By Vivian Fernades
January 19, 2014
'The media is the voice of the voiceless. It did a splendid job on the Muzaffarnagar riots,' but if it had seen a pattern in the over one hundred communal incidents that have occurred in Uttar Pradesh since the Akhilesh Yadav government took office and was as vigilant then as after the riots, localized clashes would not have flared up and resulted in 48 deaths and displacement of about 50,000 persons, almost all of them Muslim.
This was the conclusion of Farah Naqvi, member of the National Advisory Council, and an organizer of relief to the survivors of both the Godhra (2002) and Muzaffarnagar (2013) riots. She was speaking at a debate on, 'Communal Violence: Has the Media Been Soft On Mulayam,' organized by the Foundation for Media Professionals (FMP) at Delhi's Press Club on Saturday 18 January, 2014.
But Madhukar Jetley of the Samajwadi Party said the state administration had taken swift action. The violence had been contained after two days of rioting. None of the party's leaders had incited the violence unlike legislators of the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party. The trouble was confined to one or two districts while in Gujarat 14 districts had been affected in 2002. The state government had taken all possible steps. It will ensure there is no recurrence. The Supreme Court is monitoring the investigations. Jaitley said SP founder Mulayam Singh Yadav had not visited the relief camps because he was not the chief minister! (After Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi had visited the camps on 22 December, Mulayam had said those who had met him were BJP and Congress imposters).
'The media has been very harsh on Mulayam.' Jetley believes the media reaction was more a response to the killing of Rajesh Verma, a stringer of television news channel IBN-7 on 7 September in Muzaffarnagar town. The media focus on the SP has taken pressure off the BJP, which is keen on keeping communities tense in UP so it can get a sizeable number of Lok Sabha seats, Jaitley said. In his view, communal tension had increased after the BJP had made Amit Shah, Modi's confidante, the party in-charge of UP.
Jaitley found the media biased. Its coverage of the killings of Meos (Hindu peasants, some of them of Rajput caste, who converted to Islam and still worship Hindu village deities) in Rajasthan's Gopalgarh (Bharatpur district) in September 2011 was muted, he said, even though it is as close to Delhi as Muzaffarnagar. (Ten Meos had been killed in firing by police (Gujjars), over a land dispute. Reports said VHP and RSS leaders were involved. Then Congress Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot had suspended the collector and superintendent of police. His action was resented by the Gujjars who saw it as a concession to the Muslims).
But Ashutosh (who does not use his surname), until recently the managing editor of IBN-7 (also a founder member of FMP), did not let off the SP. 'If a government wants to stop riots it can stop it in two hours,' he asserted. Ashutosh claimed he was aware that police had been instructed not to act. Police officials had told IBN-7 reporters that their hands were tied, he said. The SP wanted 'controlled riots.' It had an understanding with the BJP to split the votes communally. But the plan had come unstuck and the riots had spread to villages.
The state government had not taken steps to ensure the return of displaced people. It had not done anything to 'correct the Mahaul' and restore the pre-riots atmosphere, Ashutosh averred.
Speaking as an 'Indian Muslim' and a member of the Congress Party who does 'not agree with dynastic politics' Shehzad Poonawala said the state government had given the game away by not presenting a strong case against BJP MLAs Sangeet Singh Som and Suresh Rana under the National Security Act (NSA) for inciting violence. It had allowed the advisory board of the Allahabad High Court to drop NSA proceedings (non-bailable), and the two legislators to get bail. The state government's affidavit that social media had played no role in the violence had helped the MLAs. Som had uploaded a video clip allegedly showing Muslims killing two Jat youths in Kawal village, which is said to have sparked the tension. The clip was traced to Pakistan's Sialkot district.
The Samajwadi Party had also not supported his police complaints against Pravin Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and BJP leader Subramanian Swamy for falsely claiming that police had found AK-47 rifles and RDX explosive in mosques.
Poonawala said the SP was indulging in 'sophisticated communalism.' If communal violence had occurred in Gujarat at the rate at which it was happening in Uttar Pradesh, secular apologists would have gone 'hammer and tongs' at Chief Minister Narendra Modi (and rightly so). But their response to the Muzaffarnagar riots was muted.
Poonawala faulted Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav for trying to win over the Muslim with acts that would only help communalists. Instead of acting impartially, he had passed a government order awarding compensation only to Muslims who were displaced. How could the state discriminate against the Hindus who were displaced? he asked. The Supreme Court had rightly quashed the order. Akhilesh had also appeared at the relief camps wearing a skull camp, These hollow gestures did not detract from attempts at dispersing the displaced persons, the inadequate provision of relief and the absence of moves to reconcile Muslims and Hindus in the violence-hit villages.
The compensation of Rs 90 cr to 1,800 displaced persons was far short of the value of the property they had forfeited. He accused the state government of 'legal bullying.' People in the relief camps were regarded as 'encroachers on forest land' and forced out.
Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, who had gone on a fact-finding mission (on 13 September, 2013) said the situation had improved in Muzaffarnagar town during his second visit on 2 December, 2013 but there was bitterness among Muslims in the villages. Chenoy said he was not satisfied with the response of the Communist Party of India, with which he was associated for 40 years, including for the last ten years as its central committee member. He had recently joined the Aam Aadmi Party because the CPI was playing electoral politics. It had held back criticism of the SP because it wanted the SP to help its leader Atul Anjam win a Lok Sabha seat. This was against the CPI's primary objective of working for the unity of workers and peasants and sensitizing them against attempts at creating caste and communal rifts.
If police could be thickly deployed in villages after the riots, why were they not posted in strength when the riots happened? asked Maria Akram, principal correspondent of the Times of India. During her visits, she found the state administration anxious to close down the relief camps. The compensation of Rs 5 lakh per hearth (which could be common for joint families with as many as 30 members), was very inadequate, Akram said.
Scholar Manisha Priyam said Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav should have shifted his office temporarily to Muzaffarnagar in a show of solidarity and to emphasize his government's desire to restore peace and normality. She congratulated the media for reporting on the makings of the riot and for its focus on rehabilitation. But talk of reparation was not enough. 'Secularism is about prevention,' of riots, she said.
Naqvi said that after the Godhra riots, the game plan of the Hindu communalists seemed to be to keep the death count low (48 in Muzaffarnagar, while in Gujarat 2002, the official death toll was 1044, of which 790 were Muslim), to contain adverse publicity but to ensure maximum displacement. She said the media had rightly kept the focus on displacement. She said both CNN-IBN and a other news channel had appealed for relief, which was quite novel. Humanitarian aid agencies had rushed in, which was noteworthy. But she disagreed with a news channel terming the displaced as refugees, when the term should have been 'internally displaced persons or IDPs.'
Naqvi said those displaced by large infrastructures -known as PAPs or project-affected persons - were eligible for compensation under the new government's Relief and Rehabilitation policy. She demanded a new code for dealing with riots, in place of the current colonial manual. It should have standard operating procedures for dealing with riots in villages (where flag marches would be ineffective, unlike in towns or cities). It must impose an obligation on the state to give reparations for its failure to protect life, limb or property. The compensation should have a rational basis; it cannot be at the whim of political leaders.
The issue of gender could not be ignored, Naqvi said. In the Muzaffarnagar riots she had come across 27 cases of strippings, molestations and sexual assaults (attempted/achieved). Not only was relief inadequate; post-trauma care was missing. Men who had failed to protect their households would turn on women. Their 'demasculinisation' would lead to domestic violence.
The Prime Minister blaming social media for the riots at the National Integration Council meeting (24 September, 2013) was 'obfuscatory tactics,' Naqvi said. If the administration desires it can quell riots in no time, she said, endorsing the Ashutosh's view.
The media was galvanized after reports that 40 children had died from winter cold and illnesses in the relief camps. But the deaths had not happened all of a sudden. They had occurred in the singles, twos and threes over weeks. If the media had reported the deaths as they had happened, more fatalities could have been avoided.
Naqvi said the media must trail the displaced persons. The government wanted to disperse them so that they would blend with the other homeless in the shanties and disappear. With the witnesses hard to find, criminal cases against the rioters would collapse for lack of evidence.
Impunity would embolden the communal cleansers.