Why the media can’t let Delhi 2020 slip off its radar
Opinion

Why the media can’t let Delhi 2020 slip off its radar

The aim of the carnage was to send out a message to Muslims that there’s no space for them in the public square. We, as journalists, can’t afford to miss such a message.

By Kalpana Sharma

Published on :

The violence that convulsed North East Delhi in the last week of February might have slipped off the front pages of newspapers and disappeared altogether from television news channels. Yet, the story about Delhi 2020, as the violence over those days is now being called, is far from over. In some ways it is just beginning.

Unfortunately, a major weakness of the media in this country is its unwillingness to follow up on issues. Only a few dogged reporters persist, often struggling to get their stories featured in mainstream media.

At such a time, it is gratifying that some digital news platforms, even those struggling to stay afloat financially, and a few newspapers are doing detailed reporting from the ground of what exactly happened over those three days. And the stories are horrifying. This, this and this are just a few such reports. They are important because they inform us about what could happen in the future. And there’s little doubt that there is a future for such conflagrations given that there has been no word of sympathy for those who suffered from the governing party at the Centre.

The most chilling of the recent reports from North East Delhi after the killings ended is the one by Arunabh Saikia of Scroll titled “‘I coloured my sword red’: Meet Delhi rioters who say they killed Muslims.” Saikia managed to speak to several men, including one who boasted about killing three Muslim men. Here’s an excerpt that gives a flavour of the article:

At around 10 am, Kumar said he got his first hit. “The Mohammadan was running,” he recalled. “The Hindu public was chasing him. I was leading the pack.”
“I was the first to catch up with him, and hit him with my rod on his head,” he continued, his voice turning shriller and his hands mimicking the strike. “Then he fell down, and the public pounced on him after that…de dhana dhan dhan.”

The story illustrates why what happened cannot be viewed as an aberration, a one-off that will not repeat itself. It underlines that such violence is not the result of one provocative speech, even if the BJP’s Kapil Mishra has to be held to account for the outright provocation in his speech of February 23. It tells us that the seeds of such visceral hatred that can send a man to kill strangers, men he does not know, only because they are “Mohammadan”, were laid over time. And the fruits of that effort are now evident.

A tangential but important detail in the story is the reporter acknowledging that these men spoke openly to him because they identified him as a Hindu by the thread he wore around his wrist.

Should journalists use their religious identity in such situations to gain access? This is not to say Saikia deliberately wore the thread around his wrist. But should journalists reveal their affiliation or identity, and use it to their advantage in certain situations? During the Delhi violence, many journalists were questioned about their religious identities. Others were simply attacked because they were journalists, irrespective of whether they were Hindu or Muslim, as reports on Newslaundry and other platforms have confirmed. But reporters covering communal conflict often face this dilemma.

Another reality that is only just emerging is the impact of communal conflict on women. The stories of what they face often take time to emerge. Women do not speak easily about this, particularly when entire families and neighbourhoods are traumatised and displaced. But the stories emerge over time as this report suggests.

The details recounted in these reports filed after the violence ended allow us as mediapersons, and readers, to place Delhi 2020 within a larger perspective. For it is not the period of time over which the killings and arson took place, or even their location, but what the pattern of violence tells us about this particular conflagration and what it portends for the future.

Another vexing question that journalists, and media houses, face is the terms that should be used to describe what happened. In Delhi last month, as in several other conflagrations around India, it is virtually impossible to arrive at a definite term. It takes scholars and academics time to study the developments and then decide whether what happened should be described as a “riot”, “communal violence”, or a “pogrom”.

The discussion has already begun and many different perspectives have been articulated even as terms like riot, or pogrom, or sectarian or communal violence are used, often interchangeably, in the same piece.

Ashutosh Varshney, writing in the Indian Express, suggests that the first day of Delhi 2020 was a clash between two groups, pro-CAA and anti-CAA, and thus could be termed a riot, while day two and three “look like a pogrom, as the police watched attacks on the Muslims and was either unable to intervene, or unwilling to do so, while some cops clearly abetted the violence”.

The sociologist Satish Deshpande, on the other hand, in a powerful piece in The Hindu argues that what happened was neither a “riot”, nor “communal violence” nor a “pogrom”. He writes: “The truth is that we do not have a single word or phrase yet that can name this phenomenon because it is really the newest stage of an ongoing project rather than a standalone event.”

By “ongoing project” Deshpande is referring not just to the period immediately before the violence erupted, but going back to when a justification started to be created for demonising and attacking a particular community, in this case Muslims.

Apart from finding the right term – it’s important and likely to be the subject of considerable debate and difference for some time to come – it is essential that the media unearths all aspects of those terrible three days in Delhi. Given that there are reports that the Delhi police appear to be actively discouraging reporters, and even relief workers, from visiting the worst-affected areas as reported here, there’s more reason to continue digging.

We also have yet to find a reasonable explanation for that strange action by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting against two Malayalam television channels Asianet News and Media One for reporting what they saw during the violence. These channels made no bones about explicitly stating the nature of the structures that were attacked, such as mosques. They also reported that the police stood by and did nothing, a fact noted and reported by several others, including the BBC. But by doing this, the ministry’s order stated, the two channels apparently violated “Rule 6(1)(c) of the Cable Television Networks Rules, 1994, which says that ‘no programme should be carried...which contains attack on religions or communities…’ and Rule 6(1)(e) that says “no programme should be carried...which is likely to encourage or incite violence…’,” according to a report in the Telegraph.

The I&B minister, Prakash Javadekar, claims the decision to suspend the two channels for 48 hours was taken without his consent. One of the channels, Asianet News, is owned by Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a BJP Rajya Sabha member, who is better known as the owner of Republic TV. After Javadekar’s intervention, both channels were restored.

But who gave the order? An overzealous babu? Why was it done in the first place? To send out a message that if the government chose to act in this way, it had the power to do so?

Delhi 2020 is a story that is far from over. From the reasons for the visible civic neglect as reflected in the drains where dead bodies were discovered to the unplanned manner in which such areas grow and flourish even as the rest of the city receives the munificence of tax funds, there is much more to investigate apart from the actual events over those days in February.

As Satish Deshpande has emphasised, this is not a one-off event. The media needs to be conscious of this. If this is the one lesson to draw from Delhi 2020, it is this. That those days in February might well be the precursor to the days ahead, as the political mood in the country shifts perceptibly towards accepting that the aim of creating a Hindu Rashtra might already have been achieved.

When I asked an elderly Muslim taxi driver in Mumbai who had come to the city from Bihar in the 1980s what he was feeling after hearing about the violence in Delhi, he said, “Behen, what can I say? The Hindu Rashtra is already here. People like us have no place in it.”

To me, that was the aim of Delhi 2020. To send out that message to Muslims, especially those who had found the courage to take to the street to protest against the CAA. That there was simply no space for them on that street. We, as journalists, cannot afford to miss such a message that speaks to us during and after such tragic events.

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