and loyalty of Muslims in general. The deliberate labelling of the miscreants responsible for the Godhra tragedy as ‘anti-national Pakistanis’ was led by Gujarat home minister’s Gordhan Zadaphiya, a senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad activist. "The bogey burning is a terrorist act similar to the attack on the American Centre in Kolkata. The culprits in both cases are the same." Through the media, he delivered a dire threat: "We will teach a lesson to those who have done this. No one will be spared and we will make sure that the forces behind this act will never dare to repeat it."
On March 7, 02 the daily carried this report with a damaging headline that suggested that Indian Muslims returning from the Haj pilgrimage could be a potential ‘terrorist’ threat to Hindus. Titled, "Possibility of Attack with the Help and Abetment of Terrorists—Danger to Hindus! Frightening Scheme of Attack by returning Hajis," it says:
"Various government agencies have received frightening information that, after the Godhra incident, the fear of terrorist attacks is looming. The terrorists will use RDX purchased with foreign funds, attack with bombs or hijack planes.
"Investigating agencies have confirmed that the ISI is responsible for the attack on karsevaks in Godhra. The anti-social elements have gone underground for the present and are waiting for an opportunity to attack. It is possible that the attack will take place after the international pilgrims return from Saudi Arabia after Haj. The attack is postponed so that the pilgrims can return safely. According to the SP of the Intelligence Bureau, Sanjeev Bhatt, the bombings will be as serious as those that took place in Mumbai in 1993. As if in support of this, the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi told the trading community that the Godhra incident was not communal. It was well planned and according to the facts being revealed, it indicates that we have to be more alert. Only Pakistan benefits from all this.
"That there are internal disturbances in India and the citizens are harassed appears to be in the interest of the perpetrators. The Chief Minister stated that the government is determined to get to the roots of the Godhra incident and destroy the elements that harmed the ordinary man.
"Similarly, the former chief minister, Chhabildas Mehta said that the government and the people should take adequate steps to ensure that Pakistan’s secret service cannot do whatever it likes wherever it likes."
While the State government did ban some local TV channels, and also a National Channel which had exposed the government’s role, it took no action against newspapers like Sandesh. Justice K. Jayachandra Reddy, Chairman of the Press Council, through a statement on April 3, 02 warned the media of action under section 295-A of the IPC and allied provisions. (Section 295-A deals with "Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.")
Meanwhile, four young men belonging to the minority community (Memon Mohammed Samir B and Memon Ayub Abubakar from Johapura, Memon Gulam Mustafa J. and Mansuri Makbul I, both from Sarkhej Road) have filed an FIR under sections 153(A), 155, 295, 295(A) of the Indian Penal Code against both Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar.
The complaint has been sent by fax to the Commissioner of Police, Ahmedabad, PC Pandey, on March 10, 02.
The complaint states:
"... After the incident of February 27, these two publications, instead of reporting news fairly, made baseless accusations against the Muslims and printed fallacious news and also spread the news in a provocative manner which is detrimental to the interest of the nation and as such caused provocation resulting in large-scale destruction.
"Due to the articles carried by the publication on February 28 which were inflammatory, not only was the integrity of the Muslim community questioned, but unspeakable atrocities were also inflicted on it.
"By way of carrying such provocative news articles, the accused displayed support to particular right-wing extremist organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal which has not only ruined the prestige of the state but brought national shame to India in the eyes of the international community.
"The rift caused between citizens on the grounds of religion and communal disharmony is becoming irrevocable and as such the accused, large circulating newspapers, have committed a heinous crime as contemplated by the sections above. They can also be booked under the POTO ordinance."