Black-out Assam?

The government is missing the woods for the trees by blaming social media for instigating the Assam/Mumbai violence.

Let me first get this out of the way. The mob at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan last fortnight did not go on a rampage in reaction to horrors emanating from social media platforms, websites or text messages. It went on a rampage after learning about the horrors emanating from Assam earlier last month.

Did the ethnic riots that have left more than 70 dead, and lakhs homeless and living in sheer day-to-day existential fear in Assam, actually take place last month? Going by the media – both national and regional news-gathering organisations – it did. TV channels showed reporters keeping us up-to-date regarding the all-consuming violence, while the print media provided “deeper” and more detailed portraits of India’s latest episode of full-scale, ethno-territorial conflict.

One way of avoiding what happened at Azad Maidan, and what resulted soon enough in the intimidation of people with Mongoloid features living in various parts of India, was to not let anyone outside Assam’s conflict zone know about the harrowing things that were taking place there. In these days of mobile phone videos, photos and skype, this would have essentially meant turning Assam into not just a media no-go zone, but a full-blown no-go zone on the lines of the “alien crash site” Area 51. (And like the alien crash site purporting to be cordoned off because of “a gas or radiation leak”, parts of Assam could have been made out of bounds because of “heavy monsoon flooding” with fatality numbers sent out from some official email in Delhi.) Assam’s badlands would have had to become a place from where no news could come out.

Governments of different countries have tried this containment formula in the past. Atrocities in northern Sri Lanka during the “final surge” against the LTTE by Colombo and the crackdown on protesters by governments in some Gulf countries in the wake of the much-feted Arab Spring are two recent cases where information from the theatres of conflict was censored. A much more successful and long-term example of an information black-out would be China. We simply don’t know about the “troubles” occurring there – well, not at least until one or two bits seep out of the cracks to make “news out of rumours”. The poster-boy of an all-encompassing information black hole, of course, is North Korea.

For India to consider joining these rather unsavoury regimes in following their “no bad news is news” strategy wouldn’t have been a bad idea. After all, a news blackout in democratic India wouldn’t have been – “couldn’t have been!” – accepted just to prop up a regime for perpetuity.

Instead, a censor’s curtain would have fallen on Assam for purportedly “national security” reasons. A news black-out would have been the vaccine jab that the loving Ma-Baap State would have had to firmly administer for the good of the people.

Except imposing a clamp-down on media coverage from Assam would have been the wrong thing not only because it would have resulted in a full-speed, head-on collision with India’s idea of itself as a modern, liberal entity that (grudgingly) accepts the free flow of information – although if no one knew about the mayhem in Assam, then no one would have been able to condemn their blacking out – but because total ignorance about a national tragedy would have allowed those creating the mayhem to go about their delirious tasks unhindered. And we all know that GoI’s record on “showing guts” and “doing what’s right” on its own without any media-generated public pressure is extremely iffy. One just has to remember why Assam has had its so-many trysts with bad destiny for so long. Answer: Because national media disinterest leading to “pan-Indian” public disinterest has led to decades of governmental disinterest in the state.

So, if the newspapers and magazines and television channels have done nothing wrong in covering the bloodbath in Assam, why is the government so hell-bent on fitting the straitjacket on the “deviantly irresponsible” websites – facebook, twitter etc? To dangle the threat of censorship before these information platforms is like planning to treat a horse for head lice by chopping off the head of another horse after both the horses have bolted.

It would be wise to remember that the news that inflamed the “Bride of Shiv Sena” lumpens in Mumbai was not something concocted by devious minds. This was not a modern version of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an influential and totally fictitious anti-semitic propaganda pamphlet written in the early 20th century and propagated after the Russian Revolution in 1917 to strengthen the conspiracy theory that Jews were hatching a plan to take over the world.

There may have been some fake images “showing” atrocities against Muslims in Assam that raised temperatures at the Azad Maidan rally. But the real photograph of a hacked body floating in the river that appeared in Outlook, and the various real TV images of ravaged and burning village houses would have done the job just as well, if not better.

What “incites” a mob to go on a rampage is never easy to predict. It certainly is easier to use the law and order machinery to clamp down against any violence, whether actionary, reactionary or re-reactionary. Mumbai’s violent “protest” against Assam’s violence should not have been allowed to blow up in our faces. Nothing, not the worst piece of concocted or otherwise propaganda can be made the excuse for not coming down hard on mob violence. That’s what the knees of members of the mob are for: to be shot below them.

Which makes me come to the point about the threats that have led to some thousands of Indians from the north-eastern region with Mongoloid features to leave various cities across India. These individuals were threatened through text messages in the form of targeted bulk smses by individuals that the authorities are now tracking down.

Even if there is not much direct evidence found yet of an “Assam”-connection, it’s logical to assume that miscreants are targeting their idea of all of “them” in the “us-and-them” divide still being played out in Assam. Thus the “exodus” from Mysore and Bangalore after a Tibetan was knifed for reasons that may or may not been racial. (Yes, it’s not at all different from crazies shooting Sikhs in another country because they can’t differentiate – or care to differentiate – turbaned Sikhs from “Moslem jihadi ragheads”.)

These threats may have been ‘force-multiplied’ in platforms such as emails and social media sites. But it is more than obvious that news coverage of the threats, conversations between netizens about the threats on websites and social networking sites, and the word-of-mouth sharing of the threats within the targeted communities have played a far more effective role in disseminating the threat (and spreading the fear), than the threats being passed on to their intended targets from the internet.

I won’t be surprised if many folks boarded trains to temporarily go “back home” after reading or being told about newspaper reports of politicians across party lines pledging in Parliament to ensure their safety last week. Which doesn’t mean that the papers shouldn’t have covered Parliament’s assurances. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Parliament should be more careful about what it says – even if it ends up inadvertently propagating the very fears that it sets out to allay.


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