Shraddha Walkar and Beyond: How Media Coverage Is Shaping Perceptions

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Shraddha Walkar and Beyond: How Media Coverage Is Shaping Perceptions

| Updated: November 29, 2022 11:15

That the chilling murder of 25-year-old Shraddha Walkar by her live-in partner, Aaftab Poonawala, received widespread media coverage is no surprise. As if the details of the case are not horrifying enough, however, a large section of TV media also used the event to further anti-Muslim narratives, like that of ‘love jihad’, given the couple’s religious identities.

An anti-Muslim narrative is now being pushed by TV news anchors, right-wing influencers, and BJP leaders that covertly suggest that Muslim men commit violence against women because of their upbringing and religious indoctrination. “Only those who believe in love jihad can commit a murder like Shraddha’s,” BJP MP Sadhvi Pragya said.

On November 21, 2022, a video of a man calling himself ‘Rashid Khan’ from Bulandshahr went viral on social media. The man was seen supporting Walker’s murder. It was shared by multiple right-wing influencers on Twitter, with communal captions. Throughout the video, the interviewer asks the man leading questions like, “It looks like you have experience (in slaughtering)”, to which he replies, “Yes, I have experience. …If I have a fight with someone, I will bury them. Not with just anyone…only with someone with whom I’m having a fight.” He also says in the video that the murder was “both of their fault”.

On November 24, the Bulandshahr police arrested the man and he was then identified as Vikas Kumar. Incidentally, Kumar appeared in another video some days later on another right-wing opinion channel called TNN News and mentioned his real name.  The video was first uploaded on a channel called Janta Darbar, linked to the far-right YouTuber Ankur Arya, whose provocative videos in the run-up to the 2020 riots in North East Delhi have been documented by The Wire.

The way the entire Muslim community is being blamed for Walker’s murder has reaffirmed the significance of a recent observation by the Supreme Court, about how TV news has become one of the key enablers of hate speech and communal rhetoric. Last month, the bench led by Justice K.M. Joseph observed that the state cannot let TV channels air hate. A similar observation was made last year by former Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, who observed, “The problem is when it [TV media] is used to agitate others. There are broadcasts, programmes that definitely have the effect of instigating people, not just against one community, but any community…”

Similar observations were also made by the court during the broadcast of Sudarshan TV’s ‘UPSC Jihad’ shows. However, such coverage continues unabated.

Here is what certain TV anchors and their panellists have said about Walkar’s murder, taking the blame far beyond one individual and attempting to lay it on an entire community.

Sudhir Chaudhary, Aaj Tak

“When two persons get into a relationship, they need to check each other’s social and religious backgrounds. For instance, if a person comes from such a religious background where women are considered as ordinary usable commodities, then that man won’t give women the respect they deserve. This is what has happened in this case. If a person comes from a social and religious background where he has seen violence, then his mindset will be tukde tukde and sar tan se juda. …if a child has seen violence against animals…this is what he becomes.”

Aman Chopra, News18

Anchor Aman Chopra hectored Syed Jawed, one of the panellists on his show, about this being a case of love jihad. In the debate, he takes his cue from Shefali Vaid, another panellist who spoke about the murder as an example of love jihad. Chopra kept asking questions about the possibility of Walker’s religious conversion to Islam. He also counted the names of Hindu women violence victims, attempting to further the argument that Hindus are always victims of such violence by Muslim perpetrators.

Suresh Chavhanke, Sudarshan News

Suresh Chavhanke took the hate campaign to another level when he posted the private details of an inter-faith couple’s marriage through their invitation card on Twitter. The tweet said in Hindi,  “Imran and Divya are getting married in Vasai, where murderer Aaftab is from. How is it happening in the same village to which Shraddha’s killer Aaftab, who cut her into 35 pieces, belongs?” The tweet used the hashtags of #LoveJihad_ActOfTerrorism #LoveJihad #Shraddha. The tweet, November 18, violated Twitter policies as it published private details and personal information. It remains on the platform despite several users saying they have reported it.

There have been several incidents recently that were widely misreported with a communal spin and made viral on social media platforms. A woman’s body was found in a suitcase near IIFCO chowk in Gurugram. Several users claimed this was a case of love jihad. According to Alt News, Anand Kalra, whose Twitter bio says he is the BJP district social media head, Ghaziabad, tweeted the clip and hinted towards it being a love jihad case. He later deleted his tweet. The word ‘suitcase’ became a popular word on right-wing Twitter to mock interfaith relationships. In this case, though, both the victim and the accused were Hindus.

In another incident, a video went viral on Twitter of a person claiming himself to be Abhijit Patidar of Gujarat. The person uploaded a video saying “Bewafai nahin karne ka” – translating to ‘Don’t be unfaithful’ – on social media after murdering his girlfriend in a resort in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh over alleged infidelity. The accused, known till now as Abhijit Patidar, was caught and found to be Hemant Bhadaude of Nashik, Maharashtra, who changed his name to mislead the police. In this case too, the victim and the accused hailed from the same community but the news was made viral with a misleading and communal claim.

In Azamgarh, Uttar Pradesh, Aradhana Prajapati’s body was found in a well after having been cut into pieces. After that, rumours on social media were rife that it may be another case like Walker’s. The victim was a married woman at the time of her death. A woman named Mamta Tripathi on Twitter, who in her Twitter bio claims to be associated with News18 Hindi called this ‘another Aaftab case’.

The accused, who was arrested by the police, was Prince Yadav. According to the police, he was in a relationship with the victim for the past two years and was in Dubai when she got married this year. He returned and started exerting pressure to end the marriage and killed her for not doing so. In this case too, while social media users suggested it was a ‘love jihad’ case, the victim and accused were both Hindu.

After the Kathua case four years ago, right-wing influencer Madhu Kishwar hatched a conspiracy theory about the so-called “Rohingya Jehadis” being involved in the case. Likewise, the founder of Postcard News, Mahesh Vikram Hegde, claimed that 94% rapists are Muslims. Both these claims were made without basis and proven to be false. However, a large section of right-wing online media and the mainstream press is indulging in the same kind of propaganda by adding the names of victims and the accused only when it suits them. This is effectively creating the impression that only Muslims commit violent sexual crimes.

Take a look at this list, in no way exhaustive, of recent headlines on cases of heinous crimes against women and children that the media has used when the accused is a Hindu:

  • Dainik Bhaskar: करनाल में आशा वर्कर की हत्या:पीछा छुड़ाने के लिए प्रेमी ने कत्ल किया, मारने के बाद नाले में फेंकी लाश
  • Amar Ujala: दो माह से लापता आशा वर्कर का बोरी में मिला शव, ड्यूटी पर जाते समय हुई थी लापता
  • India Today: Married man kills girlfriend after she breaks up with him in Delhi, arrested
  • Amar Ujala: एकतरफा प्रेम: मैनपुरी में शादी के बाद मायके आई विवाहिता, पति के सामने ही मार दी गोली, तड़पते हुए निकली जान
  • Aaj Tak: सनकी आशिक ने की पार्टनर की हत्या, दुकान के बाद 4 दिन कार में रखा शव, बदबू से खुला राज
  • One India Hindi: Exposure : साली के एकतरफा प्रेम में जीजा पागल, खंजर घौंपकर पति को लगा दिया ठिकाने
  • DNA India: Delhi Crime: Oyo Hotel के रूम में गर्लफ्रेंड को मारी गोली, बेल पर बाहर आए प्रेमी ने कर दिया खून
  • Dainik Jagaran: श्रद्धा मर्डर केस की तर्ज पर बिहार में भी हत्या, प्रेमिका ने पति के साथ मिल प्रेमी को टुकड़े-टुकड़े कर फेंका
  • One India Hindi: Gorakhpur News: खेत में महिला की गला रेत कर हत्या,फरार हुआ बदमाश
  • India Today: Married man kills girlfriend after she breaks up with him in Delhi, arrested
  • ANI: Delhi Police with the help of security agencies arrested a driver working in Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for passing confidential and sensitive information to Pakistan. The driver was honey-trapped by Pakistan ISI: Sources
  • Noida Crime: दोस्ती से मना करने पर युवती को चौथी मंजिल से धकेला, शव लेकर भागा सिरफिरा आशिक
  • As a rule, words like sirfira, premi, yuvak, manchala, aashiq and sanki are used by the Hindi press to refer to non-Muslim criminals accused of crimes against women. In the English media, they’re called spurned or jilted lovers. Moreover, there’s hardly any use of communal labels when the victim is a non-Hindu and the perpetrator is a non-Muslim.

Once in a while, an incident of cruelty and sexual violence against animals in which the accused are Muslim men goes viral on social media. A simple Google search will show you that such crimes have nothing to do with the religion of the accused. Take the below-mentioned screenshots from the right-wing propaganda website OpIndia as an example. In the first headline, they have not used the names of the accused involved in unnatural sex with cattle and dogs but in the second headline, they have named the accused.

The Wire reached out to some senior editors to know their views on the reportage around the Walkar murder case. Here’s what they had to say.

Shravan Garg, senior journalist

“The large Hindi audience is being conditioned in a planned manner. But one newspaper, which I do not want to name, was doing good journalism and its reporting at the time of COVID was cited by foreign publications. But changed its course after ED and IT raids. So the problem is a question of the extent to which the editor and owners are willing to withhold against pressure from the government.

I agree that funding depends on that (provocative reportage), so the question is how you want to shape your economics. The Hindu doesn’t want to do it, Telegraph doesn’t want to do it and Indian Express doesn’t want to do it, but Hindi newspapers want to because Hindi newspapers have been doing this since the Ram Janmabhoomi movement…They have contributed immensely to increasing the Hindu-Muslim divide. A large section of Hindi media became advocates of Hindutva and used this to increase their circulation and influence in the Hindi belt. They made the Hindu-Muslim divide a tool to increase their business, the same way BJP is using to increase its vote bank.”

Neena Vyas, senior journalist

“First of all, I want to say in any community anywhere in the world, there are plenty of criminals around. Criminals, murderers, rapists, and all that. And to tarnish any community for a serious crime like that – no matter how shocking it is, and this one was certainly very shocking – it is absolutely scandalous behaviour on the part of the press as well as the people at large.

…Even when it is not involving two communities, there are plenty of cases where Hindu-Hindu is involved, Muslim-Muslim is involved, and Hindu-Muslim is involved. Or Christian-Hindu may be involved. What is the meaning of all this? The meaning of all this is there are criminals, there are psychopaths, in every community and every society world over. And I don’t think a day passes when I don’t hear of a minor girl being raped, four years old, five years old.

The point is the way it is made out as if it happened only because the man was a Muslim and girl was a Hindu. As if he deliberately did this to her as a part of what they call ‘love jihad’. I will only describe it as total nonsense. It does huge harm to society at large.

…This is not going to lead to any good in the larger question of society, is what I’m saying… Whether it was the Corona thing, or the Tablighi thing, or some other case of a woman who tested positive at the airport and she went away on a train and went all over the place spreading COVID, those cases are not taken up but if it happens to be a Muslim, they’ll say this Muslim is spreading [COVID], not only that, he is doing it deliberately or the Tablighi people came specially to give corona to India. I mean this is utter nonsense, one would dismiss it as total nonsense. Except that it is much more sinister, the whole methodology involved is sinister and [aims] to go on creating divisions between one community and another.”

Mrinal Pande, senior journalist

“It seems, from the Shraddha murder case, that at least the Hindi press has almost entirely capitulated before the kind of divisive agenda that has been propagated all around through various means, and this just gives them another chance to prove that if it is the marriage or a live-in relationship between people belonging to two different religious groups and the accused happens to be a Muslim, then the wildest accusations and words and images are used quite freely. I feel very sorry about it because when we were in training, we were told that if there is a racial riot or communal riot, not to name the community or not to give the names of people either killed or accused until the case has been finally decided upon. …You know black sheep exist in every community; the larger the population, the larger the number of black sheep. This simple fact, this simple logic, has been forgotten.

I have been feeling for a few years now that the ownership of newspapers and large media platforms is now in very few hands and they are, for whatever reasons, to protect their interests and to keep their own skin safe, capitulating in very large numbers. The pity is that liberals and people who are against communalism of any kind are carrying on with dialogues and writings, but nearly all of it is in English. They are not contributing to Hindi newspapers, with result that they are ceding the space to people who have a communal agenda.

Since the 1990s this has been happening. First, you had very young journalists ceded into the desk of Hindi newspapers. Those people are now either the chief sub-editors or in charge of a certain desk or some of them are even editors. How are editors being appointed there? Can you name one eminent editor of a Hindi newspaper? You can’t. Because they have all been appointed due to their proximity to political leaders. Because they get inside the news. But that’s not the way journalism functions.”

Alishan Jafri and Neel Madhav

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