Violence, what violence? India’s primetime anchors passed on Assam to discuss Modi hugging Biden

The US-India bilateral talks are a big deal, but what about the two people who died in police firing in Assam?

WrittenBy:Nidhi Suresh
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Even for a country like ours with a shockingly large appetite for violence and absurdity, the videos from Darrang district in Assam made most of us sit back in horror. Shot during an eviction drive in Sipajhar, the videos showed the police allegedly opening fire on an unarmed protester and beating a man with batons, while another man, a photographer, jumped on his body.

Unfortunately for our primetime news anchors, this was simply not newsworthy or shocking enough to make it to the 9 pm headlines. Instead, the primetime news hour of different channels was dedicated to the Modi-Biden bilateral talks.

Yes, Modi’s three-day visit to the US is important. It’s his first since Joe Biden assumed the presidency, and Modi will be addressing the Afghanistan situation, meet Quad leaders, and address the annual high-level UN General Assembly.

Simultaneously, the news broke about the Assam violence, a minor being allegedly gangraped by 33 people in Maharashtra, and a shootout at a Delhi court. Yet primetime anchors dedicated their entire segment to, among other things, the jokes and hugs exchanged by Modi and Biden during the bilateral talks.

Despite the fact that the incident in Assam had taken place on September 23, channels like Aaj Tak, Republic, Times Now and ABP did not mention it on their 9pm primetime shows that day. On the Times Now website, an article claiming to articulate all the “biggest news events in India” published at 8pm on September 23 did not mention Assam at all.

On September 24, as more details regarding the Assam story emerged, and claims such as those who were killed were “illegal migrants” was clearly disputed, news channels dedicated their primetime solely to the Modi-Biden talks.

Silence on primetime

At 9 pm last night, Republic TV editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami was angry. He was excited. He had a purpose.

Goswami himself is from Assam. He hails from a district called Barpeta which is barely 138 km from where the violence took place.

As the primetime newshour commenced, Arnab Goswami could barely sit still. “Good evening and welcome, it’s a big news day!” he shouted. “Let’s be clear, at the start, America needs India..."

A few minutes later, he said, “But before all that, as we see these pictures tonight, I wanted to also start with a thought.”

Was the thought about Assam? Sadly not.

He said, “The lobby in India that considered Kamala Harris their guardian angel must be feeling crushed. They must be feeling absolutely crushed in seeing her meet and have fantastic discussions with prime minister Modi..."

After a monologue on “anti-nationals” and how the world is rolling out the “red carpet” for Modi, Goswami announced the two topics under debate for the night. First up, “Propaganda Fails! PM Modi ensures deep engagement with the US Democrat government” along with an interview with former US secretary of defence and former CIA director Leon Panetta. Next, “Big bilateral, big takeaways.”

But before Goswami began, he once again made a hopeful pause. “And here are the headlines,” he said, and read out six headlines. All six were about the bilateral talks, not one mentioned Assam.

Republic TV wasn’t the only channel to stay silent. It was in the esteemed company of NDTV, Times Now, Times Now Navbharat, Republic Bharat, CNN-News18, DNA Live, Aaj Tak, and ABP News, all of which live-streamed the Biden-Modi talks. Assam didn’t make it to the first 30 minutes of coverage across all these news channels.

While both NDTV Hindi and NDTV 24x7 had covered the violence on September 23, Ravish Kumar and Vishnu Som skipped it on their primetime shows.

On September 24, NDTV Hindi began its Modi-Biden coverage by early evening. By 8.30 pm, conversations on the US and India were in full swing. The 9 pm slot, usually held by Ravish Kumar, was hosted by Kadambari Sharma, who livestreamed the Modi-Biden talks before delving into a conversation on them.

What happened

Details about the Assam violence emerged by noon on Friday, September 24.

The eviction drive, led by the district administration of Darrang, had started on September 20. It was part of Project Garukhuti, an exercise by the Assam government to “weed out” foreigners. According to this report, chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma had “taken up this novel project” because the “land belonging to the indigenous people has been encroached upon on a large-scale with a well-designed conspiracy by a group of well-organised encroachers who have always been posing as a threat to the identity and existence of the indigenous people”.

The project stands alongside the National Register of Citizens, which also promises to “clean up” the country.

In Darrang, the eviction drive left nearly 800 people homeless, most of whom were Muslims from East Bengal – a community that has faced discrimination for years. These are the people who have been referred to as “foreigners”, “illegal immigrants”, “infiltrators”, “termites”, and more.

After the videos of the violence went viral, the photographer who jumped on a body was identified as Bijay Bania, appointed by the district administration to document the eviction drive. As public outrage grew, the Assam police said Bania has been arrested and the CID has been asked to investigate the case. Bania is currently in the CID's custody.

Two people died during the police firing: Moinul Haque and Sheikh Farid. Haque was a labourer, father and sole breadwinner of his family. Farid was barely in his teens.

Not noteworthy

On Friday morning, writer Samrat X analysed how local dailies in Assam covered the incident. Most local reportage focused on the police’s version of events, ignoring the experiences of those who were being evicted.

“Nowhere in any of the reports in print did I see any attempt to get both sides of the story,” he wrote. “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.”

This was seen in how sections of the national media covered the violence as well. Aaj Tak, for instance, emphasised on how the protesters “pelted stones” and “flung desi bombs” at the police. The channel’s reporter did interview a local resident but only for 10 seconds.

On ABP News, anchor Rubika Liyaquat didn’t fail to continuously bring up how the crowd had “attacked” the police. Another ABP anchor also referred to those evicted as possible “Bangladeshis”. There was no interview with those evicted in the story.

Times Now repeated the police’s claim of firing in “self defence”. The anchor said, “The police were attacked and the protesters had to be tamed which is why they fired, is what the chief minister has come out and said..." Times Now has a reporter in Assam. However, they took the executive decision to place her on a boat in the middle of a river and talk about how people are stuck on either side of the river. The channel had six interviews with politicians in Assam but none with those being evicted.

NDTV’s ground report detailed what had happened and interviewed the families of the deceased. They skipped Assam during primetime.

With research inputs from Tarmeen Shaikh.


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