Tuesday, Apr 09, 2002
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By Kalpana Sharma
No one should be surprised at what happened in Gujarat on Sunday when a peace meeting at Sabarmati Ashram led to a dozen journalists being beaten up by police. This is the culmination of the breakdown of dialogue that began much before the current communal conflagration. And it is symbolic that the particular incident in the Ashram was sparked by the presence of Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Ms. Patkar had gone to Ahmedabad in her capacity of a social activist who is committed to other issues beyond the anti-dam movement. E-mail invitations had been circulated widely to people across the country. It is, therefore, unfortunate that Mallika Sarabhai, one of the initiators of the meeting, and the Gandhian, Chunibhai Vaidya, should tell the press that Ms. Patkar had come "uninvited''.
However, to understand their response one has to look at the history of intolerance in Gujarat over issues such as the Narmada dam. Ever since the NBA gathered strength and received international support for its campaign against the Sardar Sarovar Project and the absence of adequate rehabilitation for the dam-affected, Ms Patkar has been singled out for this kind of treatment in Gujarat.
In the past too, she has been mobbed and called all kinds of names, the mildest of them being "anti-Gujarati''. What is worse, anyone seen as supporting her, or speaking out in favour of the NBA, has been given similar treatment. As a result, even the few who dared to raise their voices on issues concerned with human rights, and not specifically on the rights and wrongs of the dam, have chosen to keep quiet in Gujarat.
Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of her campaign against the SSP, this kind of intolerance towards Ms. Patkar in Gujarat is indicative of the complete absence of democratic dialogue. The SSP was declared "the lifeline of Gujarat'' by successive State Governments and anyone who opposed it was declared the "enemy of Gujarat''. Ms. Patkar was projected as enemy number one. This is not very different from the kind of attacks anyone questioning government-sanctioned holy cows has faced in other parts of the country.
Beginning with nuclear energy and the secrecy with which the entire nuclear establishment operates to defence and defence deals, Kargil, Kashmir, or even POTA, anyone falling outside the circle drawn by the political powers of the day is deemed "anti-national''. The difference is the issues have been debated in numerous forums.
And even if passions have run high and some people have been termed ``traitors'', this style of silencing as was witnessed in Gujarat for well over a decade now has not become the norm. But what has happened in Gujarat in the last weeks exceeds anything that has occurred in the past. For now, the police are turning on the media in an unprecedented manner.
Earlier in the week, Sonal Kellog, a woman reporter from The Asian Age and a male reporter from a Surat-based newspaper, were pounced upon by the police when they went into the walled city to interview women who had been attacked. Ms. Kellog was hit with a stick and the man was thrashed. When they went to the Police Commissioner to complain, they were told he had no time for them.
Since February 27, there have been innumerable attacks on members of the press in Gujarat. Here is an incomplete list of attacks that have been recorded just last month: Rajul Chiniwala, a photographer from the Gujarati newspaper Sandesh in Surat, was caught by a mob. They poured kerosene and petrol on him and were about to set him on fire when a police van came on the scene.
Bhargav Parikh, news coordinator of Zee News, was beaten up by a mob in Ahmedabad while its cameraman, Tejas Gondalia, had his camera smashed and he himself was beaten. Parish Joshi, photographer with The Indian Express in Rajkot, was pushed around by a mob, the roll in his camera was removed and his camera smashed.Sudhir Vyas of The Times of India in Rajkot was beaten by the police. Tanvir Siddiqui, senior reporter of The Indian Express and Javed Raja, a senior photographer with the paper, could not go out to report because of anti-Muslim mobs on the streets. Apart from these instances, numerous other reporters have narrated how their press credentials were demanded by mobs. And in the case of NDTV's Rajdeep Sardesai, he and his colleagues were asked to shout "Jai Sri Ram'' before being allowed to clamber into their vehicle that had already been damaged by the mob.
So far, when reporters cover riots, they have been confident that their press pass, or press sticker, would protect them. In that belief, journalists venture into areas considered dangerous by ordinary people.
They also go to these places with the conviction that a story has to be told, and that people will want to talk to them and tell their story. And that the police will protect them. But when a group or a political party, using State force, prevents them from recording the story, then clearly the concept of freedom of the press stands threatened. Does the Central Government require a commission of inquiry to recognise what any ordinary viewer of even a black and white television set has seen in the last month?
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