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NDTV’s Sabarimala Debate: High on Anti-Hindu Bigotry, Low on Content

Makara Sankranti is a day which holds a special significance for Lord Ayyappa, the presiding Deity at the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, and this year it fell on January 15, 2016. At 3.40 P.M. that day, while I was in Hyderabad celebrating the auspicious occasion with my family, I received a call from a certain Ms.Pragya Tiwari who informed me that she was from NDTV. I was asked if I’d be willing to take part in a live televised debate on the programme Left, Right and Centre on the ongoing controversy regarding the bar on entry of women (aged between 10 and 50 years) in the Sabarimala Temple in the backdrop of the hearings in the Supreme Court in a PIL filed by the Indian Young Lawyers Association.

I was curious to know as to why I was being invited to take part in the debate, to which I was told by Ms.Tiwari that my piece on the issue (presumably the one in IndiaFacts) was the reason for the invitation. Before discussing further the logistics of my participation in the debate, she enquired about my position on the question of entry of women in the Temple. I was unequivocal in my response and said that I defended the Temple’s position and my reasons for doing so were available for all to read in my piece in IndiaFacts, which is part of my continuing series on the rights of Hindu religious institutions. Here’s the link to the video of the debate which took place later that evening, of which I was a part. Since my views on the quality of the debate and the manner in which it was conducted are the subject of this piece, I request readers to watch the debate before they continue reading the piece so as to avoid being influenced or prejudiced by my opinions.

Although one has come to expect a grating Far Left anti-Hindu position from NDTV as a platform and from the usual “experts” it fields on most issues in particular cultural and religious, I took a conscious decision to steer clear of ad hominem attacks and specifically demonstrate to the viewers that the position of the Temple was rooted in the supreme law of the land, namely the Constitution. Despite having reservations about NDTV’s motives behind hosting a debate on the topic on a day which is considered auspicious by millions of devotees of Lord Ayyappa cutting across gender, caste and religious lines, as a staunch believer of free speech and expression I chose to tackle the issue head-on on merits instead of entering into a futile debate on NDTV’s intentions. The larger task I had cut out for myself was to dispel the factual and legal myths and half-truths surrounding the issue of entry of women in the Sabarimala Temple so that viewers could form their own informed opinions, rational or not. But as readers and viewers might have noticed, NDTV seemed to have an agenda of its own which was pushed unsubtly without any pretence or even façade of neutrality.

NDTV Sabarimala Debate

For all their vaunted claims of neutrality and ostensible rejection of labels and stereotypes (which is one of the favourite clichés of the Left), NDTV’s approach to the issue and the debate was bubbling with stereotypes and anti-Hindu prejudice. Let’s begin with the timing of the debate. While NDTV had no qualms hosting the Sabarimala debate on Makara Sankranti knowing full well the significance of the day for the devotees of Lord Ayyappa, to the best of my knowledge (and I am happy to be corrected on this), NDTV did not host a discussion on the rights of Muslim women when the Haji Ali Dargah Trust justified the ban on the entry of women into the inner sanctum of the Dargah by taking the manifestly misogynist position that “entry of women in close proximity to the grave of a male Muslim saint is considered a grievous sin in Islam”. NDTV did not conduct a debate even when the Bombay High Court openly expressed its reluctance to decide the question of entry of women in the Dargah, nor has it thus far interviewed the petitioner Noorjehan Niaz who is a Muslim woman.

While Nidhi Razdan claimed that the scope of the discussion was not limited to Hindu Temples, the manner in which the debate was conducted clearly pointed to the contrary. Although the prohibition against entry of women in the Haji Ali Dargah was mentioned cursorily by Razdan, the debate was titled “Sabarimala Row: Why No Women in Places of Worship?” Pertinently, there was not a single Muslim woman on the panel to speak for the rights of Muslim women nor was there a Muslim male to defend the Dargah’s position.

In stark contrast, consider the mischievous segregation of panellists on gender lines to speak on the Sabarimala Temple issue- to speak for the right of women to enter the Temple, women panellists (Ranjana Kumari and Vasanth Kannabiran) were fielded, while men (Rahul Eashwar and I) were chosen to defend the Temple’s position. Effectively, even before the debate began, the subliminal message being conveyed to the average viewer was this:

  1. Hindu Temples alone were fundamentally patriarchal and rode roughshod over the rights of women and therefore the issue was basically “Hindu Temples v. Women”;
  2. The women panellists represented the views of all women, while the men on the panel stood for the views of all men on the issue

As for the actual content of the debate, once the debate began, it was clear that neither of the women panellists had anything to offer by way of specific facts or cogent logic. Apart from arrogating the right to speak on behalf of all Hindu women, all they had to offer in the name of logic was unadulterated vitriol against Hinduism, Brahminism, Hindu Temples, Brahmins and Hindu men, unsurprisingly none of which was “moderated” by Razdan. If the very same sweeping allegations that were hurled against Hinduism, Hindu Temples and Hindu men had instead been levelled against Islam, Mosques and Muslim men, would any NDTV anchor have remained as passive a spectator to the diatribe as Razdan? We all know the answer to this blessed question.

In this case, not only was Razdan a passive spectator to brazen anti-Hindu bigotry, she was also guilty of attempting to interrupt the pro-Temple rights panellists at critical junctures in the name of conducting a “civilized debate”. I would even go so far as to say that Razdan was less a moderator and more a panellist, which I don’t have an issue with because as a woman and an individual, Nidhi Razdan has the right to safeguard her fundamental freedoms and to question any and every religious practice which comes in the way of the exercise of her fundamental rights. But as a moderator, the least that is expected of her is to give all points of view an equal say in order for viewers to form their own opinions, even if she is allergic to a particular point of view, in this case clearly the Temple’s.

If Razdan was indeed interested in not just a “civilised” but also an “informed” debate, she would have had the good sense to take the cue from my opening remarks where I pointed out that to reduce the debate to the fundamental rights of women alone is to convey the misleading impression that there are no countervailing fundamental rights of the Temple. In fact, Razdan could have elevated the quality of the discussion by nudging the women panellists to comment on ways of striking a balance between the fundamental rights of women under Articles 15 and 25 of the Constitution on the one hand, and the fundamental right of the Temple to maintain its religious practice under Article 26(b) on the other. Instead of having a rational discussion on harmonizing the two sets of fundamental rights, both of which have their legitimate place in the Constitution, the discussion was reduced to a uni-dimensional rant against Hinduism.

Besides the anti-Hindu bile of the panellists and the moderator which was at full display and for which NDTV unfailingly lent its platform as always, what was equally at display was the astonishingly abysmal levels of journalistic due diligence by Razdan on the topic of the debate. She seemed virtually at sea when I confronted her with the relevant judgements of the Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court which have a direct bearing on the issue of entry of women in the Sabarimala Temple. One would have expected her team to have at least briefed her, even if superficially, on the judgements which apply to the topic. After all, if NDTV were to host a debate on the Ram Janmabhoomi issue today, the discussion would be incomplete without a reference to the judgement of the Allahabad High Court. Perhaps, the scant regard for research and due diligence could be attributed to NDTV’s innate obsession with painting Hinduism in poor light at the expense of facts, logic and law.

One hopes against hope that the next promised debate by NDTV on the Sabarimala Temple issue will be a better researched one, or is that too much to ask for? On a different note, if I am not invited for the next debate given my criticism of NDTV’s shoddy research and prejudiced handling of the issue, would I be justified in branding NDTV “intolerant”? Or will NDTV take a leaf out of Mr.Narendra Modi’s life and provide a platform for its critics as well?

P.S: I will continue to write on the Sabarimala Temple issue in IndiaFacts.

– Sai Deepak is a Delhi-based litigator who practises primarily before the Delhi High Court. Sai writes on economic laws and policy on his blog “The Demanding Mistress” . He is @jsaideepak on Twitter and contributes pieces to Swarajya, IndiaFacts and OpIndia.

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