The Roti Episode: A Point of View
This appeared originally here
This appeared on 25th July 2014, thus the reference to dates and current events must take into account that date.
Shiv Sena MPs and the roti fiasco
By Nivedita Khandekar
The alleged attempt by Shiv Sena MPs to hurt the religious sentiment of a Muslim outraged the nation and Parliament earlier this week. The reporting of it is an object lesson in how spin doctors and sensation-seeking journalism can colour a story any which way – saffron or against.
Until the ‘Sania Mirza as brand ambassador’ issue took over prime time on Thursday, many Delhi-based news organizations had, from Wednesday onwards, painted the Shiv Sena MPs as villains for forcing a chapatti into the mouth of a fasting Muslim IRCTDC (Indian Railways Catering and Tourism Development Corporation) employee on July 17.
But was that the whole truth? Some of the questions the coverage raises are about the timing of the Indian Express report, the total focus on the chapati incident to the exclusion of the wider story, and the possibility that the Shiv Sena MPs were not deliberately targeting a Muslim at all but were ‘merely’ indulging in their normal thuggish behavior, and the fact that the victim was a Muslim was incidental.
The mainstream national media – both English and Hindi – suddenly woke up to the issue after the Indian Express on July 23, front-paged the news about how “Sena MPs ‘force’ fasting Muslim staffer to eat chapati, Maharashtra Sadan says sorry”. The news item went on to describe a July 17 incident, about how 11 Shiv Sena MPs forced Arshad Zubair, IRCTDC resident manager, to eat a chapati because they were “apparently angry over not being served Maharashtrian food”.
Here’s the irony: the Marathi media, print and electronic, had been reporting this incident from day one but none of them gave any communal colour to it. That includes Loksatta, the Indian Express’s Marathi language counterpart. In fact, what was an issue for the Marathi media before, on and after July 17, was never considered worth reporting by the national media, not even the vandalism by MPs inside a government property. So it is really puzzling to see the Indian Express woke up one fine morning to do a four-day old story and add a communal angle to it.
When Marathi newspapers reported the July 17 incident, it was a regular 2-column or 3-column inside page story with the focus on the ‘Shiv Sena style’ andolan (andolan is the word Shiv Sena MPs had used for their protest and the same was repeated by Marathi press) giving sketchy details of what they did at the Sadan. The rampage was summed up in 2-3 sentences even as the stories mentioned about the MPs’ complaints and apathetic approach by Mallick and, in general, the Maharashtra government. None specifically mentioned the kitchen incident of attempted force-feeding. The tone of the story did not patronize the Shiv Sena MPs. And it was the same across all newspapers, including in those known to be pro-Congress. Their stories did not mention the specific roti incident, forget the ‘communal angle.
Why then was it raked up four days later? What is the story behind this story?
My reading is that this was not an isolated incident and neither was the intention there to deliberately harass a Muslim individual. By blowing the whole episode out of proportion, the real issue of mismanagement and alleged corruption at the property has been sidelined. (Granted this may not be at all news worthy for the national press.) Ever since the New Maharashtra Sadan on Kasturba Gandhi Marg was inaugurated last June, it has been plagued by complaints about the poor service, lack of basic maintenance and electrical fittings etc. But the major grouse of all visitors – MPs from across the party, top government officials, journalists covering Maharashtra and the common citizen – was about the quality of food and the absence of Maharashtrian dishes on the menu at the restaurant within the Sadan. The Marathi media have been highlighting the issue regularly and MPs from Congress and NCP, the ruling alliance in Maharashtra, had also complained about the food and other services.
A careful reconstruction of the events that occurred on July 17 – based on talking to scores of Marathi journalists who regularly cover Maharashtra affairs and few government officials present at that time – and the events that led to that day’s incident reveal a somewhat different picture. It shows that this attempted ‘force feeding’ was part of a much longer display of protest and rowdyism that day at new Maharashtra Sadan. In fact, this incident was a barely one minute interaction from almost half a day of drama and preceding incidents.
It all started soon after the May 16 election results when the first time MPs came to attend Parliament. Almost all the first time Shiv Sena MPs were allotted very small rooms. They were unhappy with the general maintenance, service and the food quality.
Over the last month, several MPs moved out of the Sadan and went to live either at hotels or found other accommodation. Despite several complaints, the Maharashtra government administration did not respond. In fact, one of the MPs, Shivajirao Adhalrao Patil, had written to the Resident Commissioner, Bipin Mallick. Several MPs also raised the matter with Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. These complaints were all covered by the Marathi media.
One point of contention was that Satyapal Singh, the former Mumbai police commissioner and now a BJP MP from Uttar Pradesh, had been given a room normally reserved for a minister while MPs from Maharashtra were given small rooms. The ire of these MPs was directed at Maharashtra government officials, not against the Muslim employee as portrayed by the Indian Express and the national media.
Frustrated at being ignored, the Shiv Sena MPs asked the Resident Commissioner to meet them at the New Maharashtra Sadan on July 17. Almost a dozen Marathi and non-Marathi journalists were present. Mallick did not turn up at 9 am, the scheduled time. The MPs then went to attend Parliament and returned at 12.30 pm. But Mallick was again nowhere to be seen. After waiting 45 minutes, they realized he had gone to the airport to receive the Maharashtra chief secretary.
Already frustrated, their tempers rose. They began showing the facilities to the journalists present, saying they planned to expose the mismanagement and alleged corruption for all of Maharashtra to see. The entourage reached the canteen where they started questioning the staff about the quality of the food and absence of Marathi food items.
They entered the kitchen and made an issue about the food, 11 MPs were spread out, not surrounding Zubair. The allegedly rubbery chapatti provoked MP Rajan Vichare, who is one of the prime accused, to take a chapati in his hands and try to do what the Indian Express described as ‘force feed’ Zubair, saying ‘Ye Khake Dikhao’ (show me how you can eat this).
It was then that Zubair protested, saying ‘I am fasting’. When he said this twice, Vichare stopped and the MPs decided that they would be better off dealing with the management or the contractor of the canteen rather than the staff.
Judging from the reporting in the Marathi press, it was incidental that this particular employee was a Muslim. Although he bore a name tag, the Shiv Sena MPs could have been too angry and frustrated to read it. The Marathi reporters present there confirmed that he said, ‘I am fasting’ and not anything about keeping roza for Ramazan. It was only when the MPs and the media left the kitchen that he told the other staff that he was fasting for Ramzan.
The MPs and their supporters then resorted to vandalism at the Resident Commissioner’s office, in a typical Shiv Sena style ‘rada’ (ruckus) and the whole drama lasted for more than an hour.
This whole visit to the kitchen did not last more than 10 minutes and the alleged ‘force feeding’ not even one minute.
But the story did not end there. The IRCTC promptly shut down the facility, adding further to the troubles of those staying there. The next day, the MPs took up the issue with the administration and were promised that things would be normal by Monday.
On July 22, the Shiv Sena MPs again gathered at the New Maharashtra Sadan to meet Mallick. When he did not meet them again, they left a message for him to meet them at the party’s Parliament office at 1 pm. Instead of Mallick, two other Maharashtra officials met them. The MPs claimed – and even reporters vouch for this - that the government officials even on Monday (July 22) never mentioned any complaint about ‘hurting religious sentiments’ over the force feeding issue.
The Marathi media reported the incident, including the agitation and vandalism by these MPs. In fact, even the pro-Congress news organizations viz Lokmat and Pudhari wrote stories on lines similar to others. Almost all the media persons who were present on the spot throughout and were witness to the whole drama as it unfolded, never thought there was a communal angle to the story which is why it was never reflected in any of the coverage of July 17 or later in the Marathi media.
Like rest of the national media, the Indian Express had not written anything before July 23. It remains a mystery why it picked it up four days later and front paged the story giving it the Muslim/communal twist. The Express story on July 23 does not give any elaborate background leading up to the July 17 incident.
Marathi journalists allege it was a plant for diverting the heat from Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. He was also already facing trouble in Mumbai on the Narayan Rane resignation issue. However, no one knows if there is any basis to this conspiracy theory.
The Indian Express on Thursday on page 6 printed all the e-mails/letters supposed to have been written by Zubair and his boss. Zubair’s complaint ends with the line ‘This is for your kind information’. He says: ‘even then they inserted the chapati in my mouth’. The IRCTC deputy manager’s letter however states ‘…Arshad Zubair who was forced to consume a full chapati…’
Ironically, on the same page, it carried a box titled ‘What the video shows’ describing what is seen in the video footage. (This was the same video footage, taken from a Marathi news channel, that was shown by the national media). It would have been desirable if the Express reporter and other media had got back to Zubair or even Maharashtra government officials to question them about their claim, as the video clearly establishes that he had not eaten anything.
The Express also carried a front page story titled ‘On record: violence and hate, fuelled by the media’ based on the incident report filed by the manager of the Sadan. The manager – read Maharashtra administration – has also blamed a ‘section of the media’ for instigating that day’s violence. Possibly the Express reporter was not aware that the Marathi media had long been critical of Mallick and the Sadan administration for various reasons, including poor food and service, not to mention the alleged mismanagement and corruption. So it is no surprise that the manager blamed a section of the media for instigating the violence.
The Shiv Sena seems to have paid for its past. Led by the late Bal Thackeray and now by his son Uddhav, it has never minced words in proclaiming its hatred towards Muslims. The party in general has attracted adverse reports in the national media due to its Hindutva agenda. This time, though, the Shiv Sena MPs were, for once, not deliberately victimizing a Muslim but were agitating over a legitimate grievance. But their reputation cooked their goose.