‘Muslim revenge on Hindus’: How sections of the Kannada media communalised the Mangaluru airport bomb scare

Most TV channels and newspapers stuck to the facts but a few like TV9 Kannada and Hosadiganta fanned communal passions.

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“Were Muslims involved in the planting of the bomb?” “The Muslim community is taking revenge on Hindus.”

This is how a few Kannada news channels chose to cover the news that a bomb had been found near a ticket counter at Mangaluru International Airport on January 20. The Improvised Explosive Device was defused soon after, and a man named Adithya Rao surrendered to the police two days later.

That’s when a couple of television channels — and a few newspapers — switched tactics and said Rao was “mentally ill”, while keeping up the narrative of “Muslim terror”.

Here’s how the events unfolded.

At around 8.45 am on January 20, security personnel found an unattended black bag near a ticket counter in the airport. It contained a “live bomb”. A bomb detection and disposal squad, along with the police, took the device to an isolated location and defused it.

Most Kannada TV channels live telecast the controlled bomb detonation, including TV9, Public TV, Suvarna News, Power TV, Kannada News18, Kasturi TV, and Praja TV.

Suvarna TV described it as “the most dangerous bomb in the history of the state”. It gave wide coverage to demands by Vishwaprasanna Theertha Swamiji, the chief of the Udupi Mutt, for “stringent punishment” to whoever had planted the bomb.

Incidentally, Suvarna TV is the same channel that did a “sting operation” on “illegal Bangladeshis” in Bengaluru. Though this was found to be incorrect, a city official conducted an illegal demolition drive and razed 700 houses — and Suvarna TV gloated about it.

With no details on who had planted the bomb, most channels followed the same narrative: that the Muslim community was “taking revenge” for the recent police shootings in Mangaluru. Two people had been killed when the police opened fire on protesters against the citizenship law in December 2019.

Some channels also described the planting of the bomb as the Muslim community’s “revenge” against the Indian government bringing the Citizenship Amendment Act and proposing the National Register of Citizens.

Public TV’s primetime show on January 20, for example, brought this up. One of the anchors said Mangaluru had earlier been in the headlines over the citizenship law protests, but now the “city is in fear” due to the bomb found at the airport. He hinted that Muslims were involved in planting the bomb.

When asked about the possibility of the bomb being placed to “avenge” the police firing during the citizenship law protests, the anchor said, “Possible! It can be. You did this, we will take revenge, you killed two, we will kill 20. It can be this way also.”

Instead of waiting for the police to conclude their initial investigation and put the facts on record, the anchor fueled the possibility of “revenge”.

On TV9 Kannada, the anchor claimed that “the terrorist” who had planted the bomb actually intended to target the historic Kadri Temple in the city, where an ongoing religious event was being attended by over 30,000 people. “Suspects had reportedly asked the route to Kadri Temple,” the headline shouted.

She then said this was how the “Muslim community was taking revenge on the Hindus”, and that it needed to be “nullified”.

Some newspapers, like Hosadiganta, followed suit, suggesting that members of the Muslim community “were planning to destroy” the temple.

On January 22, Adithya Rao, 36, from Manipal surrendered before the police in Bengaluru. Rao reportedly told the police he had planted the bomb in retaliation for not getting a job as a security officer at Kempegowda International Airport in 2018.

After surrendering, he was taken to Halasaru Gate police station, and then to the Victoria Hospital for a check-up. He was later remanded in 10 days’ police custody.

While most Kannada channels had live telecasts on Rao, those that had peddled the “Muslims planting bomb” story changed gears. The story was now focused on how Rao was “mentally unstable” and unemployed. “Important” questions were discussed, including the weight of the bomb, the depth of the pit where the controlled detonation took place, and the “link” between the citizenship law and the bomb.

Soon after Rao’s surrender, the incident took political colour. Dinesh Gundu Rao, the acting state Congress president, said, “The BJP may not be happy with this news. They would have preferred a surname other than Rao.” Livemint reported that Janata Dal Secular chief HD Kumaraswamy had said since the suspect turned out to be a non-Muslim, everyone was quiet.

This was faithfully covered by the media but one Kannada newspaper, Hosadiganta, went a step further.

Hosadiganta is considered to have close ties with operatives of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. On January 24, the paper carried a detailed report on its front page explaining how Rao was “different” from “terrorists of the minority community”.

The report carried the disclaimer that it wasn’t trying to “protect” Rao’s image by claiming he was mentally ill, or that no bomb had been found in the airport. It did, however, try to clear his image by attacking the Muslim community — by claiming “Hindu terror does not exist”.

Explaining the difference between Rao and “Muslim terrorists”, the story said Rao had “no support” from Hindu groups and his family had reportedly disowned him three years ago. It explained how Muslim terror groups are “organised” and provide “training to Muslim youth”, and how “their network provides arms to destroy members of the Hindu community”.

It advised politicians such as HD Kumaraswamy to “understand the difference” between Muslim terrorists and Rao. In Hosadiganta’s opinion, Rao’s act of planting a bomb wasn’t an example of Hindu terrorism because he wasn’t doing it to “support Hindus” or “propogate Hindu philosophy”.

Tejas Dayananda Sagar and Ankush Bandyopadhyay are with 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroot reporters.


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