Before I get all self-righteous, a full disclosure. I was returning from Kolkata to Delhi on February 6, 2013 when I picked up one of the Bengali newspapers at the airport. As my plane took off, I read a front page anchor story about how a tribunal in Bangladesh, conducting the trial of Bangladeshis accused of committing war crimes during the 1971 Bangladesh War, had sentenced Abdul Qader Mollah to life imprisonment on February 5, 2013.
Mollah, known as the “Butcher of Mirpur” for actively participating in the murder of 344 civilians and the rape of minors in 1971, is a Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami leader. The news report quoted persons who found anything short of a death sentence for Mollah to be scandalous. I scanned through a few other news items (including one about the Left Front opposition in West Bengal calling for a bandh later on in the month) and went off to sleep.
And that was that.
I followed the buzz of flies that followed the Afzal Guru hanging, the Augusta chopper deal scandal, another terrorist attack against Shias in Quetta… Then on February 13, my wife while trawling through her facebook page asked me whether I knew anything about what was going on in Dhaka. I told her I didn’t. Neither did a single newspaper or television news channel. (To be fair, I hadn’t read any Bengali newspaper online or otherwise, never mind a Bangladeshi newspaper, since my return from Kolkata.) Again, that was that.
Four days later, again courtesy some facebook update, my wife asked me whether I, being a journalist and all that, was following what was happening in Shahbagh. I recollect my brain registering “Shahbagh” and processing, “Shahbagh. Is that in Gujarat? Or Pakistan? Iraq perhaps? I would have heard about it if it was in Uttar Pradesh”. Which was when I decided to Google search “Shahbagh” and find out what that was about.
So, online on February 17, I read about the murder of a young Bangladeshi blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider, allegedly by religious fundamentalists in Dhaka on February 15. “It’s about people protesting against the murder of a blogger”, I told my wife, before turning on the television. I checked the national news channels. Nothing there on Bangladesh. I went to BBC and CNN. Nothing there either. I switched to the Bengali news channels. Nope. So I proceeded to check things out again on the internet, this time knowing the search words – “Bangladesh”, “Shahbagh” and “blogger”.
To a cut a long story short, I sat up from my slouch, suddenly realising that something huge was going on in Bangladesh since February 5 that involved hundreds and thousands of people congregating in Dhaka’s Shahbagh Square demanding the death sentence of accused “razakars” – Bangladeshi collaborators in atrocities committed with the Pakistani Army in 1971. A huge, continuous demonstration against the main Islamist party of Bangladesh, the Jamaat-e-Islami, an ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, had been going on full-scale since February 5 and no one I knew had any inkling of it.
An overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country was standing up to religious fundamentalist politics and was making Islamists run scared. This was the “contra-Pakistan” story that every media organisation would love to run. In India, this was tailor-made to cater to both the secular English language news-reading/viewing lot (“At last the mullahs are being pushed around”) as well as to those nationalist audiences who would lap up this contemporary extension of the much-loved “We walloped Pakistan in 1971 and liberated Bangladeshis” story.
But stunningly, on the night of February 16, eleven days after thousands – young people, housewives, office-goers, labourers, kids, upper-middle-class folks – had started thundering from Shahbagh, there was almost total radio silence outside Bangladesh. The London-based writer Tahmima Anam had written a strident piece, (Shahbag protesters versus the Butcher of Mirpur) in The Guardian on February 13 which I read only on February 16. Islamabad-based Pervez Hoodbhoy’s trenchant piece on Pakistani disinterest in the goings on in Bangladesh (Shahbagh Square: Why We Pakistanis Don’t Know and We Don’t Care), published in Pakistan’s Express Tribune could be transposed and applied to India as easily.
It would take Nitin Pai’s lucid opinion piece published in Business Standard on February 17, (Why Shahbagh is special) for the Indian national media to get some sort of picture that something big was happening next door. Kolkata-based Subir Bhaumik’s opinion page piece in The Times of India (The Bangladeshi Spring) and Dhaka newspaper Daily Star’s executive editor Syed Badrul Ahsan column in The Indian Express, both appearing on February 20 – the day I left for Dhaka to cover what was happening for Hindustan Times – finally registered for many readers in India the enormity of what was going on in Bangladesh. As did the first ground report from Shahbagh in the national media (as opposed to in the Kolkata media) by Indrani Bagchi appearing in The Times of India on the same day (Bangladesh seeks justice for a ‘better tomorrow’).
But in the media, how you package the news matters as much as – if not more than – what news you’re running. Running the same reports on the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption protests in 2011 in the inside pages of a newspaper has a very, very different impact from when its splashed across page 1. The same holds for major television coverage as distinct from providing a “capsule”. Keeping in mind the scale of what has been happening in Bangladesh for almost a month now, the media – both in India and internationally – have woefully played it down. It has, quite unlike what its reputation is otherwise, been making a molehill out of a mountain.
I asked Delhi-exiled Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen over Googletalk how she explains such widespread professional apathy on the part of the media outside Bangladesh? “The western media is not interested because the protestors on Bangladesh are demanding the death penalty for the war criminals which Europe especially is uncomfortable about. Even for America [where the death sentence is prevalent], the Bangladesh issue is centred around crimes that were committed 40 years ago. So the media’s focus is more on the lines of ‘Bangladesh is a poor country. It should fight against poverty, illiteracy, women’s oppression, Islamic fundamentalism – the last one being a key issue at Shahbagh, but the demand for ‘hanging war criminals’ make CNN and BBC deeply uncomfortable and they have kept their distance”, writes Nasreen.
She also maintains that the Western media has got a bit wary after fully throwing their support with the protesters in Tahrir Square in Egypt and finding that “things haven’t really turned out the way they thought they would pan out with liberal democracy flowering all over”. Her guess is that the international media is in a wait-and-watch mood when it comes to Bangladesh and its huge churning. As for the relative disinterest in India, Nasreen points out that the obsession here was always with Pakistan. “Whatever media interest there is in what’s happening in Bangladesh now is from West Bengal, nowhere else in India. Which is strange since the Shahbagh protesters are demanding the death of collaborators who were fighting Indian soldiers in 1971”, Nasreen tells me.
I ask Soutik Biswas, editor, BBC Online India, whether it’s true about the international media keeping itself professionally at a distance from Shahbagh because of their discomfort with the demands for death for the 1971 war criminals. “There are two strands that the media have recognised in the ongoing Bangladesh story: one, the big popular movement against religious fundamentalism and religion-based politics as practiced by the likes of the Jamaat-e-Islami; and two, the demand for 1971 war criminals, now leaders in the Jamaat, to be hanged. The two strands in the story are very conflicting for many in the international media and explains the very low-key coverage”, he tells me.
But is the BBC suffering from “uprising fatigue”? “Oh no, not at all! Quite the contrary. Mass protests in a South Asian Muslim-majority country is big news. But as I said, there are confusing signals for many media organizations about what these protests in Shahbagh are about”, says Biswas before confirming Nasreen’s theory of the Western media preferring to ‘wait and watch’.
Somnath Mukhopadhyay, writing in the Kolkata-based Bengali newspaper Ananda Bazaar Patrika (‘Kolkata Naki Sojag, Sochethon?’ Kolkata Is Apparently Attentive, Aware?, February 26) explains the apathy as Indian “political correctness” on the part of its political parties, media and popular unwillingness to speak out against a Muslim party such as the Jamaat-e-Islami.
The Indian media unlike its Western counterparts, of course, has no qualms about covering popular demands for death. In our case, the apathy stems from a genuine and shocking lack of interest, coupled by the fact that its usual guide and mentor on matters lying outside Indian borders — BBC, CNN, New York Times and other Western media organisations – has shown little interest in the momentous Shahbagh protests. The Press Trust of India last had a Dhaka correspondent some 25 years ago.
Even as media organisations from Delhi send reporters to see what the ruckus in Bangladesh is all about, what appears on national television and in the papers about the goings-on in Bangladesh continue to be overwhelmingly and ridiculously played down. All that will change once Time or The Economist puts Bangladesh on its cover or CNN and BBC leads with it. Sorry, if — not once — they decide whether it’s the “morally correct” story to pursue.
Image By: Abhishek Verma