Scripting the Trail of Hate

Tracking the violence that has been rupturing Western UP for the past one year, Hardnews unravels the unholy alliance between demagogues and the local press in engineering riots

Sadiq Naqvi Meerut/Muzaffarnagar/Moradabad

 

In a small roadside clinic in Shahpur, a Muslim majority town in Muzaffarnagar, Dr Harveer Arya is examining two burqa-clad women. “I have rashes on my face, doctor,” one of them tells the heftily-built doctor. He promptly takes out a face wash and hands it over. “Stop using this synthetic niqab (veil),” he tells her. Dr Arya is the only skin and eye specialist in this sleepy town in the Hindi heartland.  

Outside his clinic hangs an election poster featuring BJP MP Sanjiv Baliyan. 

Some locals believe he was associated with the RSS a few years ago, but nobody’s sure. But that may be one reason why his clinic was attacked by a mob last year, after the riots.

“The mob entered my clinic and ransacked it,” the doctor says, while attending to his patients. After a local Muslim was gunned down by unknown assailants, the locals, suspecting it to be a case of ‘silent war’—a term they coined for hit-and-run killings by members of the other community—laid siege to Dr Arya’s clinic. A local resident says it was quite unfortunate, and the mob was calmed down only after a few elders intervened.

Dr Arya has a rather matter-of-fact explanation for the violence. While his burqa-clad patients look on, he offers, “These Muslims are non-vegetarian. So violence and immoral activities are in their nature.” He seems unyielding when told that a vast Hindu majority also eats meat. He has other questions: “Have you ever seen a Muslim girl eloping with a Hindu? Why is it that only Hindu girls are being lured? The Muzaffarnagar riots happened because boys of this community were indulging in eve-teasing.”

“Love Jihad is a recent term. We have been seeing it happen for long years. They do not want to stop,” he adds, referring to a recent incident in Paldi village, not very far from Shahpur. “Didn’t you read the reports? It was another case of Muslim boys molesting Hindu girls.”

In Paldi, it is alleged, four schoolgirls were molested and their clothes torn. A local newspaper Dainik Jagran not only reported the incident in great detail, but also started drawing parallels to what happened in Kawal last year, resulting in the Muzaffarnagar riots. “The incident has reopened the wounds of the communal riots,” the report read, emphasising the religious identity of the culprits.

However, going by the statistics in Meerut alone— perceived as the rape capital of UP—only seven per cent of the cases of harassment and rapes involved members of the minority community. There’s perhaps a reason for this selective reporting, then?

“It seems the stories in these newspapers are adding fuel to the fire,” says Mohd Khursheed, a former government official from Shahpur. “Any stray incident of harassment is given a communal flavour. Sometimes the events are even cooked up to promote animosity,” he adds. Stoking the heated atmosphere, the Meerut edition of Hindustan carried a whole page on Love Jihad and how the BJP was planning to take up the issue. There was not a single critical word on the nonsensical propaganda peddled by the RSS and its fronts; reading the reports, it would appear that the BJP/RSS and the vernacular Hindi dailies are working in perfect harmony.

Interestingly, whereas earlier the newspapers would use words like manchale to refer to those indulging in eve-teasing, now they call them alpsankhyak samudaya and samudaya vishesh (minority community/special community).

A senior editor of Dainik Jagran, on condition of anonymity, reasons that they’re bound to specify the caste or religion if there is tension in the area because of it. “When you have BJP members taking to the streets because of it, how do you ignore it?” asks the editor. 

While political parties and the press chart their own course, the administration faces the heat. “The local press has indeed magnified our worries,” says a top district administration official in Muzaffarnagar. Recently, the state machinery was on tenterhooks when local politicians of the majority community planned an anniversary of the double murder of the cousins Sachin and Gaurav in Malikpura.

A day after it was announced, the local press was on the job again.

“You read those stories. Most of them are far from the truth,” the district administration official says. On August 21, Dainik Jagran ran a headline: “Kawal se guzre to bura anjam hoga” (The consequences will be deadly if anybody passes through Kawal). On August 24, it said: ‘Kawal ka maarg LoC nahin hai’ (The road through Kawal is not the Line of Control between India and Pakistan).

“All of it was feeding the rumour factories,” says the official. There was an attempt to show that the people of Kawal village, mostly Muslims, were not in favour of letting Hindus pass through their village on their way to neighbouring Malakpura village where the anniversary ceremony was planned.

“This is factually incorrect,” the official says. “In fact, people from both communities had decided that they would cooperate and allow the anniversary to be marked peacefully,” Kaushal Raj Sharma, District Magistrate, Muzaffarmagar, informed Hardnews, adding, “We had meetings with them and they were willing to come together to ensure that nothing goes wrong.” But because of the reports in the local press, he says, “we had to deploy 50 per cent additional forces when there was no need at all.”

The anniversary did pass off peacefully. The turnout was lower than one would assume after reading the local papers. “Indeed, the low turnout shows that fatigue is setting in in the people in the region. They are fed up with the politics of hate,” says Jayant Chaudhary, General Secretary, Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD). “It is a very positive sign,” he says, “I even heard that people were very upset with Union Minister Sanjeev Baliyan. He was cornered and had to leave early when he had no answers on why he has not been able to get the FIRs in riot cases quashed.”   

Chaudhary narrates how the press is hell-bent on provoking fire when there isn’t one. “I got a call from a journalist from Dainik Jagran asking why I didn’t go to Kawal for the death anniversaries of Sachin and Gaurav. I told him nothing and the next day there was a piece on how the RLD had betrayed the Jats.”

The calm was disrupted yet again recently, on August 29, when four Muslim boys who had gone to a coaching centre in a Jat colony were brutally bashed up by the locals. It was alleged that the boys were eve-teasing. Soon, local MP  Baliyan, who many allege had an active role to play in whipping up the anti-Muslim frenzy, arrived at the scene and gave statements in support of the local Jats. By then, the Muslim community had laid siege to the police station and a case was registered against 150 people. “It was a normal altercation and a scuffle between the two groups, but it was given a communal spin,” says a top official in the district administration.

Soon after this, news came that a girl from Brahmapuri colony in Muzaffarnagar had apparently eloped with a Muslim boy from the Laddawala locality. The parents of the girl lodged a complaint with the police, alleging their daughter had been kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam. The police managed to trace the girl from the border with Nepal and she was handed over to her parents. The locals say it was a usual case of an inter-religious relationship. “It happens all the time. Muslim girls elope with Hindu boys and vice-versa,” says Salman Saeed, a local politician. The newspapers in this case, however, did everything possible to portray it as a case of Love Jihad. The headlines in both Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran began with ‘Love Jihad’, with the text stressing  what the parents of the girl had been claiming. There was no attempt to get the other side of the story.

Local BJP and Shiv Sena goons created a ruckus at the police station, for which an FIR was filed against 40 people. Some politicians, like Saeed, believe the current flare-ups are only to polarise the communities ahead of the by-elections. “That’s why the concerted effort to keep the pot boiling,” says Saeed.

The local media, however, claims it is simply doing its job. “What do we do when the family of the victim says it is Love Jihad? It is something which can never be proven, of course. But the media can’t be held responsible if it aggravates tension. It is the BJP UP head, Laxmikant Vajpayee, who is alleging it. Can you ignore that?” says a senior editor at Amar Ujala.

“The local press is divided. They have clearly taken sides,” says the district official. “Since they are not investigating anything, they print whatever is told to them,” says Manoj Jha, ASP of the SIT that is probing the riot cases in which 700 accused have been arrested while another 800 are still absconding.

It has become a slugfest of sorts. While on one hand there are Dainik Jagran and Amar Ujala offering grist for the communal mill, dailies like Shah Times carry stories from the ‘other side’. On September 3, it ran a story headlined: ‘Woh Love Jihad to ye kaunsa mission’, a report on Muslim girls being trapped by Hindu men. The story gave out specific instances of girls of the minority community being allegedly kidnapped, converted to Hinduism, and having their names changed.

 

Even an year after the riots, Muzaffarnagar is sitting atop a communal tinderbox. The smallest incident has the potential to spark a deadly riot. On June 3, a woman was gangraped while on her way to Dulhera village from Shahpur. The incident led to a mahapanchayat, where local leader Naresh Tikait called upon the local Jats to seek revenge from the Muslims. 

An RLD member explains the build-up. “Tikait is out of favour. You must understand there is a competition to show who is a bigger Jat leader. Baliyan’s victory has made things difficult for Tikait who is the head of the Baliyan khap. He is growing desperate and hence such inflammatory speeches.”

One whole year after the riots, there is still no clarity on the actual incidents that led to them. There are different versions of the incident that took place on August 27, 2013. One says Gaurav’s sister was harassed by Shahnawaz while she was on her way back to Malakpura. Gaurav and his cousin Sachin, who were angry about the incident, went to Kawal and stabbed Shahnawaz. In retaliation, they were killed by the locals. The other version says it was a bike accident between Gaurav and Shahnawaz which led to the murders.

“At first, Gaurav’s sister gave out a statement saying there was no eve-teasing. But she changed it later,” says Saeed. “There is reason to believe that the incident was blown out of proportion to polarise the region.”

The following day, local Hindi dailies ran only one version of the story: that it was eve-teasing that led to the killings. Dainik Jagran came up with an emotionally charged headline, which read ‘Seeney par chadke kaati saanso ki dor’ (They sat on the chest to slit their throats) and went on to narrate in minute, gory detail how Sachin and Gaurav were slaughtered by the mob. Abandoning even a pretense of sensitive reporting, the piece carried a photo of the two boys lying in a pool of blood. It was this incident that is largely believed to have pushed Western UP into the communal cauldron. But before the riots broke out, the headlines screamed: ‘Muzaffarnagar mei sampradayik sangharsh, teen ki maut’(Three dead in communal clash in Muzaffarnagar). 

The same day, a video, later found to be from Sialkot, Pakistan, showing two brothers being lynched brutally, started circulating widely through Whatsapp and Facebook in the district. Even BJP MLA Sangeet Som shared it on his official account. After the video was taken off social networking platforms, it was distributed in villages on CDs. “The video did a lot to flare up tempers,” says Gulfam, a local reporter. “No local newspaper tried to verify it and say it was fake.”

The senior editor of Dainik Jagran defends his publication, saying their reporter had witnessed the killing of the cousins. “There is a difference in criminality when someone is gunned down and when a mob brutally kills in retaliation.”

Between August 27, when the Kawal incident happened and September 7, when the riots actually began after the Jat mahapanchayat in Nangla Mandaur village, local dailies increasingly began to resemble communalist mouthpieces. On September 6, a day after the BJP strike in Muzzaffarnagar, Jagran again ran a headline: ‘A historic strike in Muzaffarnagar’ and went on to suggest that the city was responding positively to the BJP’s call for ‘justice for the families of Sachin and Gaurav’ and ‘how the strike was successful despite desperate attempts by the administration to sabotage it.’

The post-riot reportage was heavily lopsided. The tone and tenor everywhere suggested that the riot was simply a reaction to the incitement by the Muslims.

The stories played up the stone-pelting incident around the mahapanchayat, where Jats were carrying lathis, swords and pistols. “The Jats were carrying an effigy that resembled a Muslim man. While passing through Basi village, they were stabbing it and hurling abuses. That’s when the stone-pelting began from both sides,” a local had told this journalist during a visit to Basi last year after the riots. While political parties were putting plans in place to exploit the Jat paranoia, the local dailies were ready to stoke the fire.
“We took a principled stand against attending the mahapanchayat. We knew how the BJP would take over. It was evident when Baliyan’s men would boo anyone who spoke of harmony,” says an RLD leader. Even while reporting on the brutal violence in many Jat-dominated villages where Muslims were killed and raped, the dailies had a different take. ‘The flames of vengeance reach Khap heartland, state government unnerved’ read another provocative headline on September 11, reporting the violence in Lisarh and adjoining villages. Attempts were made to show the administration was biased towards the minority community, a claim the BJP exploited to the hilt.  

Such was the brazen extent of irresponsible reporting by the local media that the National Minorities Commission (NCM) recommended that the matter be placed before the Press Council of India. “Irresponsible press has played a destructive role in exacerbating tensions and precipitating violence,” Wajahat Habibullah, Chairman, NCM, wrote in his report after a visit to Shamli last year. Even in his report on the visit to Muzaffarnagar, Habibullah mentioned that “much of the damage in this case had been caused by the unimpeded circulation of wildly exaggerated rumours, which unfortunately had been exacerbated by irresponsible sections of the local press.”

With an average circulation of more than 100,000 copies each, in every district, the influence of the local dailies cannot be underscored too much.

An Amar Ujala editor countered the allegations, saying, “We were the only newspaper to report from the Jat villages. We were the first ones to show photos of how people have been displaced. There may have been one or two aberrations, but we tried our best to present both sides of the picture. But you can’t equate us with the likes of Dainik Jagran who might have a vested interest in all this.”

 

A senior district administration official recounts the incident in Kharkhauda, Meerut, where news came of a woman allegedly gang raped and forcefully converted to Islam. “The newspapers said she underwent an operation in Muzaffarnagar. Then they said the forced conversion happened in Muzaffarnagar. We ended up wasting our time and personnel verifying those fraudulent claims.”

Kharkhauda was on the brink of communal tension in the first week of August after a man from Sarava village lodged a missing complaint about his daughter. On August 3, the complainant said his daughter had been abducted, gangraped and forced to convert to Islam by Sanaullah, a local madrassa administrator where the girl used to work as a teacher, and Nawab, the village sarpanch. There were even dubious reports of organ theft, for which they claimed the girl had been operated upon. “It was the first time we saw such communal tension. The campaign was vicious, based on lies and unforgiving towards the minority community. Thankfully, there was no violence; only some stone pelting,” says a local. The incident had sparked countrywide outrage after the news started trending on social networks, Whatsapp and Facebook.

Again, local dailies were back to business. Unsubstantiated reports and unverified facts were on the rise. Jagran, especially, reported how the girl was first taken to Hapur, where she was forced to convert, and then kept in a madrassa in Muzaffarnagar. Another report carried an interview of the girl, with a headline pointing to accused Sanaullah’s connection to a conversion racket. The story also claimed, erroneously, that the girl was forced to eat beef. Amar Ujala went with headlines like ‘In defence of the sisters, the brothers are out on the streets’. The newspapers had seemingly declared war on Love Jehad and Islam!

When asked if they looked for the other side of the story, the Amar Ujala editor shot back. “You can’t blame us. How do you get the other version when the accused had run away? The girl gave her statement to the magistrate. How can you ignore that? We have limitations when it comes to investigations.”

More than anything, such pieces only reinforce the stereotyping of Muslims in society. In Meerut, on asking a panwallah the way to a famous haleem biryani shop, he responded, “That place serves cow meat in the food. Why do you want to go there? Are you a Hindu or a Muslim?”

In the Kharkhauda case, the administration seems to have exercised due caution and unprecedented restraint. “The incident looked dicey from the beginning,” says a sub-inspector of the Kharkhauda police station. “That very day, local members of Hindu organisations formed a front called ‘Beti Bachao’ to rake up the issue further.” What many don’t know about this case, the SI tells us, is that the girl did not get along well with her drunkard father, and had started teaching in the madrassa because her uncle offered a lower salary in the school where she was earlier employed.

“There were a lot of contradictions in the statements given by the victim and the sequence of events,” says a top police official in Meerut. “The father came to the police on July 29, saying the girl was missing. He came back on August 3 saying she had been abducted and gangraped. The girl said she was pregnant and had gone to Sanaullah who took her to Muzaffarnagar for the operation. In her statement before the magistrate, she said she was taken to Hapur by Nishat (Sanaullah’s wife), Sanu and Nawab, where she was raped by Sanu and molested by Sanaullah. She also said that affidavits for conversion were prepared and that her signatures were forged, whereas earlier she had claimed that she was forced to sign the papers.” The police found that the victim had undergone an operation in Meerut Medical College on July 23, where she went with one Kalim, who pretended to be her husband. The police has so far arrested five people in the case. Perhaps unhappy that the police was doing an independent investigation, Amar Ujala ran a headline on August 11, which read, ‘Police hell-bent on refuting the claims of the victim.’

“The papers also did not report that it was a BJP leader, Satyaveer Tyagi, who lodged an FIR in the case,” says Jaiveer Singh, district head of the Samajwadi Party in Meerut.

“They are perpetuating the myth that the administration is being arm-twisted to favour one community. But can they tell us what special privileges we have given any community? Is giving scholarships to poor people a crime?” Singh asks. “Two responsible pillars of society were unfortunately behind blowing up the whole issue,” says the police official, pointing toward the politicians and local mediapersons.

 

In july this year, the town of Kaanth in Moradabad witnessed a total shutdown for ten days after Hindu outfits protested the forceful removal of loudspeakers from a Ravidas temple of the
Jatav community in Naya Gaon village.

But in this Muslim-dominated area, the complaint was similar. “The local press just portrayed one side of the story. Our version was not given any space,” says Aneesur Rehman, MLA from Kaanth constituency, who also belongs to Naya Gaon. The matter could have been amicably solved by the two parties—the residents of the village—but it soon acquired political dimensions. “Traditionally, the temple only put up loudspeakers during festivals. So the villagers asked them to remove it. But then it just went out of hand. Someone lodged an FIR, the BJP leaders made the temple a Shiva temple, when it used to be a Ravidas temple, with Sadhvi Prachi announcing a ‘jal abhishek’,” says Rehman. Even though the SDM had noted that the loudspeakers were to be installed only during festivals—a legal glitch that could have been resolved legally—local dailies began to give it a political spin. One story in Hindustan went to the extent of claiming that the SSP had accused the MP to hide his own wrongdoing.

Rehman, taking note of the incendiary nature of the reports, gave a compilation of the clippings to Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. Local reporters, on the other hand, claim they wrote that the loudspeakers had always existed because the people told them so. “In fact, we didn’t even know such a temple existed before this incident,” says the reporter. The stringers and reporters Hardnews met in the course of this story echo the refrain that a story is simply what people say. It could even be hearsay, but what matters most is the juice in the hearsay.

Kaanth witnessed a violent showdown between the local administration and BJP-led protesters after they were not allowed to hold a mahapanchayat. The violence took a serious turn when the protesters attacked the district magistrate and police officials. The DM suffered serious injuries in one eye.

“It was a well-planned conspiracy of the BJP. The by-elections in neighbouring Thakurdwara constituency are just round the corner, or they would never have taken up the issue of a Dalit temple,” says Iqbal Ansari, an SP politician.

Rehman adds that the BJP could not have won the seat without the support of the Dalits, so this points to new alliances being formed. “But the issue could have easily become a riot, had the local Muslims also taken to the streets. We intervened so it became an administration vs majority community issue,” Ansari explains.

Surprisingly, most of the people arrested for violence in the temple issue are not even from the village concerned: “All of them were brought in from neighbouring cities and towns,” says Rehman.

The background to the story is interesting. The local BJP candidate, Kunwar Sarvesh, during his campaign had allegedly promised the local Jatavs that the temple would have a permanent loudspeaker if he was elected. Locals say soon after he won, the Jatavs organised a welcome ceremony in the village. The same day, the loudspeaker was installed. After the local administration intervened and got it removed forcefully, Sarvesh did try to broker a compromise. “The compromise was done. But he had to go back on his word after other BJP leaders protested against the move,” says Rehman, showing a copy of the compromise between the two communities.

Local reporters and stringers have always existed on the margins of Indian journalism even though they have made the careers of many a mainstream journalist. For many of them here, reporting is simply a means of supplementing income from farming or cattle rearing. This results in the abandoning of journalistic creed by the editor who just wants more juicy content, and the reporter who knows the news will never be verified. “Our stories are hardly ever even edited. Typos and errors are left the way we wrote them,” says a reporter for Hindustan in Kaanth, on anonymity. Another stringer from Amar Ujala claims they get a measly `35 for a photo. The salary of a Shah Times reporter is `2,000. It’s not just stories, but each reporter is tasked with collecting ads from their area, which puts them in direct conflict of interest.

Atul Kumar Anjan, Secretary, CPI, says with the opening of district editions, each newspaper is burdened with four to five additional pages. “So the reporters have to send in something. Ask them how they fill it?” In the absence of a code, and the additional burden to fetch ad revenue, reporters often form loyalties that come at the expense of objective reporting. 

Meanwhile, like Muzaffarnagar, Kaanth too could explode again. “We will not sit quiet until they instal the loudspeaker,” says Ramkishan, from the Jatav community. “Hindus are being discriminated against,” he adds, saying the BJP was the only party standing up for their rights. “Behenji would only give tickets to Muslim candidates who would not listen to our woes. Why should we vote for her?” he asks.

The disturbing refrain of this narrative, repeated endlessly in the media, is that the majority Hindus are discriminated against, vulnerable and living under siege, thanks to a violent minority community supported and sustained by the Samajwadi Party.

In the wake of this propaganda, even the tiniest incident becomes fodder for violence among two communities that live cheek by jowl.

Lack of professionalism in the newsroom and the financial constraints of the enterprise deepen the problem. Invariably, they look for financial succor from sources that want the truth to be twisted and dressed up to serve some other objective.

The role of traditional media in the outbreak of a riot has been chronicled before, especially by Paul Brass, who came up with his ‘institutionalised riot system network’. In such a scenario, the newspapers are only one agency, aided and abetted by new media, rumours, and hearsay. In fact, the Muzaffarnagar riots are but a textbook case of the three-phase template that Brass describes, where traditional media contributes to perpetuating the circle of violence.

Unless this dynamic is understood, chances of peace returning to Muzaffarnagar are bleak.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2014