Playing Down the Malda Violence

BY JYOTI PUNWANI| IN Opinion | 17/02/2016
Was it because the mob was Muslim and the victims Hindu? The English media’s credibility is at issue.
JYOTI PUNWANI frames the questions

 

HERE’S LOOKING AT US
Jyoti  Punwani

Was the English media’s coverage of the Malda violence unusual? It is being charged with both down-playing it and over-playing it, by parties and groups ideologically opposed to each other.

Normally that would make one assume that the English media got it right. However, an analysis of the coverage is needed to see if the accusations are right, for both sets of charges dent the media’s credibility.

The violence in Malda took place on January 3. But the media was discussing it till three weeks later. Partly this was because it wasn’t given sufficient attention immediately.

An armed mob of more than a lakh Muslims, aroused to fury on religious grounds, beats up cops and BSF jawans, burns down a police station, sets police vehicles on fire and attacks Hindu-owned shops. One Hindu is injured by a gunshot. The police either fire blanks or run away. The incident is sensational by any standard.Yet, coverage by the English press (not TV channels) mostly comprises politicians’ quotes.

Why?

It’s not because of its remoteness. Malda is on the Bangladesh-West Bengal border, 328 km from Kolkata, with as many as 40 trains running from Kolkata. Yet, The Telegraph, the best-known Kolkata daily, carried just one long feature from the ground. The Statesman, another well-known Kolkata daily, didn’t carry any; all its reports were quotes of politicians.

Would media coverage have been so slack had the mob comprised angry Hindus and the victims been Muslims?  The charge being laid against the English media by the BJP, and it has found vociferous support on the Internet, is that the ``sickular’’ English media refuses to focus on acts of Muslim intolerance. Look at the coverage on Dadri, says the BJP.

Indeed, Swapan Dasgupta in The Asian Age even suggests that the Delhi media’s ``resounding silence’’ on the incident will lead ``some of the more extreme elements’’ (among) Muslims to believe that ``they can get away with just about anything’’. As if the Delhi media’s hyper-ventilation on Hindutva violence has ever deterred Hindutvawadis!

Two things need to be said in defence of the media. First, Malda cannot be compared to Dadri, where a Hindu mob lynched a Muslim on suspicion that he had cooked beef in his house. Even if he had done so, it was nobody’s business. The mob went baying for his blood. Malda’s Muslims were furious over a real, not imagined, insult to their Prophet. And though they went on the rampage,mostly against the police, they didn’t kill anyone, thought they had enough opportunity to do so.

Second, the terrorist attack on Pathankot was still on when the Malda incident took place. As Syed Firdaus Ashraf argues in rediff.com, who remembers when ex-PM V P Singh, one of our most loved and hated prime ministers, died? He was unlucky enough to die during the November 2008 terror siege of Mumbai; his death was reported in just one paragraph.

But unlike with V P Singh, who never got the coverage he deserved after he died,  ignoring Malda comes at a cost – our credibility.

The English media’s coverage of the 2002 Gujarat violence comes to mind. The Hindu passengers of Coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express who were burnt alive were forgotten by the English media in their pursuit of the Hindu mobs massacring Muslims across Gujarat. No wonder the train survivors and their families turned to the VHP, the only organization that kept meeting them in the first few months. There was little one could say to the VHP charge that the English media was prejudiced.

The BJP is not the only one who has always made this charge against the English media, specially the English press. Readers have long believed it. When a Malda is ignored,  the charge gets teeth.

A look at the main English newspapers shows that only the Indian Express covered Malda thoroughly, with ground reports from Day One, followed by a special report a fortnight later, where reporter Esha Roy spoke to everyone involved. The report established that the incident was communal – one Hindu victim whose shops were damaged, was quoted as having said: “When the mob came, I pleaded with them with my hands folded to not damage my building. They kept asking if I was a Hindu. I told them yes, I am, but there are Muslims living and working here as well. But they did not listen.’’

Yet, in this very report, Malda’s BJP general secretary said:  “This is an important issue for us and will be our main platform for the elections. Of course, it was not a communal incident, everyone knows that. It was a criminal activity.’’

The other comprehensive report-cum-analysis came from Scroll.in’s  Ipsita Chakravarty.

The consensus that emerges from all those who took the trouble of travelling to Kaliachak, near Malda,  where the violence took place, is that the mob’s actual target were the local police and their records, which were completely gutted. The police had stepped up action against the fake currency racket and the illegal opium cultivation for which this border area is notorious. The violence against a few Hindu homes was either a stray incident, or seems to have been to mask the main intent - destroying police records – with a communal colour. With assembly elections a few months away, the contending parties: mainly the TMC and the BJP, played a role in the way the incident was handled and projected.

The fact that only a few Hindu shops were damaged and a temple was half-heartedly attacked (``they attacked it but didn’t do any damage,’’ one Hindu told NDTVIndia),  shows that the communal intent wasn’t the primary one. Had it been so, the mob could have destroyed the entire Hindu colony since there was little resistance, and the police were absent.

However, to the Hindus of this Muslim-dominated area, this conclusion is cold comfort. The owners of the small shopsattacked lost a lot for no fault of theirs except being Hindu. Even The Telegraph’s long article written after Amitava Chakraborty spent three days in the area, spoke of ``panic-stricken’’ Hindus, though he found, to quote his words, only  ``minimal damage’’ in the Hindu colony.

The rest of the newspapers didn’t even acknowledge this much. The Hindu reported that a residential colony had been attacked and one Gopal Tiwari injured by a gunshot, but its editorial ruled out any communal angle. There was no follow-up on why this should have happened if the incident was just one of Muslims versus the police.

The paper reported the findings of the Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR), a well-established human rights group in West Bengal, which said that the Malda incident was not communal ``by a long shot’’.  The APDR spokesman blamed the media for hyping the incident because those involved were Muslims.

The APDR report is curious. The team members record the damage done to shops and a temple in the Hindu colony, yet conclude that the incident was not communal ``by a long shot’’! They cite Hindus saying there was retaliation from their side when the Muslim mob entered the colony, and that’s why the damage took place. So does the APDR team imply that had the residents done nothing, the damage would not have taken place? How different is this from the RSS point of view that when Muslims being a minority, take on the majority, they are bound to get hurt?

The rest of the national newspapers were not very different from The Hindu

The Hindustan Times quoted CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury saying the Malda incident was communal,and his party colleague Mohammed Salim saying the TMC was ``allowing fundamentalists to gain ground’’. One report mentioned ``experts’’ saying six communal incidents in West Bengal over the last two years had been ignored. But the paper did nothing to rectify the situation. It carried no ground report from Malda. 

One paper that did carry ground reports was Mail Today. These wereall peppered with references to Muslims with green flags who in ``a fit of rage’’ went on the rampage. ``Anti-Hindu sentiments’’had been built up by all the three non-BJP parties, said one report, without substantiatingthe accusation.

The DNA seemed to have ignored the incident completely. Strangely Zee News, a sister concern of DNA, almost ran a campaign on Malda and its violent Muslims. Anchor Sudhir Choudhary, editorializing profusely, went the extra mile to include the latest statistics on Muslim employment in a report on Malda. Muslims were unemployed because they weren’t qualified enough because they could only afford to send their kids to madarsas which turned them into fanatics, he said. Amazingly, he quoted the Sachar Committee’s figure of 4 % Muslim children enrolled in madarsas to bolster his argument.  So that 4 % was the reason for Malda-like incidents?

Similar was the case with The Times of India and its news channel Times Now. The newspaper carried only one report from the spot, the day after the violence, about policemen being hurt. The remaining three reports were the usual quotes.

Just four months earlier, the Times had done a report on Malda being the gateway for fake currencies. That background knowledge could have produced an insightful report. But like the other papers, the Times just didn’t think it worth their while. Incidentally,  the Times has an edition from Kolkata.

But Times Now was hot in pursuit of the aftermath of the Malda violence, though its Breaking News that pamphlets for the January 3 rally had been printed in advance, left one wondering. What did their publication prove? It was no one’s claim that the Malda rally hadn’t been planned; its organizer, speaking to Times Now, only claimed it wasn’t meant to be violent, a claim borne out by the Indian Express’ special report.

Arnab Goswami held his typical inquisition on the incident where the two BJP-RSS spokesmen were allowed to supplement his own shouting down of other voices.

TV channels this time did more justice to the Malda incident than the English press. For this, they were blamed by Barun Das Gupta in Mainstream Weekly, for ``unceasing political propaganda against the ruling party in the State…The theme of the propaganda is that under Mamata, the communal elements in the minority community are being given indulgence and protection and because of this the police are afraid to take strong steps against them. The motive is obvious: to polarise the voters of West Bengal on communal lines before the coming State Assembly elections.’’ But the local media he wrote, reported the Kaliachak incident with ``great caution and restraint.’’

Interestingly, the local media was held up as a model by TMC spokesmen on many TV channels. But NDTV India’s Nidhi Kulpati, who had reported from Kaliachak, stated that the local media was scared: ``They told me not to include them in the camera frame.’’

In one TV discussion, a Bengali journalist admitted that the local media had deliberately not played up the incident so as not to vitiate the atmosphere.

These are troubling statements. Should communal incidents always be underplayed by the local media, so that the atmosphere is not vitiated? Are Malda’s journalists scared of Mamata Banerjee or of the criminals who led the mob violence? These are questions vital not just to understanding the Malda violence, but also to the media, but no one explored then.

Another vital question that remained unanswered is: Why did Malda’s Muslims decide to protest a month after the derogatory comments about Prophet Mohammed were made in UP, and the culprit jailed under NSA? Social media must have conveyed the news immediately. Most of the organisers of the protest rally were absconding, but the question wasn’t even put to the sole organizer traced down by Times Now.

So to come back to the original charge: did the English press downplay the Malda incident? The conclusion is inescapable: it did. There seems to be no valid reason except that the Pathankot attack overshadowed it. Yet, the doubt remains: Would the English press have treated the violence the same way had the religious identities of the mob and its victims been reversed?

When Barun Das Gupta blamed TV channels for deliberately polarizing viewers ahead of the elections, ie, intentionally playing the BJP game, it smacks too much of conspiracy theories, though Zee News reports were disquietingly accusatory towards an entire community. But TMC spokespersons accusing the BJP of creating a social media hype about Malda are right. The BJP itself is making no bones about milking this incident.

But don’t all parties do that? And doesn’t that make it even more important for the press to report comprehensively, specially given the communally surcharged atmosphere today?

 

Jyoti Punwani is a Mumbai-based independent Journalist

 

 

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