Why the Indian media narrative on communal incidents is more noise and less substance

There just isn’t enough data to make pompous claims.

ByHimadri Ghosh
Why the Indian media narrative on communal incidents is more noise and less substance
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The media has moved on to other things now, but for almost three months before the Parliament’s winter session began, news was full of reports of communal incidents, which opposition parties and a section of civil society said was because of “growing intolerance” ever since the new government took charge in 2014.

Such was the charged atmosphere that the media itself became a divided house. Stories talking of the rise and fall in the number of communal incidents during this government and the previous government became a daily feature. Independent and balanced voices did speak up but these were lost in the banshee wail of the (in)tolerance debate.

“… Sensationalism is becoming the common objective for the media,” founder of The Hoot, Sevanti Ninan, said. “Communal incidents and riots are sensitive issues that need to be dealt with caution.”

So, is the media, mainstream and social, divided, or is the media divisive?

As it happens, there are always two sides to a story.

The story numbers tell

Source: Based on Right To Information reponses from the ministry of home affairs.

To put matters in perceptive, we filed a Right to Information application to obtain last 15 years’ data from the Ministry of Home Affairs. There is no pattern that emerges from the data to link communal incidents to any particular party. Be it Congress, BJP or any other state party. The rate of communal violence in India has been similar regardless of the party in power. (The RTI was filed by 101reporters.com.)

Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjuna Kharge recently asserted in Parliament, “Where the BJP is in majority more communal violence is reported from there.”

Data reveal that in the last decade, Uttar Pradesh witnessed the highest number of incidents of communal violence, topping the chart with 1,416 incidents. Second and third came Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, with 1243, and 1113, respectively.

Note that for more than 13 years Uttar Pradesh has been governed by regional parties, either the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party. Madhya Pradesh had been governed by a BJP-led government for more than a decade and Maharashtra by the Congress.

A headline in The Times of India sought to throw further light: “Communal violence shows 24% jump in first five months of 2015”.

Minister of State (MoS) for Home Affairs Kiren Rijiju shot back that between 2013 and October this year, the number of communal incidents reported have come down “substantially”.

The Huffington Post reported rise in communal incidents since the formation of Modi government. But the data says otherwise. During 2014 (part of which was under BJP government) a total of 644 communal incidents were reported. The figure for this year until October is 650. Yes, there is a rise. Now let’s see the 2013 figure. It was 853. Now what do we infer? Different media houses drew different conclusions from this data.

Note that political parties of all hues and ideologies make the most out of debates such as those on tolerance/intolerance, communal/secular and awardwapsi/gharwapsi. Such topics are eagerly lapped up by the media, as well as the viewer/reader. They dominate prime-time TV and get substantial space in newspapers.

So divided is opinion in the debates that it gets difficult for the average Joe to make sense out of conflicting data/inferences thrown at him on incidence of communal clashes during this party’s rule or that party’s rule.

Then again, between 1999 and 2004, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA was in power at the Centre, a yearly average of 740 (total 4,437) incidents of communal clashes took place across India, which claimed the lives of 2,093 people. Drawing a similar comparison, when the Congress-led UPA ruled between 2004 and 2014, about 750 incidents were recorded every year (total 7,479) that killed 2,811 people.

Again, Karnataka has been governed by both the BJP as well as the Congress at different times. The BJP ruled from 2008 to 2013. Since 2013, the Congress is in power. There have been communal incidents under both regimes. The Congress’ score so far is 182, leaving nine dead. The BJP record for the time it was in power read 176 incidents leaving 16 dead.

The media has reported these and other data on communal violence. But what worries independent observers is the sensationalism that more often not creeps into the reportage, and the subsequent spillage of furore in social media.

Ninan says India’s mainstream media leaves no chance to flog communal topics hollow. “The media finds controversies around religion too good to let go,” she wrote in The Hoot.

Why compare parties in power?

The flip side begs the question: “Can we depend solely on government statistics to draw conclusions? Will that be a fair assessment?

Veteran journalist and political commentator Seema Mustafa, editor-in-chief, The Citizen, says it doesn’t. “The statistics do not tell anything close to the truth. They do not tell us the nature of the violence, and its degree of intensity. If 2000 are killed in one incident, data will show only a single incident, but the number of killed leaves a huge impact.”

Mustafa goes on to say it would be unfair to draw conclusions on the rise and fall in communal incidents from government statistics. “Police refuse to register FIR to keep crime figures low. But that doesn’t mean the crime has declined,” she says.

She insists that incidents such as the Dadri lynching should and must be reported, and the perpetrators named. “It is not the number of communal incidents or the death toll but the nature of the communal environment that prevailed that should be exposed, and questioned,” says Mustafa. “I will not reduce communal violence to just one incident. Every killing has a different impact and each one has to be assessed separately.”

The journalist says it would be erroneous for media to assert that a certain political party was “more communal” when in power, and another political party was less communal when in power.


Communal riots can be spontaneous, spur of the moment. They are also engineered by vested interests. Then there are those, which are chain reactions; some incident happens far off, and it sets off a series of repercussions at several locations. Those that followed the Babri mosque demolition are examples. The Gujarat riots of 2002 followed on the heels of the Godhra train burning.

But it is the common man that suffers the most. Women, more so. In the last 60-plus years since Independence, India has seen 36,693 communal incidents in which 21,234 people lost their lives. On an average, two communal incidents are reported every day in India, with at least one person killed.

Incidents of communal violence have happened regardless of whichever party is in power. The tragedy is multiplied when the media loses focus and panders to political agendas, fanning violence rather than help douse communal fires.

The data available currently is not enough for a fair analysis. Reporting just the number of incidents, number of people killed and injured, and the extent of property destroyed does not tell the full, or the right story.

We must look at data sets like number of people convicted, witnesses turning hostile, analysis of why a riot broke out, who was responsible, the role of law-enforcing agencies to come to a conclusion.

The tragedy is investigations have not helped nail a political party for fanning communal riots. They have been stymied by vested interests.

Pitiably, no agency has been able to come out with relevant data. Even the National Crime Records Bureau has more often than not failed.


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