“Dada aashoon, amader baachan (Dada, please come and save us)!” “They’re burning our houses!” “They have bombs! Can you hear them, the explosions?”
Usually, reporters are the ones who call their sources, but last week, the situation was reversed in West Bengal’s Howrah district. People in Dhulagarh who had numbers of journalists, called them repeatedly and desperately. They left messages like the ones quoted above. “I got calls, messages and videos on Whatsapp from people in the area,” said one reporter who works for a Bengali daily. “But we weren’t sure it would be irresponsible to carry any stories on it, so nothing came out.”
Newslaundry spoke to journalists who cover the Howrah area for both Bengali print and electronic media. None of them wanted to go on record, but what emerged from the Dhulagarh conversations was a disturbing glimpse at how much influence national media commands.
Dhulagarh is in Howrah, just outside the state capital of Kolkata. On December 12, processions celebrating Milad un Nabi, or Nabi Diwas, wound their way through Dhulagarh and neighbouring areas. This happens every year and usually without incident. Places like Panchla in Howrah district have seen communal violence in recent times, but not Dhulagarh.
This year, however, there was a difference: the route that was given to the procession was through a number of Hindu neighbourhoods. Two reporters who cover the Howrah area said that usually, the Nabi Diwas celebrations remain within Muslim neighbourhoods.
As the procession went through Hindu localities, some “comments were passed”, according to one journalist. Arguments quickly turned serious and violent, with gangs of young men collecting and threatening violence. Two tailoring shops, owned by Muslims, were attacked by a group that was allegedly Hindus. Sewing machines and whatever was inside were set ablaze, eye witnesses told journalists. Before things could escalate any further, a large contingent of the police and Rapid Action Force (RAF) appeared in the area and the night passed in uneasy calm.
Next morning, the RAF left the area even as rumours were circulating that Muslims from neighbouring areas were planning “revenge”. “Local Hindus were petrified,” said one journalist, who got calls from a few people in Dhulagarh. “It sounded like rumours – the Muslims are coming! They have bombs! They have sticks!” said another journalist. “But by noon, it turned out that the fears were real.”
For approximately four hours, Dhulagarh burned. Shops were set on fire in the local bazaar and looted. The mob attacked homes, looting them and lobbing bombs – crude contraptions that are far more dangerous cousins of the pataka – at them. Eye witnesses say Hindu households were targeted. “You have to understand, everyone knows everyone in places that are this small,” said one reporter. “Hindus and Muslims live in separate neighbourhoods, but together. So when this happened, some of them recognised those who were attacking them and when they didn’t recognise them, they knew these were outsiders.” One temple was attacked and its idol – of Kali, the goddess best known for her all-destroying rage – was broken. There are reports of Hindu families having fled to neighbouring villages.
All this violence took place in broad daylight. In the videos that have been circulated, no one is seen wearing masks. It’s all out in the open and witnessed by locals who tried to get in touch with journalists. From the videos and photographs that were shared, it almost seems like the locals did the actual on-ground reporting. They were desperate to talk and be heard. Unfortunately, few listened and Dhulagarh was barely mentioned in mainstream Bengali news.
“What we were told was that since this is a communal issue, we should approach it cautiously and underplay it so that things don’t flare up,” said one journalist. Another said, “Dhulagarh has been peaceful for the past 12 years, but the places around it regularly see unrest. For instance, about two months ago, two gangs, both made up of Trinamool Congress men, had a massive fight in a village nearby. A local school teacher told me, 52 bombs that went off on one night. Have you heard anything about it?” When asked if incidents like this one weren’t reported because the reports were reliable or because they involved TMC workers, the journalist didn’t comment. “The real issue in this area are the bombs. How does everyone have them?” he counter-questioned.
Section 144 was imposed in the Dhulagarh area after the violence on Monday and Tuesday. Those suspected of rioting were taken into police custody. The situation was not violent but tense. While TMC maintained silence on the subject, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party galloped into action. Congress appealed for peace and one of its leaders was not allowed to enter Dhulagarh, which was still under Section 144. BJP leaders were also stopped at the police barricade on the main approach road to Dhulagarh, but some BJP workers found their way in through an alternative route. Conspicuous by its absence was TMC. “There’s in any case an underlying grievance because the Hindu community in these parts is convinced that TMC does Muslim appeasement and now they’re really angry,” said one local observer. “The BJP is capitalising on that now by saying to the victims of violence, ‘Where’s TMC now?’” The State government’s damage control measures include summarily transferring Howrah’s Superintendent of Police and offering compensations (in cheques). BJP leaders gave statements to the press alleging that the those responsible for the violence in Dhulagarh were from the TMC and had targeted Hindus. “The first part is right,” said one journalist. “Everyone is TMC here, but who knows? Maybe now things will change because this time, the Hindus really are angry.”
From the reactions that journalists have got over the past few days, it seems much of Dhulagarh’s rage is at the media for ignoring its plight. Local media either turned a blind eye to it or dismissed the violence as yet another case of infighting among political strongmen. There’s a vibrant media scene in West Bengal, which has numerous local news channels and newspapers. However, all of them are wary of antagonising the TMC government in any way. To what extent this leads to voluntary lapses in reporting is a matter of speculation and rumours.
As far as Dhulagarh is concerned, it’s difficult to tell whether this was a case of self-censorship or a worrying example of how national media sets the agenda for regional counterparts. Because Dhulagarh did ultimately make news, but only after Zee News picked it up. Sudhir Chaudhary had a segment on the violence in Dhulagarh on his prime time show, DNA. In his commentary, he suggested that the incident had not been reported widely because the victims were Hindu and the mob had been Muslim. The Zee News report was far from exhaustive, but it was more than what had come out so far. It also became something of a green light – all other channels and publications followed the story up. Reports appeared in Bengali media too, which begs the question of whether it took Zee News to make the story worthy of coverage.
Over last Wednesday and Thursday, some publications sent reporters to Dhulagarh. This coincided with the police trying to clear the rubble in the area, which locals interpreted as an attempt to cover up the violence by removing evidence. “It was insult upon injury,” said one journalist. “First, they’re ignored by the media, then the police is making it look like nothing happened, just when the media shows up at the scene. Of course people were furious.”
There was one incident of journalists being beaten up in Dhulagarh last week. One reporter said the aggressors were BJP workers who happen to be from Dhulagarh. They verbally abused the media, accusing them of selling out, and repeatedly asked, “Why didn’t you report what happened to us?”
From the administrative perspective, Dhulagarh raises serious concerns about law and order in the area. For instance, who took the decision to let the Nabi Diwas procession go through a Hindu area? Knowing the area is sensitive, upon whose advice was the RAF removed after Monday night, even though Dhulagarh was still tense and there were rumours of an attack being planned? How could the mayhem go on for hours when the police were merely a few minutes away?
For journalists, however, there are other and difficult questions that this incident poses. Dhulagarh has offered us a glimpse of how much is not reported and what politics inform the news that is reported. After all, is it a coincidence that Dhulagarh fits so neatly into Zee News and Chaudhary’s favourite narrative of Hindus victimised by Muslims? (Remember how on DNA, Chaudhary persisted with the story that there had been an exodus out of Kairana even when these theories had been proven to be baseless?) Had Dhulagarh been a case of a Hindu mob attacking a Muslim neighbourhood, would it have been similarly dismissed by the local press?
How do you know when being ‘responsible’ as a journalist is a fig leaf for censorship? How should we report on sensitive incidents in a way that the public is informed rather than incited? When those who are the subjects of a story provide you with reports, how do you verify them? To what extent should national media be allowed to set the agenda for language media? These are questions that the media in India needs to answer, especially in these increasingly-polarised times.
At some point in the future, perhaps Dhulagarh will be flattened into a simplistic binary of Hindu versus Muslim. However, if we let that happen, we’ll be ignoring a wealth of local nuances particular to this region, its social fabric and its politics. There’s also the issue of losing the audience’s confidence, which is of critical importance in a time when so many publications are battling to win readers’ and viewers’ loyalty. As one journalist said bluntly, “We failed them. I don’t know whether or not we should report communal violence, but the bottom line is that these people got in touch with us, hoping the media will stand by them, that we’ll make sure their anguish is seen. That we didn’t is a tragedy.”