Who represents “Hindu” voices on Kannada TV media? At the moment, it’s anchors who express anxiety that soon Muslims will ask for renaming Bharat Mata as Baby Jaan.

Illustration of a reporter chasing a hijab-clad student at a school in KarnatakaIllustration: Jaseem Ali
Voices Opinion Monday, February 21, 2022 - 17:51

In a video that emerged from Chitradurga, a group of hijab and burqa-clad students are seen heatedly arguing with policewomen who were manning a barricade that presumably blocked the students’ entry to their college. In the course of this argument, the policewoman starts talking to media persons present: “Record this, record this. Put it in all TV channels. This should become a big deal. This woman (the student arguing) should be highlighted everywhere.”

An ordinary policewoman in Chitradurga asking for a Muslim woman student to be exposed to media attention that can threaten her personal safety: this is the situation we are in in Karnataka, and Kannada TV media is one of the primary reasons for the breakdown of a social order that allowed us to exist somewhat tolerably. The fact that the policewoman turned to TV media to assist her in blocking the students’ entry into college reveals — although unintentionally — how news channels have been at the centre of threatening school and college managements into enforcing a ban on the hijab and making Muslim students and their parents afraid of accessing educational institutions.

When schools reopened that Monday, February 14, after the closure announced by the Karnataka state government ended, Kannada TV channels rushed to schools. They invaded classrooms, repeatedly displayed faces of students sitting in classrooms with their hijabs, interrogated school and district authorities about their supposed ‘violation’ of the interim order of the High Court, and finally celebrated as ‘impact’ when students were made to sit in classrooms without the hijab or forced to return without attending classes. The High court’s interim order is applicable only to students in colleges, and even then, only to those colleges where the College Development Committees have prescribed a dress code.

Reporters and cameramen on ground continue to indulge in targeted harassment of Muslim women by shooting several videos, without their consent, of them removing their hijabs and burqas near school and college premises, and presenting them as “news”. In one particularly egregious case, Dighvijaya TV aired a video of a young child being chased by its reporter, even as the teacher implored them to let the child alone and promised that the child would remove the hijab inside the class.

Despite the fact that the interim order is only for college students, TV channels have been at the forefront of enforcing an effective ban on the hijab in all educational institutions by targeting schools and teachers. In Srirangapatna, a TV9 reporter coerced a women lecturer to remove her hijab by pointing the camera at her and saying “court order”. In another instance, a reporter on Suvarna news ambushed a high school teacher conducting class wearing a hijab and accusingly said, “Being a teacher if you only behave like this, how will the students behave.” In these and other reports, the media has made no pretence of even adhering to journalistic ethics or constitutional rights to privacy, dignity, life and liberty, and has in fact put the safety of minor children and Muslim women at risk.

In one such example, an anchor on Suvarna news used his powerful stage to repeatedly lay blame entirely on the girls in Udupi who had asked that they be allowed to wear the hijab in their college and the organisation that supported them. Oblivious, or perhaps unconcerned, about the consequences of such blaming on the young women, he held them responsible for all that was happening in the state. In his monologue, he did not once mention the role of students wearing saffron shawls and the organisations that distributed the shawls and encouraged Hindu students to wear saffron shawls in opposition to the hijab. The ineptitude and the role of the state government in handling this sensitive matter also found no mention.

Anchors on Kannada TV channels perform the role of framing the news, i.e. telling their viewers how they should understand a particular issue. Far from opening up an issue and offering multiple perspectives, anchors narrow it down to one singular framework. In this controversy over Muslim women’s right to education, Kannada news channels have claimed that Muslim girls, women and their parents were choosing religion over education. To this end, many reports on these channels repeatedly broadcast students arguing with their school authorities about being allowed into school and how other students returned home even without writing exams because they were not let in with the hijab.

The girls and women have been repeatedly portrayed as “stubborn” for insisting on their right to wear the hijab while accessing education. If Kannada news channels are to be believed, Muslim women are also brainwashed by patriarchy into covering themselves. Dighvijaya news claimed that even the hand of friendship will be cast aside in the name of religion, based on an unsubstantiated, audio-less shot of a hijab-wearing girl walking away from her schoolmate.

This insistence on the hijab, anchors have been telling their viewers, is the reason that the community is so terribly backward. Sample what this anchor on Dighvijaya TV says while footage of very young hijab-wearing students sitting in a classroom in Hubli were being flashed on screen: “You should change according to time…That is why your community’s men have deprived you of education. Your education rate is improving only now. Compared to other religions, education levels are poor here.” The messaging from TV channels is clear: by insisting on wearing the hijab with or without the uniform, the “Muslim community” is communal and does not want to assimilate. They are a ‘problem’ community.

If the self-imposed backwardness of the “Muslim community” was one thematic in the coverage of the hijab row, the other has been implicit and explicit invocation of a terrorist conspiracy behind the issue. After a student in Mandya responded with the liturgical ‘Allah-hu-Akbar’ to threats from saffron shawl-wearing men rushing towards her, TV media was quick to make connections to “ISIS”. In a special discussion on Asianet Suvarna news, host Ajith Hanumakkanavar stated on his show: “Whenever ISIS throws a bomb, they say Allah hu Akbar, when they slash throats they say, Allah hu Akhbar…We have heard of Allah hu Akbar only in terrorism contexts.” When his Muslim guest started to object to this, Hanumakkanavar aggressively shouted him down and demanded that he be listened to.

This aggressive, disrespectful treatment meted out to Muslim guests invited to debates on TV channels stems from the fact that anchors often present themselves as Hindu men and not as objective journalists. ‘Questions’ to guests are not questions as much as attacks mounted on Muslim guests. In one instance, the host on Public TV began by asking his Muslim guest, “Rich Muslims can be any which way they want. No one will question them. For example, cinema industry has Muslim actresses who wear skimpy clothes. Those from poor families, they are the only ones who have to strictly follow the rules. Where is the justice?” The discussion devolved into various ways in which patriarchy among Muslims functions to keep women out, with the anchor stating about his Muslim guest, “For him, religion is more important than education, even the nation is not as important as dharma.”

Gendered aggression has also been rampant. Najma Nazeer, a hijab-wearing Muslim politician, was heckled by the anchor on TV9 Kannada soon after she began talking about the issue and blamed media and ruling party politicians for creating this mess. “Listen to me, Najma. You are not a learned pandit, you are not an intellectual. We call you young people to give some encouragement.” On the show, Sri Ram Sene leader Pramod Muthalik made a sexualised comment  “She is wearing a hijab now but you open her Facebook and you will see what all she wears.” Not only did the anchors not step in to pull Muthalik up for his comment, they spoke to her disparagingly by asking her not to act like a “leader”, give speeches, and that she was unlikely to get a ticket or get elected based on her speech here.

These various elements of the coverage of the hijab controversy outlined here point to one irrefutable fact. In today’s Kannada TV media, Muslims cannot expect that they be treated fairly, that their issues presented objectively and without prejudice. Those who raise important questions about how a ban on the hijab would adversely affect Muslim girls’ capacity to access education as Nazeer did, or that they have a right to practice their religion as Opposition leader Siddaramaiah did, will be dismissed as “politics”.

Of grave significance, is who represents “Hindu” voices on Kannada TV media. At the moment, the predominant voices are anchors who express anxiety that soon Muslims will ask for renaming Bharat Mata as Baby Jaan, ask for her to be shown wearing burqa, and all Hindu names for rivers be renamed with Muslim names. Or individuals like Pramod Muthalik who regularly threaten violence against individuals who he deems as insulting Hindu dharma. Together, these self-appointed Hindu voices are now escalating the controversy further by presenting it as “hijab vs sindhoor” and as “dharma yuddha”. Bytes from Muslim students and parents pointing out how Hindu religious practices have always been followed in schools are now being flashed with the suggestion that they are raising questions about Hindu identity. No matter what one’s personal take on the hijab is, it is clear now that the media is escalating it beyond questions of sartorial choice or right to religion. Will this dangerous turn in media coverage leave us all bloodied and permanently wounded?

With inputs from Meghana Muddurangappa.

Swathi Shivanand has a doctorate in Modern History and is a Bengaluru-based independent researcher. She volunteers with Campaign Against Hate Speech. Meghana Muddurangappa is currently pursuing her L.L.M in Law and Development from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru. Views expressed are the authors' own.

 

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