It is a universal truth seldom acknowledged that we tend to see things from our own perspective. Increasingly, the space for objectivity is being squeezed out by a ‘for’ and ‘against’ state of mind. Nowhere is this more apparent than in politics and the media. In India today, you are either ‘godi’ Modi media or you are what one of ThePrint’s readers called a ‘pseudo-secular’ journalist.
An unfortunate fallout of this ‘either-you-are-with-us-or-against-us’ attitude is that no matter what opinion you express, it will be interpreted through the eyes of the beholder.
In recent weeks, the Readers’ Editor has received several angry messages from readers who have accused ThePrint of commissions and omissions: These include an ‘extreme anti-Hindu bias’, being ‘rabid anti-Hindu’, of deliberately ignoring ‘alternate views’ and publishing only authors who hold certain opinions, besides supporting Muslim or Christian viewpoints and silencing ‘Hindu voices’.
In my replies to each of the readers, I have pointed out that ThePrint, in its reporting, strives to tell all sides of a story, reflects many shades of opinion – I have even listed out writers with ‘alternate views’ who are published at ThePrint. One reader was generous enough to concede that ThePrint did indeed devote space to multiple perspectives. However, other readers remained unconvinced and continue to allege that ThePrint favours a particular narrative.
This reinforced for me what we already know: more and more of us suffer from confirmation bias and look for opinions or data that support what we believe or want to believe and judge everything from that perspective.
For journalists, being misread, misunderstood or misinterpreted have become occupational hazards, something we have to smile at and learn to live with.
ThePrint’s hijab edit
These concerns were very much on my mind while considering the responses to ThePrint’s ’50-word edit’ on the hijab controversy in Karnataka.
In December 2021, six students of the Udupi Women’s PU College protested against the alleged decision of the college authorities to refuse them entry into classrooms, wearing a hijab. The issue flared up and spread to other institutions after the students approached the Karnataka High Court for relief at the end of January 2022, it also led Hindu students to hold counter-protests at their colleges, wearing saffron scarves.
On 5 February, the Karnataka BJP government instructed government schools and colleges to abide by a uniform dress code. The matter is now in the courts. Meanwhile, the issue has taken on communal overtones with the BJP and opposition parties accusing each other of either lending their support to the denial of education for girls or for supporting the hijab.
On 8 February, ThePrint wrote a ’50-word edit’ which read as follows:
‘It’s distressing that the hijab-saffron scarf row in Karnataka is forcing even well-meaning voices of modernity and liberalism to defend the regressive practice of covering up young women. Beyond whataboutery of ghoonghats and turbans, Indians shouldn’t allow this to become another politically bruising Shah Bano moment that haunts our future.’
Before anyone knew what was happening, the edit had gone viral on social media with very strong, even vicious attacks on ThePrint and its Editor-in-Chief, Shekhar Gupta.
Those who reacted adversely to the edit, criticised it on many grounds. The arguments went something like this:
It was anti-Muslim and targeted the community at a time when it was under siege from Right-wing and Hindutva forces; it was anti-women, anti-freedom of choice for the young women who ‘chose’ to wear the hijab to school/college and robbed them of any agency by suggesting they had no say in the wearing of the hijab. Worse, it played into the hands of the BJP and Right-wing supporters.
Some people said the edit ignored the right to freely practice religion as enshrined in Article 25 of the Constitution and didn’t mention the students’ right to education, either, irrespective of their attire.
What is ThePrint’s point of view? This was perhaps best articulated by Shekhar Gupta in a ‘Cut the Clutter’ episode devoted to the subject after the furore over the edit.
What is ThePrint’s 50-word edit
Before that, a few words on the ’50-word edit’: It represents the institutional editorial view of ThePrint. It is brief, inspired by the 280-character length of a tweet. This obviously restricts what can be said – essentially, it allows for only one central argument to be made, unlike a newspaper editorial that is approximately 400-450 words long and has space for multiple arguments. This is the strength of the ’50-word edit’ but, sometimes, it can also leave unsaid things that need saying.
The edit on the hijab row limited itself to a warning on the political dangers of the controversy where support for the right of education seemed to have translated into inadvertent support for wearing the hijab from ‘well-meaning voices of modernity and liberalism’.
Shekhar Gupta said in his CTC that he tried to follow one principle, ‘Never do the wrong thing for the right reason,’ and this, from ThePrint’s perspective, was one such instance. Wearing the hijab is regressive — full stop.
The allusion to the Shah Bano case was a reminder of the Rajiv Gandhi government’s decision to overturn a Supreme Court ruling on the maintenance of a divorced Muslim woman that led, inexorably, to the Ayodhya movement and the rise of the BJP.
From this perspective, the 50-word edit was neither anti-Muslim women nor pro-BJP. By the way, Muslim women like Shabnam Hashmi, Ghazala Wahab and others have also voiced their opposition to wearing the hijab and the equivocation around it in this controversy.
As for the freedom to choose, there is room for debate over whether the students in question wear the hijab out of choice or compulsion – history would suggest religion and patriarchy force women into making such a ‘choice’. But the individual’s freedom to choose cannot be discounted, entirely.
As Readers’ Editor, I believe ThePrint had the right to its opinion. It also has the right to decide what aspect of the controversy it addressed – you cannot criticise the edit for things it did not set out to say, only for what it did say.
Having said that, this was the only edit, on the hijab issue by ThePrint. As such, it did not clarify ThePrint’s position on the entire controversy as Shekhar Gupta did in his CTC. There, he categorically stated ThePrint’s support for the students’ inalienable right to education and said that Article 25 of the Constitution had been ‘violated’ by the Karnataka government.
ThePrint could have articulated these points in another 50-word edit so that there was no misunderstanding or misreading of its position, or room for anyone to read more into it than the edit stated.
Shailaja Bajpai is ThePrint’s Readers’ Editor. Please write in with your views, complaints to email@example.com