Communal Semantics

Objective reportage is forgotten while the media decides whether to be responsible, subjective or generalist when covering “communal” events.

The media coverage of the recent Assam violence has been extensive and exhaustive. Considering it is the first such coverage which has now crossed its 5th week, it is worth looking back at the sequence of events.

Media, civil society and the new social media universe have conveniently forgotten that in the last two months, 126 people have died in devastating floods in Assam. Which incidentally, affected more than 24 lakh people.

Just as Assam coverage was reeling with images and stories of flood fury, a Congress MLA, Dr Rumi Nath was brutally beaten up in South Assam because she married a Muslim boy. The media followed it for a few days but failed to mount enough pressure on the prosecution.

If that was not enough, a bizarre incident of a mob assault on a girl on a Guwahati street apparently outraged the nation. It also brought to the fore a sharp division between the state Chief Minister, Tarun Gogoi, and his once-trusted lieutenant and Education and Health Minister and a chief ministerial aspirant, Himanta Biswa Sarma. Sarma’s wife’s satellite channel was implicated in airing the video footage of the brutal assault and molestation. One of the reporters of the channel has since been arrested with allegations of his involvement in the crime and its editor-in-chief was forced to resign.

The day the prime accused in the street assault, Amarjyoti Kalita, was brought to Guwahati after his arrest in Varanasi, the media glare shifted to the north bank of the Brahmaputra in Lower Assam where the former Bodos were clashing with their neighbours, the Bengali-speaking Muslim community. (This could be a coincidence, but some have read a pattern in this shift of focus). Villages up in smoke, dead bodies, refugee camps and inflammatory statements by politicians made for a rabble-rousing recipe from Assam. The media under the scanner of social media buckled and went much farther than they generally do in coverage of such “localised issues”. (I was wondering if the several “inquisition” shows have been gunning for people like Pravin Togadia and rightfully so for inciting hatred, then how did Sri Sri Ravi Shankar escape the media after the vicious statements he issued in Assam referring to one community as “fundamentalist immigrants” carrying out “heinous crime”?).

As news channels and publications from mainstream media and international networks analysed how “identity politics” and “illegal immigration” may have been at the root of the violence, the reports drove a wedge through communities and threats – real and imagined – spread across several Indian cities starting with Mumbai and Pune and then to Bangalore and Hyderabad. A protest rally in Mumbai went out of control killing people. Cellphone messages of threats and intimidation and doctored images of atrocities on Muslims in Burma and Assam went viral and panic gripped students and people from North-Eastern states.

An exodus of sorts started a day after India turned 65. Stories of attacks filtered in without confirmation and social media went abuzz in analysing and spreading the panic further. The Indian government now claims that they have deciphered that the messages and images have originated from Pakistan. They have blocked several websites, but that is no guarantee that the hate messages will not keep coming. Pakistan has denied the allegation.

There are no ethical guidelines, besides personal discretion, which the Indian media is expected to follow. There is a lot more speculation than factual corroboration when it comes to discussions. Editorial deliberations and studio discussions are now the soul of media discourse. I have repeatedly confronted the term “Bangladeshi illegal migrants” used in this coverage and have been questioning how they have reached this conclusion. There are no documents available to back up any allegations of illegal migration. The census is not a document which indicates migration. To tag a community as Bangladeshis when they may have been in India for generations is unacceptable. The “north east” stereotype has only been strengthened in this pious coverage. I heard a report and read one as well talking about the “north eastern community”. Such a community to my knowledge doesn’t exist.

The media still hasn’t been able to decide on whether insurgency or terrorism or militancy is the right way of describing an armed group fighting for sovereignty or statehood in north eastern states. If the group is Islamic (or Islamist as the Americans insist) then the tag of “terror” sits easily on them. “Ethnic riots” seemed the most fitting way to colour the recent violence, but one of the two groups clashing in this round of carnage was tagged with its religion. Government figures were conveniently quoted, as well as challenged. If the government said they had 100 doctors on ground, the media said it was grossly inadequate without really assessing how many doctors would be required. But when the government said 4 lakh were displaced nobody questioned that number.

Tension prevails even as this is being written. The media has suddenly decided to be more responsible. They have started blacking out certain news reports which are being considered explosive. In defense, however, the media will say we were damned when we didn’t cover the north east well enough and now are being damned when we are sustaining the coverage.

Journalists as generalists perhaps are a bad idea when it comes to covering conflict and communal issues.

It’s still simmering in Bodoland and the “fault-lines” (a favourite media term) are showing up in various other places. This summer promises to be a long one for the region with another “ethnic group” embarking on a 96-hour highway blockade in Manipur – an annual ritual which prevents millions of people from receiving basic amenities. That’s why they say “no news is good news!”

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