How TV channels are mainstreaming the ‘fringe’ by inviting unknown and dubious 'scholars' to talk shows

BJP spokespersons on Indian TV channels mostly defend the omissions and commissions of the government. But if they do constitute the ‘fringe’, are the mahants and maulvis fielded on TV the mainstream?

Brothers in arms? Two TV panelists outside the studio
Brothers in arms? Two TV panelists outside the studio

AJ Prabal

Not every man with a beard is an Islamic scholar, scoffed fact checker and AltNews co-founder Md Zubair and journalist Alishan Jafri this week. They were questioning the presence of one Ilyas Sharafuddin on TV channels, which introduce him as an “Islamic scholar”. The bearded man, as obnoxious as panelists representing the ‘Hindus’, they pointed out, insulted Hinduism, laughed at Hindu beliefs and made fun of the mahants and yet was given ample time to vent his spleen.

Why would channels like Zee and AajTak give Ilyas Sharafuddin air time? Why did the anchors allow him to spew incendiary comments and failed to mute him? And why does the Information & Broadcasting Ministry routinely fail to pull up these channels?

Sharafuddin, claimed both Zubair and Jafri, was a nobody with 100 followers on YouTube. But the news channels promoted him big time. By calling for beheading non-believers and selectively quoting or misquoting from the holy book he reinforced stereotypes and helped polarise people on communal lines. That indeed seemed to be the purpose.

Does Ilyas Sharafuddin comprise the Islamic fringe and ought to be ignored? Are only the fringe invited by Indian news channels to discuss sensitive issues on live TV? Are others invited by these channels like Maulana Nadimuddin, Alimuddin Asadi, Atiq-ur-Rahman, Shoaib Jamei etc. also scholars or do they even represent their community?

The question has acquired significance after the Bharatiya Janata Party suspended two of its spokespersons, Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, for their objectionable comments about Prophet Mohammed and his wife.

While Government of India called them ‘fringe elements’, the BJP added to the confusion by ostensibly issuing fresh directives to its spokespersons to moderate their comments on TV. The very first injunction asserted that henceforth only ‘authorised persons’ would represent the party on TV channels. This seemed to suggest that till now the spokespersons were all unauthorised.

While BJP looked for the proverbial fig leaf, TV channels are left with none, guilty as they are of mainstreaming the fringe on both sides. Inviting Shakun Pandey alias Maa Annapurna and allowing her to repeat the nonsense that she spewed in a letter to the President of India made no sense. But a prominent channel did just that this week and Pandey, who had shot to fame by firing at a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi and calling for killing Muslims, repeated that she had asked the President to restrict number of Muslims offering Friday prayers at mosques.

Her reason for the bizarre request was that Fridays were ‘days of terror, not prayer’.

As if this was not enough, another serial offender Yati Narasinghanand rarely misses TV time to deliver anti-Muslim rants. This week too he was allowed to support Nupur Sharma and assert that he would walk ‘alone’ to Delhi’s Jama Masjid on a Friday to explain to the congregation why Sharma was ‘only uttering the truth’.

Babas, mahants and swamis are of course crawling out of the woodwork like termites as are the maulvis. Most of them have been unknown entities with obscure past. Their contributions, if any, to religion or philosophy remain shrouded in mystery. But thanks to TV channels and the toxic social media, a swami by the name of Bajrang Muni gets traction for threatening to kidnap Muslim women and rape them in the open. Another ‘fringe’ element Swami Jitendranand Saraswati’s video calling Hindus to raise such resounding slogans that ‘womb of anti-national women bearing anti-national babies’ would tear apart, also goes viral.

But the government, which never gets tired in voicing its concern over online content, pretends not to see or hear them.

Are these signs of a vibrant democracy with multiplicity of views that we must celebrate? Or are they signs of a sick society that cannot decide between the fringe and the mainstream?

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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