All the vile ingredients of the toxic soup that is our national conversation were present and particularly virulent in the sequence of events that began with the violence in Assam: a lack of news-gathering capacity; an irresponsible commentariat willing to twist facts and data to serve ends ideological or unscrupulous; news TV that can’t tell rumour and innuendo from a primetime-ready story; and the darkest, most pernicious side of news-by-social network.
We still don’t know exactly what set off the violence in Assam’s Kokrajhar district. The more exhaustive reports suggest that Bodo militants, increasingly assertive after attacking Santhal tribals over the past decade and a half, have turned their attention to Muslim “settlers” of Bengali descent. Most reports have come not from correspondents familiar with the history and problems of the troubled state’s Bodo-dominated areas, but from those who’ve had to be bussed in from outside. Why? Because, for most of India’s networks and newspapers, the complex and diverse Northeast is a giant hole — with perhaps a single correspondent in Guwahati, if at all. Worse, because those initial stories were so thin, spin doctors across the country were able to distort them to their own purposes. It is now clear, for example, that the overwhelming majority of those affected were Muslims of Bengali descent. (According to The Hindu, 2,31,308 of them are in refugee camps, as compared to 61,439 Bodos.) Yet I defy you to detect that from the tone of the commentary on the subject.
It’s obvious why that is: because the initial lack of clarity offered an opportunity for the right wing to calculatedly and cynically drum up votes. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Praveen Togadia toured Assam, and blamed “Bangladeshi infiltration”. L K Advani stood on the floor of the Lok Sabha, and blamed “Bangladeshi infiltration”. And, of course, Gujarat’s Narendra Modi misused his Independence Day speech to rant against “Bangladeshi infiltration”, which is no doubt a serious problem in his state, given that it borders Bangladesh.
Okay, that’s a regular day at the office for the backward-looking Bharatiya Janata Party, perennially hoping that every year will be 1992 all over all again. But these views rely on intellectual support from some who insist that they are independent voices, and are given media megaphones on that basis. S K Sinha, a retired general who had disastrous, polarising tenures as governor of Jammu and Kashmir and Assam, repeated his demands that Muslims in Assam be stripped of property and voting rights. Swapan Dasgupta, in The Times of India, dropped obscure but terrifyingly-phrased warnings that Bangladeshi “colonisers” are “developing independent ambitions that may well go beyond the purview of both state and national politics”. K P S Gill, in Outlook, misused Census figures to claim “demographic re-engineering” through infiltration.
But the 2011 Census, in fact, reveals the exact opposite of these Goebbelsian claims. The growth rate of the Muslim population in Kokrajhar since 1971 is well below the national average for the community, and, therefore, appears convincingly natural. The overall population growth rate since 1971 for Assamese districts bordering Bangladesh is lower even than for those bordering Arunachal Pradesh. The data conclusively proves that the overwhelming majority of Bengali-speaking Muslims in Assam have been there since1971 — and were declared citizens nearly two decades ago, in the Assam Accord.
And yet, when the Samajwadi Party’s Abu Azmi went on TV to complain about the slant the Assam story had been given, he was mocked; we are so accustomed to hearing people rant about media bias that it’s become hard to take any accusations seriously. Although Mr Azmi is part of the struggle for power over Mumbai’s Muslims, which lies behind the shocking violence at Azad Maidan, his point was clearly valid.
So let’s talk about that violence for a moment. That it emerged partly from a frustration among some Muslims that the mainstream narrative had been hijacked, and wasn’t presenting the truth, is undeniable. That it was fed by a credulous belief in SMS chains, and Facebook and Twitter posts, which greatly magnified the atrocities in Assam – and, indeed, in Myanmar against the Rohingyas – is also beyond question. In any act of violence, the guilt should not be shifted from the perpetrators. However, there’s also a lesson for the rest of us: in the absence of responsibility from the mainstream media, the darkest sections of the internet will begin to sound increasingly plausible to the angry and disconnected.
And, finally, we come to what followed the mob violence in Mumbai and the attacks on Manipuri students in Pune — the very real fear, among many people from the Northeast in some towns in Maharashtra and south India, that they would be targeted in retaliation for the Kokrajhar violence. People from the Northeast have been forced to realise that, to too many of us in the rest of the country, the distinction between a Bodo and a Khasi or a Mizo is meaningless; all of them, thus, could feel threatened. In fact, it is likely that the risk is minimal to anyone. But a combination of callous anti-Muslim rumour-mongering and over-the-top reports on local TV channels in the Northeast caused thousands to feel unsafe enough to leave. Note, again, the malign effects of the abdication of basic professional ethics by people who’re supposed to give you the news.
This pattern will, sadly, not go away, as long as those who should know better choose polemic over responsibility. Nothing is more dangerous than fudging the truth in order to set Indian citizens against each other. Yet, in a reckless pursuit of profit, power and influence, some of us are prepared to do just that.