Malda violence: Even the Delhi media is divided on whether it was communal or not

Some organisations have used the C word, while others preferred to describe it as just ‘mob violence’.

BySourodipto Sanyal
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Malda violence: Even the Delhi media is divided on whether it was communal or not
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Malda district in West Bengal was simmering with tension owing to protests carried out by members of the Muslim community throughout last week. The reason for the protest were remarks made by Kamlesh Tiwari early last month.  Responding to Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan calling Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh workers homosexual, the self-proclaimed Hindu Mahasabha leader (Hindu Mahasabha denies any involvement with him) had stated that Prophet Mohammad was the world’s first homosexual.

Tiwari’s remarks caused considerable furor earlier, too, when about a lakh Muslims congregated in Muzaffarnagar demanding his death. But things seemed to have gotten out of hand in Malda. According to most media reports, the protest had turned violent and a police station in Kaliachak (community development block in Malda) was burnt down, along with dozens of buses.

Meanwhile, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee stated last week that Malda violence was a not a communal incident. Banerjee is not the only one, though, to make that distinction. The Delhi media, too, seems largely divided on how to label the Malda incident.

Zee News has been consistent in calling it a communal violence. “Malda riots: What actually led to communal violence – 10 things to know,’’ reads one of the headlines it carried. ABP News also had no reservations in describing the event as communal. One of its headlines read, “Communal tension prevails in Malda after Muslim protest turning violent’’.  Mail Today’s headline also made similar observations: “48 hours after communal riots, Kaliachak in Malda turns ghost town”.  The Times of India, too, reported on the happenings (instead of goings- on) in Malda in a similar tone: “Communal tension prevails in Malda after protest turns violent”.

In contrast, The HinduThe Indian ExpressNDTV and Hindustan Times did not describe the event as communal. The Hindu reported it and described it as a case of mob attack. The Indian Express described it as “mob violence”. The headline for one of its reports stated: “Malda: 48 hours later, 10 held for mob violence”. Though, The Indian Express today carried an article in which the violence is described as having assumed ‘’communal overtones’’. The Hindustan Times also reported it as “Malda Violence Protest”. NDTV in its report described it as “Malda mob violence”. In one of its other reports, Malda is described as an event where “one lakh protestors went on rampage”.

The word communal is missing in all these reports.

One of the reporters who wrote a story on the incident explained why the use of the word communal was avoided. The reporter did not wish to be named and stated that the report did not explicitly state that Malda was not a communal incident, while refraining from stressing on it.

Another reporter from an English newspaper stated that Malda was not reported as a communal incident because of the complexities on the ground. The reporter stated that it was not the protesters who had taken part in the violence, like burning of the police station and buses, adding that there were lumpen elements who had pre-planned the attack and it had nothing to do with the protests at all. The reporter seemed to suggest that the protest was being used by vested interests to spark off communal tension.

A reporter with another English daily, on the other hand, explained why Malda was described as a communal incident. “The event definitely had a communal colour to it. It was not just a case of an ordinary protest of a particular community, certain details justify it being called a communal event,” the reporter said, adding that those “details” did not make it to the newspaper since he could not verify them.

This is not the first time that newsrooms have exercised restraint in reporting on a religiously-charged matter. While some may argue it is the media’s responsibility to withhold details or paint an event in a certain way to avoid setting off a chain of violence, such discretion has now come to be seen as hypocrisy. Indeed, in the age of Twitter and pervasive social media commentary, reporting with restraint can also be seen as dishonest.

There is no denying that the reasons for the protests in Malda were explicitly communal — the idea the mob was protesting against was disrespect towards the Prophet and they were banding together as Muslims to do that. However, according to media reports, the resultant violence was borne by symbols of the state (the police station and buses) and not another community.  Would labelling Malda communal violence, then, unnecessarily add a Hindu-Muslim angle?

Even so, it behoves journalists to exercise due restraint when covering incidents of violence that have a communal colour, if for no other reason than to avoid giving ammunition to lumpen elements on both sides to use footage/reports as excuse for further violence. Given that some journalists were quick to label random attacks on churches as a Right-wing Hindu conspiracy, large sections of the media has only itself to blame for people’s failure to see these nuances.

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