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When Bengaluru paid the price for the hanging of Saddam Hussein

Guess what Aug 11, 2020 Bengaluru riots will seem like, when seen through the kaleidoscope of secularism, ten years from now.

In February, it was Delhi. In August, it was Bengaluru. India’s secularists fiddled, regaling each other with tales of some Urdu poet. Meanwhile, on the night of August 11, Bengaluru burned.

Incidentally, the target was a Congress MLA. All the relationships that the party has supposedly cultivated with the ‘secular’ community were forgotten in an instant. Not even for something he had done. But something a relative of his had done. For the mob, perhaps one non-believer was as good as any other.

How far does this go? How many degrees of separation are needed before one non-believer is spared the guilt for the actions of another? Incidentally, Bengaluru knows. But I am not sure Bengaluru remembers.

It was January 2007, shortly after Saddam Hussein was hanged in Iraq. Saddam Hussein, the brutal dictator, executed for crimes against humanity. But hey, there are so many brutal dictators in that region (wonder why?).

Anyway. However you feel about the Iraq war and the hanging of Saddam Hussein, I think we can all agree that India was not responsible for the actions of any side in that conflict. Least of all, the common people of Bengaluru.

But Bengaluru still burned. A group of people turned out on the streets to protest the hanging of Saddam Hussein. The rally was led by prominent Congress leader and former Cabinet Minister C K Jaffar Sharief. Soon, the rally turned violent, clashing with police, burning shops and cars.

Sound familiar?

Now, here is something curious. Before writing this article, I did a google search to jog my memory about the details of this old incident. That shouldn’t be hard, right? Should be easy enough to dig up old media reports about a riot in a big metropolitan city.



Imagine my surprise when a google search threw up media headlines such as this.

Headlines on violence protesting Saddam Hussein’s hanging

What! The Reuters report is from Jan 21, 2007 and gives all sorts of details: “The violence occurred as activists moved through the city to join a rally organised by the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh” The report goes on and on about how Muslim owned businesses were targeted and adds that Karnataka is ruled by the “Hindu Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and a regional party.”

Indeed, the tone of the coverage and the narrative behind it has not changed in a decade and half. Deep within the Reuters report was this sentence on what had happened earlier than the Jan 21 violence:

On Friday, thousands of Muslim demonstrators protesting against last month’s execution of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, clashed with police and destroyed shops and cars in the city.”

My effort to find a Reuters report with a headline blaming “Muslim activists” for the Jan 19 violence failed completely. In fact, I could find no direct coverage of the Jan 19 incident at all from Reuters. I also could not locate any such coverage of the Jan 19 incident from any of the major Indian media outlets. Even though the name of a former Cabinet minister from Congress had come up in connection to the protests.

I was beginning to doubt both my memory and my sanity, but I kept up my search on google. And finally, from the much lesser known news website Daijiworld, I finally discovered the report dated Jan 19, 2007.

Daijiworld report on Bengaluru violence from 2007

That’s all, folks. This perfunctory report from a small news website, that ends with “more details are awaited.” That’s all that remains on the internet on who started the violence in Bengaluru in Jan 2007. If you can find more, let me know.

The pattern is exactly the same. The coverage of the Jan 2007 Bengaluru violence seems to show up in major outlets only once “Hindu activists” could be blamed for something.

As with the Reuters report, who started the violence is always kind of a disclaimer, buried somewhere within. This piece from Frontline goes in detail blaming the BJP and RSS, even including a picture of VHP workers holding saffron flags.

VHP blamed for violence by Muslim groups protesting against Saddam Hussein’s hanging

Buried deep within the same article is the sentence:

The first round of clashes took place on January 19 during a day of protests called by former Congress leader Jaffer Sharief’s newly formed Peoples Front against the execution of Saddam Hussein.”

The Telegraph, of course, is a work of secular art.

The Telegraph’s report

Note the hyphenation of Saddam Hussein with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Again, the question is : where is the direct coverage of the Jan 19 violence? If you can find it, I would love to see it. Did Indian media wait for a few days for a “Hindu angle” to emerge before they could cover it?

This is how secularism works. Blame Hindus loudly. If some member of the Muslim community has done something wrong, blame both sides. And keep polishing the reporting. Ultimately, it often happens that people will simply forget one side of an incident.

This didn’t just happen with a relatively small (by Indian standards) communal incident in Bangalore in 2007. See this tweet from Ellen Barry of the New York Times.

2002 Gujarat riots are ‘whitewashed’

So NCERT choice of terminology had simply left out 59 Hindus burned to death in Godhra. Their term for what happened in Gujarat 2002 was simply “anti-Muslim riots.” The propaganda is so effective that a New York Times journalist accused Modi govt of “whitewashing” the incident when NCERT changed the term to the obviously more accurate “Gujarat riots.”

Think such tricks can no longer be played today in the era of social media? Think again. Remember Delhi riots? While the right wing outraged on social media yesterday, I assure you some left winger was planning a Wikipedia article in their mind on how Hindus were to blame for everything. Ten years from now, the social media outrage of yesterday will be forgotten. And people will struggle to put together what really happened on Aug 11, 2020 in Bengaluru, just like I was struggling to dig up what happened in Bengaluru in 2007.

It’s already begun: the finessing of the reporting around Bengaluru riots. In fact, it started the moment the media gave over the top coverage to a dozen people protecting a temple instead of a thousand people rioting in the streets. Now, here is a report about attacks on journalists by “rioters and police.” Here is another, which sneaks in a line about public anger against the Congress MLA apparently not helping people in times of Coronavirus.

The narrative is already changing. It hasn’t even been two days.

Guess what Aug 11, 2020 Bengaluru riots will seem like, when seen through the kaleidoscope of secularism, ten years from now.

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Abhishek Banerjee
Abhishek Banerjee is a math lover who may or may not be an Associate Professor at IISc Bangalore. He is the author of Operation Johar - A Love Story, a novel on the pain of left wing terror in Jharkhand, available on Amazon here.  

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