AIR and Doordarshan Coverage of Punjab after Army Action

Date: 10/06/2019

AIR and Doordarshan Coverage of Punjab after Army Action

Author(s): Pritam Singh

Source: Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 19, No. 36 (Sep. 8, 1984), pp. 1569-1571


AIR and Doordarshan Coverage of Punjab after Army Action

Pritam Singh

THIS is an attempt to analyse a sample of AIR and Doordarshan news bulletins/programmes after the army action in Punjab. We think that some general conclusions can be drawn from this about the role of AIR and Doordarshan in the context of the present political situation in the country. The manner in which Doordarshan and AIR covered Punjab after the army intervention there, one was reminded of the worst moments of the Emergency era. It was a most discreditable performance - an unrestrained resort to lies and half-truths twisted and distorted to suit the electoral designs of the ruling party and its leader. This time another well-calculated and extremely dangerous element was added i. e. arousing of and appealing to Hindu communal sentiments - again as a part of the ruling party's electoral strategy.

The first lie came right after Punjab was handed over to the army in the form of an announcement that curfew has been imposed in important cities and towns of Punjab. Even the names of some bigger cities and towns were mentioned. It was only after the BBC correspondent stationed in Amritsar (before he was removed from there) had dispatched the news subsequently broadcast over the BBC that the whole of Punjab including the villages had been put under curfew, that AIR and Doordarshan were forced to admit this fact. The curfew in Punjab was probably unprecedented in terms of its strictness and coverage. In some of the villages in the areas which are strongholds of Bhinderanwale, persons working in the fields were not allowed to go home nor were those inside homes allowed to go to the fields for a few days. Army helicopters were hovering over the whole state and especially over the countryside, to keep a watch if congregations of people were taking place anywhere. Twisting the information about the extent of curfew made the first big dent in the credibility of AIR and Doordarshan in the eyes of the people of Punjab. Since newspapers were either not published or were not available in Punjab for about two weeks till the middle of June, people depended upon Pakistan Radio/ TV or BBC broadcasts even in the villages.

That the manner in which the news was broadcast was meant to appeal to Hindu communal sentiments, would be made obvious by taking a sample of news bulletins. In one of the first bulletins after the army crackdown, it was given out that 38 gurudwaras, five mandirs and one mosque were searched by the security forces. One was made to believe that it was an all-out action against all communal militant organisations and groups. But contrary to these expectations, in the subsequent bulletins, no mention was made about the searches in the mandirs. Everyone familiar with developments in Punjab knew that militant Hindu communal organisations like the Hindu Surakhsha Samiti and the Hindu Shiv Sena had been collecting weapons, including firearms, for a long time. A few months back, before the army crackdown in Punjab, when seven Hindu communal organisations met in an important mandir in Ludhiana, twenty-one 'ceremonial' shots were fired in the air to announce their merger into one organisation. Pawan Kumar Sharma and Jagdish Tangri, two militant Hindu communal activists, had been publicly exhorting Hindus to collect and use arms. Pawan Kumar Sharma had been once caught with a sizeable quantity of hand grenades. Several times in the past two years, Akali activists had been attacked by militant Hindu activists hiding and taking shelter in an Arya Samaj mandir in Patiala. There could be no doubt that arms were being stored in some Hindu temples. AIR kept repeating hour after hour news about arms seized from gurudwaras but news about the recovery of arms from mandirs or arrests of some militant Hindu communal activists was blacked out. Obviously, such news would not have served the purpose of appealing to Hindu communal sentiments, whereas the media campaign about seizure of arms from gurudwaras served to rouse Hindu communal passions.

AIR and Doordarshan reported in another news bulletin that two Nihangs had been shot dead by the security forces while they were trying to escape from the Golden Temple complex after the army crackdown. It was further stated that 'on medical examination" they were found to be Pakistanis. In other words, the fact that the two persons wearing the Nihang robe were found to be circumcised was considered enough evidence to reach two conclusions. One that they were Muslims and second that they were, therefore, Pakistanis. Both conclusions were utterly ridiculous and were part of a calculated communal design i. e. to project a linkage between Sikh extremists, Muslims and Pakistan and, through that, to stir up Hindu communal fears and apprehensions. It is a well-known fact that many Indian smugglers get themselves circumcised to camouflage their identity if they ever get caught in Pakistan, while many Pakistani smugglers sport the Nihang robe when they cross over into Indian Punjab territory. The two persons reportedly shot dead by security forces could have been Indian or Pakistani smugglers masquerading as Nihangs. In no case, can a mere medical examination be taken as sufficient evidence to prove a person's religious faith or nationality. In this case, however, 'the medical examination' of a person was not only being made the basis to determine his religious faith; his religious faith was further being made the criterion to determine his nationality also. It seems very unlikely that the concerned army authorities were responsible for jumping to (material of these two pages was on page 1569 original)
such rash conclusions - patently communal in character. It seems more likely that those monitoring the AIR/Doordarshan coverage of Punjab twisted a limited piece of information into a communal format for the purpose of fulfilling the ruling party's immediate objectives.

Both AIR and Doordarshan kept on repeating day after day that "the terrorists had been given training in arms at training camps organised in J and K and other states". P C Sethi, the previous Home Minister, is on record as having stated earlier in Parliament that arms-training camps had been organized by the terrorists in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. But AIR/Doordarshan, however, chose Jammu and Kashmir for repeated and emphatic mention. A member of Farooq Abdullah's cabinet had also voiced his protest against this deliberate singling out of Jammu and Kashmir. Such a move was aimed, on the one hand, at discrediting Farooq Abdullah's ministry and, on the other, at concealing the information that training camps for terrorists were held in Congress(I) ruled states also.

But more sinister than this was the calculated strategy to reinforce in the popular Hindu communal consciousness an apprehension about some sort of conspiratorial linkage between Sikh terrorists, Kashmir, Muslims and Pakistan. This was bound to raise suspicions among the Hindu population about two important religious minorities, i. e. Muslims and Sikhs.

Much was made by both Doordarshan and AIR of the 'foreign markings' on the 'sophisticated' weapons found inside the Golden Temple complex. It has now become well-known that the major part of the weapons - 'sophisticated' or otherwise - found with the terrorists, were procured from sources inside the country. This information was deliberately suppressed and the foreignness of an insignificant part of the weapons was overplayed and highlighted. Moreover, mere foreign markings on the weapons do not prove anything about the source of these weapons. Since Pakistan was being mentioned so often during this period, the subtle hint was that Pakistan was this 'foreign source'. The Sikh-Muslim-Pakistan linkage thus gets further projected and Hindu communal attitudes get more pandered to.

Both AIR and Doordarshan resorted to downright lies and distortion of news. It was announced by AIR (we are not certain if this was also done by Doordarshan) that "no one came to claim the body of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale" It goes to the credit of an Indian Express correspondent that, despite the high risk involved, he has reported (June 19) that the concerned authorities had refused "to hand over the militant leader's body despite a written request for it signed by the Panchayat of Mehta village on June 7 following radio and TV news that Sant Bhindranwale was dead. The Mehta Panchayat had agreed to the conditions laid down by the army of ensuring peace and not permitting any outsiders into the area should the body be handed over to them." The Gurudwara Gurdarshan Parkash - the headquarters of the Damdami Taksal whose chief was Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale - is located in this very Mehta village. Apart from this, in Chandigarh. during a few hours of curfew relaxation, Surjit Singh Barnala, a former Union agriculture minister and a senior Akali leader, along with 11 other well-known Sikhs of the city had met the then Governor B D Pande and had pleaded with him in a written memorandum that the body of Sant Bhindranwale be handed over to the 'Sikh Panth' for cremation according to Sikh rites. Pande is reported to have expressed his helplessness in the matter. Moreover, when uninterrupted curfew was in force all over Punjab and when a civilian faced grave risks in coming out on the road even near one's own house leave alone go anywhere near the 'No Entry Zone' of the Golden Temple complex, whom was AIR trying to cheat by giving such news? Was it aimed at making out that Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a non-entity? Whatever the reasons may be, Sant Bhindranwale was loved by very large numbers of Sikhs as much as he was the target of a hate campaign among the Hindus. The fact that he died fighting put a halo of a revered martyr around him as far as the vast majority of the Sikhs were concerned.

Reports are now coming from various sources converged on Amritsar and Tarn Taran when they heard the news that the army had entered the Golden Temple and that Bhindranwale had been killed. Many persons were shot dead though the exact number is still not known. But when the army authorities realised that indiscriminate use of force would result in a massacre, they successfully used Punjabi-speaking officers to persuade the crowds to disperse and to go back to their homes. A number of people from these 'Jathas' are reportedly still missing. To give false news such as that no one came to claim Bhindranwale's body at such a moment was rubbing salt into the wounds of an already deeply wounded Sikh community. It also made a tragic mockery of the hypocritical and condescending talk about the 'healing touch'. It is a sign of the total erosion of the credibility of the state-owned media that Sikhs, especially in the Punjab countryside, do not believe that Sant Bhindranwale is dead. It has given birth to a widespread rumour that Bhindranwale, partially reported earlier in some newspapers and magazines, that thousands of Sikh peasants. braving great risks to their lives, had had escaped the army cordon around the Golden Temple complex between third and sixth of June and that he is now in Pakistan. Had the people of Mehta village been allowed to cremate Bhindranwale's body even if under army supervision, all such rumours would have been put to rest. But probably this was not the concern of those who had been directing the government's Punjab policy and were accordingly making use of Doordarshan and AIR. It appears the purpose was to create an impression that a dreaded terrorist without any sympathy anywhere had been liquidated. Presenting Bhindranwale like this seemed to be aimed at making the army action and killing of Bhindranwale look justified. If, on the one hand, this showed total insensitivity to Sikhs' feelings, when there was an emotional upsurge of sympathy and concern for the dead Bhindranwale among the Sikhs, on the other, it was aimed at tapping popular Hindu communal reactions of approval and applause for the Congress(I) government's action.

Shubeg Singh, a former Major General and an associate of Bhindranwale, who died along with him was the worst victim of the AIR and Doordarshan propaganda machinery. It was a typical case of an attempt at falsification of history. Umpteen times references were made to him as someone who had been 'cashiered', 'dishonoured' and 'dismissed' from the army. In an attempt to present him as 'disgruntled', 'anti-national', 'traitor' and what not, his previous contributions were deliberately forgotten and blacked out. It was of no significance for the managers of the state-owned media that it was the same Shubeg Singh who was the key figure in organising the much-talked about Mukti Bahini during the Indian army's intervention in the erstwhile East Pakistan in 1971 and that he was one of the most decorated army generals of India. The relevant facts pertaining to his acquittal by a special court of the charges framed against him were deliberately suppressed. Indian Express (July 2) has reported that Shubeg Singh was dismissed from the army on the eve of his retirement in 1978 for alleged misappropriation of funds. Two charge-sheets were filed against him in 1979 by the CBI in the Court of R K Khanna, Special Judge Anti-Corruption (West), Lucknow. In one case, he was charged with having managed through his influence to get a military truck allotted for himself, to which he was not entitled, in the name of one Naik Bishan Singh. The other case was with regard to disproportionate assets to the tune of Rs 120,305. The special judge acquitted Shubeg Singh in both the cases in his judgment delivered on February 13, 1984. It seems that it is because of this acquittal and his distinguished service in the Indian army that Shubeg Singh was cremated with full military honours after post-mortem by the
civilian doctors. To have reported all these facts about Shubeg Singh's life in proper perspective, would have meant reducing the intensity of communal hatred against him among the Hindus. This did not obviously suit the media's strategy. Since a large number of Sikhs knew about these facts about Shubeg Singh's life, they would resent this one-sided presentation. Hindus, on the other hand, in such a communally surcharged atmosphere (1570 page in the original) built-up partially by the media itself, tended to lap up whatever was presented by the media. This further accelerated the process of communal divisiveness.

Both AIR and Doordarshan had repeatedly reported in their respective news bulletins that some medium machine guns were found inside the Golden Temple complex. In fact, no medium machine gun was recovered. This fact had to be later admitted even in the White Paper brought out by the Government of India. This contradiction between the AIR/Doordarshan presentation and the government's own report itself became the bone of communal contention between Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab and may be even elsewhere also. In a number of places, in individual and group arguments, Sikhs, on the basis of this contradiction, would raise further doubts about the claims of AIR and Doordarshan while Hindus preferred to overlook this contradiction. Such diametrically opposite attitudes could produce nothing but heightened communal tempers.

AIR and Doordarshan had also reported in a number of news bulletins that a huge haul of smuggled narcotics including hashish was found inside the Golden Temple complex. It was a concoction and a denial had to be issued later. The attempt behind such news fabrication was to project an image of the extremists as drug addicts with smuggling links. But, by and large, it was known among the Sikhs that Bhindranwale and his extremist followers were religious puritans and as per the traditions of their institution, Damdami Taksal, they abstained completely from the use of intoxicants to such an extent that they were used to not taking even tea. It was obvious, therefore, that such news manipulation was bound to hurt the Sikhs’ sentiments. But consistent with the objectives of the media programmes, what mattered was not the Sikhs’ susceptibilities but the acceptance of such propaganda material by the wider Hindu population. As a consequence, Hindu-Sikh relations were further embittered, and communal polarisation was sharpened. Eventually, when the denial came it was not so much out of a desire to reduce communal tension but because the BSF authorities had protested that such concocted news gave a bad name to the BSF. In any case, in spite of the denial, the damage had already been done to Hindu-Sikh relations. Sikhs viewed such news dissemination as a calculated attempt to paint their religious places in bad colours and, therefore, showed their resentment against it. Hindus. especially the more communal ones, tended to use such news material to further project gurudwaras as some kind of dens of vice.

AIR and Doordarshan bent over backwards in reporting that "no damage has been done to Harmandar Sahib" during the army action. Though it probably might be correct that no direct shots were fired at Harmandar Sahib, it has now become a matter of common knowledge in Punjab that there were over 300 bullet marks on Harmandar Sahib. Some of these bullet marks were inside Harmandar Sahib. Some of the windowpanes of the Harmandar Sahib had been smashed and one priest inside had been killed by a bullet shot from outside. When the visitors to the Golden Temple saw these bullet marks, they were shocked and brought back stories which further provided fuel for more rumours. This gap between what AIR/Doordarshan reported about the damage to Harmandar Sahib and what was actually seen by people there, has led to a widening of the gulf between the Hindus and Sikhs. Hindus refer to AlR/Doordarshan coverage and consider the reports about the damage to Harmandar Sahib as unnecessary exaggeration by the Sikhs. The Sikhs, on the other hand, consider the Hindus' disbelief about the damage to Harmandar Sahib as evidence of the latter's insensitive attitude.

The question, therefore, is not only that facts were suppressed by AIR/Doordarshan but that such suppression of facts worsened the already extremely tense communal situation. As a digression. it may be pointed out here that one rumour which was especially widespread in the Amritsar city led almost to a situation of communal riots. It concerned the alleged discovery of naked and pregnant women from the Golden Temple complex. The communal Hindus tried to use this rumour to almost suggest that the Golden Temple complex had become a brothel. Sikhs violently protested against such rumours which they considered were aimed to defame their most sacred place. The situation became so tense that the deputy commissioner of Amritsar had to clarify that no naked women were found inside the Golden Temple complex and the women who were taken into custody were the wives, daughters and relatives of SGPC employees residing in the Temple complex ( The Indian Express, August 6).

The suppression and distortion of truth always creates the basis for rumours and their acceptance. Rumours in a communally surcharged atmosphere are known to cause further escalation of tension. This is a lesson drawn from various communal riots all over the country. In their coverage of Punjab, AIR and Doordarshan by distorting facts and planting false news, despite some denials later on, made the breeding ground for rumours more. fertile. This clouded the proper assessment of the Punjab situation. In this connection, it is necessary to mention also the manner in which AIR and Doordarshan organised a number of discussions on the army action in Punjab. The participants were carefully chosen to project the ruling party's view that army action was 'inevitable' and, therefore, justified. There are eminent public figures in our country who have well-argued positions dissenting from this view and who consider the army action as neither in the interests of communal harmony nor that of national integration. There is a view that it does not solve the Punjab problem either. No such dissenting view was allowed to be presented. A number of people - some of them well known all over the country - returned their awards or resigned from responsible positions in protest against the army entry into the Golden Temple. All such news was either blacked out or played down. In any case, the views of those who protested against the army action were never presented. In contrast, the views of those who 'hailed' the army action were given elaborate coverage. A similar strategy was adopted when press coverage of the army action was reported.

A common running thread behind almost all AIR/Doordarshan programmes concerning Punjab after the army action there was the attempt to appeal to Hindu communal views, reactions, opinions, prejudices and attitudes. It may be argued that this is a part of a still bigger design - now too obvious - to use AIR and Doordarshan to encourage, strengthen and consolidate Hindu revivalism.

In a country where illiteracy is high, and where the newspapers cover only a section of the literate population, AIR and Doordarshan become the only source for a large mass of the population to get the latest news. In moments of crisis when news hunger is acute, AIR and Doordarshan have been used as propaganda weapons of the ruling party. This is a serious threat to democratic values and institutions. Further, when the media is used to arouse and appeal to the communal sentiments of the majority community with arrogant disregard for the sentiments of the minorities, one fears that it may lead to widening of the ideological base for the rise of Hindu fascist tendencies in the country. Media coverage of Punjab highlights this danger in its most threatening form. It may appear that we are overstating our case and that it is purely a temporary situation of the ruling party in its struggle for power wooing the Hindu vote, especially in North India, because of its having lost hope of winning in South and Eastern India and because of tough competition with other bourgeois-opposition parties in Western India. In Northern India, it may be further argued, the estrangement of Muslims and Sikhs from the Congress(l) and opposition by the BJP-Lok Dal combine from a Hindu communal platform has compelled the Congress (I) to rely upon the strategy of winning over the Hindu vote. Even if it is a temporary compulsion, it nonetheless reflects the strength of communalism among Hindus in North India. The media, in the specific instance of its coverage of Punjab after the army action there, has further contributed to this process of communalisation of Northern Indian Hindus. One can only hope that it will not be too late when the efforts are finally made to reverse this process.

[The author wishes to thank Jagtar Singh, A P Rao, K Reddy and Parmod Kumar for their valuable assistance in writing this paper. The responsibility for the views expressed is, however, the author's entirely.] (page 1571 of the original)