Journalists share challenges of being Muslim in majoritarian times at 5th Neelabh Mishra Memorial Lecture

The central theme of the 5th Neelabh Mishra Memorial Public Lecture was titled ‘Ear to the ground: Reporting in majoritarian times’

Journalists share challenges of being Muslim in majoritarian times at 5th Neelabh Mishra Memorial Lecture

Sanjukta Basu

Activists and journalist paid tributes to veteran journalist Sh Neelabh Mishra by holding a series of public lecture on his 5th death anniversary on February 24 in Delhi.

The central theme of the 5th Neelabh Mishra Memorial Public Lecture was titled ‘Ear to the ground: Reporting in majoritarian times’. Noted Muslim journalists Fatima Khan, Alishan Jafri, and Mohammad Ali spoke at the event sharing their experiences of reporting on the growing range of anti-Muslim hate crimes and socio-political events spreading Islamophobia in India and how they dealt with their intersectional subjectivity of being both a Muslim and a journalist.

The event was anchored by journalist Seema Chishti. “Neelabh was an immensely courageous man, they do not make those kind anymore. I think he would be very happy to see what we are trying to do here, to unravel reporting in the time of majoritarianism. While many of the fault lines we see today existed before 2014, but some of us who reported during the 1992 Babri demolition or the anti-Sikh riots or Gujarat pogrom, we can feel that there is a different operating system now,” Chishti said.

Activist Apoorvanand opened the event by talking about Neelabh Mishra’s work and legacy. “Neelabh was a writer, a poet, and also a great story teller. He practiced journalism for over 30 years in both Hindi and English language, and he never claimed to be unbiased. He had no hesitation in saying that he had a side, and that it was with the ordinary people. He took the mantle of National Herald with the hopes that there was a space to intervene in the way media has turned in India, by pursuing journalism from the margins but he left us too soon. In 2018 when we lost him, we decided that we would initiate a series of dialogues around his thoughts and principles because we needed a journalist like him today,” Apoorvanand said.

Journalist Fatima Khan talked about the daily challenges and confrontations of having a Muslim name in the byline, which brings diversity but also creates suspicion and prejudices. “I have this conversation with my editors over and over again where I tell them that we need to bring the perspectives of those who have faced marginalization and violence first hand,” she said.

Speaking about being asked whether a Muslim journalist can stay objective in such times, she said that only a Muslim is confronted with this question. “My editors tell me that if it is an investigative piece, and you have to quote a lawyer, make sure that it is a Hindu lawyer. I wonder why the same is not told to a Hindu reporter or a Brahmin reporter?” Khan said.

Alishan Jafri, whose brave reporting on the Haridwar Dharm Sansad issue where calls for Muslim genocide were made, and led to the arrest of Yati Narsinghanand, said that for him staying objective meant being faced with hate that is meant for you but not react to it. “Our work demands that when we come across somebody like Yati Narsinghanand who claims they want to kill all people belonging to our community, we are not in a position to say, “No please don’t kill us.” Our job is to get more details and ask follow up questions such as, “How would you kill, when will you kill and why?” Jafri said. “Two years back there were protests against anti-CAA protesters, what Apoorvanand calls, anti-anti-CAA protesters. Now there are protests against namaaz, hijab, calls for genocide and we are told that reporting these would give advantage to BJP, people would be polarized. But we are not concerned with BJP or this party or that party or who would get advantage. Our job is to just report the events,” he added.

Freelance journalist Mohammed Ali shared his unique challenges where despite being a Muslim he spent around 6 months with a group of Bajrang Dal members covering their activities. “It is hard to tell how I befriended the Bajrang Dal activist. One of the things I did was that I told this man that it is because of soldiers like him that India’s destiny has changed. He was very happy to hear that. I also said I have come to understand your problems. I was then able to spend time with them but it was not easy. They will often make Islamophobic jokes in front of me, say abusive things, ask very objectionable questions. I even accompanied them to occasional ritualistic Muslim thrashing. They also would often tell me that I should convert to Hinduism. ‘Whether we live or not, whether BJP, Bajrang Dal or RSS is there ot not, your next generations would definitely have to convert,’ he said in an eerie prophetic way,” Ali narrated.

“To do my story I had to take a look at the activist’s WhatsApp and I saw some propaganda posters on “love jihad, land jihad, market jihad” etc. and few months later I noticed that Sudhir Chowdhary of Zee TV is using that same poster on his TV. The world has changed, journalism has changed. What was part of RSS literature 40 years back has gone on mainstream media now,” said Mohammed Ali.

On being asked whether reporting on hate leaves an impact on the mind of the journalists and of what kind, Alishan Jafri said, “reporting the anti-Muslim hate does hurt. I won’t lie that I can be so mechanical that I can simply report it without being impacted.” However, the larger community’s general apathy towards the rising tide of anti-Muslim discourse is a greater threat he added. “People often ignore hate speeches and hate crimes as “fringe” but that fringe becomes mainstream in 3-4 years times and affects somebody’s life.”

Both Fatima Khan and Mohammad Ali said that their family members, parents especially get more panicked than they themselves feel. Ali also said that he had to undergo therapy to cope with the anxiety and angst, the severity of which was not even fully known to him until he sat on the therapist’s couch.

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Published: 26 Feb 2022, 10:52 AM