When Bengal burned, media closed its eyes, apparently to ‘maintain peace’

About 40 kms from Kolkata lies the town of Naihati – the birthplace of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, the author of India’s national song Vande Mataram.

Apart from being famous for being home to eminent Bengalis, Naihati which has been known well known for its Durga Puja, Kali Puja and Chhat Puja, houses a substantial Muslim population along with Hindustanis (second generation Bihari migrants who settled there).

The town has been relatively event free with both the Hindu and the Muslim communities coexisting throughout the years. My two househelps – Bina (Hindu) & Ruksar (Muslim) both hail from there.

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I was getting ready for office on Friday last week after the long holidays following Durga Puja and Muharram when I discovered that Bina hadn’t turned up, without notice, and Ruksar who did, seemed visibly shaken. On the previous day, both had not turned up, without notice again, so my mother was angry at the sudden absences.

On inquiring, with great reluctance Ruksar narrated of extreme violence and riot like situation in Naihati – the scale of which was unprecedented in the locality.

As Ruksar narrated, I was dumbstruck. It happened on Wednesday eve the day of Vijaya Dashami, which happened to coincide with Muharram. Procession of Durga Visarjan as well as Muharram Taziya  were parallely taking place on the streets. It started with the Muslims who were partaking in the Taziya procession being irked by the noise surrounding the Durga immersion.

They apparently let their anger known and demanded the noise be lowered, however in the revelry none of the Hindus obliged. Following this, one of the firecrackers being burst by the Hindu procession landed on the Taziya accidentally and led to it being burnt.

What followed was pandemonium with Muslims gathering en mass, taking out swords and not only beheading the Durga idol but pillaging the whole Visarjan procession. Large scale violence broke out allover parts of the town mainly around Hazinagar with clashes between both the communities.

As I listened, I felt numb. The incident of Kaliachak riots in the beginning of this year flashed before my eyes.

More so I was perplexed at how to take the news, for a violence of this scale would surely be covered by the local media which incidentally didn’t.

I looked hard at all the local news outlets I could find but found no such news. On the contrary, in its Sunday edition, Anandabazaar Patrika – the leading Bengali Daily – published a story of  communal harmony in North 24 Parganas district to which Naihati coincidentally belongs. It eulogized how Muslims partook in Durga Visarjan and Hindu ladies would help dressing up Muslim kids for Taziya procession. It couldn’t be farther from the truth which I later found out.

The only news which seemed to corroborate the incidents I found were tweets in the social media from various accounts. Later, both the opposition parties, BJP and CPM – on either ends of the ideological divide – confirmed the violence and mayhem.

So something was wrong, but still, nothing by the media, either local or Delhi based. So I had to rely on social media for news.

The Hindu Samiti let by Mr. Tapan Ghosh let out a series of picture and video evidence of a not only a violence marred Naihati but to my horror a series of communal incidents on similar lines allover Bengal – Kharagpur, Malda, Birbhum, etc. The story was the same. The Hindus bore most of the brunt. So much so, peaceful Hindus were attacked during Lakshmi Puja on Saturday for and while following their customs. Add to that, there were claims that the police was not helping.

I was still skeptical at the veracity of the news. As we have often on social media, news of this extreme kind can turn out to be untrue.

But I wondered what stops media from reporting the truth and thus stop any guesswork and possible mischief in shape of rumormongering?

On Sunday evening a friend who came over incidentally initiated conversation about violence hit Bengal. He’s closely associated with the media so I asked him about this silence by media. He told me how media took “conscious decision” to black out violence “lest riots break out in mass scale” – a statement which perplexed my already befuddled brain. Wouldn’t focusing on an event lead to action and ultimately ensure it stopping?

Perhaps this is what they refer to as “moral compass” – where they manipulate facts and incidents to suit what they think is in public interest. For me, it was not in public interest to keep mum when such atrocities were happening. This is running away from responsibility. This is shoddy journalism. In fact, this is cowardice and helping the criminal – by closing your eyes when a crime is being committed.

My friend further claimed that not only to “maintain peace”, journalists didn’t speak out as many of them feared retribution from the ruling party in West Bengal. I found this explanation a bit more believable than the moral compass argument. Because many non-media professionals too, who did get the news through various outlets like Twitter and WhatsApp, chose to largely remain silent, perhaps under fear of the administration?

Nonetheless, the social media didn’t remain silent, and some outlets, which can’t be considered part of the mainstream media, did publish some reports about violence in other parts of West Bengal. Truth was still elusive.

When a visibly shaken Bina finally turned up three days later on Monday, she narrated how Hindu families were most affected by the violence that peaked during the weekend. Homes were barged in, women and children were raped, houses were ransacked. She was so scared that along with her children, she had moved to town to stay in her parent’s house to only return on Sunday eve.

Amidst this, the Hindus in Naihati having suffered majority of the brunt and suffered the humiliation of their idols being beheaded, had taken calls to take down a local Masjid. This threatened to make things worse, and finally it prompted the local administration, which was watching “helplessly” hitherto, to finally call in the military on Sunday. This led to the violence halting after additional imposition of section 144.

Finally on Monday, corroborating the whole Naihati violence, The Indian Express published a news report. However, to suit their narrative, they changed the accidental firecracker to “low intensity bombs”, hinting that it was deliberately hurled at Taziya to trigger the violence. Nonetheless, the mainstream media was finally reporting about the violence.

The show hosted by Rohit Sardana not only mentioned the news of the scathing observations of Calcutta High Court in its 6th October judgment overruling state government’s imposition of ban on Durga immersion the same days as Muharram (the court called it appeasement) but also investigative reports of widespread violence in Bengal during Durga visarjan compounded by state admin’s apathy. Some of these reports suggested state admin’s direct role in inciting violence. You can watch the entire show here.

So what most right thinking Bengalis fear nowadays, has finally came true – Bengal has become a tinderbox of communal violence, and situation is getting worse with certain sections acting with impunity. They derive this impudence and confidence by the politics of appeasement and because the media prefers to maintain silence when they wield their might.

Instead of reporting the violence which could be otherwise stopped at the earliest due to the focus, the fourth pillar of democracy chose to be a mute spectator. Sometimes I wonder, does the media choose to stay silent because it really feared further violence or they do it so that when they finally report, the truth has been tampered with to suit a particular narrative? Like accidentally strayed firecrackers becoming deliberately hurled bombs.

The real sufferers amidst all these are the people of this great land of Bengal – the land of the likes of Tagore, Vidyasagar, Nazrul, and Vivekananda. Uderneath a mask of secularism is a state going on a road to perdition.

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