It is okay to post a hateful tweet but a tweet about hate can cost you your job, as Angshukanta Chakraborty found out last week. The political editor of DailyO, the India Today group’s online opinion and commentary platform, had on February 4 tweeted:
The next day, her employers asked her to delete it. She replied that the tweet did not name or tag anyone. It used plural nouns, and was intended as a general comment on the state of the media.
In recent times, three of the group’s editors have been accused of spreading hate/fake news on social media, so it is not surprising that the decision-makers at India Today took the tweet personally. Chakraborty was sacked after she refused to delete the tweet; the three editors still have their jobs.
When India Today took a stand
This story reminded me of another tale that unspooled 25 years ago when India Today had only one position on hate: Nation’s Shame. That was the cover line and editorial view the magazine took after the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was torn down by Hindu extremists on December 6, 1992. As someone who was on the cusp of becoming a journalist, this cover story had a powerful impact on me.
The editor’s note, signed by proprietor-editor Aroon Purie, is required reading for New India. He wrote:
“There come moments in history when a nation’s soul is seared… It is a shame because the largest Opposition party of the country thought nothing of reducing this country to a mobocracy by encouraging its followers to take the law into their own hands. It knew very well the catastrophic consequences of such an act.
“History has shown that evil carries its own seeds of destruction. Brave men and women who stand against these forces of bigotry can hasten this day of justice. In my opinion, the religious fanaticism which has reared its head today will be defeated by the innate common sense and decency of our people.”
You can read the full text of the note here.
‘It was like conducting an orchestra’
I spoke to some journalists who made that India Today cover happen in 1992.
It was a Sunday but most editors who were not out covering the story came in. Many had a sixth sense that something catastrophic was going to happen. Purie was there too. There was a sense of shock, which continued in the weeks after December 6. “There were huge discussions in office, theories about the Balkanisation of India, general shock and lots of disbelief, which you see in that issue in the writing and reporting. A sense that this is a turning point in our history… which it was,” said photographer Prashant Panjiar.
The magazine’s editors knew Babri Masjid would be big news and there were enough journalists on the ground in case something happened. “We had eight-nine people covering the story. It was like conducting an orchestra… violins here, trombones there,” said Inderjit Badhwar, India Today’s editor at the time.
In the run-up to that fateful day, reporter-photographer teams tagged three key Bharatiya Janata Party politicians – LK Advani, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Murli Manohar Joshi.
Ear to the ground
Panjiar, whose images of the domes being destroyed were used on the cover, was tracking Advani with writer Yuvraj Ghimre and when the BJP leader climbed on to the stage that had been set up on the open terrace of a building about 200 metres from the Babri Masjid, Panjiar followed. “Somehow they thought I was a VHP [Vishwa Hindu Parishad] photographer, so they let me stay. Most other photographers were at the puja tents. Little did they know that RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] sewaks had already been appointed to stop them from clicking the moment the demolition began,” he said in a first person account to Tehelka magazine in 2009.
On most weeks, it could take days to come up with the perfect cover line for an India Today issue but this one was decided in a matter of minutes. Badhwar recalls that the suggestion National Shame was tweaked to Nation’s Shame. Everyone agreed. India Today was a fortnightly then and the team had several days after the masjid was destroyed to put together that December 31 issue. Like most periodicals, the date indicated the last day it would be on the stands, so Nation’s Shame was out by the middle of December.
Harinder Baweja did a damning piece on how Home Minister SB Chavan was ensconced in his puja room when the Babri Masjid was being razed. “It was 36 hours before the 190 paramilitary companies posted in and around Faizabad moved to evacuate the kar sevaks. Only a few days earlier, Chavan had boasted that the Rapid Action Force could reach the spot within eight cracking minutes,” she reported.
Zafar Agha analysed how Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had been fooled by the lies and doublespeak of the Sangh Parivar. Rao’s role in the Babri Masjid fiasco had been the cover of the previous issue.
Dilip Awasthi kept phoning in the details. “The scenes will return, like deranged ghosts, to haunt those of us who were at the graveside to witness the burial of a secular dream,” his account of that day began.
Sudip Chakravarti wandered near the Jama Masjid in Delhi’s Walled City, under curfew after the demolition, and spent the night with a Muslim family to find out how they were coping. Do you feel like leaving the country, he asked 20-year-old Adnan, the St Stephen’s College-going son of his host. “No,” Adnan replied. “This is my country. There is no question of leaving it. And if you’re asking about Pakistan, it means nothing to me.”
Twenty-five years later, the idea of Pakistan holds meaning only for Twitter trolls. Go to Pakistan is the predictable response to any “anti-national” who speaks up against the political establishment. Musician AR Rahman was told to do that when he voiced his opinion after the murder of journalist-activist Gauri Lankesh last year. “If these things happen in India, then it is not my India. I want my India to be progressive and kind,” is all Rahman had said.
Dilip Bobb, India Today’s managing editor at the time of the Babri Masjid demolition and the magazine’s magic rewrite man, said, “We got a lot of calls from government ministers for our criticism of Rao but mostly the issue was about taking the saffron crowd head on. That was a different time.” In his year-ender, Bobb would later describe 1992 as the year “India returned to the heart of darkness”.
He wrote, “… More than anything else, it proved to be a year which witnessed the destruction of myriad myths. Myths about India’s secular credentials. Of the BJP’s moderation and the discipline of its Saffron Soldiers.”
Getting to the truth
After the Babri Masjid demolition, Advani argued that many temples were destroyed in Kashmir and nobody cared. “That was the first instance of whataboutery,” said Badhwar, referring to that now-popular practice of responding to an accusation or difficult question with a counter-accusation.
Baweja remembered Purie asking her to get a list of the supposedly destroyed temples from the BJP office. Go to Kashmir to investigate what has happened to these temples, her editors told her. She went and, unsurprisingly, the claim was found to be false.
Back then it was normal to disagree with your proprietor-editor. “Everybody could say what they wanted. That was the beauty of journalism,” said Bobb.
That issue held many lessons for journalists. The duty of the press is to hold the government accountable. There is no replacement for reporting the heck out of a story. But, sometimes, it is okay for a media organisation to take a stand.