Malda Violence: Not a front-page news

Arshia Dhar Kolkata

While over the past few days the news machinery of the country worked overtime to scrutinise and dissect the airbase attacks near the Indian border, a town down in the ‘invisible’ east broke out into violent riots of a communal nature. So, how many of you regular followers of the news could immediately catch the second reference, as opposed to the very obvious first one? The riots orchestrated by the members of Idara-e-Shariya that had broken out in the town of Kaliachak (in Malda, one of the major districts of Bengal) on the first Sunday of the year, to protest Hindu Mahasabha’s Kamlesh Tiwari’s statement about Prophet Mohammad being homosexual, had gone appallingly amiss from the columns and screens of most of the leading news organisations in the country in the initial few days.

Firstly, the agitation, that had apparently snowballed into a whopping 2.5 lakh mass of oddly infuriated protesters with arms and brute force, was against a statement made nearly a month ago by a person who is already behind the bars for the aforementioned blasphemy thousands of miles away from Malda. The glaring time lapse between the actual occurrence of the incident and the outrage against it seems not only coerced and artificial, but extremely suspicious as well. The motivation behind such a bizarrely timed attack against a stale offence in times when practically none wait for “crimes” to happen before generously meting out public trials and collective outrages against them, needs to be questioned. Dadri, Muzaffarnagar, Kalburgi, Pansare and every other instance of communal and intellectual polarisation need to be challenged time and again, and for this one should duly acknowledge and thank the omnipresent media a little more often. Then how, or why, did this very same force forget and completely snub the Malda riots until the central force of the BJP started taking an active interest in it? 

Ironically enough, Kailash Vijaywargiya, a senior BJP leader from Madhya Pradesh has gone on record to ask why the Indian media has refused to give even ten percent of the coverage to the Malda violence as compared to the amount of air time and print space the Dadri incident was given. While his statement may very well be true, the motive behind a BJP proponent claiming more media space over an alleged communal riot and a citizen’s claim over the same maybe diametrically opposite in nature. Up until the eighth day after the riots, a Google search on it would yield results which would not look too different from the ones that showed up the day of the incident itself. “Violence breaking out in Kaliachak” or a mob of “angry Muslim protesters” mostly summed up the content doing the rounds on the internet even after crossing an entire week after the incident. It was only after the BJP’s second failed attempt at entering the disputed terrain in Malda (the first one being made by BJP’s sole MLA in Bengal, Shamik Bhattacharya, on 6th January) that the so called ‘national’ media decided to wake up from their stupor. A delegation of three BJP MPs and a bunch of state leaders tried to head-butt their way into Kaliachak only to be packed off and sent back by the Trinamool Congress battalion there. The BJP line-up had apparently gone to Malda on a “fact-finding” business, only to be kept confined within the railway station waiting room by the ruling party members there before being sent back. 

Kaliachak is an administrative block of Malda — a Muslim majority district, which has rarely witnessed communal conflicts in the past. However, Malda is notoriously famous for being embroiled in illegal cross border trades with Bangladesh to its west. From narcotics to counterfeit money — everything has been illicitly passed across the Malda borders. Consequently, a substantial part of the district’s economy depends on such black commerce where, as the logic of demographics suggests, the Muslim population is also heavily involved. As is well known, a border town is a sensitive spot across the globe. Disturbances breaking out in such towns often go unnoticed on account of being a conflict zone by default, thereby warranting a lack of prompt investigation into them. However, due to the reputation that the Kaliachak block enjoys for being communally harmonised, the sudden outbreak of a planned rally against a month old offender seems to be behaviour out of character. It also seems a little too coincidental that weeks before Bengal goes into assembly polls, an electoral vehicle like a potential communal face-off is there for the players to exploit. Mamata Banerjee’s minority appeasing policy is not unknown to the ones well acquainted with her political funda. Her desperate attempts at shoving the Malda violence under her minority-politics carpet by saying it was a “mere tiff” between the police and the Border Security Force, has been pounced upon by the BJP brigade of the highest ranks. Without a doubt, this proved to be a ripe opportunity for the BJP to foray into a territory that has long eluded their winner’s charm. BJP’s Siddharth Nath Singh blaming the Mamata government for sheltering “anti-social elements” (who were allegedly trying to destroy illegal trade evidence by setting fire to the Kaliachak police station) and playing “dirty vote bank politics in Bengal” in the pretext of the Malda violence is not only ironic but extremely poignant since the BJP has intentions no different from the ones the TMC is being criminalised for. In this case, however, Mamata’s Malda minority has become BJP’s fragile majority that needs to be safeguarded from an encroaching group of cow eating, Hindu hating fanatics who were out on the streets of Kaliachak on 3rd January, demanding Kamlesh Tiwari’s head for the noose. 

The CPM’s four years of political introspection and widely publicised ‘revival’ strategy seemed to have gained an unexpected platform through the Malda violence, where following the BJP’s footsteps, they too pushed some of their foot soldiers into this electoral battleground with the pretext of ‘fact finding’. However, much like the BJP, the CPM contingent too ran out of luck at Malda where 35 kilometres before Kaliachak they were stopped by a large police force. CPM MP Mohammad Salim complained saying that he was not “allowed” to carry out his duties of an MP to “find the facts and talk to the people.” The political parties’ making hay while the guns are firing down on Malda becomes pretty obvious from this instance of the CPM’s half baked attempts at trying to revive a dialogue with a region which was an erstwhile Congress stronghold. Prakash Karat’s recent confessions of the Left’s abysmal failure in Bengal being attributed to their lack of acquaintance with the minority is being rather lazily rectified by a bunch of the CPM that still heavily depends on the blame-game politics one sees nation over. However, eking out political mileage from this raw situation seems to be the undisputed agenda on both the sides, with one end trying to underplay it to their advantage and the other struggling to find a foothold in unexplored or lost turf.

Amidst this political showdown leading up to the Bengal elections, a large chunk of it went completely missing in the mainstream ‘national’ media that somehow showed little to no interest until the BJP delegation close to the Centre was unceremoniously sent back home crying. It is a well known fact, albeit unwritten, that the ‘national’ media, or the media that essentially operates from the capital orMumbai, has increasingly become monopolised by news that happens in and around Delhi. While a Dadri (which is a stone’s throw away from Delhi) makes it to the headlines for weeks, (and with good reason) the very same media dedicates a paltry space to the Chennai floods in its page four or five during the initial days. Chennai literally had to wait till half its population was underwater to be considered worthy of the front page of its ‘national’ dailies or to be aired on the Prime Time shows of the ‘national’ news channels. One may not be wrong to doubt if even that would have happened had celebrities from the country not taken to social media to show their support to the brave victims of the calamity. This colloquial qualification of ‘national’ for popular newspapers and news channels today may very well be a misnomer. The Indian media has trivialised this status and the immense responsibility it brings along with it by shamelessly and consistently catering to a system that creates loyal consumers and not informed citizens. 

Three months into the run up to the assembly elections, Bengal has merely managed to scrape their way through to the ‘national’ media map. Irrespective of what her rivals’ motives might be, TMC’s vehement, almost offensive refusal to let anyone probe into the matter is not only suspicious but does not bode well on a political party that has spent most of its term dodging controversies. While the arguments on both the fronts are clearly politically motivated and is channelising the social implication of such a violence into a petty political shouting match, the real incident has lost its gravity somewhere despite the fact that large-scale damage of public property, injury to more than a dozen people including police has occurred. To add to that, section 144 has been in place at Kaliachak since 3rd January, talks of Home Minister Rajnath Singh visiting Malda in the coming weeks has been doing the rounds and additional security including RAF has been deployed to avoid any more untoward occurrences — such difficult measures for a mere “clash” between the police and the BSF is definitely not corroborating with the math. And despite all of this, it is only in the past 48 hours that the Indian media has decided to take notice of Malda, a major district of Bengal. 

Up until the 12th of January, this largely unrepresentative ‘national’ media had only made rough approximations of the political implications this ‘local’ scuffle would have. A Bengal on fire obviously does not attract as many eyeballs as a fairly peaceful Bihar does right before its elections, where every move of every negligible player in the game was being closely watched by the English and Hindi media (whether print or electronic) in India. A billboard with a cow on it in the remote corners of Bihar would make it to the front page of every ‘national’ daily three months prior to its

elections, but an Assam neck deep in water was not news worthy enough to be given even an inch of space in a Delhi based newspaper. A journalist from a leading daily in eastern India allegedly cited the preservation of peace as an incentive for toning down the coverage of Malda. This statement seems a little too altruistic and uncharacteristic of media professionals to seem credible considering the generosity the media showed while debating over the bedroom politics of the Mukherjea-Bora household just a few days back. While one can not completely rule out the onus of discretion and responsibility on the media to report violence of such nature with sensitivity and care, it does not, at the same time, imply that the biggest names in the news industry do a reportage so abysmal and insubstantial that it is ‘blink and you miss’. This goes against the fundamental right of a citizen to have access to all information; this biased gatekeeping exercised by the news agents of the country is not only dangerous for the people of the society, but also for the reputation and status of the press and media as the fourth pillar of the democracy. It is not without reason that the media has been looked upon with suspicion for widespread corruption and regionalist biases, favouring news from only those sections of the society which are so called “profit earning”. Big money may be betted upon a crime in Delhi or Uttar Pradesh as it apparently piques the conscience of a TRP consuming majority, but a very tiny crowd is said to gather to watch a Nagaland under insurgent attacks or a slew of farmer deaths in Bengal. These regions momentarily appear on the media map only when the Prime Minister ceremoniously signs a peace accord in Nagaland or when Mamata Banerjee makes an outrageous statement about an issue. The current discourse in the media is not just problematic but exceedingly unhealthy in creating a generation that is not unaware, but half aware of this complex country they live in. And as the saying goes, half knowledge is worse than no knowledge at all. What we see at present is half baked stories and postulates of an incident that very well may have multiple layers of national and social significance. Even if it does not, one must only come to definitive answers with thorough investigation and cross checking in the interest of all those who wish to know, and even more for those who have been made to believe that an India does not exist beyond Delhi and the NCR. The ‘national’ media’s sudden upsurge in interest to monitor the Malda situation nine days after it had been sparked off, and that too owing to some BJP politicians close to the Centre being ousted from the conflict zone is reflective of journalism that is not just biased, but also dishonest and lazy. As mentioned earlier, it constantly feeds into the idea that places not at a shouting distance from Delhi do not deserve to be talked about. It also exposes the presumptions and tastes of the decision makers in the media business who just like to believe that there is no audience ‘nationally’ that would want to know what is happening in a corner of India which does not rake in money for them. This has a direct effect on the quality of content being generated that is audacious enough to claim that it does not ‘want'to generate a new audience because it does not ‘need’ to. 

The media should perhaps be a little less impudent while trying to influence its citizens’ decisions about what they would like or not like to watch, read or listen to. In a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy, a narrow minded, prejudiced media is almost undemocratic and does not deserve to be called its fourth pillar. It is the media that takes pride in being the society’s watchdog, or should one say the corporates’ lapdog?