Good rioters and bad rioters

BY Jyoti Punwani| IN Opinion | 03/08/2014
Compare TV coverage of the Saharanpur riot with print's efforts and for once, the former did a better job. But look carefully at riot coverage in general and you find a double standard emerging,


Jyoti Punwani


 Perhaps for the first time, television news did a better job than print in dissecting a riot. CNN IBN’s Bhupendra Chaubey’s programme both in Hindi and English on the Saharanpur riot (July 28, two days after the riot), surely ranks among the best in its genre, standing alongside Sreenivasan Jain’s sensitive Muzaffarnagar series on NDTV last year. Chaubey’s programme addressed most of the questions thrown up by the riot, and he spoke to all the local players involved.

Remarkably, Chaubey ended by going beyond the usual `detached’ journalist’s role. Having brought along a box of sweets, he asked his interviewees to share them for Ramzan Eid, which had just been declared. Alas, two Sikh leaders and the local BJP leader refused the sweets which were handed out by the young Muslim Samajwadi Party representative. This was seen happening in the background, behind Chaubey’s back, while Chaubey was making his concluding remarks.

The BJP leader’s refusal was typical. The Sikhs’ refusal was disturbing, especially since the seniormost among them had made a conciliatory gesture during the discussion, suggesting that those who had looted (Sikh) property simply leave it on the road to avoid brutal police searches of their homes.

Interestingly, Aaj Tak and ABP News had more coverage of the violence than did the main English channels. So also with the English press. On Sunday, the day after the violence, Dainik Jagran carried interesting reports on the way the curfew had affected the ordinary citizens of Saharanpur. Though The Indian Express and The Telegraph had longish reports two days after the riot, they failed to give a comprehensive account. Also, surprisingly, the Express’ first report had no Muslim voice in it.  

Communal disharmony has been making news over the last two weeks. BJP mobs in Moradabad,  Shiv Sena MPs running riot in Delhi’s Maharashtra Sadan, the Telengana BJP and Sania Mirza, Saharanpur, Goa’s ministers mouthing dreams of a Hindu rashtra

As always, the English media has been vociferous in taking on the Hindutvavadis, belying those who keep crying that Modi’s coming means the media has sold out. 

The media’s ``sell-out’’ to corporate interests was evident in its reaction to the government’s unexpectedly tough stand at the WTO over the Trade Facilitation Agreement and the decision to put GM crop trials on hold after the RSS intervened in the matter. (At least on this issue, those at the other end of the ideological spectrum should have praised the RSS.) But this class bias pre-dates Narendra Modi assuming office. On the question of Hindutva violence, the English media is maintaining its fine tradition of relentless attacks on Hindutva bullies.

However, some questions have been thrown up by the coverage of these events. First, the Moradabad violence. While The Hindu and The Telegraph carried detailed reports of the first confrontation over the dismantling of a loudspeaker from a Dalit temple by the police, and when the police tried to prevent a BJP maha panchayat, somehow, the Moradabad issue did not get the editorial attention it should have.

Make no mistake. This was a major political issue with many complex aspects, in a politically important and sensitive state. The BJP trying to cash in on Dalit resentment; Muslims behaving in a majoritarian manner; a senior policeman blaming the BJP for communalising the situation for votes (this was surely a first); a mob attacking the police so badly that the District Magistrate had to be shifted to Chennai for special treatment for his injured eye…….all of this should have been Page One news.  It was the TV channels, in fact, who did more justice to the story.

There is a second, more troubling issue here. When Muslims attacked the police in Mumbai in August 2012, it made national news. The media outrage was obvious; media persons had also been attacked. But when the BJP cadre attacked policemen in a communally sensitive place like Moradabad, why was it not at the top of Page One?

Of course, in the first case, the attack was sudden and unprovoked, while the second was probable, and provoked by the police’s refusal to let the BJP have its way. In Mumbai, two Muslims died in police firing and yet the Police Commissioner was blamed by the media for being too soft. In Moradabad, only tear gas was resorted to, and the only ones seriously injured were the police. Yet, no outrage in the press. Is that because no journalists were hurt, or because BJP mobs attacking the police isn’t wrong?

The coverage of the Maharashtra Sadan ruckus where Shiv Sena MPs tried to force a canteen supervisor, who turned out to be a Muslim on roza, to eat a roti, also left one feeling uneasy. Was it necessary to continuously telecast Sena MP Rajan Vichare trying to stuff a roti into the canteen supervisor’s mouth? The supervisor must have relived his humiliation every time it was shown. It needed to be shown once during every programme on the incident, but repeating it endlessly throughout every programme was offensive and inflammatory.

Indeed, the media’s role in this incident is curious.  According to, some media personnel had been notified about an impending protest that morning. They saw everything, and one of the channels even telecast it that evening. But there was no outrage from viewers. The reason: they did not mention that the supervisor was a Muslim.

So Marathi viewers, including politicians who must have watched that channel, had no problem with such conduct. Nor apparently, did the media personnel there, else they would have made it big news. Significantly, the complaint filed by the manager of the Sadan said that media personnel were ``actively instigating’’ the MPs.

ANI, which feeds news to other channels, decided to ``kill the story’’ ( because of its potential to hurt feelings during Ramzan.  After the story broke (a week later, courtesy The Indian Express), why did news channels not exercise the same sensitivity, especially since they were bent upon projecting the incident as an assault by the communal Sena on a Muslim?

Would the Sena MPs not have behaved the same with any supervisor present at that moment? Mumbaikars are familiar with the Shiv Sena’s rough tactics towards those who have offended them, and that includes many known and not-so-well-known Hindus, including journalists. Nidhi Razdan of NDTV was the only one who kept asking, “What if the supervisor had not been a Muslim? Would the act have been any less offensive?”

What if the Saharanpur riot had seen Muslims at the receiving end? Would the English media’s coverage have been less indifferent? One pointer to the situation on the ground is the deafening silence on the riot from Muslim websites such as and, who are the first to carry the Muslim point of view on any communal incident.

Here was violence followed by a curfew on the eve of the biggest Muslim festival. Moreover, two of the three killed in police firing were Muslim. That no stories of victimhood emerged – as they invariably do from these websites – is a pointer to who was the aggressor in Saharanpur. Another pointer is the silence of the secular brigade. After the initial ``acchey din’’ comments, they had nothing to say.

After covering many communal riots, this columnist has identified one simple indicator to the power equations during a riot. One community is always all praise for the police while the other blames them for inaction, or worse, for targeting it. In Mumbai, it’s always been Hindus who praise the police while Muslims blame them.  But in Bhupendra Chaubey’s programme, the roles were reversed. The Muslims praised the police and the Sikhs accused them of inaction.

However, though Aaj Tak and ABP News had better coverage of the Saharanpur violence than the English channels, they were not too discriminatory about their footage. ABP News simply kept showing the same visual of a burning motorbike, giving the impression that the city was still on fire.

Worse, in its interview of Sikhs, it allowed a remark to be aired that should never have been telecast. Asked what was the way ahead, one Sikh who had, during the discussion, managed to acquire a rifle with which he kept posing,  replied: ``We have called Sikhs from all over to come here. They (Muslims) are 20,000, but just 2000 of us will be enough for them. Hum shaheedi dengey aur shaheedi lengey. (We will sacrifice ourselves and them too.)’’

This man may not have realized that we are no longer in the Mughal era, but surely the channel knew better than to allow such a provocative statement to be aired?


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