Ranjona Banerji: When journos fried community believing cooked up claims

24 Mar,2015

By Ranjona Banerji


When public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam revealed at a conference recently that he had cooked up the story about Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab demanding and being served biryani in a Mumbai jail, there was understandable shock and distaste.


But let us set aside for now Nikam’s professional integrity or the smug satisfaction with which he revealed how he had in effect demonised a community in order to stop a sympathy wave for Kasab. Instead, let’s ask just why Nikam became such a media hero that no one thought to question his claim in the first place.


Nikam first sprang into the limelight as the public prosecutor into the March, 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts case. The case took so long that by the time the sentence was pronounced most of India – and many of the young Mumbai reporters I worked with at DNA – thought that the bomb blasts preceded the post-Babri Masjid demolition riots of December 1992 and January 1993. Such is the curiosity of the “patriotic” journalist of today – and we can see the result on our TV channels. Indeed, it mattered to few that there had been no justice at all for those who suffered in the riots. Bollywood films like Black Friday, for all its good intentions, further cemented the myth that the bomb blasts caused the riots. I met reporters who used the script of the film as the basis for their reports.


Nikam capitalised on this sentiment and thus sprang to prominence as the public prosecutor who fought for justice. It was a rare journalist who questioned him because in today’s India that can be akin to sedition.


It was hardly surprising that Nikam was public prosecutor in the 2008 terror attacks case. However, when it came to Ajmal Kasab, there was no doubt about his involvement or his guilt. The world had seen him on television, there were many witnesses and policeman Tukaram Ombale made the ultimate sacrifice in making sure that Kasab was caught alive. By that one act, India had proof that Pakistan was involved in terror activities against India – whether by the state or by “non-state” actors. Whichever you prefer to believe.


Nikam therefore had little to do. In fact, what his large group of admirers in the journalistic community prefer to forget is that the only two Indians who the investigation managed to charge were acquitted. Nikam and the police investigation therefore failed to convince the judge except when it came to the open and shut case of Kasab.


So what were our reporters doing? If Nikam was lying about the biryani, then a simple questioning of the jail authorities should have been enough. In fact, we had a huge media uproar about how much Kasab cost the government and why was the government feeding a terrorist from across the border a choice dish like biryani and a clear belief that this was some sort of appeasement policy of Muslims by a Congress government.


By these insidious means, Nikam managed to demonise a community – Muslims and their supposed undying attachment to biryani – by creating a “meme”. And parts of the media helped him. For those who claim to be too innocent to get it, the connection is clear: Kasab is a Muslims; Muslims like biryani. The lens therefore shifts to all Muslims, especially Indian ones. This connection was used by the BJP in their 2014 election campaign as well.


In a superb piece for Mumbai Mirror, its editor Meenal Baghel reveals that Kasab’s last meal was a tomato: http://www.mumbaimirror.com/mumbai/others/Dum-lagaa-ke/articleshow/46648313.cms


I reserve the right to chuck tomatoes at my fellow journalists who use jingoism as an excuse to ignore their primary responsibility to their profession.


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One response to “Ranjona Banerji: When journos fried community believing cooked up claims”

  1. ashok759 says:

    I don’t think there was ever a sympathy wave for Ajmal Kasab. That TV grab of him in his jeans, sneakers and rucksack as he did the devil’s work is seared in the national consciousness. That biryani remark was in poor taste, it sent a subliminal message of hate towards a community that had nothing to do with 26 / 11.