On September 23, a video clip from Assam . It shows a man clad in lungi and vest carrying a stick chasing behind a fleeing policeman who runs to join a larger group of his colleagues. Immediately the man with the stick is shot at by the police and falls to the ground, after which he is set upon by a number of policemen who proceed to smash his prone form with sticks. Then another man, a photographer, jumps on the now dead person’s body and begins to stomp on his chest, which was red with a bullet wound.
The incident had occurred in a village in the vicinity of Sipajhar, approximately 60 km from Guwahati, during the course of an eviction drive.
The people being evicted were almost all Muslims of East Bengal origin who are called Miyas in Assam. While the term in its original meaning is an honorific, the word in Assam has a largely negative connotation.
The next day’s Asomiya Pratidin led with a pair of photos at the top of the page. The first showed an injured policeman with blood on his uniform walking with the help of two civilians. The second showed a large crowd of men, many clad in lungis, and evidently Muslim. The headline said,“Three encroachers shot dead in tremendous conflict with police”. A strap above the lead headline on the page said, in translation, “Counterattack on those gone to Sipajhar’s Number 3 Dholpur for eviction drive.”
According to the Indian Readership Survey, Asomiya Pratidin is the most-read Assamese language daily.
Bullet points below the headline summarised the key points. “Thousands with machetes, sticks, staves in every hand come to attack policemen,” said the first point.
A second report below the lead used a photo of the photographer identified as Bijoy Bania stomping on the dead man, and described it as a display of “peak barbarism and inhumanity”. This article also criticized the police.
The leading Bengali language daily of Assam, Jugosankha, led with a similar photo package, in this case with three images. The first showed policemen firing, though their target is not visible. The second showed the man lying dead. The third showed an injured policeman. “Sipajhar battleground in eviction, two dead in police firing” the headline said. The strap mentioned that the chief minister has declared the eviction drive will go on, and there will be a departmental inquiry into the incident.
A second article here, like in Asomiya Pratidin, used a single column image of the photographer stomping on the dead man and an article headlined “Joyful leap on dead person; youth arrested”.
The state’s leading English daily, the Assam Tribune, had a single image of the police firing at an invisible target in its lead package. “Two killed in police firing during eviction drive” said the lead headline. Two bullet points below in a strap below the heading said “Demonstration by evicted people turns violent at Dholpur” and “Civil administration, police team attacked by mob”.
A single column on the side mentioned “Cameraperson held for attack on injured man”.
Assamese language TV channel Pratidin Time featured news reports from where the incident took place and political reactions on the evening of the incident as well as the following morning. While reactions from politicians across parties, including the BJP, Congress, All India United Democratic Front and Akhil Gogoi, the sole MLA of the Raijor Dal, all found space, the coverage’s slant in favour of the police, administration and even the photographer who danced on a corpse was visible in the way the visuals were edited.
Like Asomiya Pratidin, the TV channel led with images of injured policemen and mobs of visibly Muslim protesters. These clips were played repeatedly. The clip of the lone man with stick charging towards the policemen was cut at the point where the police fired at him. What happened after that moment was edited out.
On the day of the incident, and the following day, the channel had tried to push a conspiracy theory about a mysterious “third force” being responsible for the violence. This conspiracy theory was named “tritiya shakti”, suggesting that a third force turned the “peaceful eviction drive” – in which 800 families had already been evicted on Monday – violent and disruptive. The “third force” theory also found mention in News18 Assam, in running text at the bottom of the screen.
Nowhere in any of the reports in print did I see any attempt to get both sides of the story. Not a single print or television report gave space to the side being evicted. No article or video report featured a single quote from any of the thousands of people who had been forced from their homes, or the families of those who died in police firing.
There was a slight change in the efforts of the local media the next morning as reporters who report for national and international publications got on the story.
One reporter from Pratidin Times went back to Sipajhar and spoke with a local man who was among those evicted. His version, that they had been told to clear out overnight, was aired briefly.
The conspicuous lack of the victims’ voices, videos edited to remove key components of police violence, and headlines suggesting the incident to be a mob attack on the police are unfaithful slants.
“Slant” in news is a manipulation often produced by what is not shown, as opposed to what is shown. The images and videos used in the Assam media did not show, for example, the very humble dwellings of these poor peasants being razed with bulldozers, or burning in fires – which would seem like a good reason for the evicted people to be upset. For the fires, the dwellers themselves, or the so-called “third force”, are being blamed.
Although ground reporters went to the spot during the eviction drive, they went as embedded media with the police, like the cameraperson dancing on the corpse, rather than as independent reporters. As a result, there’s nothing about how the bulldozing and fires started, who lit those fires, or even about how much notice period the evicted people actually had.
Even when a reporter did go back the next day and speak with locals at the spot, his effort was taken off air soon. The text at the bottom of the screen meanwhile went from “third force” conspiracies to BJP politicians talking of “blueprints” that had led to the violence.
A basic rule of journalism is that if someone says it’s raining outside, and someone else says it’s dry, it’s not the job of the reporter to quote them both. It’s the job of the reporter to look out of the window and see who’s telling the truth. At the moment, however, most newspapers and TV channels are not even quoting both sides. They are simply quoting one side, regardless of whether it is the truth. If that side says it’s raining, they shout in unison that it’s raining. If they say it’s dry, the pliant media declare that there’s a drought.