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  BBC withdraws Offending Article on Shankaracharya  
 

 

By: Dr Farokh Merat
March 18, 2006
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iews expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.

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On 11th November 2004 His Holiness Sri Jayendra Saraswathi, the Shankaracharya of Kanchipuram was arrested by the Tamil Nadu police allegedly for having conspired to murder Sankararaman, an employee at a temple unconnected to the Kanchi Mutt.

The very day after the Shankaracharya’s arrest a vast character assassination campaign was launched throughout India, portraying the Pontiff not only as a murderer but also as an embezzler and a womanizer. Among the English journals the most virulent attacks against Sri Jayendra Saraswathi came from Outlook magazine. The titles of some of the articles by Mr. S. Anand, Outlook’s correspondent in Chennai, are eloquently self-explanatory: “How the Gods Fall,” “Swami and Fiends” (sic), “A Sting in the Tail,” “The Baton Awaits,” “Prison Diaries of a Pontiff.” These articles are compilations almost exclusively of slanderous back alley innuendos, invariably attributed to vague police contacts and other faceless sources.

But Outlook did not stop there. The demonization of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi was to be internationalized on 28th January 2005 by no other than the editor of the magazine himself, Mr. Vinod Mehta. In a talk titled “A View from India,” the Outlook editor went on BBC Radio Four to inform English and European audiences about the “Jayendra affair.” The talk was rebroadcast two days later, on Sunday 30th January, immediately after a program of Christian church services. To Hindus who happened to be listening to BBC Radio Four on that Sunday morning, the contrast between the dignified church services and the vicious slander heaped on one of their foremost religious leaders must have been excruciatingly painful.

Two days later the talk was published as an article on the BBC website with the title of “Murder, Mystery and Politics in India.” Straight away Mr. Mehta set the tone. “The charges are a tabloid journalist"s dream - murder, sleaze, debauchery, greed and sex,” he said. The story he went on to recount was meant to illustrate each of these “charges.” But it was overwhelmingly fictitious and certain crucial details stood in contradiction with the findings of the Supreme Court of India, made public some three weeks before Mr. Mehta delivered his talk on BBC Radio Four. His tabloid dream was of his own making.

The Outlook editor did not merely indulge in fibs. His entire article was a colossal lie - by omission. On granting bail to the Shankaracharya on 10th January 2005, the Supreme Court had stated that the Tamil Nadu authorities and police had failed to submit the least prima facie evidence connecting the Pontiff to the Sankararaman killing; they had also been unable to submit any grounds of motive for the Shankaracharya to commit such an act. But Mr. Mehta passed over the Supreme Court findings as if they had never existed. The reason is obvious: the pronouncements of the Apex Court would have demolished his viciously fictitious story.

Immediately devotees of the Shankaracharya throughout the world began writing letters of complaint to the BBC. After some seven months of repeated complaints the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit authorities admitted that Mr. Mehta’s text contained “serious error and inaccuracies.” They tacitly acknowledged that apart from the alleged conspiracy to murder, none of the “charges” mentioned by Mr. Mehta were to be found in the charge sheet. On being questioned about the matter, Mr. Mehta had apparently told them that the charges of personal misconduct were listed not in the charge sheet but in the FIR (First Information Report), filed by the police shortly after the Pontiff’s arrest – another lie.

The BBC remained adamant about keeping the offensive article on their website, purged of the “errors and inaccuracies.” Thanks to www.kanchiforum.org, the devotees of the Shankaracharya organized themselves and engaged lawyers in London. Finally, the threat of legal action compelled the BBC to remove the article, apologize and reimburse the greater part of the legal costs incurred by the Acharya’s devotees.

Two questions come to mind. Why did the BBC believe Mehta’s version of the events and refuse for a full year to remove the article from their website? And the second and far more fundamental question is: why did the mainstream media defame and demonize the revered Shankaracharya instead of investigating the facts and exposing the real culprits?

The first question can be readily answered. The BBC believed Vinod Mehta’s groundless accusations because large sectors of the media in India were mouthing the same unfounded charges against the Pontiff. The media are by and large conformist copycats. Why, after all, should the BBC send a journalist of world rank to Tamil Nadu to investigate the case – as we repeatedly urged them to do – when most of the national press in India was babbling the same lies? We battled against the BBC – a minuscule David against a gigantic Goliath – for a full year. Nevertheless, I must say a word in defence of the BBC: they were not the real culprits. They got hoodwinked not just by Vinod Mehta but by the Indian media as a whole. Having accorded them the benefit of a doubt, one can’t help wondering why the British, after having plundered, divided and departed, still feel a pathological need to humiliate the Hindus. Would the BBC have dared to allow similar calumnies against a Muslim religious leader of even the lowest ranks? No, they wouldn’t, for obvious reasons. But the gentlemen and ladies at the BBC have retained from their readings at school that devout Hindus are a peaceful and peace-loving people. They knew that calumniations against the revered Shankaracharya of Kanchi would not bring them bombs and sundry forms of violence. Hence the platform given so nonchalantly to the pseudo-secularist Vinod Mehta.

As to the second question, several explanations have been given: clever orchestration of lies and manipulation by the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and police; collusion of the Centre for fear that Hindu-oriented parties may regain power in the next elections; money generously and secretly disbursed by the Evangelists to eliminate a Hindu religious leader actively opposing conversions.

But all this does not explain why the media engaged in such wholesale slander and why the public did not object. The media and the public are partners. It is said of a nation that it has the rulers it deserves. In the same vein it can be said that the public has the media it deserves. There is a constant give and take between the two. To be successful and survive in a competitive context, each player in the media and the press has to cater to and please its own audience. At the same time the media and the press form and educate the public – for the better or for the worse. In the end, the two are one. So the question becomes: why was a considerable portion of the population of India, and of the Hindu population itself, receptive to lies and unfounded accusations against one of the foremost religious leaders of the land, a Saint who had spent more than fifty years of his life helping the downtrodden, building and running schools, hospitals, homes for the disabled and the aged, charity organizations, and doing everything he could to maintain communal peace and harmony, notably in the grave Ayodhya issue? His profile was reversed by the media overnight, between 11/11 and 11/12 2004. Why, one wonders, did not the public demand serious journalistic investigation, evidence instead of innuendos?

It is fashionable, after the American model, to laud in flowery terms the four pillars of democracy: the executive, the legislative, the judiciary and for the last fifty-or-so years, the media/press. This is to forget the most essential component of all: the civil society. Wherever the civil society is awake, healthy and coherent, the fourfold power system works smoothly. Otherwise it does not. It is for the civil society to constantly watch the four “powers” and take them to task whenever there is injustice, abuse of power, corruption, falsehood.

Let us take an example. On New Year’s Day 2006 the Calcutta Telegraph published a cartoon of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi with a dagger sticking out from under his attire dripping with blood. Just a few days before, the Prime Minister and President of India had expressed their great indignation at the offending cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in Europe. But about the cartoon published in their own country ridiculing one of the foremost religious leaders of the Hindus, they expressed no opinion at all. Was it because of the unfounded murder allegations against the Shankaracharya? But surely the leaders of the country must have taken note of the verdict of the Supreme Court of India I have already referred to, as well as a second verdict, dated 26th October 2005, in which the Apex Court ordered the transfer of the murder trial out of Tamil Nadu and chastised the State Government machinery for attempting to deprive the Shankaracharya and co-accused of proper legal defense, launching persecution against journalists, lawyers and members of the civil society “merely because they expressed some dissent against the arrest of the Seer, and creating “a fear psychosis in the minds of the people,” thus discouraging witnesses from testifying objectively. About all this, too, the President, the Prime Minister and the Super-Prime Minister remained deafeningly silent.

But they alone are not to blame. It is for the civil society to inundate them with letters asking: “Why such double standards?” And it is again for the civil society to flood the Telegraph and other unfair media with letters of vigorous protest demanding immediate apologies.

The sad truth is that peaceful and civilised protests are not given serious consideration by the Government, while there is immediate response to agitation and aggressive protests. This tendency on the part of the rulers, of whatever hue, leads to violence and erodes civilised values. Had the Shankaracharya’s followers taken to the streets, it would no doubt have risen both the Government and society at large from their slumber. But it is to the incalculable credit of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi that he did not veer a millimeter from the path of the holy lineage of Adi Shankara. He urged his followers to hold their peace and promised that Dharma would prevail, thus avoiding violence and bloodshed.

When a Saint of the stature of Sri Jayendra Saraswathi is slandered, it is the sacred tradition of Advaita Vedanta, the highest light of humanity, that is slandered. When the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham is attacked, Sanatana Dharma, the root religion of all that deserves to be called religion, is attacked.

In South Africa they have a beautiful saying: People are people because of other people. Transposed to the context we are concerned with, the proverb is laden with hope. It means that if a few start taking the responsibility to act rightly, even in little ways, their action is bound to ripple and influence others, making the entire world a little more just, humane and peaceful – a return to the primeval and pristine religion: Sanatana Dharma.

Dr Farokh Merat

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