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Rajdeep Sardesai to Tavleen Singh, one dilemma during riots: preserve harmony or report hate

Be it Gujarat 2002, Hashimpura massacre or Delhi riots, journalists on the frontline of communal hate have had to fight time, rumours and the police.

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A lot has changed in independent India’s media coverage of communal riots – the language used to describe them, the role of the police, the rumours, the presence of television cameras, and social media amplifiers. Nothing has brought home the stark transformation more clearly than the riots in northeast Delhi this week where more than 40 people lost their lives.

Hate speeches by BJP leaders, burning down of mosques, attacks on homes and stores belonging to both Hindus and Muslims, Ashok Nagar in Delhi has become ground zero to examine how far India has slipped on the scale of impartial reportage, responsible policing, and shown deep-seated prejudices as well as deep-rooted fears.

To think there was a time not long ago when communities involved in riots were not named in the interest of harmony. Journalist Coomi Kapoor, who earned her spurs as a young reporter during the Indira Gandhi Emergency, recalls a conversation between editors Ajit Bhattacharjea and Arun Shourie at The Indian Express on whether religion should be specified in news reports on communal riots or whether they should continue to be described as majority and minority communities. Shourie was of the modern school of journalism and believed the reader must not be left guessing.

Rajdeep Sardesai covered the Bombay riots in 1992-93, reported extensively on the 2002 Gujarat riots and visited the streets of Delhi this week. He remembers a similar conversation as Kapoor’s in The Times of India during the Bombay riots – on the need to name the communities. In the age of TV and social media, where visual imagery has primacy over the narrative, identities are impossible to cloak anymore.

“The fruit-seller I interviewed today, with a beard and a skullcap, was so obviously Muslim. At the same time, Kamal Sharma who lost his restaurant is also obviously Hindu,” says Sardesai. In Mumbai (then Bombay), they covered the riots locality by locality, speaking to as many affected people as they could, trying to understand what was seriously wrong on the ground.

Also read: Kejriwal is wrong. Delhi to Gujarat, outsiders blamed in riots, but most victims know attackers

Changed terms in times of riots

There are lots of subtexts to stories, Sardesai notes. “In 1992-93, I heard of many deliberate attacks, which were disguised as land grabs. I heard the same thing about the tyre market in Delhi this time.” Indeed, journalist M.J. Akbar, in his book Riot After Riot, writes in a chapter on the 1979 Jamshedpur riots: “The history of riots shows clear efforts by landlords or traders to use the conflagration as a camouflage to do what they couldn’t have achieved legally. Indeed, this is one of the principal reasons why businessmen feed communalists.”

Being specific is not the only thing that has changed about how riots are covered. The relationship between the police and the media, once an integral part of all city-related coverage, has broken down irretrievably. Crime reporters and city police officers have always had close working relations – except during the Emergency when the entire government machinery had turned hostile to the media.

Ajoy Bose, who covered the Sadar Bazaar riots of Delhi in 1974, remembers a young Nikhil Kumar (who later became the police commissioner) for saving him from a Hindi-Muslim riot in Delhi. Bose and Kumar still share a great equation. In contrast, the police force now is just one of the many institutions thoroughly compromised. Bose first saw this during the 1984 riots when homes, stores and colonies of Sikhs were attacked as the Delhi Police stood watching.

Ruchira Gupta, who was sexually assaulted by a mob that demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992, says the police personnel were not part of or escorting vigilante groups. “There was only one channel, Doordarshan, which did not show graphic images of violence. Curfew was imposed faster and the CRPF and (state) police were brought in as soon as possible,” says Gupta, who was working for Business India at the time.

Bose says the first riot he covered was Sadar Bazaar, and the details did not differ much from the other. “It was usually a tussle between Muslims and the police, where often a section of the former would be extremely provoked and the latter would be restrained. It was usually the result of a petty incident with the Imam making an incendiary speech. The police would wait patiently for Muslims to vent out their anger,” he says. “Later, I covered riots outside Delhi, in Jamshedpur in 1979 and Hashimpura in 1987. Hindus would take shelter behind the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) in Uttar Pradesh, which had become thoroughly communalised. But then the Army would take over, do a flag march, and the situation would be controlled.”

Also read: Blood, bodies and scars: What I saw after the 1983 Nellie massacre in Assam

From visceral memories to instant report

Everything changed with 1984, which journalist Tavleen Singh insists should not be called a riot. “It was a pogrom. Rajiv Gandhi was the darling of the Indian media even after he justified the killings of Sikhs. In Hashimpura, where 42 Muslims were gunned down by PAC men, we barely reported this Nazi-style massacre.” She says journalists have repeatedly shown bias. The 2002 Gujarat violence, Singh says, was made to sound as if it was the first major communal riot since 1947. The ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits went almost unreported when it was happening in 1989-90. Today, the hate speeches of Home Minister Amit Shah before the CAA came in have been almost ignored, as have the spate of mob lynching of Muslim men since 2015 that was the build-up to what is happening now in India.

In the age of TV, images leave powerful, visceral memories – of bodies piling up, homes and properties being set on fire, religious places being destroyed. What was earlier reported in cold print the following day after being vetted by chief reporters and senior editors now reaches the public in real-time. In 1992-93, Bal Thackeray’s hateful editorials in Saamana were largely invisible. Not so for BJP politician Kapil Mishra’s hate speech in the company of a senior Delhi Police official in 2020.

One danger today that didn’t exist then is that the news also has a small shelf life, being replaced by the next hate speech or violence. The reports also lack historical context. For instance, Ahmedabad had a history of communal riots in the 1980s. Mumbai had witnessed a series of riots in the 1970s and 1980s.

But much of the context and complexity get lost in the din of immediacy now. Sanjay Suri, a senior journalist now based in London, says when a riot occurs, people find it very hard to believe anything from either side, and they certainly don’t believe in the police. The tell-tale signs speak. Covering the Maliana riots with Rahul Pathak, a day after the Hashimpura massacre, Suri says they got an eerie feeling about the canal nearby: “We followed our instinct and saw a body floating, then a few more, then many more. Then we saw scores of bodies, of Muslims, caught up against the sluice gates. A police team had followed us, and that is the great danger in such a situation. A reporter is a target not because you’re seen to lean one way or another, but because you’re seen as a witness to something someone wants to hide. You need to look without being seen to be looking,” he says.

Suri also recounts how he was “attacked by killers” during the 1984 riots “not because I appeared Sikh but because those chaps had seen me speak to victims and intended targets”. “Once you have seen what you have, you must report it factually. No point filing a report where one said this and the other that. That can be done from the desk. And better to report plainly than allow rumours to take over.”

Also read: Nellie massacre and ‘citizenship’: When 1,800 Muslims were killed in Assam in just 6 hours

The new face of rumours

Rumours are the worst enemy of public order and have been since the Partition when there was talk of poisoned water and bodies arriving from Punjab. Social media exacerbates and amplifies rumours now. Messaging platforms like WhatsApp thrive on falsehoods, breed greater amount of hatred and suspicion, as happened in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district in 2013, where Hindus and Muslims clashed over a suspected case of sexual molestation.

What was called rumours earlier is 21st century’s “fake news”, notes sociologist Surinder S. Jodhka, “has become a kind of new normal and therefore hard to trust. I think the media reports are far more polarised today; with the growing number of private news channels, news reports are more to feed the ideological bias of the viewer than to present ‘facts’. This is not to deny the continued presence, and even expansion, of some highly credible and professional journalism.”

The smartphone spreads hate quicker, but it also gets reporters closer to the scene. It allows them, and ordinary citizens, to record hate speeches, though enterprising reporters could get this done earlier too. Rajdeep Sardesai recalls getting Shiv Sena’s Pramod Navalkar to say on record: “Yes, our Sainiks were involved in the Mumbai violence to protect Hindus”. Yet, there was no live TV until the Gujarat riots when the riots played like a reality TV show, he says.

Social media also forces reporters to take sides, whether or not it is aligned to the facts. The noisy social media armies create great pressure on journalists to choose sides, says Sardesai. “We did not have the technology of today,” says Ruchira Gupta, “but we always went to the spot, spoke to people of the affected community, authorities concerned, and bystanders. We did not depend on talking heads or in simply generating a debate.”

The architecture of riots has altered. Their frequency has come down considerably, notes Jodhka. When they happen, they tend to be far more visible. Despite the rise of the Hindu Right-wing, legitimacy for communal violence has declined. This could partly be because the generation from the times of Partition is no longer with us. The Indian Muslims do not see themselves anything other than being Indian. What they don’t want is to have to prove it repeatedly in their own country to self-proclaimed nationalists.

The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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  1. Riots happen because people want it. Normally these happen after prolonged economic, social, religious confrontations. Mostly reasons are local projection of national and international issues. This is the first riot caused by media. History has shown that liberal media is worst enemy of minorities. NPR is not in sight

  2. Author writes “….. to have to prove it repeatedly in their own country to self-proclaimed nationalists.” Author must know that nationalism is always self-proclaimed and doesn’t need certificates from crooks masked as liberals and seculars. Muslims are repeatedly asked to prove their nationalism is a perception perpetuated by sickularists to keep Muslims deceived forever. Muslims are the only people in India who have been blinded by hatred produced by anti-RSS forces. Muslims become easy prey due to their Shariya based upbringing that limits their options in the modern world. Author’s double standards are visible in every para of this post.

    • Good reply. The print has equated hate against BJP with hate against Hindus. It’s entire reporting is with the aim to absolve muslims even when its clear that they are the party initiating violence and just blame Hindus.

  3. Your writing that hate speech by BJP leaders (??), Attacks on Muslims(??), and burning of Mosque (??), what non sense you are writing.
    Whole thing started with Shaheenbagh terror, All the inflammatory speeches by Muslim leaders and participants of Shaheenbagh and opposition parties are conveniently forgotten.spade should be called spade by unbiased journalists, which you are not.

  4. On the subject of craven (contemptibly lacking in courage; cowardly.), opportunistic journalists, I had an acquaintance in the U.S. who left journalism over 15 years ago. He said his breaking point was when he was reporting on a school bus accident and his producer asked him if any children had died. My friend said no and his producer expressed disappointment that there had been no child fatalities because that would have made a better story. My friend left journalism soon after that. Agreeing with me, my friend Apratim Mukarji says, : Quite believable. I have witnessed the crest-fallen faces of several news editors when the reporter concerned disclosed that nobody had died in the accident “Not really worth publishing.” I recall an incident when Tavleen Singh was covering Meerut riots for the Telegraph. Communal riots and use of swords in this modern age! Yes, if you believe the story of Ms Tavleen Singh in the Sunday magazine on communal riots in Meerut in 1982. The riot-torn city was limping back to normalcy. As I was stationed at Meerut for my newspaper, I accompanied her on a tour of the riot-affected areas at the time when the city was limping back to normalcy. Suddenly, messages on the police wireless network flashed recovery of several swords. We rushed to the Prahlad Nagar police station. It so happened that several wooden crates had come to Meerut from Dehradun with swords in them that were to get polished. One of the crates opened as it fell from a rickshaw in which the crates were being carried from the railway station. The swords were exposed, triggering a sort of panic. Already on alert, the police took possession of all the crates and took them to the concerned police station. There was no reason for alarm bells to ring as there was no apparent link with the riots that had seen no medieval sword-fight. The swords were for decoration, but Ms Tavleen Singh did not agree not to highlight this incident as an exclusive. Next week’s Sunday magazine carried photographs of the crates of swords and a few paras.

  5. The article is reasonably balanced one considering the scale of bias you see in Indian media including The Print. That said, stating Sardesai had a dilemma in reporting is far fetched as that man has bias under every cell of his body.

    • Many journos used to enjoy a lot of freebies under Congress governments. They cannot digest the fact they have lost all those gifts they used to take for granted. Burkha, Rajdeep and Shekhar belong to this category.

  6. Preserving harmony, which others have so thoughtlessly destroyed, is not the journalist’s job. Reporting scenes of violence can be done with a sense of discernment, displaying graphic images with sobriety. Not creating a spectacle, like Ms Anjana Om Kashyap landing up in a spacesuit. The worst travesty of course would be to act irresponsibly, make a bad situation worse. A scrum of one hundred journalists landing up on one terrace, to further a political narrative. 2. A communal riot is not a pretty sight. Its truth and horrors should be widely brought to our consciousness by the media, fill at least citizens of good conscience with moral indignation towards its authors. For me, that handsome young Muslim boy, mourning the death of his father, is the defining image of Delhi 2020.

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