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Molehill or mountain?

india Updated: Jun 28, 2009 01:17 IST
Sumana Ramanan
Sumana Ramanan
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Last week, HT ran a three-part series called ‘Reverse Racism’ (June 22, 23, 24), in which we looked at instances of prejudice in Mumbai against Africans, Muslims and northeast Indians. The trigger for doing the series was the outrage in this country over the racial attacks on Indians in Australia.

We felt that while the attacks were indefensible, the tone of self-righteousness that seemed to accompany the anger was misplaced.

We decided to turn the spotlight on this city. Many of us in Mumbai might be willing to admit that the rest of the country is deeply colour-conscious and ridden with prejudice, but we like to think that this city is different — that it is, by and large, still tolerant and enlightened.

But is it? We felt this was a good opportunity to look at how this city, which fancies itself to be a cosmopolitan melting pot and a global financial powerhouse in-the-making, treats those who it perceives to be different. What we found was not flattering. Our reporters found a range of ways, small and big, in which Africans, Muslims and northeast Indians face prejudice and stereotyping. Many readers liked the series.

One reader, however, felt that the comparison with the attacks on Indians in Australia was unfair. “Australians are not just verbally abusing but also physically attacking Indian students,” he wrote. For the same reason, another reader felt we were making a “mountain out of a molehill.”

I agree that we did not find systematic instances of violence against any of these groups. But should we be writing about prejudice only when it leads to violence? If the media is to fulfil its role as a watchdog, then it should surely highlight the molehills before they become mountains.

Also, there have been instances of systematic violence in this city against certain groups, including Muslims (during the 1992-93 riots, for instance).

But the focus of the series was not to go over old ground. It was to try and discover the attitudes of people today, attitudes that, if allowed to thrive, can lead to violence later.

But what about the attitudes and prejudices of journalists themselves? Readers might be interested in two books that examine the way the media covers Islam and Muslims.

The first is a landmark study of the Western media by the late Edward Said. Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, first published in 1981 and then re-issued in 1997, is a powerful critique of the way in which the Western media portrays Islam and Islamic culture.

Early in the book, which is the third in Said’s trilogy about knowledge and power (Orientalism and The question of Palestine are the first two), he says: “It is only a slight overstatement to say that Muslims and Arabs are essentially covered, discussed, apprehended, either as oil suppliers or as potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab-Muslim life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Islamic world.”

The second book, Muslims and Media Images — News versus Views, edited by Ather Farouqui, is a recent collection of essays focusing on the Indian media. Unlike Said’s critique, this has a wide variety of opinions.

Chandan Mitra, who edits The Pioneer, the New Delhi-based daily, argues that the English media harbours no conscious anti-Muslim bias, while Vinod Mehta, editor of Outlook, the weekly news magazine, more pertinently asks whether the English media have not perhaps, sub-consciously, given more prominence to obscurantist and communal voices among Indian Muslims.