When readers question core values

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The response from readers overwhelmed me on one occasion. At two other points of time I was taken aback by their anger. This time it looked like I would go under: the readers’ anguish was so intense. The days after September 30 were stressful. Messages kept coming in, all raising the same point, in different ways. Generally I respond to all messages, trying to offer some explanation or my opinion on the issues raised. That, I feel, will be inadequate now and so I attempt a more detailed answer to those who have communicated with me, and to all those who may hold similar views.

On September 30, 2008, The Hindu published what can be called a “semi-banner” story on Page 1 with the headline, “Nun was gang raped and priest brutally assaulted in Kandhamal.” More than half of an inside page was taken up by more details of the incidents and pictures of the Orissa violence — one of them was particularly gruesome, the close up of a partially burnt face. (Publication of such pictures continues to be questioned by readers. I have, earlier in these columns, provided the editorial department’s justification.)

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The continuous flow to the Readers’ Editor’s office took various forms — email, letters, phone calls. This in addition to being harangued personally. One reader even called on my wife and asked her to convey his displeasure to me. I do not propose to take up these messages individually. The main point is the same, and there are too many asides and broadsides. What follows is a gist, specifically relating to the news stories of September 30 and my response is limited to this.

While agreeing that the incidents reported were shameful, readers were uniformly shocked by the display. The points some of them made were as follows: Such “sensationalising” of highly sensitive issues was “unbecoming” of a responsible paper of The Hindu’s stature. Reports like these would have serious consequences in terms of “furthering” violence and disharmony. Was this paper trying to further “destabilise” the already precarious communal relations? The Hindu is expected to play a constructive role in society. “Wisdom is associated with doing what is justifiable rather than justifying whatever happens to have been done,” wrote one reader.

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The publication of a report on an “incident” that was more than a month old was questioned by many. What one expects on the front page is the latest news. This is also another form of trial by media, when investigations had not been completed. Was The Hindu trying to do what others did in the Arushi murder case? Why rake up the issue when the report mentioned that the Church was conscious of what publicity might do to the young nun?

Quite a few readers raised doubts about the details of the incidents as reported. The September 30 report repeatedly said there was gang rape. The later report, confirming the incident, said one person from a crowd of 30-40 committed the crime. When was she examined? There is no mention of who rescued the father and the nun.

Another common thread in all the communications was that The Hindu had not shown the same concern in reporting violence against Hindus, particularly the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and four of his associates — the incident that sparked the violence. The Swami was repeatedly referred to as an RSS activist, while his activities, some readers maintained, were in a wider field. There was “no reference” to the police firing on Hindus. Clashes in this area have been occurring over a long period, but this was the first time it was being given a religious colour.

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All the messages were forwarded to the Editor-in-Chief and the main points from his response are:

The featuring of news stories is a matter of editorial judgment. The shocking and shameful rape of the nun and the brutalisation of the Catholic priest had been covered up by Central and State governments. We investigated and authenticated the details. FIRs had been lodged and there were eye-witnesses but the police failed to register a case until The Hindu’s investigative reporting made it a major issue and brought it on the national agenda. Our prominent Page 1 coverage and the meticulous follow-up has had a significant impact and there was greater pressure on the governments to act according to the law of the land and the canons of civilised conduct. Seymour Hersh’s path-breaking expose of the My Lai massacre (by American troops in Vietnam) happened weeks after the atrocity took place but the story had a huge impact and is still being talked about. The murder of Swami Lakshmanananda was well reported and the police have been investigating seriously. We have published plenty of reports on Islamist fundamentalism and terrorism.

Some of the readers’ letters reveal a Hindutva agenda. Frankly, the Editor-in-Chief commented, we are shocked by these responses from a small section of our readers, which imply that the responsibility and indeed dharma of an independent and secular newspaper is to avoid detailed and graphic coverage of such atrocities! The newspaper, and the journalists who did such a fine job of investigating the incidents, have been vindicated by the Orissa Chief Minister’s public admission of the rape of the nun and the arrest of some persons in connection with the heinous crimes. None of this would have happened without the expose in the press.

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These, in essence, are the points I have to deal with. A reader reminds me that I am enjoined, under my terms of reference, “to seek to ensure the maintenance of high standards of accuracy, fairness and balance in our reporting and writing.” Featuring of news is an editorial judgment, no doubt. And judgments can be subjected to review and criticism. There is always an element of subjectivism in news selection and display, with personal preferences and prejudices often coming into play.

The whole report was an account of one person. This I am told was corroborated with other authoritative, reliable sources. The site where the incident occurred could not be visited, as the way was blocked. The Superintendent of Police was quoted as saying the matter was being investigated. Rape had also been medically confirmed. These facts are not disputed, but the question about the display remains. The prominence given to the story would have provoked some people and caused distress all round. This I feel was out of character for a paper which has always avoided creating or adding to tensions. The comparison with the 1968 My Lai massacre, where hundreds of Vietnamese were killed by American troops, is not apt.

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The news of Swami Lakshmananda’s murder did not get much importance because details were not available at that time. But it should have been followed up to see what he had been doing. It was his active role in promoting and defending the cause of Hinduism that led to his death and this needed study. He was also a religious personality, as the father and the nun were. To treat complainants of inadequate attention to attacks on Hindus as Hindutva-vadis is unfair. All these are long-time readers who hold the paper in high regard and are upset now. People have called The Hindu names, made fun of it, criticised it, but still respected it. Hostility from loyal readers is a new experience.

What is happening in Orissa is basically a clash between the Kandha tribals and the Dalit Panas. Their antagonism is decades old and has economic causes, besides other factors. They have clashed before also, but this time these acquired a bigger religious dimension because of the involvement of external agencies on both sides. The Hindu has always opposed fundamentalism of all kinds and receives flak from Hindus and Muslims. Is there some form of Christian fundamentalism practised by some groups that causes tensions? All these need to be examined.

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Retaliatory violence is no solution and what has happened in Orissa and Karnataka is a matter of shame. If the forces behind such violence canalise their energies towards eradicating the social and economic causes that make some sections oppressed, the bogey of conversion may not be there.



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