Friday, 1 August 2008

Media needs to be more circumspect in literate Kerala

Kerala trembled', screamed the nine-centimetre deep headline in the state's largest circulated newspaper Monday. Those words summed up the totally literate state's response to some sensational media reports that it was the terrorists' next target.

On Sunday afternoon, as the nation was slowly recovering from the impact of the serial explosions in Bangalore and Ahmedabad, the Bangalore office of a television channel informed a Malayalam channel that a caller from Pakistan had said blasts would occur in Kerala at 7 p.m.

Holiday-makers scurried home from parks and beaches as channels flashed the news. The state police, already on alert following a central advisory, persuaded cinema houses in several places to abandon the evening and night shows.

As it happened, the deadline passed with no untoward incident reported from any part of the state.

Kerala has witnessed many violent incidents of a political or communal nature in recent years. However, they have generally been limited to a small area. There have been explosions but no serial blasts. Mercifully, the state has only experienced low-tech violence. RDX and AK-47 have come up in TV serials but not in real life.

Muslims constitute a quarter of the state's population. The banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) had a large network in the state. Some of its members have been apprehended in connection with incidents that have occurred outside the state.

SIMI, founded at the Aligarh Muslim University at the end of the emergency regime in 1977, with the proclaimed goal of 'India's liberation through Islam' was proscribed by the Indian government in 2002.

The state government told a tribunal set up to examine the legality of the ban that its cadres had links with various bodies abroad, including Lashkar-e-Toiba, a Pakistan-based terrorist organisation. According to official sources, SIMI also had a women's wing in the state.

Abdul Naser Mahdani, chairman of the People's Democratic Party (it has no connection with the Jammu and Kashmir organisation with the same name), was one of the principal accused in the Coimbatore blasts case. It arose from a series of explosions that rocked the industrial city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu shortly before Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Kishen Advani arrived there.

Mahdani was acquitted after being in prison for close to ten years. The Congress and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which lead the rival fronts that alternate in power in the state, had associated themselves with the campaigns conducted by his party and human rights activists against his prolonged detention without bail or parole.

People of Kerala take keen interest in developments outside the state as migration to other lands in search of jobs is common. An estimated two million Keralites work abroad, mostly in the Gulf States.

Sensing a groundswell of sympathy for ousted Iraqi President Saddam Hussein among the people, especially Muslims, the state's political parties had vied with one another to champion his cause at election time.

The Left effectively wove the cause into its anti-US rhetoric. All this did not prevent recruiting agents from finding catering personnel to serve the American soldiers in Iraq and carpenters to build cages at Guantanamo in Cuba to hold suspected Al Qaeda men.

Although Kerala has no experience of high-tech terrorism, a terrorist strike anywhere is a matter of concern here as immigrants from the state are scattered all across the globe.

At least one person of Kerala origin was among those killed in the 9/11 strike. Workers from the state have been kidnapped in foreign lands. While a Border Roads Organisation driver in Afghanistan died at the hands of Taliban militants, many others have come home safely after ordeals which gave not only their immediate relatives but the whole population anxious moments.

When reports of violent incidents come in from distant places, the local media make special efforts to trace persons with possible Kerala links. Even so the presence of a woman from Kerala among the victims of the World Trade Center tragedy took time to surface.

The media plays a large part in the Keralite's life. He became an avid newspaper reader in the last century and the newspaper's influence is discernible in his conversations. Fifteen years ago, the first private satellite channels appeared.

Now there are close to a score of them, including four 24x7 news channels. There is a streak of sensationalism in both the print and electronic media, which can be attributed charitably to compulsions of competition.

Keralites are vulnerable to manipulation by the media. The alacrity with which the media takes up material fed to it suggests that it is susceptible to manipulation, too. The authorities have to take warnings seriously, whoever the source, but the media needs to approach material emanating from dubious sources with circumspection.

(B.R.P. Bhaskar is a veteran media commentator. He can be reached at The commentary was carried by and quoted by web sites including

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