In his opinion piece (Medium is the Image, November 1, '04), Vinod Mehta simplistically holds Indian Muslims responsible for the way Hindus perceive them without taking into account the complex sociology of creation of media images about Muslims. Surely, Indian Muslims have two identities: as part of a wider Indian society, sharing all that's good and bad with other Indians of their region and class; and second, as part of the pan-Islamic community that includes other global Muslim societies. Mr Mehta ignores the second part entirely.
In all this, the role played by Indo-Pakistani Muslims in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia—which has affected the psyche of beneficiary Muslims of these petro-dollars in India—cannot be ignored. For it is this psyche which lends support to Muslim fundamentalism and colludes with the government (which has its own vested interests) in not opening modern educational institutions for Muslim children, thereby letting the madrassas flourish. This 'situation' will never let the trauma of Partition rest in peace, nor will it ever let the Hindus realise that it was, in fact, a complex historical event for which no single individual or community can be blamed.
The reference by Mr Mehta to Manmohan Singh (in the image context) is also quite out of place. The President, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, can easily be cited as someone who also does not carry the baggage of his community. This is because there is a threshold beyond which individuals are seen autonomously, without the image of their community haunting them. Manmohan Singh's position does not say anything about the media representation of the Sikhs. If it was not negative, the 1984 Sikh riots wouldn't have happened—nor is it guaranteed that there will not be another 1984, or Gujarat 2002.
On the impact of media representation, there's a need to examine seriously whether the Muslim leadership—as Mr Mehta thinks—is really unaware of it, not only in India but also in the so-called Islamic countries. I have a feeling the 'Muslim leadership' in India is as shrewd as its rss counterparts. It can hardly be the case that a senior ulema's recent outcry against family planning was based on sheer ignorance. After all, their funding fathers, who have dozens of wives—and who don't even remember the names of the children—need to be kept in good humour too.
The obvious issues, illiteracy and poverty, can be blamed for Muslim behaviour and the resultant negative media images, but it wouldn't be the whole truth. Even in places where Muslims are educated and gainfully employed—for example, immigrant Muslims in western Europe and the US—they are more or less ghettoised.
And, of course, there is the common error of treating the Muslims as a monolithic, homogeneous community. Leaving aside regional and linguistic diversity, there are hundreds of groups even within the Shias and Sunnis—the two different schools of thought who claim to represent true (but different and contesting) Islamic philosophy. So, defining who exactly is a true Muslim remains a perennial problem.
Mr Mehta is earnest and sincere when addressing the role of language in the process of image formation, but what can one do about the sectarian politics played out in the name of Urdu by political parties? To that fire is added a passionate fuel by sectarian and third-rate Urdu newspapers and magazines. Unfortunately, due to our colonial past, a situation is emerging now where only English-speaking people are considered modern (as a recent Outlook issue implied in its cover story). Being a backward community, Muslims don't even fall under the category of literates, leave alone that small elite of India that speaks English.
In Delhi alone, the dropout percentage of school-going Muslim children is as high as 98 per cent.The number of Muslim students in good English medium schools is almost negligible. Where do we find media stories on such issues? What do the Muslims need to do, I would like to ask Mr Mehta, to get coverage on such issues?
Let me cite a telling example. It's become fashionable in media circles to talk of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) as a bastion of Left politics. But it's the large number of Muslim students (mainly in Arabic, Urdu and Persian) that give them a decisive say in student union elections. Is the media aware of this? If it is, does it reflect it? Food for thought, isn't it? But then one is as helpless before the English media as one is before the mullahs and doctrinaire Marxists: only they seem to know the real truth!
And what can one say about Mr Mehta's take on the All India Muslim Personal Law Board? Since its inception, it's been no more than an exclusive club of opportunistic mullahs and self-appointed 'traders' of Muslim politics, shrewd enough to recognise that it is their outmoded statements that induce the media to seek them out on Muslim issues. The media is the Frankenstein and the board a monster of its creation. But Mr Mehta would have us believe otherwise by giving it the legitimacy it neither deserves nor commands.
The fact remains that despite the media, the common Hindu realises he has to live with the Muslims who, for various historical and social reasons, are still the most backward and ghettoised community in India. Whether it be the Babri Masjid demolition or the questions of a life of dignity for Muslims, the Hindus have played their role responsibly—let's not forget how they recently threw out the bjp by democratic franchise. The so-called Muslim leadership, on the other hand, was and is always out to manipulate and mismanage affairs. So the question as to how to make the Muslims understand still begs an answer.
(The writer has a PhD in post-Partition language politics. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. An earlier draft of the article had appeared on the website)