Let’s talk about Muslim anchors in India’s Hindi news channels. Since the mainstay of their 24X7 news cycle is Hindu-Muslim conflict, it must be one of the toughest jobs for Muslim anchors of these channels to walk the moral-ethical tightrope. Rubika Liyaquat and Romana Isar Khan of ABP News and Sayeed Ansari of Aaj Tak are among the prominent names.
They literally have to host shows not only critical of their community but also indulge in ridiculing and shaming Muslims most of the times.
It must have been very tough for them to do shows during the CAA-NRC-NPR debate and on the Covid-19 pandemic when, throughout April, the focus of the coverage was on Tablighi Jamaat and Maulana Saad and the related hate crimes against Muslims. As we know, the central point of many of these shows is Muslim bashing. In any case, such issues have always been on the plate since 2014 with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) playing on the Hindu-Muslim binary.
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We noticed this trend during the anti-CAA-NRC-NPR protest movement as well. When journalist Rana Ayub, a columnist with The Washington Post, listed TV shows in her hall of shame list, two out of four shows were hosted by Rubika Liyaquat and Romana Isar Khan. The other two shows were hosted by Amish Devgan of News18 India and Suresh Chavhanke who runs Sudarshan News, a platform often caught peddling fake news.
It’s not like these anchors do shows only on communal and religious issues that demonise Muslims or perpetuate misconceptions about the community. Some of their programmes carry a secular line based on so-called vanilla topics.
But these Muslim anchors of Hindi news channels also conduct an interesting balancing act off camera.
The Twitter timeline of Rubika Liyaquat reads like a paradox. While tweeting about her shows and expressing her views on various topics, she also regularly posts verses from the Quran. In one of her tweets, she says – “Jihad primarily refers to the inner struggle of being a person of virtue and submission to God in all aspects of life.”
When wrestler Babita Phogat put out an overtly communal tweet and later on reiterated her stance, Rubika readily endorsed it. She was heavily ridiculed owing to her Muslim identity, and a morphed video of her went viral. One of the Muslim clergy challenged ABP News anchors over their communal coverage of Tablighi Jamaat. She has publicly announced that she had contributed to the PM Cares Fund after BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra nominated her. She retweeted a tweet in which she has been praised – “It’s commendable how being a Muslim she’s bashing those #NizamuddinIdiots who are supporting & defending their Maulana Sahab & the Markaj.”
Uncle Tom or Goffmanian framework?
One way of analysing the actions of India’s Muslim anchors and their treatment on social media is to look at the current phenomena from the anchors’ perspective. Another is to see it from the perspective of the news channels that they are part of or from the audience that they cater to.
Critics can brand them Uncle Tom or somebody whose role is similar to one being played by the Muslim leaders of the BJP. These anchors can be branded as Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi or Shahnawaz Hussain of the news channels. It can be said that their role is similar to the character played by Samuel Jackson in Django Unchained, in which the black slave employee Stephen is more rabidly racist than his master. For the news channels, the presence of these Muslim anchors is lucrative for business or its possible the anchors do what they do just for the optics of representation. Or having a Muslim anchor say something against Muslims reconfirms Hindu biases.
But this will be a simplistic analysis of an extremely complex and jumbled scenario that the Muslim anchors operate in. Let’s turn the gaze and try to see it from the perspective of the anchors.
It seems that they are actually living in a Goffmanian framework, in which they consider themselves more as performers who have evolved the art of impression management. They have to act according to the definition of the situation, which is shaped by the policy of the news channel and also by the dominant narrative. It is possible that they are acting because India’s audience, which has been attuned and habituated to communal content, wants them to act this way.
Caught between many identities
But that is not the only shade of their life. Their appearance on TV screen is only their performance on the front stage. They also have a backstage in their lives where they might be acting differently. Because they have to act according to the role defined by a largely majoritarian Indian media, they have to follow certain rules, without which there will be disruptions and their performance in the TV studios will be ruined.
Whatever we see of these anchors on screen is only their situated identity, the identity associated with the role they have been assigned by the news channels. They are bound by dramaturgical loyalty. While joining a news channel, they agree to become a member of the team and accept certain moral and professional obligations. Being a Muslim, they may take a more aggressive posture to prove that they are more loyal and not that type of Muslim that majority Hindus love to hate and demonise on a daily basis.
For Hindu anchors, hosting a communally charged show is a normal affair because they do not have to act differently backstage. They can be equally communal or secular in their home environment or in the club or among their friends and relatives. Their identity is not a burden for them. For Muslim anchors, their offstage identity could be entirely different from the role they play in the office for the ‘Hindu audiences’ watching them at home or discussing Muslims and their lifestyle in WhatsApp groups. Muslim anchors have to get rid of their situated identity while interacting with their Muslim family members and relatives. We can notice this contradiction in their social media behaviours as well.
For instance when Romana Isar Khan of ABP News tweets against the use of loudspeakers for Azaan, a topic of particular interest for rabid bigots on social media who repeatedly trend Muslims’ call to prayer while seeking a ban on the use of loudspeakers.
सब धार्मिक स्थल बंद है, मस्जिदों में भी नमाज नहीं हो रही है तो फिर लाउडस्पीकर पर अजान क्यों दी जाएं ?
नमाज,सहरी, इफ्तार के वक्त की जानकारी आसानी से मोबाइल पर उपल्ब्ध है
ये बेवजह का मुद्दा है
ना मंदिर में भजन हो रहे है,ना गुरूद्वारों में गुरबाणी, मस्जिद में अजान ना होना ही सही । https://t.co/6OQpboaAc5
— Romana Isar Khan (@romanaisarkhan) April 24, 2020
For these anchors, the TV studio is a stage and as spoken by Jaques in As you Like It: All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players/ They have their exits and their entrances; /And one man in his time plays many parts.
Muslim anchors in Hindi news channels live this Shakespearean dichotomy every day.
The author is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.