The pattern of Hindu-Muslim riots following the tumult in Gujarat in 2002 suggests that the new sites of communal violence are now deliberately chosen so as to evade the withering scrutiny of national media, particularly 24×7 TV news channels.
The masterminds of such communal violence have shifted their activities from bustling cities to decaying towns and their rural periphery.
Think of the major sites of communal disturbances over the last 12 years, beginning from 2003, the year after the riots. Mau in Uttar Pradesh, Gopalgarh in Rajasthan, Kokrajhar in Assam, Bettiah in Bihar, villages around the west UP towns of Muzaffarnagar, Kanth, Saharanpur and Meerut, to even Mewat, merely miles away from the millennium city of Gurgaon.
All these pockets of conflict lie outside the hub of national media, which are headquartered in Delhi or Mumbai and boast fulltime representatives in the state capitals.
This shifting of the site of communal violence is a sharp riposte to those who expounded, in commemorative TV programmes and print editions marking the 10th year of the Gujarat riots, the sheer implausibility of triggering mayhem in the age of mass media.
Describing Gujarat 2002 as the country’s first ‘televised riots’, it was claimed that the coverage spawned revulsion against the Gujarat government’s perceived partisan approach to tackling violence. Regardless of the advantages that accrued to the BJP in Gujarat, 2002 still remains a blot on its history, as dark as 1984 is for the Congress.
It is to offset the disadvantages arising from the national media’s coverage of mass violence that its masterminds have thought it prudent to shift to creaky towns and their sleepy peripheries.
Muzaffarnagar or Moradabad or Saharanpur may just be hours from Delhi, but because journalists are not embedded in the local milieu, with no clue of either festering communal problems or of the deliberate fanning of tension, they often arrive at such places long after the violence has erupted and devastated.
There are no images of murderous mobs on the rampage to telecast, no shocking justifications of violence to record, as had been the case with the coverage of the riots in Gujarat.
Call it the power of moving images, but an expression of mob fury captured live has a more telling impact than a victim describing it in his or her disconsolate voice.
It’s to escape the omnipresent eye of the national media that riots are now increasingly triggered at such places where it would take the national media hours or at least a day or two to reach.
To begin with, a media organisation has to take a call whether or not a communal incident merits sending its representative from the headquarters or its regular employees in state capitals for covering it. This explains, to a great extent, the disproportionate coverage of events occurring in the metros.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that protests over the gang-rape of the medical intern, or the Jessica Lal murder case, or the Anna Hazare-led agitation, or the rise of the Aam Aadmi Party became national news because these occurrences took place in Delhi. It’s also true that journalists living and working in Delhi are able to better identify with its mood and the significance of an event there. The impact of an event is magnified to the journalist because as a resident of the city, he or she is impacted as well.
By contrast, journalists wouldn’t visit Muzaffarnagar or Moradabad until the news there matures enough to acquire salience. This may also be one reason why communal tension is often kept simmering rather than being allowed to bubble over. A full-blown riot, as it happened in Muzaffarnagar, runs the risk of luring journos from metros who complicate the script crafted for communal mobilisation.
It is journalists from the national media who ensure that riots stay a part of the nation’s collective memory. Had Muzaffarnagar not happened last year, it is debatable if correspondents from Delhi would have flocked to, say, Moradabad to report on the communal tension over the use of a loudspeaker at a temple. These journos are less prone to partisan reporting or succumbing to their religious proclivities or entanglement in local politics.
They are independent not because they have necessarily mastered their craft but because their regular employment and high salaries insulate them from getting enmeshed in the local politics. They are also vulnerable to peer pressure, arising from the presence of multiple organisations in the media hub, to maintain objectivity in their narratives.
True, the Hindi print media has expanded exponentially. But its journalists are often paid poorly, and are required to supplement their income through other means. This is also true of those who string for English media organisations from various districts. All this creates a condition conducive to playing a partisan role, to become sucked in the dynamics of local politics. Most of them don’t have the means to defy the local power hierarchy, which is often implicated in rioting, as they fear reprisals and, worse, do not enjoy the protection that journalists of national media organisations enjoy.
But there is also the issue of perspective and consciousness. Individualism, free choice, free mingling among sexes, inter-community marriages have come to increasingly define the ethos of cities. Metro journos tend to reflect these values, at times shallowly, but are infinitely less inclined to conservatism than their counterparts in mofussil towns.
Thus, for instance, Delhi-based journalists visiting west UP can’t be expected to empathise with the campaign against love-jihad.
The role local journalists could play in manufacturing communal narratives was evidentin a Hindustan Times report.
Its correspondent spoke of a prominent Western UP journalist who opened files of newspapers to show him umpteen stories of Hindu and Muslim boys and girls mixing together, much to the disapproval of their parents. The HT report also quotes the journalist as blaming the inter-community mingling on Muslims, echoing verbatim the views of chauvinist Hindu organisations. Needless to say, several Muslim journalists in western UP would too describe such mingling as something that is haraam, or forbidden, in the manner of equally rabid organisations.
Distancing the site of communal violence from the media hub also provides would be riot mongers with ample opportunities to harness social media for communal projects.
Even before national media journalists swoop down on an area reeling under communal violence, its masterminds deploy social media to project themselves as aggrieved, their aggression therefore justified, and their victims deserving of the retribution directed against them.
For instance, the killings in Muzaffarnagar were justified through the posting of a video tshowing Hindu boys being mercilessly beaten by a crowd of Muslims. The video went viral, influencing perceptions of the causes that triggered the riots in the Muzaffarnagar riots. It was subsequently found that the social media footage video was from Pakistan.
In fact, the killings in the villages of Muzaffarnagar were over long before the national media could reach them. Even the raping of women became known only a week after the fact. Again, months later, a local Hindi newspaper published photos of houses under construction, claiming these were the new dwellings of those who had decided to leave relief camps to live in their villages. This story was subsequently found to be untrue.
Or take the communal tension over the use of a loudspeaker at a temple in the village of Kanth town. A day before the BJP convened a mahapanchayat on the issue, the Muslim and Dalit residents of the village had brokered an agreement. However, the agreement was unilaterally abrogated and the mahapanchayat was held on 4 July. It took more than a fortnight for the national media to publish reports on the 3 Julyagreement, hammered out before a crowd of 1000 people. It is inconceivable that such attempts at maintaining peace would have gone unreported for so long had Delhi been the site of communal conflict.
You have to read the tweets over the alleged gang-rape of a Hindu woman and her conversion to Islam to realise the advantages of attempting communal polarisation away from the metros. For one, there was no independent media organisation present to check the veracity of the claims.
Tweets rebutting the allegations were dismissed as fanciful and communal by those they sought to counter. The tweeterati portrayed the Muslim accused not as individuals but agents or footsoldiers of their community bent upon converting Hindus and increasing their population.
When this narrative was subsequently challenged and the woman was said to have undergone abortion of her own volition, the earlier narrative had already ossified perceptions. Not only were people reluctant to revise their opinion, they construed the new narrative as a conspiracy to disparage Hindus and appease Muslims.
Metros are not necessarily the cradle of modernity, from where communal consciousness is missing. But the residents of metros, of whom journalists in the national media too are a part, now display a marked preference for the rhetoric of development. Identity politics, communal mobilisation, and full-blown riots, in their eyes, undermine the promise of progress. Journalists in metros increasingly reflect this idea.
But these tools of mobilisation are still effective enough to create electoral majorities in India’s backwaters. These are tools a substantial number of journos in metros are disapproving and critical of. It is to escape their eyes that the masterminds of communal violence have slipped into towns to turn to reality their chilling, scary dreams.
(A Delhi-based journalist, Ajaz Ashraf is the author of The Hour Before Dawn, to be released in September by HarperCollins India. Email: [email protected])