“Hey, news television seems to have finally broken out of the Hindu-Muslim mindset!” I exulted to a colleague soon after the lockdown was announced last month. As news channels rushed to speak to doctors and bio-medical researchers, it seemed like a whole new world of public health and virology was being discovered. Sadly, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Just days later, the Tableeghi Jammat story broke and the familiar faces and narrative had returned on many tv screens. #CoronaJihad, #Tableeghistan, #Tableegh-Pak conspiracy, the shrill, sensationalist headlines and hashtags were back. Even in the age of the corona virus, Islamophobia is alive and well.
In the last few years, the dominant storyline across the so-called ‘nationalist’ media has been to demonise the Indian Muslim as violent, untrustworthy and yes, anti-national: from terrorism in Kashmir to archaic fatwas by self-styled maulanas, each insupportable action has placed an entire community in the dock. It is almost a ritual on certain tv channels to find an issue every evening that will create an emotional outrage revolving around religious stereotyping.
The Tableeghi story fitted in perfectly with the script: a cleric in hiding, young bearded men scurrying around in kurta-pajama, a pan-India network with foreign links and a disproportionate number of corona positive tests. An act of utter civic irresponsibility by a religious group was seen as further proof that Islam is a religion of zealots outside the pale of the law. That the Delhi police, unlike their counterparts in Mumbai, showed criminal negligence in not preventing such a gathering from being held in the first place was conveniently forgotten. Nor was it emphasized how MPs like Asaduddin Owaisi had called on their supporters not to congregate for namaaz and studiously observe the lockdown rules instead. Or that even the area around the holy Kaaba in Mecca had been closed for devotees. Who cares about these details when the prime time ‘enemy’ is found: the Indian Muslim was now castigated and labelled as a ‘corona carrier’, as if 200 million people must pay the price for the single act of stupidity of a few.
Extensive research conducted by Prof Joyojeet Pal, who specializes in tracking tv and social media trends, shows how misinformation campaigns turned significantly against Muslims once the Tablighi Jammat case surfaced. Where initially the misinformation largely centred around possible cures and panic over essential services, there was a marked shift from March end towards incendiary messaging that directly referred to Muslims being responsible for the prevalence of the virus. Fake videos and WhatsApp messages of Muslim groups apparently violating physical distancing norms were pushed into circulation. The fact that there was little attempt made by the political class to rebut this spurious link reflects the bankruptcy of thought, or rather the deep-seated prejudice that is bubbling under the surface. Instead, government functionaries, news channels and digital warriors chose to reel off daily statistics of how many individuals have tested corona positive because of their Tableeghi connection: this despite World Health organization guidelines explicitly prohibiting such religious profiling.
It is finally only in the third week of April that the prime minister was constrained to remark that Covid-19 does not see race, religion, caste before striking, that too in a conversation on LinkedIn, a professional networking site. The intervention came a day after the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) had condemned what it described as an ‘unrelenting vicious Islamophobic campaign in India to malign Muslims for the spread of COVID 19’, and after civil society voices from the UAE trenchantly attacked the Modi government after an anti-Arab 2015 tweet of BJP MP Tejaswi Surya went viral. By now the prime minister has already addressed the nation on at least three occasions but chosen not to refer to the sinister campaign being pushed on the ground. Could prime minister Modi, with his vast political equity and astute communication skills, not have spoken out firmly against rumour-mongering and any form of religious discrimination over corona much earlier? Sadly, the damage is done. Reports of Muslim vegetable vendors being boycotted in UP or separate wards being set up in Ahmedabad hospitals (since denied by the Gujarat government) are disquieting. As indeed are terrifying images of police and doctors being targeted by mobs in Muslim mohallas in Indore. When a devious propaganda machine feeds into poverty, illiteracy and competing religious fundamentalisms, the result is a toxic atmosphere of fear, suspicion and hatred which may only further social antagonisms in a post-corona world.
Ironically, the corona virus story is actually a god-sent opportunity to break away from the cycle of fake news and misinformation which has plagued the multi-media industry in a post-truth universe. A virus wears no religion badge: it is a weapon of death and illness that afflicts both Malabar Hill and Dharavi, Vasant Vihar and Nizamuddin with a resolute non-discriminatory policy. Corona is the great unknown and understanding its spread requires a relentless focus on hard information and not on divisive agendas. Doctors and scientists are men and women of healing and research, they are not politicians who thrive on divide and rule. Which is why the corona story must be told without the cacophony of communal politics but by recapturing the spirit of news as a public service.
The period between 2010-2019 can be described as Indian tv media’s lost decade, a period when noise replaced news and sensation overtook sense. During this period, many news channels have built a business model that thrives around loud studio debates rather than investing in painstaking reporting from the ground. The result may have been a growth in TRPs (or television rating points) but also a gradual loss of credibility, a sense that tv news is promoting mindless ‘info-tainment’ in the garb of ‘aggressive’ journalism. A younger demographic has already clicked onto online sites while older viewers admit to being frustrated with the vacuous cock-fights on tv that pass off as debate.
Now, stuck at home, viewers are returning: the first lockdown week saw a 250 per cent rise in tv viewership. Covid 19, in a sense, is perhaps a last chance to redeem our mandate as newspersons who place facts and considered analysis above contrived friction and polarized agendas: we may not get another.
Post-script: The rise of ‘tv maulanas’ has been a striking feature of this past decade too. One of them is a virtually unknown tailor who often does three to four tv appearances a day. “Why do you go on tv debates when you know you will be attacked and shouted down?” I asked him. He smiled, “Ab kisi ko toh yeh sab karna hai!” (someone has to do it!). What he didn’t tell me is that he gets paid around Rs 2000 per appearance!