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Why I think Mehdi Hasan's interview with Ram Madhav was flirting with bias

Sarabjeet Singh
Sarabjeet SinghJan 02, 2016 | 22:26

Why I think Mehdi Hasan's interview with Ram Madhav was flirting with bias

The social media has been abuzz in the last one week over a "trending" interview in which Mehdi Hasan went "Head to Head" with Ram Madhav. If one watches the interview, it becomes pretty clear why this is the case. Hasan was at his aggressive best when it came to grilling Ram Madhav. He asked all the "difficult" questions, dug out selective cases to bolster his assertions and was in a thoroughly combative mode all throughout the interview.

I was part of the audience at Oxford Union on December 7 when the interview was recorded. Having seen the series before, I was aware that tempers would soar high as Hasan was doggedly persistent when it came to driving a point. This interview was no different. The final, edited version, was broadcast on December 25 and I quickly went to Al Jazeera's website to watch the version which was uploaded.

After watching the interview and the promos too, two words rung in my head - sensationalism and bias.As a person who witnessed the interview live and also the final product which was televised, I wish to highlight some key points since the past few days have seen a lot of sparring on social media.When you watch the promo and the parts selected for it, it becomes evident that aggression was a key marketing point. The questions are accompanied by a menacing soundtrack, which make it appear like a kick boxing event promo.

After observing the scuffling on social media and consequently Hasan's recent piece in The Indian Express, I have four principal objections against the narrative of Hasan being a victim in the entire episode:

1. On intolerance

To begin with, Ram Madhav was questioned on the rhetoric of intolerance in India. To which, Madhav's complete response was: "Many more scientists and many more intellectuals have denounced these efforts in the name of award returning etc to defame the government and in turn to defame the image of India. You must remember that India is a big country, people can have their views, if you have 36 intellectuals returning their awards, 36,000 thousand intellectuals said no your step is wrong, your decision, your tactics is wrong, you can have your opinion..." (interrupted by Hasan). Madhav continues, "Their concerns and views are appreciated. India is country of 1.2 billion people. They are entitled to their opinion. The method they adopted in returning the awards given by the people of India, that method was wrong."

Quite recently, a Saudi based liberal columnist and a thinker Khalaf Al-Arbi has observed that "In India, there are more than 100 religions and more than 100 languages. Yet, the people live in peace and harmony. They have all joined hands to build a strong nation that can produce everything from a sewing needle to the rocket, which is preparing to go to Mars. I must say that I feel a bit jealous because I come from a part of the world, which has one religion and one language and yet there is killing everywhere. No matter how the world speaks about tolerance, India remains the oldest and most important school to teach tolerance and peaceful co-existence regardless of the religious, social, political or ethnical differences".

There are many such voices which substantiate how India is not what Hasan set out to prove. Therefore, to single out India under the present ruling dispensation, which has been in power for only less than two years, and consequently articulate a negative image of the ruling party and India at large, puts Hasan in a not so favourable light.

2. On trolls

In his piece, Hasan has liberally used the umbrella of "trolls", who, according to him, mounted a brutal assault on social media after the interview was telecast. Not everyone who presented contrary viewpoints can be written off as "trolls".  Those labelled as "trolls" include eminent persons with an enviable repute in the world of academia.

A Canada based scholar of Islamic studies, Tarek Fatah, succinctly articulated his views, which was backed by factual evidences. Other dissenters who were labeled as "bhakts" and "toads" include strategic thinker Christine Fair, a renowned economist and columnist Rupa Subramanya, American Enterprise Institute fellow and Wall Street Journal columnist Sadanand Dhume and finally, Vamsee Juluri who is a professor of Mass Communication in University of San Francisco.

Some of the statements by Mehdi Hasan outlined by these academics include the following. I would leave it to the wisdom of the reader to infer.

"Once we Muslim lose the moral high ground we are no different from the rest of the non-Muslims (Hindu, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christian and atheists), from the rest of those human beings who live their lives as animals bending any rule to fulfill any desire."

"The qufar (Christians and Jews), the disbelievers Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, the atheists who remain deaf and stubborn to the message of Quran, the rational message of Quran, they are described in the Quran as people of no intelligence. Allah describes them as not of no morality, not as people of no belief - people of no intelligence - because they are incapable of intellectual effort, it requires to shake off those blind prejudices, to shake off those easy assumptions about the world, about the existence of god. In this respect, the Quran describes the atheist as cattle, as cattle of these who grow the crops and do not stop and wonder about this world."

In addition to this Saif R Rahman, a strategic consultant with the Humanist and Cultural Muslim Association, wrote in the article titled Mehdi Hasan - the great pretender, why we need to be careful while selecting Muslim role models: "He has a tendency to mock and deride moderates and reformers, revealing a more conservative mindset of his own. He asks progressive Muslim like Mona Eltahawi, 'Are you a practising Muslim?'. And sneers at the crusades led my Muslim reformist like Irshad Manji. In the UK, he labels other modernisers like Majid Nawaz as Islamophobes sternly berating him while he sat alongside Moansar on BBC News Night for an offensive stick cartoon of Mohammed saying Hi."

No journalist is above public scrutiny, and discarding any and all observations including those made by these academics is arrogance. Hasan should also know that social media unlike traditional media is impervious to subjective trolling and both the interviewee and interviewer can get and got trolled.

3. 'Your ISIS'

There seems to be a huge furor around the "your ISIS" remark made by Ram Madhav. Hasan himself has tweeted that particular section suggesting as if it was a deliberate attempt by Madhav to insinuate something since Hasan is a Muslim and then clearly said so in this article recently published in The Indian Express. I find this in extremely bad taste.

Even during the December 7 recording, one could clearly see that this was nothing more than slip of tongue which can happen to anyone during a conversation, including Hasan. Ram Madhav was quick to clarify this too when he reiterated that both India and Pakistan are capable of engaging responsibly and the worry for the world order should be on eliminating the larger menace called ISIS.

If you think of the comment in Hindi where in a heated discussion, you may say "aapka... ", it stops sounding what it is made out to be. It was nonetheless a slip and should not have been made because knowing Hasan it was clear that he might latch on it. However, for Hasan to capitalise on this by tweeting about it to promote his show and to give it a colour, is not becoming of a respected journalist.

4. On Akhand Bharat

The observation by Ram Madhav, which has sent the social media in a tizzy, is around "Akhand Bharat". Over here, Madhav did nothing else but reiterate the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS) stand since its inception. He has, after that, in the article published in The Indian Express on December 29 cleared the air around this where he wrote, "Let me reiterate that the Akhand Bharat doctrine is a cultural and people-centric idea. I was not even remotely suggesting that we should redraw the boundaries of our countries," and also adds, "That being the case, can we come together as people? Can we cherish the historical, civilisational reality that we had been one people with a shared history for millennia? When I said 'through popular goodwill and consent', this is what I meant."

This does not mean that I am taking positions here but like any other educated onlooker I am willing to listen beyond what was said in the "gladiatorial" atmosphere in which the interview was conducted.

Sadly, in this cacophony over social media a very important point was missed. Ram Madhav made it clear that Kashmir under Pakistan's occupation is very much a part of India and had the courage to say it to an international media house, on international soil, in the capacity of a general secretary of the ruling party in the country. This marks a departure from the pussyfooting around this issue adopted by the previous governments and clarifies that this government is not afraid of asking what is rightfully ours. Sadly, in this age of fast moving headlines, the good gets lost and another statement gets completely blown out of proportion.

At this juncture it becomes necessary to highlight some important sections, which were edited. I hope these were not mere "coincidences" since these sections which included interjections by Ram Madhav were conveniently not shown.

The most glaring is when one of the panelists asks Ram Madhav about the "weapons training" in the RSS. The panelist asked a loaded question to Ram Madhav and alleged that the RSS provides weapons training which includes making bombs. As a response to this, in the televised version, Ram Madhav says, "In the RSS system no weapons' training is allowed." The next image is that of the panelist gaping in sheer amazement.However, in reality, Ram Madhav said that the only "weapon" the panelist was alleging is a "stick", which has also been stopped. To this response, the entire audience burst out laughing. The panelist interjected again and after a few seconds Ram Madhav said what was televised.

The other instance, which was edited, was when the panelist was recounting the alleged human rights abuses in Jammu and Kashmir. Madhav interjected and also mentioned about the ethnic cleansing of the Kashmiri Pandits from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The said panelist went on to acknowledge this. Again, this part is edited and not shown in the final cut.

The combined effect of such deletions shows that the interview was never meant to present a balanced view of both the sides. For the first deletion I mentioned, in a way it demolished what the panelist said as against a mere "no" and these deletions are too critical to be written off as casual editing and seriously cast aspersions on Hasan's journalistic credentials.

My bigger problem was, therefore, with the cherry picking Hasan did due to his control in the editing room and delivered a packaged product which was intended to justify the interview's title. In a recording, which went on for more than an hour, Hasan picked up instances where BJP members allegedly made various provocative statements over the last three years. He selectively chose the most provocative lines and delivered those to the audience with proper pauses and stress at the right places to make seem as if this was an orchestrated campaign by the ruling party.

Ram Madhav said that the BJP has a registered membership of more than 110 million, which is more than the population of many European nations. When compared against such monumental numbers, these few instances barely comprise of 0.001 per cent of the entire party system. This conversation, again, is missing in the televised version. If this entire part is shown it suddenly gives a lot more context as against viewing some very inflammatory statements in complete isolation and that too, in a really charged atmosphere. Just because one enumerates these instances does not mean that the entire party and subsequently the government can be painted with the "fascist" brush and even if in one's opinion they can be, it was Hasan's job to give the correct picture so that the television audience can make an informed view.

On the same lines, it is just wrong on Hasan's part to insinuate (without any evidence whatsoever) that the way he was hounded on social media was part of a design and stoop down to calling Ram Madhav a "spin doctor". Even after the interview, which was edited unfavourably against Madhav, he did not engage in a personal battle with Hasan. Maybe, the Head to Head host has a little bit of learning to do here and leave that Head to Head image to the studio when he leaves after a day's work.

I remember when I left the Union, a person who was from Afghanistan stopped and asked me if the "situation in India was so bad". Being an Indian I was very hurt. I suddenly realised that this interview had tarnished my country's image because all that it did was ask questions around this one extremely narrow and parochial theme. It came across that my country is no longer a place where pluralism is welcomed.

Like Madhav in the interview, I painstakingly explained to him how, as a nation, we cherish our multicultural ethos and this is not what the country is about.  Contrary to what Hasan thinks, the job of a journalist is not only to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable". In all democracies, media forms the "fourth pillar" and has a larger role to dispense and I, therefore, expected more responsible journalism.

This does not mean that Hasan was not free to ask all the difficult and uncomfortable questions. But even while asking those questions, being a seasoned and respected journalist, he should have understood that it was part of his duty to not selectively fire shots at Ram Madhav and if that was not enough, get down to personal attacks on him after the interview in a newspaper column.

In conclusion, I wish to allay fears of those who suddenly have jumped on the intolerance bandwagon. Our democracy is much more robust and a 40-minute interview, based on selective truths, cannot pass a judgment and conclude that under Modi, India is turning into a fascist nation, when it is not.

Last updated: January 04, 2016 | 20:30
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