NEW DELHI: “In jail I felt like that Reluctant Fundamentalist (book by Mohsin Hamid, movie by Mira Nair) who wanted to grow a beard, wear a skull cap and wanted to say that even then you cannot ask the questions you are asking” was to my mind, perhaps, the most painful statement from Jawaharlal Nehru University student Umar Khalid just after his release on bail. As his few days in prison, at the hands of the police and the Special Cell, had made the young man who had never looked upon himself as a Muslim suddenly confront a reality that had clearly left him upset, confused and of course, angry.

As he said several times while speaking to a huge gathering of students at what is now referred to as JNU’s ‘Freedom Square’ Khalid said that initially in response to questions his defence was ‘I am not a practising Muslim’. The questions centred around his religious identity, the ‘prove your nationalism’ probing that is reserved for Muslims, and being a thinking and intelligent scholar---as his professors have written in the media about---he asked himself as to why he was saying this at all, “and what if I had been a practising Muslim, would this have been justified?’ As he said, “what if I was a Muslim from Azamgarh, wore a skull cap, kept a beard, was educated in a madarsa, would this kind of questioning be justified? The ‘former President Abdul Kalam was a nationalist, prove that you are one?”

And having fought for the poor, for the underprivileged, for the Adivasis, for the Dalits Khalid was suddenly turned into just a Muslim, with no other identity. First by the media, that has played a role that makes most ‘thinking’ journalists ashamed of the profession and that, as the three JNU students arrested for sedition and released on bail by the courts, have stated, tried them, hung them and insisted they were seditious traitors. For Khalid of course, the media trial took the predictable religious turn with the young man being linked to the Jaish e Mohammad from the onset. Times Now anchor as reported extensively, along with News X and Zee News, did not give him even miniscule space to breathe in and as the JNU scholar said, although the Jaish charge could not stick, “it left an impression on people’s minds.” As it was intended to.

The damage done by this religious profiling by the big media is huge, and could have meant the difference between life and death for the three students. The reason Khalid in particular is out on bail today is perhaps a lot to do with the fact that Anirban Bhattacharya was arrested along with him, as the students and their legal advisors clearly decided, and despite all efforts the police was unable to break their unity. As Khalid said that while he was branded a traitor to his country, Bhattacharya was seen as a traitor on three counts: to India, but also to his religion and his caste. And the police kept asking him why he was there, and at times, tried to convince him to turn against Khalid! As Bhattacharya said after he was released, the outcome could have been different if instead of being a Brahmin he too was a Muslim. As the trial might have been against the students, against JNU but as Khalid said amidst cries of Shame, Shame in JNU, “I felt that there was a trial of the entire Muslim community going on as well.”

And this is clearly what is happening. Of the three students arrested, one was continuously singled out for being a Muslim, linked with the terrorist group Jaish, investigated about “links” with Afzal Guru and Maqbool Butt, asked to prove his patriotism and his nationalism repeatedly, with sections of the media targeting him individually in a manner that violates all journalistic ethics and responsibilities.

A man lynched in Dadri for supposedly storing beef, two young men herding buffaloes lynched by a vigilante mob are indicators of this ‘trial’ that has been passed into the hands of mobs by a dispensation that prefers media and mob rule to trial by the courts under the rule of law. As under the first there is no escape, whereas under the judicial system of the country, the individual still has recourse to law and justice.

The media has turned into jury and hangman, holding trials and condemning individuals in a manner that incites the mobs outside to take law into their own hands. A situation has thus, been created and very deliberately so, that the big media is no longer looked upon for justice by the marginalised but is instead out during prime time baying for war, or for blood. As the students said there is “no prime time” for the adivasis, for the Dalits, for the farmers who commit suicide, for the Muslim youth arrested without a case, and while those indulging in hate speech are outside, those struggling for rights and justice are inside the jails.

The mindlessness of the anchors of the big media, the ranting and the raving that passes for journalism these days is not just irresponsible, it is highly dangerous as it creates stereotypes, encourages the language of hate and divisiveness, and feeds into the violence that might or might not follow. Media, and particularly television media is powerful, but instead of using this to check governments and ensure justice, the power is being used against the people.

The account of three students, who spent time in jail because of the combined onslaught of the media, government and its agencies as anti-nationals should make journalism bow its head in shame! Just as the courage of the young students should make all Indians very proud.