Saturday, August 23, 2008

Divya Sandesh from newpapers of Gujarat post blasts


(In the aftermath of Gujarat Bomb blast, Amrita Shah, a friend and senior writer-analyst from Mumbai, wanted to study the reactions of Gujarati newspapers, which were unusual to say the least. I sent her the material in English with some footnotes and here is the result- Urvish Kothari)

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi may have won kudos from the rest of India for his quick and responsible handling of a potentially volatile situation following the recent bomb blasts in Ahmedabad. But at home the response has been less enthusiastic. The vernacular press, which openly supported the pro-Hindutva forces at the time of the post-Godhra violence in 2002, so much so that Modi sent appreciative letters to fifteen publications, has been more ambivalent this time round. An analysis of Ahmedabad editions of major Gujarati newspapers Gujarat Samachar, Sandesh and Divya Bhaskar immediately following the blasts (July 27-31) for instance reveals a range of responses that mark a shift, both from the demagogic attitudes of 2002 – which moved the Editors Guild to rush a three-member team to Gujarat at the time -- and towards a leader whose efficacy and views have seemed unassailable over the last eight years.
On immediate sight, the shift seems imperceptible. The prominence given to Modi’s criticism of the central intelligence bureau and to his claim that the ‘Intentions of terrorists will not be allowed to be successful’ along with a photo story on the compensation of victim’s families indicates an administration in control. BJP leader L.K. Advani’s demand for an anti-terror law, a blast victim asking the Prime Minister to emulate Israel’s example in dealing with terrror and Extra Comment, a column in Sandesh also seem to endorse the press’s traditional hardline stance.

But.a closer look reveals a far less single-minded response. Indeed the dominant trend is critical rather than adulatory. The state administration is blamed for various failures, from not taking the modernization of madarsas seriously to the weakening of the state’s intelligence bureau by using it to spy on opposition leaders and protecting ‘cowardly’ leaders. A news item in Sandesh also suggests that communal policies may have destroyed links between Muslim police officers and informers.

It is the chief minister’s image as a guardian of Gujarat however that has proved to be a major liability for him in the post blast scenario. The Congress party’s allegation that the chief minister’s verbosity invited the blasts finds wide play. A statement from state BJP chief Purushottam Rupala made the day before the blasts : `There are no chances of terrorist attack in Gujarat as long as Modi .is there` further underscores the irony as does a two-column box item in Gujarat Samachar which claims :’CM’s boasting blown apart. Terrorists slapped the rulers by serial bombing.’ Even Divya Bhaskar the mildest in its reproaches admits that the state administration was unsuccessful in maintaining security without mentioning the chief minister by name.

The BJP has not gotten off easily either. Sandesh is critical of L. K. Advani, suggesting that he was rushing in to get sympathy in view of the approaching elections and accusing him of being overly preoccupied with his personal security. A column titled 'Chinee kam' in the paper even ridicules the party’s demand for an anti-terrorism law contrasting it unfavourably with Jaswant Singh’s trip to Kandhar.

In 2002, the Editors Guild found an influential section of the Gujarati press biased in favour of the majority Hindu community (the editor of Sandesh whose circulation rose by 150,000 in those traumatic months for instance, told the visiting team that ‘Hindu protection is my duty’). It also found a tendency to distort facts and towards sensationalism. In the recent context these tendencies have also been visible. Bold fonts and a liberal use of red in announcing the rise of terrorism in Gujarat Samachar and the prominence given to VHP’s counter threat in Sandesh seem geared towards an almost incendiary effect.

Speculation too has been rife. The involvement of a suicide bomber in the Civil Hospital blast is confidently asserted (with illustrations) and later denied. The blasts are claimed variously to be hatched in Baroda, Saudi Arabia and Ahmedabad’s Muslim stronghold Juhapura. CDs titled ‘Anarchist’s cookbook-4’ are said to be found in Umargam-Vapi in south Gujarat and chemicals for bombs are said to have been sourced from Ankleshwar. SIMI, Dawood Ibrahim, a maulvi from mangrol are among the suspected masterminds. The involvement of Hindu ‘gaddars’ is also suggested. And customary suspicions about madarsas – their lack of modernization, their financial sources -- are aired. Divya Bhaskar’s reportage veers towards the imaginative attributing the lucky escape in Surat being due to the discovery of a Ganesha idol placed with one of the bombs; the paper also draws an arbitrary profile of terrorists based on 12 traits including rebelliousness, cunning, confidence and so on.

Alongside the sensationalism and wild speculation however, surprisingly, (given the divisive rhetoric of 2002), are also pieces celebrating communal harmony. Sandesh’s Chinee Kam claims Muslims and Hindus want to stay peacefully but 'some misguided unholy organizations have blasted Ahmedabad to settle political scores'. Divya Bhaskar carries a picture of a Muslim Rakhi-maker with the claim that ‘Hindus and Muslims are woven like the threads of a rakhi’. Gujarat Samachar claims ‘terrorists don’t have any religion’ and reports on Hindus helped Muslim victims, quoting the saviours as saying : `think of us as your family members’ The paper also carries a story that talks of ‘operation face-saving’ following the bomb blasts, a rare, unequivocal criticism of the Crime Branch’s anti-minority bias in the mainstream press that talks of the predictable hunt for Muslim history sheeters, naming Maulvi Abdul Hamid of the Dani Limada area of Ahmedabad as being the first victim.of the Crime Branch’s ‘Vanzara pattern’, a reference to the celebrated encounter cop.

It is possible that the media coverage in the wake of the bomb blasts is more a response to a traumatic incident than a long term shift in perceptions that have dominated the state in recent years. Yet it may be a phenomenon worth watching.

(Amrita Shah is author of first ever full fledge biography of Dr.Vikram Sarabhai. She’s currently working on Ahmedabad. )


  1. Non-English newspapers, and particularly Gujarati ones, understand and reflect the sentiment of their readers well because they operate in the same idiom.
    The turning of Ahmedabad's papers might well be because of something the owners/editors sense in the people.

  2. Anti-Modi-s and Anti-BJP-s have acted like cheer leader girls. These are Sandesh joined recently, Gujarat Samachar, TOI, etc... who are deprived by free transport, food and liquor (! as reported by them selves)in Modi's rule from the Gujarat government, Congressis and non-entities like RJD, BSP, SP, etc.. who got wide coverage when they blast against Modi.