The Nupur Sharma ‘quake’, as India Today described it, is the chronicle of a disaster foretold. It was simply waiting to happen.
And the manner in which news television responded was also, unfortunately, predictable.
You would’ve thought that after Sharma’s offending remarks on Times Now last month led to ‘a critically embarrassing incident for India’ (CNN News 18), news channels would take the rebuke to heart and mind their manners. Or even better, follow the example of CNN in the US, which is now aiming for ‘less hype, more nuance…’ in its programming.
Alas, you would have been wrong on both counts: Hindi and English TV news is as corrosive, divisive and strident as ever—with some honorable exceptions. Consider what happened after news came in last Sunday that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had suspended Sharma, its national spokesperson, for her comments on the Prophet on TV, following official protests by countries like Kuwait and Qatar.
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Kanpur ka mujrim kaun?
First, there was a deafening silence on the issue. Most channels announced the BJP’s move Sunday afternoon and the government’s statement, then returned to ongoing coverage that included (ironically) studio debates, videos and live broadcasts from Kanpur on the violence in the city during Friday protests against Sharma’s remarks. A headline read, ‘Kanpur ka mujrim kaun?’ (Zee News).
Monday morning saw more coverage across channels — of the BJP distancing itself from Sharma (referred to as ‘fringe elements’ in the official comments by the party) as more countries joined in the condemnation. ‘Anger and outrage grows’, said India Today.
However, the focus remained Kanpur, which allowed news channels to produce a counter-narrative that, once more, highlighted a communal angle: there was the arrest of the ‘mastermind’ Hayat Zafar Hashmi, there was the Popular Front of India (PFI) ‘hand’ in the violence that channels repeatedly mentioned, and, dark allusions to the ‘Kanpur conspiracy’ in WhatsApp chats (Times Now). Same old, same old….
And there was the Kanpur police poster with photographs of 40 males in skull caps, identified as ‘rioters’ and ‘conspirators’ by news channels (Times Now, India Today)—’Look at the culprits’, advised India TV. There were constant references to ‘Kanpur hate attack’ (Times Now) and the usual heated debates between Hindus and Muslims (Aaj Tak). Same old, same old…
Times Now spoke of ‘Baba ka bulldozer’ being rolled out and expressed outrage over the ‘shocking’ comment by Samajwadi Party’s Abu Azmi, ‘mocking shivling’. ‘You should apologise’, the anchor told him — a bit rich coming from the channel where Sharma made her ill-advised comments on the Prophet, don’t you think?
So there you have it: TV news paid less attention to Muslim nations’ criticism of India and much more to the alleged involvement of Indian Muslims in a violent riot.
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Next up, discussions on channels like India Today, CNN News 18 India, and NDTV 24×7 dwelt on the diplomatic implications of the controversy. On other channels, countries that had officially criticised Sharma’s remarks were shown a mirror while Pakistan’s propaganda ‘toolkit’ was held responsible for inciting the said countries (Zee News, Times Now).
On NDTV India, Monday, the anchor wondered at the ‘track record’ of the Muslim countries – where there is no democracy. Still, they were able to pressure the Indian government into acting, said the anchor.
Times Now Navbharat’s 9 pm anchor, Monday, picked apart each country for trying to lecture India on how to treat Muslims: ‘Qatar gyaan de raha hai?’ he asked. He questioned Saudi Arabia’s record on freedom of speech, Iran’s Sunni-Shia divide, etc.
News X went with #QatarLectures — ‘Is Qatar a democracy?’ it asked and raged against the alleged ‘Jobs Jihad’ whereby Hindus were to be ignored for employment.
Meanwhile, at Zee News, the 9 pm anchor described how small these countries were—NOIDA is larger than Qatar, he said. He added that while these nations were united in standing up for their religion, India was divided against itself.
On to Pakistan alleged ‘toolkit’ — Zee News, Times Now claimed it was fanning the flames in middle eastern countries with its propaganda via websites and Pakistani journalists. Times Now saw ‘an anti-India plot’ by Pakistan to target the ‘suspended BJP leader’ and influence other Muslim countries.
As for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, it was roundly condemned by all channels for ‘interfering in India’s affairs’ with Pakistan’s connivance (India TV).
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Expect a repeat telecast
While news channels found a way to divert our attention from this serious diplomatic incident, they didn’t find time for introspection — barring Ravish Kumar on NDTV India and Rajat Sharma on India TV. The latter said no good came of making so much noise in the media.
Nupur Sharma had spoken during a TV debate that like too many debates on TV, turned ugly with demeaning comments about religious beliefs and practices from the Hindu and Muslim ‘experts’.
At the cost of sounding immodest, this writer had pointed out a few weeks ago that the open warfare between Hindus and Muslims on TV news, encouraged by news anchors, was ‘dangerous’.
Last week, this column had spoken about the credentials of political party spokespersons, the presence of too many mahants and maulvis on debates and the shrillness of their encounters in TV studios.
That’s why the Nupur Sharma episode is not in the least bit surprising and shouldn’t be seen in isolation. TV news culture thrives on the clash of opposites – haven’t you noticed anchors seated, quietly, while panelists insult each other? Exactly what happened when Sharma made her disastrous comments.
The moral of the story? You don’t profit out of the Prophet – and should avoid insulting any religion or by spreading ‘hatred’ through carefully choreographed confrontations in TV studios. However, the evidence of the last few days suggests that it may be only a matter of time before such an incident occurs, once again.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)