Tuesday, 2 September 2014 – 5:00am IST Updated: Monday, 1 September 2014 – 7:59pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Looking at the Muzaffarnagar riots through the prism of new media

The Muzaffarnagar riots broke out exactly a year ago. The public, notoriously fickle, has moved on, even though thousands of those displaced by these riots continue to live uncertain lives – some under makeshift tents, others amidst neighbours they can no longer trust. Many questions from that disturbing interregnum, which left 60 people dead and at least 50,000 homeless, remain unanswered.

One particularly intriguing question that raises its head is this: did new media – comprising the whole gamut of information and communications technology as well as social media use – help to facilitate what US-based sociologist, Paul Brass, terms as the “institutionalised riot system network”?

There are many who would answer this question in the negative. Political commentator Praveen Swami, for instance, has argued in the context of the Muzaffarnagar riots that there was no evidence at all to suggest that “communal violence has become worse as a consequence of the growing reach of social media”.

This piece would however posit that the Muzaffarnagar riots, despite conforming largely to the general pattern of earlier riots, exhibited a few distinct features that need to be underlined if we are to come any closer to fully answering the question posed earlier. The media has had a central role in riot creation over the years, of that there can be no doubt. According to Brass, who has studied earlier riots, such episodes typically play out in three distinct phases: preparation/rehearsal; activation/enactment; and explanation/interpretation. Newspapers, he said, play a role in the first phase by spreading ‘news’ that originates in “the institutionalised riot system network”. In the second phase, they become complicit in the enactment of riot production through the attention they pay to statements of the riot’s producers and by failing to make a distinction between the precipitating incident and the proximate cause. In the third phase, crucially, they get involved in controlling the explanation or interpretation of the causes of the violence in a manner that fails to isolate effectively the factors and persons most responsible for the production of violence, and instead contribute to diffusing blame widely, blurring the responsibility and thereby, as he puts it, “contributing to the perpetuation of violent productions in future, as well as the order that sustains them”.

In Muzaffarnagar all these phases were in evidence, but new media added at least three additional dimensions to the traditional scenario. One, they helped to create a public sphere in an indeterminate rural setting. Two, they helped to fan rumours and purvey falsehoods in real time. Three, they allowed the innovative, even cynical, use of secondary images and unverified media content.

Coming to the first aspect, whenever riots have taken place in India’s rural hinterland, they had been driven generally by caste or ethnic polarisations, not communal ones.

According to Ashutosh Varshney’s study of the casualty figures in events of communal violence occurring between the years 1950 to 1995, only a little over 3 per cent of such deaths were caused by rioting between Hindus and Muslims in rural India. The Muzaffarnagar riots, in contrast, were distinctly communal in nature although they played out in a countryside that had historically witnessed relatively amicable relations between the dominant Jats and local Muslims. Could the hostilities then been fanned because the rioters successfully created an impromptu ‘town square’ that encompassed far-flung villages, by using both new and mainstream media for the dissemination of their news and opinions?

The Muzaffarnagar riots, like similar events that pre-dated them, were fed on a steady diet of rumour and hearsay, and this brings us to the second aspect: the real time transmission of slanted information. Noted psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar has written how rumours are crucial to the building of the feeling that one’s communal identity is under threat, which usually marks violent community responses in situations of riots. The Muzaffarnagar riots, if they were to be unpacked, would validate this hypothesis – with the one significant difference that the rumour-mongering this time was also fed by people-to-people communications technologies like SMS, Twitter and Facebook.

We see here then the familiar melding of traditional media content with that of new media, each acting as a force multiplier for the other. Central to these riots was the consolidation of group identities through the creation of anxieties over sexual violence. The August 27, 2013 incident which is largely regarded as the initial trigger for these riots remains to this day coloured by sharply polarised interpretations. A Muslim youth of a local village was allegedly killed by two Jats from an adjoining village during an altercation. According to one account it was over a motorcycle accident; according to another, it was a case of a Hindu girl being sexually harassed by a Muslim youth. Interestingly, it was the second version – sexual harassment – that had gained salience. Each murderous attack and counter attack, launched by one community or the other, was fuelled by slanted information, with social media content decisively feeding the spiral of mass frenzy.

The innovative, if maleficent, use of secondary images and unverified media content was also a distinctive feature of these riots. There was, for instance, that graphic video purporting to show the lynching of the two “Hindu” youth by a “Muslim” mob which had gone viral. It has now been established that this was actually a video, available on the internet, of an incident that had taken place in Pakistan three years earlier in which two young men had been lynched over an alleged robbery. Not only did influential politicians ‘share’ this video on their Facebook pages, not only did CDs of it get distributed freely, images from it were published in some local newspapers and passed off as authentic photographs.

Over the years those deeply embedded in the riots production system have never hesitated to adopt any measure that could polarise and communalise local communities. What however makes the situation radically different today is that these same forces now have a resource that allows them to anonymously circulate destabilising, inflammatory content at the click of a button – and in real time. In an earlier era, they had the finite resources of the newspaper, the pamphlet and the poster; today, they have at their command the infinite and intermeshing potential of the mobile phone, the DVD and the Internet.

The Muzaffarnagar riots reveal that communal violence in India today has a well charted domain in cyberspace.

The writer, a senior journalist, is currently researching the impact of the social media in India