The Bharatiya Janata Party on Sunday suspended its national spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, and expelled its Delhi media head, Naveen Kumar Jindal, for their derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad, which drew a massive backlash from Arab countries. While the backlash from these middle eastern countries, which are allies of India, forced the saffron party to expel its leaders, the real patrons of such hate-mongers, which is the television media, remain overlooked. Television journalism has been continuously spreading the venom of xenophobia across India through its prime-time news, news bulletins, and other news across the day. Expelling spokespersons will not stop the hate-mongering in India; it is time to call out the patrons of these hate-mongers.
The point here is not to argue why TV media should be targeted today. People across the country have accepted that every evening during prime time, they will be given a boost of xenophobia, hyper-nationalism, and name-calling. There's no denying that the audience watches these shows, which is why they continue to air with the help of massive TRP. The argument here is that expelling two spokespersons for derogatory remarks against Prophet Muhammad is just an eye wash. If the Bharatiya Janata Party and the central government are serious about preventing the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment, then such shows must be banned.
There is no doubt that the issue of press freedom should not be raised here, because spreading hate cannot be considered part of freedom of expression and speech. The Indian constitution is very categorical about the limitations of free speech. The Constitution of India, under Article 19 (1) (a), provides the right to freedom of speech and expression. But article 19 (2) also provides for reasonable restrictions against free speech to uphold the severity and integrity of the country, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or about contempt of court, definition or incitement to an offence. In India, hate speech is a criminal offence and constitutes a criminal charge under section 153 (A), which is the offence of promoting communal disharmony or feelings of hatred between religious, racial, language, or regional groups or caste or community. There are other sections of the IPC as well to deal with hate speech.
The anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media has grown significantly since Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party came to power. This hate-mongering has become so normal in the television media that every story becomes communal. The BJP's victories in 2014 and 2019 not only encouraged party supporters to spread rampant xenophobia but also reinforced the same idea in the television media. If we include social media, then this hatred is so vast to even imagine.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has taken action against the spokespersons because countries like Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have expressed their anguish over the kind of growing xenophobia in India. The anti-Muslim rhetoric of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its parent organisation, the RSS, is not linear. This propaganda includes everyday WhatsApp messages, SMS, forwards through social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, as well as television broadcasts. Through this targeted spread of hatred, xenophobia enters every citizen's bedroom.
The central government and the Ministry of External Affairs have easily labelled the spokespersons as a fringe. But who sends these fringe elements to the TV channels? Who decides which panellist will sit in which debate? The answer is the ruling party. The BJP media team was not unaware that their spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, would appear in that particular TV debate. Secondly, who is patronising these fringe elements? The answer is the television media. These media outlets try to focus on the most polarised people and bring them into the debate with massive advertisements from the government and big corporations to make the debate dirtier.
Even though the BJP does not need Muslims' votes, it needs to display by word and deed that it is a government representing all communities in India. The government will have to take a clear stand on the issue of rapidly spreading Islamophobia in India. Over 15 countries had to come together and condemn a 30-second hate speech by the leaders of the ruling party. This is not a matter of a casual approach. Shooting the messenger here will not stop anything. The problem is within the medium too. It is easier for media houses to claim that these statements are from the panellists and that the house has nothing to do with this. It is absurd and untrue.
Hate speech hurts everyone in a country. Fear of security is prevailing today within every Muslim household in India. This is not caused by a 30-second sound clip. But by the everyday xenophobia spread on TV and social media. Think of any Muslim individual in India. When she turns on the TV, she sees a group of people celebrating while bulldozing their homes, obstructing their prayers, beating up fellow citizens for selling Biriyani, or hailing the stopping of girls from sitting in school exams wearing hijab. TV news is patronising these people who find joy in spreading venom against the minorities in India. Mere eye washing by expelling some spokespersons will not change this systemic xenophobia. It is time for the TV media to stop this shameful patronage and to stand by the real meaning of journalism. News is not for the majority religion, news is for everyone.
(The author is an independent journalist based in Kolkata and a former policy research fellow at the Delhi Assembly Research Center. Views expressed are entirely personal. He tweets as @sayantan_gh)