Saturday, April 10, 2010

Media, Religious Minorities and Terrorism: A Case Study of Kerala

This the text of a paper I presented at the two-day national seminar on Globalization, Religious Fundamentalism and Terrorism: A South Indian Perspective, organized by the Political science department of Kerala University at Thiruvananthapuram on April 8, 2010:

I PROPOSE to examine the role of media in generating stereotypes in the same ideological mould of global campaign against terrorism, launched along with the new policies of globalization and liberalization in Indian society starting from the 1990s, in the regional media as well as in every other sector of society, which has become a matter of serious concern even in comparatively progressive regions like Kerala.1

Kerala has been, for long, known as a place of communal amity and religious tolerance, with its social fabric consisting of a seamless mingling of various communities, the tradition dating back to pre-colonial times. In fact this region has been a model for social and communal coexistence with almost all religions finding a place in its shores without causing much friction, and finding ways and means to contribute to the social and communal well-being.

But this has not been a natural state of affairs, a social atmosphere that came on its own; but actually it was the result of conscious and deliberate policies pursued by various communities, and ruling classes down the years. In a sense, Kerala’s history of coexistence and cooperation between various communal groups can be described as a result of conscious efforts, a negotiated social space2 for each community which had the numbers and resources to demand a say in the system. There are several historical reasons for the emergence of such a negotiated space, which had often been disturbed owing to a number of external factors, like the sudden influx of colonial powers. The response to colonial challenge from the time of Portuguese to the English is a very interesting study in itself, as it was mainly a few communities which actually engaged themselves in resistance at various times, for reasons of their own. At the outset, we must also recognize that this negotiated space was not a free for all, not all sections of the society had a place in it. First and foremost, it was an elite social club with the upper caste Hindu rulers being the central and unifying force, with elite segments in other communities like Muslims and Christians accepting their legitimate social and economic role in it. The first and primary condition for such a social contract was that none questioned the prevailing social system, based on caste discrimination.

Then came the colonial experience, which, to a certain extent, emerged as a challenge to this existing, ossified and rigid social hierarchy, which Marx described as the Asiatic mode in his writings on India.3 Look at the earlier instances of resistance to the colonial aggression and a pattern emerges: Protection of ancient faith and protection of trade and economic interests were two primary reasons for the resistance offered to colonial aggressors. I will take up here, only two cases in our history: The first is the resistance offered to the Portuguese by the ancient churches in Kerala, who opposed the efforts by the Portuguese Roman Catholic arch-bishop in Goa to bring the ancient churches in Malabar Serra under the Roman Catholic Church. The Koonan Kurisu pledge in the 16th century by the members of local churches was an example of the expression of independence against foreign aggression. But it failed as at the Synod of Diamper (1599), the Roman Catholics declared their dominance over the local churches.4

The second example is the revolt of the Kunhalis of Malabar against the Portuguese. Here again, we see the operation of both trade interests and religious sentiments getting mixed up in resistance to foreign aggression.5 The Kunhalis and their supporters did evoke religious sentiments in their fight against Portuguese as we can see from contemporary texts like Tuhfathul Mujahedeen by Sheikh Zainudheen Maqdum of Ponnani, which calls for a war against infidels.6

The resistance of the local Syrian churches to the Portuguese domination in ecclesiastical matters and the resistance of the Malabar Mappilas under the Kunhalis to the Portuguese trade domination were taking place at almost the same time in the north and central parts of Kerala coastline. What is interesting is the strategy effectively adopted by Portuguese to win both the battles: They took religion into the political realm and effectively waged a war against their opponents driving alliances with local rulers. Once the local rulers got alienated from their own people, their slow disintegration and demise was only a matter of time. Hence my point is that this mutual alliance of various social segments was inter-dependent and once this mutuality got disrupted, it resulted in serious social tensions and disturbances.

In Kozhikode the Portuguese had succeeded in forging an alliance with the Zamorin, against the interests of a powerful segment in his own court, which soon led to the downfall of the Kunhalis against the combined forces of Portuguese and the Zamorin, and the eventual loss of power and influence of Zamorins themselves. In Cochin, they had forced the hands of the Cochin rajah to order the local churches to accept the dominance of Roman Catholic arch-bishop of Goa, who took the initiative of calling the Synod of Diamper in 1599 which effectively sealed this dominance, but we also see that once this local trust was broken the local rajah also faced severe isolation and loss of power and prestige.

Looking back at the subsequent history of these regions, we see the decline of the prominence of the royal families who were reduced to the level of mere vassals of foreign powers who rose to become the principal powers in this region. In Kozhikode, ever since the sea power held by the Kunhalis was cut down by the Zamorin and Portuguese, the local ruler lost his power progressively and finally he had to commit suicide in mid-18th century, unable to withstand external threats.

The point I am trying to drive home is that the ruling establishments in this coastal region, which had the first contacts with global forces and influences at every turn in history, derived their legitimacy, sustenance and strength from the internal cohesion of various social and economic interests that subsisted in this region. It was a complex system, with various groups holding special interests and privileges and in this scheme of things various communities like Christians, Muslims and Hindu upper castes had their own positions, privileges as well as responsibilities. The Hindu upper castes were the rulers and their legitimacy was ensured and sustained by the others who controlled various powerful interests such as trade and commerce, developing a web of mutual connections, responsibilities and liabilities. Once this intricate social web was disturbed as in the wake of Portuguese invasion, what we see is a natural disintegration of this social contract.

It was a social contract based on mutual interests and it was arrived at after mutual negotiations over centuries. It helped reinforce the conservative social system and guarded against any revolutionary change in its conservative social set up.

Take for example the caste system: The ruling establishment and the elite society gained its vast powers on the basis of caste oppression of a massive section of people, the lower castes. Kerala, with its long association with Christian and Islamic ideas--who had never accepted caste as legitimate--should have been exposed to a great social movement against caste, but instead it remained the most ardent bulwark of caste oppression till the mid 20th century while most other parts of India had seen much stronger anti-caste reform movements taking shape much earlier. We see that this negotiated social space and the inclusion of various community interests in this scheme of things helped this region remain itself as a exclusive conservative base, immune to change.

This has been the major and dominant pattern for at least five centuries, as we can see from the days of colonial invasion from late 15th century. This pattern has been in operation in the long period of English rule in Malabar with their power and influence extending to the southern princely states of Travancore and Cochin, through their resident agents and standing armies. Those who were left out, were forced to rebel as we see in the case of the chieftains of Wynad in Pazahassi revolts of late 18th and early 19th century7 or the Mappila revolts in South Malabar in 20th century,8 who faced severe discrimination and oppression. The land owing and revenue gathering system devised by the British give a clear picture of how it helped develop a network of dependents effectively co-opted into the colonial system.

After Independence, this has remained the cornerstone of the political system that developed here. Cronyism and formation of cartels has been at the heart of it, and in spite of the Constitutional safeguards for the protection of weaker sections, a substantial chunk of public expenditure has been cornered by the same forces who had control over society even in colonial times. A quick look at Kerala’s public employment pattern9 and the fact that almost 60 per cent of the total state revenues are expended for the salary and pensions of this segment10 speak of the horrible story of a society that consistently denied the rightful due to those massive sections without any regard for a redistribution of public resources in a more equitable manner.

Kerala's opposing political fronts which alternated in power almost continuously ever since the seventies, did actually exacerbate this situation as, for all practical purposes, these political fronts served as refuges for these interest groups. Veteran communist leader E M S Nambodiripad used to castigate the United Democratic Front (UDF) as a conglomeration of caste and community interests, which indeed it has been, but the reality is that even the Left Democratic Front also served a similar social role going by the experiences of those sections who were kept out of the power structure. From an analysis of the representation in power structures, political establishments and leadership positions in ruling parties we may conclude that those who still largely remain outside are Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims who are now facing the shrillest criticism of being harbourers of terror networks and anti-national activities from a media controlled by the same social groups and interests who are dominant in all power structures in our society.11

It is in this context we need to understand the recent media campaign against terrorism, which largely painted Muslims and Dalits as villains in its dramatics personae. The media reports linking these communities with incidents of terrorism were often without any substance, mostly planted by interested parties and such stories were published without any verification for authentic y or veracity and mostly without any direct quotes or evidence. Even when proved baseless later on, there were not many efforts to make amends for such violations of ethical media practices.

One of the serious criticisms that emerge from an analysis of the recent media trends in Kerala, is that the mainstream media is willfully manipulating news and developments with a view to malign these communities and there appears to be consensus among them that normal and universally accepted ethical media practices like cross-checking of facts, attributing claims, assertions and allegations to clearly identified and verifiable sources, enabling a a platform for the victims to make their own claims and defenses, follow-up coverage with clear and specific norms for authenticity, etc,12 are not at all followed by any of these newspapers in matters vis a vis these marginalized and vulnerable communities. There are innumerable case studies on such lopsided and unethical media practices in recent days which included the frenzy over Love Jihad (a long time Sangh Parivar bogey against Muslim youths), the completely one-sided coverage in the Beemappalli firing incident, and the reports about rise of Dalit terror networks following the murder of a person in Varkala under mysterious circumstances and the censoring of the news of mass arrest and persecution of Dalit youngsters who were organized under a new Dalit youth movement called Dalit Human Rights Movement (DHRM). The pattern of reporting that emerged was so evidently unprofessional and unethical and the continuation of such practices without any hitch or introspection only strengthens the view that this has been part of a conscious and deliberate policy decision, arrived at the highest levels of newspaper industry.

Now the question is, why such a media fixation about the Dalit and Muslim terror bogey and a complete reversal of its own sacred norms and professional checks and balances?

The answer lies in the assertive new political movements and ideas for social justice and equitable representation that is coming up from the lower segments of our society. There are clearly new movements and a wider alliance among the subaltern classes for a better chunk of the cake and that explains much of the ongoing frenzied responses from the society and its own mirror image and conscience-keepers, the mainstream media. What goes on is a process of delegitimization, a willful misrepresentation of social reality to preserve the social, economic and political privileges these segments have so far enjoyed. But right now, it appears they have overplayed their hands and are facing a serous credibility-deficit crisis, which might prove to undermine the very legitimacy of these mainstream institutions which have remained the unchallenged opinion-makers for a long time in our contemporary history.

When we consider why the media has abandoned its traditional watchdog role and 'impartial' umpire image, we also need to inquire into the changes in media ownership, financing and control patterns. Though the news media's editorial control is still theoretically, and in a legal sense, remain with Indian nationals, in reality it is an integral part of a global business network and its main concerns are no longer national interests or national consensus; it answers to the global forces of finance and capital who have come to dominate the Indian media and other business activities. A very interesting indication is the astronomical figures some of the chief executives and media celebrities in India are drawing these days, though as businesses they are often in the red, still their pay and perks are ensued and underwritten by an intricate web of media networks and corporate arrangements that go much beyond our national boundaries. this dichotomy appears to be the root cause of the alienation of Indian mainstream media from the common people, and its declaration of war on a substantial sections of our people, dubbed conveniently as anti-national.


1 I would try to examine this issue mainly from my own experiences working in various Malayalam and English media organizations in and outside Kerala from 1983.

2 I am thankful to my friend Bobby Kunhu for suggesting this terminology to explain the present communal relationships in Kerala society.

3 See articles like Future Results of British Rule in India, in Karl Marx, The First War of Indian Independence, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1974.

4 For an interesting early description of the Portuguese, Syrian Church tussles in Malabar, see Michael Geddes, The History of Malabar Church, London, 1694, now available in Google Books.

5 For details, see Krishna Iyer KV, The Zamorins of Calicut, Calicut University, 1999.

6 An English translation of the text has been recently published by Other Books, Calicut.

7 See Pazhassi Samarangal, Dr K K N Kurup, State Institute of Languages, Thiruvananthapuram.

8 There are various studies on the Mappila revolts; see for an authentic version, Dr K N Panikkar, Against Lord and State, (Mal.) DC Books, Kottayam.

9 There are no official figures available for the community wise break-up of government jobs, but a broad picture may be available in the studies conducted by Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) in its Kerala studies. The break-up is as follows in the order of community, percentage of population and percentage of government jobs approximately (in brackets): Nair: 12.5 (21); other forward Hindu 1.3 (3.1); other backward Hindu: 8.2 (5.8); Christian: 18.3 (20.6); Ezhavas:22.6 (22.7); Muslim:24.7 (11.4); SC: 9 (7.6); ST: 1.2 (0.8). It reveals that the Muslims, SCs, STs and other backward Hindus are represented below their population figures in government service, the biggest losers being the Muslims. The biggest gainers are Nairs followed by Christians.

10 According to final figures for 2007-08, salaries and pension accounts for 59.78% of total revenue receipts of Kerala. It will be interesting to examine people from which communities and regions are pocketing a larger share of the public cake.

11 For a serious criticism and analysis of the media practices in Kerala in recent days with regard to these social segments, see the press release issued by a group of concerned citizens including poet K Satchidanandan, human rights activist John Dayal and others in Delhi, 29 December 2009:

Some of us concerned citizens had issued a statement on 18th December, 2009, appalled by the mainstream media reportage of the anticipatory bail hearing of Soofiya Madani in the Kerala High Court in connection with her alleged involvement in a conspiracy that led to the burning of a Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation bus at Kalamassery, Kochi in September 2005. Many of these reports bordered on pronouncing her guilt with complete disregard for Judicial processes and the Rule of the Law. This kind of reportage can be understood only in the backdrop of a disturbing new trend in the Kerala media and civil society vis-a-vis representation of issues and concerns affecting religious and caste minorities. This press conference has been convened to present some of our concerns regarding this and to appeal to the media and civil society actors to be more sensitive and balanced in their coverage of various events.
Apart from vitiating the communal harmony of the state, this trend also encroaches upon the fundamental rights of people to fair trial, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association, freedom to practice and preach a religion and right to equality regardless of caste and religion; along with other fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India. In this context, we would like to enumerate a few of these media campaigns and the obvious religious and caste bias present in them.

Love jihad: It was 2 cases of inter-religious love affairs that the media took up and blew out of proportion to create the bogey of “Love Jihad.” In both these cases, what was involved was love and attraction between Hindu women and Muslim men, which led to marriage and the conversion of the Hindu women into Islam. Following this the mainstream media in Kerala went on a rampage, claiming that thousands of women were being lured into converting to Islam by Muslim boys who were doing this as part of “Love Jihad.” This led to Justice K T Sankaran's remarks on "Love Jihad" and directions to the police to conduct investigations on it.
This campaign not only vilifies women as being incapable of decision-making, but also portrays young men of the Muslim community as members of “Love Jihad,” without any proper investigation or proof for doing the same. This regressive campaign was not stopped even after the Kerala Police clarified that such a phenomenon does not exist. It has come to a temporary end only after another judge of the Kerala High Court put a stop to all investigations on the issue, saying that saying that one could not target any particular community and that "inter-religious marriages are common in our society and cannot be seen as a crime." .

Dalit Terrorism: Following the murder of a middle-aged man in Varkala, the media in Kerala came out with a new term called “Dalit Terrorism.” Regardless of the identities of the Victim and the offender, media reportage on this case very often appeared to have been written in the police station. The press bought into the police story that it was activists of one dalit organization who had committed the murder. They joined hands with the police in reproducing unsubstantiated reports of the existence of a "Dalit terror network". This legitimized the large scale persecution of the organization's activists by the police and also led to violent attacks on them by members of the local Shiv Sena. The media in Kerala is party to these atrocities as it had stood with the police in accusing the organization and its activists, failing to control the excesses of the police and reinforcing the existing prejudices against a historically marginalised community.

Beemapally: On May 17, 2009 6 Muslim men from a fishing community were killed and 47 others injured (27 of them had bullet injuries) in a police firing in Beemapally. Later studies by Human Rights organizations brought out “the extremely unjust and criminalized violence" committed by the police in Beemapally (NCHRO, Kerala Chapter). The government also suspended some police officers as a token measure. However, when the incident happened, most of the Malayalam media observed silence on this issue. A few others reported the police version of the firing, branding it as "communal tension". They promoted the assumption that it was the provocation by a communally charged mob that had made the police resort to firing, and it was wise to keep silence. There was no analysis or even proper investigation of the whole incident. In this way, one of the worst incidents of state violence in Kerala against Muslim fish workers virtually went unnoticed in the mainstream media.

All this shows the impunity with which the Malayalam media is treating issues related to caste and religious minorities. It easily communalizes every issue related to the Muslim community and works to spread hate and suspicion about them. Similarly, it also misrepresents caste issues and works to reiterate existing prejudices. Here, we would like to reiterate that we do not hold a brief for any individual or organization and would like to see the Law take its own course and we would urge proper investigation, trial and conviction of any person mentioned above, provided that the procedure established by law and Constitutional guarantees are upheld and they are not singled out by virtue of their religious or caste identities. We call upon the media to fulfil its role and check excesses committed by the State, its agencies or other formations that is likely to infringe upon the quality of our democratic polity and uphold values of plurality enshrined in the Constitution of India.

12 For a sample of how serious newspapers deal with such issues, see the New York Times guidebook for their staff, Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial operations, updated September 2004, available at


Mohamed Salahudheen said...

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had once quipped that a nation can go without food for many days, but not a single day without a newspaper.

Now the readers will say the following:

'We analyze works of news paper men (News, features etc.) not only in order to understand them better, but also to pass judgment on their value. The concept of valuation is especially important because we cannot appraise something that we believe has no worth.

Certainly, it is reasonable to assume that nothing created by human beings (media content included) can be all good.

Media criticism specifically is not yet in a developed state, largely because the mainstream media allows virtually no open discussion of any issue or subject. Some criticism that does get to the public, of course, but most of it is corrupted by the same forces that have turned the rest of the media into a source of manipulation.

Most media, today, from news to advertising, rely on spectacle, simplification and exaggeration to grab and hold audiences. Meanwhile, we should not loose sight of the fact that news features are creative products, which may be assessed in terms of their aesthetic quality.

We are observing, interpreting, analyzing and also evaluating news conveyed by all the news papers including their ethical values.

All media should force a serious reassessment of the value and attitudes that are fostered and suggested by them and this in turn can provide us with better clarity on our sense of values.'

Mohamed Salahudheen

(Opinion published in Saudi Gazette)

Anonymous said...