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Calling Tavleen Singh’s bluff

Javed Anand & Teesta Setalvad

Posted: Dec 02, 2004 at 1404 hrs IST

Tavleen is entitled to her opinion of us and our magazine, but does it give Ms Singh the right to distort facts, give journalistic ethics the go-by and parade insinuation as argument?

If a high-flying columnist such as Tavleen Singh were to limit herself to peddling prejudice, paranoia and sheer naivete as informed opinion, who are we to stand between her and her precious constituency? But when basic journalistic ethics are given the go-by even while a facade of objectivity and even-handedness is diligently maintained, when insinuation is paraded as argument, when facts are selectively handpicked to dress up fiction, Ms Singh’s bluff needs to be called.

In her recent column ‘The communalism divide’ (The Sunday Express, Nov 21), the prime target of Ms Singh’s wrath are ‘‘magazines and NGOs who have thrived on maligning India for being a country as fundamentalist as our Islamic neighbours’’. Ms Singh’s ‘‘anti-national’’ magazines and NGOs remain nameless and faceless, with the sole exception of Communalism Combat, the monthly magazine that we co-edit. But even here, instead of holding her ground as an honest critic, she stoops to the hit-and-run tactics of cowardly journalism.

Before writing her column, Ms Singh e-mailed us a list of ‘‘harsh questions’’. They added up to the charge that we are a shady, unregistered outfit (NGO), accountable to no one, funded by ‘‘Saudis of a dubious nature’’ for publishing a magazine that cries itself hoarse over Muslim victims of communal violence but keeps silent over the plight of Kashmiri Pandits and the victims of the anti-Sikh carnage in 1984.

We give a detailed reply to all the questions. We categorically state that the magazine or its editors do not have a single petro-dollar to hide, that Communalism Combat is not an NGO activity but is published by a registered, private limited company whose audited annual accounts are regularly filed with the Income Tax and other authorities. In addition, we attach a specially-prepared list of headlines of cover stories and special reports published by Communalism Combat since its launch in August 1993, so that Ms Singh could see for herself that the magazine has been as unsparing of Muslim communalism and extremism, lamented the fact that the victims of the anti-Sikh carnage of 1984 had been denied justice, frequently highlighted the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, and repeatedly castigated Bangladesh and Pakistan for the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. (We would be happy to e-mail a copy of the list to all interested readers of The Indian Express). We also inform Ms Singh that she is welcome to access archives on our website, www.sabrang.com.

It is obvious in retrospect that Ms Singh was merely interested in those bits of facts that suited her thesis, the rest she would twist or fabricate.

‘‘In the vanguard of those fighting Hindu fundamentalism was Teesta Setalvad’s magazine, Communalism Combat....’’ Excuse us. Ms Singh is entitled to her opinion of us and of our magazine, but what gives her the right to distort facts? Did she not owe it her own professional integrity to share with her readers the information (fact) that the editors she accuses of being concerned with fighting Hindu fundamentalism alone, among other things, co-hosted the visit of Taslima Nasreen to Mumbai in March 2000, kept her at their own home, arranged public meetings and interviews for her, in support of her right to be heard and in defiance of Muslim fanatics who had threatened to burn Taslima alive if she dared enter the metropolis?

CC was perhaps the first publication in South Asia to feature the inhuman and oppressive politics of the Taliban in Afghanistan (‘Hell on Earth’, cover story, November 1998). It was up front, questioning the Islamisation of the movement in Kashmir (‘The Talibanisation of Kashmir’, cover story, November 1999). ‘Living with Terror, Minorities in Bangladesh’, our cover story for September 2004, is only the latest in half-a-dozen cover stories and special reports that we have featured in the last few years to highlight atrocities against Hindus and other minorities in neighbouring Bangladesh.

‘‘Teesta Setalvad’s magazine, Communalism Combat....’’ Elementary journalistic courtesy would have required her to point out the fact that CC is co-edited. But Teesta needed to be singled out so that she could be ‘‘exposed’’ immediately thereafter: ‘‘Teesta’s protege Zaheera Sheikh condemned her for exploiting her for money.’’

The choice of words (protégé) is telling. Why was Zaheera’s allegation not part of the list of charges and queries against us for our version? Shouldn’t Ms Singh have informed her readers that within days of Zaheera’s allegation, it is not she but Teesta who has applied to the Supreme Court praying for a probe into the murky episode? Zaheera has rushed her complaints to the National Commission for Minorities and National Commission for Women but is fighting shy of going near the National Human Rights Commission, the only among the three commissions to be headed by a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India. Does this not arouse Ms Singh’s journalistic curiosity?

‘‘Communalism is an odd subject to make a profit out of’’. We gave Ms Singh a fair picture of how profitable communalism has been for us in the last 11 years. Why she has chosen to keep that a personal secret only she can answer. We started Sabrang Communications and Publishing Pvt Ltd in the hope of undertaking professional assignments that would generate revenue to sustain Communalism Combat, which we foresaw as not being viable on its own strength. What, prey, is so odd about that?

Having distorted facts and employed clever words to make insinuations against the only two persons and their magazine she names in her entire column, Ms Singh pretends her column is not actually about them! How ingenious! Her column, she says, is about ‘‘anti-national’’ magazines and NGOs ‘‘who have thrived on maligning India for being a country as fundamentalist as our Islamic neighbours’’. Having adopted a hit-and-run tactics vis-à-vis us, Ms Singh can proceed to hurl the most outrageous charges without any fear of contradiction for she smartly names no names.

We need only repeat the plaint of fellow journalists in recent years: ‘‘Please don’t shoot the messenger!’’ If with their ‘‘What face will I show to the world?’’ and ‘‘Gujarat is a blot on the nation!’’ even Vajpayee and Advani have been forced to acknowledge Narendra Modi’s malevolent role in maligning India, why is Ms Singh chasing imaginary ghosts?

The timing of her demand for an inquiry into NGOs and their source of funds is interesting, echoing as it does Modi’s demand immediately after Zaheera’s fresh turnaround under the protection of the Gujarat police. The Gujarat Chief Minister’s desperation is understandable. Be it the deposition of top IPS officials before the Nanavati Commission, or the evidence piling up before the courts, or the ongoing expose in the very paper that provides you with precious column space, things are getting hotter by the day for Modi. A desperate man will take desperate steps. What’s your problem, Ms Singh? Don’t be so naive as to write such a premature obit for Hindutva. And can’t you see that the best way to fight terrorism, Islamic or otherwise, is to fight against injustice. That is all that we are trying our best to do, through Communalism Combat and otherwise. Pick a forum of your choice for an honest debate but deviousness does not befit a journalist like you.

Are these all ‘anti-national’, Ms Singh?

A sample of Communalism Combat cover stories, special reports since August 1993:

• October 2004: Special Report: ‘Confronting honour killings’ (in Pakistan)

• September 2004: Cover Story: ‘Living with Terror: Minorities in Bangladesh’; Editorial: ‘The butchers next door’

• July 2004: Cover Story: ‘Talaq, talaq, talaq’; Also see, ‘Us’ or the ‘enemy’, an opinion piece by Javed Anand as part of the cover story

• July 2004: Special Report: ‘Religion-based reservation’

• June 2004: Special Report: ‘Kashmir: The politics of Fear’

• February-March 2004: ‘Minority women’s rights are human rights’

• January 2004: Special Report: ‘Pandits: When will they return?’

• December 2003: Special Report: ‘Doctoring young minds’ (Pakistan)

• October 2003: Special Report: ‘Bangladesh: Terror Raj for minorities’

• Aug-Sept 2003: 10 years of Communalism Combat. The full issue is a feedback from a wide cross-section of CC readers, doing a ‘social audit’ of the magazine. ‘‘It is to me, the secular Gita of our time’’ (Swami Agnivesh)

• May 2003: Special Report: ‘Kashmiri Pandits: On the firing line’

• February 2003: Cover Story: ‘The Road Not Taken: Secularism in India’ (Please see article by Arif Mohd Khan)

• February 2003: Forum: ‘Rethinking Islam’

• January 2003: Cover Story: ‘Violence in South Asia’

• July 2002: Special Report: ‘Targeted: Bangla Hindus’; ‘Gang rape in Pakistan’

• July 2002: Comment: ‘Male order’ (Blurb: ‘Liberal Muslims, men and women, must condemn the chauvinism of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board’)

• Jan-Feb 2002: Special Report: ‘Kashmir, the moral dimension’

• December 2001: Cover Story: ‘Bangla Hindus, Victims of Growing Muslim Extremism’

• November 2001: Special Report: ‘Hindu trauma’ (Bangladesh)

• November 2001: Debate: ‘To my Muslim friends’

• November 2001: ‘Politics behind the purdah’

• October 2001: Cover Story (following 9/11): ‘Islam: Moment of Truth’

• July 2001: Cover Story: ‘Winds of Change’ (Kashmir)

• May 2001: Cover story: ‘Thrice Oppressed’ (Blurb: ‘Dalit and Muslim women grapple with the triple burden of caste/community, class and gender’)

• March 2001: Cover story: ‘Should the Haj subsidy go?’ (Yes, in CC’s opinion); Special Report: ‘Barbarians in Bamiyan’

October 2000: Special Report: ‘Nowhere people: Hindus ousted from Pakistan’

• September 2000: Special Report: ‘A forgotten people’

• August 2000: Cover Story: ‘ISI: The demon we feed’

• March 2000: Cover Story: ‘Taslima Nasreen in Mumbai’ (Because a Muslim fanatic outfit threatened to burn her alive if she dared enter Mumbai, Communalism Combat and Mahanagar joined hands to invite her to Mumbai)

• March 2000: Special Report: ‘Syedna’s stooges target Asghar Ali Engineer’

• November 1999: Cover Story: ‘The Talibanisation of Kashmir’

• October 1999: Special Report: ‘Short on arguments, Hindutva tries the foreign funds bogey against Combat, NGOs’

• July 1999: Cover story: ‘After Kargil, Kashmir’

• April 1999: Cover Story: ‘Denying a shared past’ (RSS and Tableeghi Jamaat two sides of the same coin)

• March 1999: Cover Story: ‘The enemy within’ (Blurb: ‘Muslim extremists unleash a reign of Taliban-style terror on co-religionists, women specially, in Left-controlled West Bengal and Kerala’)

• February 1999: Cover Story: ‘Allah’s army in Pakistan, Hindutva brigade in India, Buddhist Lions in Sri Lanka’

• February 1999: Special Report: ‘Right to be Rushdie’

• November 1998: Cover Story: ‘Islamic Afghanistan: Hell on Earth!’

• November 1998: Neighbours: ‘Whose right is it anyway?’ (Blurb: ‘Humanism must mean more than Islamic solidarity (OIC) through selective outrage’)

• October 1998: Special Report: ‘Mullahs bay for Taslima’s blood in Bangladesh’

• May 1998: Cover Story: ‘How green is my Valley?’ (Blurb: ‘The killing of innocent Hindus by Pakistan-trained mercenaries in J&K is one more bid to convert the Kashmiriyat issue into a Hindu-Muslim problem’)

• May 1998: Special Report: ‘Equal Before God’: Christian feminist theology denounces male domination as ‘sin’

• March 1998: Special Report: ‘Kashmiri Pandits: Tragedy of errors’

• September 1997: Cover Story: ‘What kind of a God will condemn a ‘heathen’ child to eternal Hell? (A hard-hitting essay by Swami Agnivesh)

• September 1997: Special Report: ‘Fatwas for all seasons’

• June 1997: Campaign: ‘Afghan women seek support’ (against jehadi tyrants)

• May 1997: Cover Story: ‘Shah Bano lives’(A seething indictment of the Muslim clergy and Muslim men and the role they played in the Shah Bano issue, a powerful story by Pakistani writer, writer Zahida Hena)

• May 1997: ‘The right to silence’ (A castigation of Muslim fundamentalists from Kolkata who flout the high court directions against noise pollution)

• May 1997: ‘Women beyond the veil’

• March 1997: ‘Justice for Muslim women: Bangladesh shows the way’

• March 1997: ‘The sack of Shantinagar’ (special report on the biggest attack on the Christian community in Pakistan in 50 years)

• February 1997: ‘In Allah’s Home at last’ (Muslim women gain the right to enter a mosque in Kerala)

• February 1997: ‘Blasphemy and Bangladesh: Fighting religious fundamentalism’

• February 1997: ‘Outlawed by Faith’ (On the persecution of religious minorities in Pakistan)

• January 1997: ‘Central government stalling reforms in their personal law demanded by Christians’

• January 1997: ‘Feminism and the Catholic church in the US’

• October 1996: ‘1984 anti-Sikh riots: Will cops go scot-free?’

• October 1996: ‘If Muslim societies are unable to do justice to women, they will be wiped out of history’ (Interview with Riffat Hassan)

• August 1996: ‘Mandirs are dark and narrow, masjids are open and airy: How history is taught in Pakistan’s schools’

• May 1996: ‘Muslim press and purdah’; ‘Blame male chauvinist Muslim societies, not Allah, for women’s oppression’

• April 1996: ‘Religious laws are not merely retrograde but can also be very divisive for women’ (By Salma Sobhan, Bangladesh activist)

• April 1996: ‘Shah Bano: Bangladesh shows the way’; ‘(Indian) Muslims demand end of triple talaq, restricted polygamy’

• March 1996: ‘Tablighi Jamaats are misleading Muslims’; ‘Dissent is the issue’ (in defence of Taslima Nasreen)

• May-June 1995: Cover Story: ‘Code and conduct: Muslim voices in favour of reforms in all personal laws in India’

• May-June 1995: Special Report: ‘Muslim mob attacks Ahmediyas’ (Malegaon)

• May-June 1995: Ethos: ‘A cheap passport to the Muslim heaven’

• April 1995: Interview: ‘Muslim campuses more intolerant’: Prof Mushir-ul-Hasan

• March 1995: Interview: ‘In Pakistan I can be convicted for adultery on the evidence of four Muslim males, but a Muslim cannot be convicted on the evidence of non-Muslims’: Former chief justice of Pakistan, Dorab Patel

• March 1995: ‘Rent-a-mullah service: Pakistan’s blasphemy law should go’

• February 1995: ‘Is this Ali Miyan’s Islam?’

• January 1995: ‘Moulding of a moulvi’s mind’

• Nov-Dec 1994: Special Report: ‘Forgotten victims of a communal vendetta’ (Blurb: ‘Apart from a few human rights organisations, no one wants to remember that ten years after the genocide of Sikhs in Delhi and elsewhere in the country, the guilty—Congress(I) leaders who master-minded the carnage and police officials who turned a blind eye—are yet to be punished’)

• October 1994: ‘On Taslima Nasreen’ (In defence of Taslima Nasreen), by C M Naim

• July 1994: Appeal: ‘I will not be silenced’; Taslima Nasreen

• June 1994: Cover Story: ‘Freedom to dissent’. (Blurb: ‘If democracy is to survive, the call to kill Rushdie or Taslima Nasreen must be unequivocally condemned’)

• April-May 1994: Campaign: ‘Join hands with Mushir-ul-Hassan’

• Campaign: ‘Support Iranian Women’

• April-May 1994: Forum: ‘Kashmir and the secular Jinnahs’

• March 1994: Cover Story: ‘Uniform Civil Code or Gender Justice?’

• March 1994: Media X-Ray: ‘Islam lovers’ and ‘Hindu fascists’ (On the Urdu press)

• March 1994: Media X-Ray: ‘Allah’s earthquakes’ (On a sickening editorial in the Urdu Times)

• November 1993: ‘Muslim foot-in-the-mouth disease’

• August 1993 (The first issue of CC): ‘Muslim women against the moulvis’

(CC has also published numerous reports, including cover stories, on Dalit oppression. Chandrabhan Prasad started his career as a columnist in Communalism Combat. As you can imagine, what he wrote for us was very critical of secularists in general and the Left in particular, even though we are both very proud of being part of the Left tradition)

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