What was the impact of Communalism Combat’s ad campaign against the Sangh Parivar? Will the independence of the magazine be compromised by the fact that the Congress and Left funded this campaign? Javed Anand and Teesta Setalvad discuss why they decided to intervene in the electoral process and why they feel we are witnessing the beginning of a crackdown on NGOs opposed to the Hindutva ideology.
by Meher Pestonji
At election time it is common for political parties to insert ads in popular newspapers, paying glowing tributes to themselves and denigrating their rivals. The 1999 elections saw a new entrant in the political ad war arena. Communalism Combat, a magazine committed to opposing both majority and minority communalism, came out with a flurry of 18 ads pitched against the Sangh Parivar. The ads appeared in publications all over the country. While it is difficult to assess the impact of such an ad campaign, it has unnerved the administration sufficiently to make it issue notices to 13 NGOs which endorsed one ad revealing the Sangh Parivar’s attitude towards women. Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, joint editors of Commualism Combat, tell Meher Pestonji that they see this as the beginning of a wider crackdown on NGOs opposed to the Hindutva ideology and explain why it was necessary to intervene in the electoral process despite the risk of being criticised for accepting money from rival political parties for running the campaign.
You have conducted a prominent ad campaign against the Sangh Parivar in the build-up to the recent elections. For the first time Communalism Combat has taken an active role in the electioneering process. Why did you think it important?
Communalism Combat is a vehicle through which we try to combat communal conflict. Both minority and majority right-wing. We’re aware of the limits of the reach of a small publication like ours. So we thought that one possible way of intervening in the coming elections was through paid advertisements. Not everybody reads long articles. Not everybody retains what they read. The ad is a format through which the corporate world sells goods and sometimes ideas. So we wondered whether we could use the same medium to communicate a message.
In 1992, after the Babri Masjid demolition, public statements were made by prominent Indians through paid ad space to convey their disgust at what was happening to a wide audience. In the 1998 elections NRI groups placed ads in select newspapers like Indian Express, Mahanagar and Combat, asking people to vote for a secular democracy. In the 50th year of Independence also, ad space was used to convey secular messages.
With that in mind we approached political parties that are opposed to the BJP ideology….
Did you approach the parties or did they approach you?
We approached them. Because this was an extremely critical election. For the first time large sections of what had been the third front were moving in droves to the BJP. This was paralleled by the ominous and dangerous attempt of the BJP trying to communalise the armed forces post-Kargil as they’d done with the police. Sending rakhis to soldiers, draping bodies of martyrs in saffron flags. Till then they’d been operating at the level of society, now they were acting at the level of state as well.
Last October Murli Manohar Joshi had the effrontery to prepare a new educational agenda for the nation. It couldn’t be carried through because the chief ministers stormed out of that meeting. But UP and Gujarat which had BJP governments have seen the saffronisation of every educational/cultural institution in the last two years. While secular liberals keep hoping they’ll get tamed while they’re in power in Gujarat, it’s become impossible for anyone from a minority community to even express anguish. Not just in cities but in rural areas as well. Not just Muslims but now even Christians are being targetted. A few days ago even as Vajpayee was being sworn in as the new prime minister there was a spate of attacks on Christians in Gujarat. Five-seven incidents in a single day. They’ve decided to unleash their venom and are doing it. They’re getting emboldened all the time.
So their talk of postponement of the Hindutva agenda is limited to two-three mosques, the uniform civil code and Article 370 on Kashmir. But as far as targetting of minorities goes it continues.
What you’re saying is that the visible agenda appears to have been postponed but the invisible agenda continues.?
It’s not even invisible any more. It’s blatant if only you look around to see. Unfortunately the media is not supporting us. Reportage is fragmented, exchange of information is fragmented. So things aren’t widely known. When I was in UP I was horrified at the kind of saffronisation that’s taken place in educational and cultural institutions. In Orissa incidents were unfolding — the burning down of Rehman and the murder of Father Doss — even while the election process was on.
Let alone the rhetoric of securlarism, even the right to life and property of minorities is under threat.
It’s against this backdrop that we approached political parties saying we had shared concerns and could offer them three concepts to strategise their electoral approach. The first was providing fact-sheets or backgrounders in three or four areas like dalits, women, a state-wise break-up on threats to life and property of minorities, state level break-up on how much work political parties have put in in the last three years. The second was a media monitor, a daily look at how the media is covering the election from which tips could be drawn for secular political parties, how the BJP was being covered, the kind of issues they were throwing up.
Since the BJP was identified as the main enemy we suggested ways for other parties to work out their strategies. And the third concept was the ad campaign.
What was the impact of the ad campaign?
The ads appeared all over India — UP, Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra — wherever elections were taking place. Eighteen ads appeared in 16-18 publications in English, Hindi and regional languages. Other publications lifted the ads and reprinted them without cost. A paper called Meerut-e-Samachari with a circulation of about 40,000 reproduced the ads as part of voter conscientisation. So did The Asian Age. They were also converted into leaflets, xeroxed and used by local groups in Lucknow, Delhi, Pune, Bombay. The Times of India carried a report from Phulpur village in UP where the ad on Kargil was being discussed by candidates and voters, the general reaction being that since it came from an independent body rather than some political party it must carry greater credibility.
How far do you think the ads influenced the voter pattern?
It’s very difficult to analyse the impact. But we can say that the ad campaign was able to point out some of the ideological precepts of the Sangh Parivar. We were able to create awareness of the RSS and the freedom movement, the RSS and Gandhi, the RSS and Kashmir, about Vajpayee’s role in the freedom struggle. The discrepancy between past and present.
In the general voting pattern the secular vote has been higher than before, not just nationally but also state-wise. That’s a very broad statement. Even exit polls can’t link which specific issues contributed to that. Whether there was a Kargil wave, whether the ads had an impact.
However, at election time when there is heightened political consciousness, when people are looking for news, trying to evaluate, at that time to come out with a campaign against the Sangh Parivar made an impact. This is evident from their own reactions to the ads. They were dead scared. They complained to the Election Commission that we are spreading falsehood and misleading people so action should be taken against us under a variety of clauses and sub-clauses. The Election Commission ignored them. They appealed to the media not to carry the ad linking the RSS to Gandhiji’s assassination. That didn’t work either. They must have felt threatened or they wouldn’t be reacting like this.
Does Communalism Combat see itself as a political unit?
What’s the purpose of any publication? The media doesn’t function in a vacuum. It has a political role. Communalism itself is a political issue. We’re talking about communalism in its ultimate analysis meaning fascism, implying changing of the Indian democratic order. We’ve been making political statements over the past six years. We’re a niche publication, clearly ideologically oriented against any kind of communalism — minority as well as majority.
As we see it, the threat to Indian democracy is from the Sangh Parivar, not from minority communalism. Jawaharlal Nehru identified it years ago when he said if fascism comes to India it will be in the garb of the Hindu rashtra. The soft saffron of the Congress, the inability of the Left to look at communalism as clearly as it should, have contributed to the BJP and Sangh Parivar managing to dominate more political and social space. By not acting decisively during riots the Congress has allowed much secular space to get captured by the Parivar.
The ad campaign is reported to have cost approximately 1.5 crores. Who funded it?
The Congress, CPI, CPM and about ten prominent individuals.
Don’t you think accepting money from political parties compromises your independence?
We’re quite certain it will not. And we’re not just saying this in conversation but in the next issue of Communalism Combat we’re openly telling our readers what we’ve done and why. Not just that the campaign happened but the whole process. Our rationale for linking with the Congress/CPI/CPM to politicallty isolate the BJP. It’s a waste of time to speculate on whether we’ve compromised ideals by associating with the Congress. Only our future issues will prove whether we’re becoming soft on the Congress or whether we remain as independent as we’ve always been.
With the Congress in power in Maharashtra do you anticipate interference in the near future?
We engaged in a one-time interaction. There’s no continuing association. We’re an independent outfit that offered a media service at the time of elections. They can’t dictate editorial policy and never will.
One of the first things we’ll be doing in the next few weeks is demanding action on the Srikrishna Commission report. It was one of the election promises, but no one’s mentioning it now. It has to come on to the activists’ agenda. Now that the Shiv Sena is out of power is the Congress going to take action against the Sena and BJP leaders and police officers indicted in the report?
Some organisations which endorsed one of the ads are reported to have received notices from the government. What does the notice say?
The notice asks why action should not be taken under the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act (FCRA) against NGOs receiving foreign funding for attempting to intervene in the political process.
The ad revealing the Sangh Parivar’s attitude towards women, that they don’t respect women, carried direct quotations from BJP and RSS leaders and was endorsed by 13 women’s organisations. So they’re trying to get at these organisations. But NGOs that have nothing to do with the ad have also received notices. Groups involved in secular action.
Instead of stating whether they stand by the quotation, regret it or deny it, the BJP has resorted to intimidatory tactics. Typical fascist mentality. They can’t counter the content of any of the ads which are based on factual information and history. Some carry statements by their own leaders directly countering the BJP’s current ideology. The ad on Kashmir shows how Premnath Dogra who later became president of the All India Jan Sangh, prior to 1948 had opposed Kashmir joining India on the grounds that Hindu Kashmir should not join secular India.
Do you see this as the beginning of a crackdown on NGOs opposed to Hindutva ideology?
Yes. It’s the beginning of a larger crackdown on secular NGOs, a sign of things to come. It’s a parallel of what’s happening in Pakistan. There also the government is saying all money should come to the government which will then decide where the money will go.
The good thing is that all the organisations are veering to the position that this has to be fought unitedly. We are making it quite clear that we’re all in it together and we refuse to get intimidated.
Till this notice happened there was fear. Under the previous home ministry over 100 permissions under FCRA to Christian organisations were been cancelled in the last 13 months. The United Christian Forum and others have been collecting data. We heard that in Tamil Nadu some FCRA registration numbers cancelled from Christian NGOs have been allotted to VHP organisations.
Why should they do that when they could allot a new number?
Maybe to establish that the organisation has been around for a long time. Earlier there was a fear that only Christian organisations were being targetted. People were afraid to make it public fearing a witchhunt. Now it’s become obvious that anyone involved in secular action is going to get targeted. So the move is to formulate a joint strategy.
Someone has to call the `foreign bogie’ bluff. Who is the biggest beneficiary of foreign funding? Time and again people say it’s the VHP, directly and indirectly. Part of the struggle is going to be to collate all this information and get out of the fear. Let’s demand a white paper on this. Let them make a public statement on who gets how much from where.
How is Communalism Combat responding to this?
There’s no notice to Communalism Combat. We’re a private limited company so do not fall under the purview of FCRA. But we’re coordinating action between the groups. We’re in the process of drafting a memorandum which will be sent to the President, the prime minister, all members of parliament, the home ministry and of course released to the press. This is part of mobilising public opinion, informing people that we’re taking collective action. Meanwhile, the groups are also replying to the notices individually. But we’re exchanging drafts, exchanging responses, conducting signature drives.
Does Communalism Combat receive foreign funding?
Our funds come from corporate advertising and subscriptions. Under FCRA no newspaper or publication can receive foreign donations. But that doesn’t mean we can’t receive subscriptions from abroad. A subscription is a commercial transaction not a donation. We don’t receive foreign donations.
What constructive role do you visualize for yourselves in the future?
Many groups doing very good work have little opportunity to make a wider impact. In the last few years a lot of people — historians, economists, urban development planners — have been feeling a need to initiate systematic interaction with different political patterns. Maybe groups of people interacting with groups of politicians across party lines. Regularly and systematically on different issues. Politicians who are secular, have a commitment to people’s programmes, education, economic development. Our specialisation will be communalism. Other groups will come in with their areas of specialization. This is just one of the ideas we’re working on.
Meher Pestonji is a Mumbai based journalist and writer.