Why is India’s media shying away from identifying targets of selective arson in Delhi When the explanation that giving specific details would inflame passions does not pass muster
IT HAS been a tumultuous three days. The American president flew in and out of India. He and Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugged each other and spoke at the “world’s largest cricket stadium” in Ahmedabad on February 24. The media, as expected, gave it wall-to-wall coverage. The rest of India disappeared, momentarily.
And then it appeared, in all its viciousness, not in a remote part of the country, but under the noses of the most powerful men in India and probably the most powerful man in the world.
Let’s just speculate for a moment. If the Trump-Modi jugalbandi, or “bromance” as some people have called it, had not occupied almost the entire media space, is it possible the media would have paid heed to the early warnings of the violence that has convulsed a part of the national capital?
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Kapil Mishra gave an open call to arms on Sunday, February 23. He did it before the media and cameras and with a senior police official by his side. The latter watched and listened even as Mishra issued an ultimatum to the police to clear the anti-CAA protesters at Jaffarabad.
Given that the Delhi police are only too willing to arrest all manner of so-called “anti-nationals” for provocative utterances, it is beyond belief that Mishra’s statement did not warrant any response. But we also know why it did not.
But what if the police had acted on that day? The tension around Jaffarabad would not have disappeared but a clear message would have been sent out that no one can take the law into their hands.
That, however, was not to be. Instead, weapons were gathered, and men armed with lathis, iron rods and sacks of broken bricks were ready to begin their assault. They could not wait until Donald Trump had left. Even as the US president obfuscated at his press conference about what he thought of the CAA and continued to lavish praise on Modi for his commitment to religious tolerance, the lanes of North East Delhi exploded into vicious communal violence.
By then the media, mostly headquartered in Delhi, simply could not ignore it. In between reports of what Trump did, what he said, what he ate, we began to see visuals of the ugly side of religious intolerance being played out barely 14 km from the pomp and luxury of Lutyens’ Delhi.
In many ways, the contrast that we saw on television screens on February 25 is India’s reality. The bluster and bombast of the rulers, who are but men placed in power by ordinary people, and the bloodlust and hate let loose by these very men and their followers as it translates into targeted and vicious violence on India’s minorities.
The media’s role at such times becomes even more important. In the past, the media has been blamed for inflaming passions. And rightly so. At the same time, given the pattern of such clashes, should the media cover up what it sees, or report it for what it is?
I refer specifically to incidents of arson that have been reported. Journalists have seen young men with petrol bombs that they fling with impunity into houses or shops. But are these just random targets?
Clearly not. In 1984, during the anti-Sikh violence in Delhi that raged for three days following Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Sikh homes, shops and gurudwaras were specifically targeted and firebombed.
This pattern was repeated during the 1992-93 riots that took place in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid’s demolition in Mumbai. There, Muslim-owned shops and restaurants were picked out for arson, standing out as black holes in a row of other establishments left untouched.
In Gujarat 2002, this was amply visible in many cities. And in major communal conflagrations since then we have noted this.
Therefore, why would journalists shy away from pointing out the targets of the selective arson? On NDTV, for instance, even though arson was mentioned, the reporters were at pains to either cover up the target – a religious place or a building – or went to great lengths to suggest the issue was not who owned the place that had been firebombed but the commercial value of what was lost.
The explanation that giving specific details would inflame passions does not pass muster. We are not reporting who did it until it’s confirmed, but surely, we can see who owns these places, and also note the pattern.
This report in Hindustan Times also alerts us to this pattern. According to it, in some localities, saffron flags were placed on Hindu homes and shops a day before the violence, clearly leaving out those owned by Muslims.
A phrase that crops up with regularity when such violence is covered is “senseless”. How is this violence “senseless”? It has been planned and instigated, with some future benefit in mind.
This time it is clearly to put fear in the hearts of Muslims, who are already terrified at the prospect of the National Register of Citizens being pushed through. It is to make it clear to them that they cannot come out and protest, a right guaranteed every citizen. Justice P Nandrajog, who recently retired as chief justice of the Bombay High Court, reiterated this in an interview with the Indian Express, “Everyone has a right to protest against a government policy…people have the right to support it as well. Both sides are entitled to project their views…As long as it is a reasonable view, the government cannot say that it will not let certain people project their view.”
The one aspect that stands out as different so far in the Delhi violence is the way the media has been treated. In Gujarat in 2002, for instance, journalists were beaten up by the police on one occasion as this report records, and there were reports of intimidation. A Muslim journalist wrote about his near escapes from mobs while reporting in Gujarat at that time.
In Mumbai in 1992, some journalists faced threats but nowhere close to what journalists have experienced in Delhi. For journalists to be asked their identity, for their phones to be snatched, to be beaten by rods, to be shot – this is a new and worrying development.
Not so, I must point out, for journalist in Kashmir. In fact, even as we in the media protest about what our colleagues have had to go through in Delhi, let us pause and remember our friends and counterparts in Kashmir.
It is so easy to forget Kashmir. And we continue to do so.
For more than 200 days, journalists in Kashmir have had to struggle to do their jobs, to find ways to access information, to upload their stories and photographs – a herculean task in their circumstances with painfully slow internet. Little by way of solidarity for their struggles emerges from the Indian media.
They have also faced intimidation, not from rightwing mobs as in Delhi, but from the security forces as this report by the Free Speech Collective documents. They are being bullied into revealing their sources and they have been detained for what they report. Nothing is “normal” for a Kashmiri journalist.
Remembering their plight will offer us some perspective on how journalists are prevented from doing their jobs in multiple ways. In Kashmir, the establishment uses the security forces as an instrument of intimidation. In Delhi, it uses its rabid followers to do the same.
Let me end with where I began, the visit of Trump to India, which he said was “great” so many times that the adjective has lost any meaning. At the press conference, before he went to Rashtrapati Bhawan for his last engagement, he was asked a question by a CNN reporter. This network and Trump have had a long and combative relationship. Thus, not surprisingly, Trump went into attack mode even as the question was asked, accusing CNN of lying. To which the reporter responded, “Our record on delivering the truth is a lot better than yours.”
Just speculate for a moment: could this ever happen in India if, even though it’s highly unlikely, the prime minister holds a press conference?