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Covert riots and media

What's so ‘spontaneous’ about an attack that leaves only the seventh shop on a crowded street burnt down?, asks TV anchor Barkha Dutt who was recently in Gujarat

They came swooping down on us like vultures lunging at a carcass. There were at least 20 of them, faces remarkably indistinguishable. In fact, frenzied though these men may have seemed on your TV screens, they had an almost robotic, rehearsed air about them as they thrust their gleaming swords into our windshield and barked, "What's your religion?" There was only one answer to that. "Hindu," I said aware that an articulation of my agnostic beliefs would guarantee the unspeakable), privately cringing for my cameraperson Ajmal Jami. What would we do if he were asked to produce an identity card? For the rest of the journey, we mentally made up false names for him, and avoided addressing him in public. In the mob was a 10-year-old boy clutching a bottle of petrol as if it were life itself. "What are you going to do with this?" I asked later when our religious credentials had proved respectable enough for conversation. "It's for self-defence against them," he said.

But along the hundreds of kilometres of (completely unguarded) highway that we travelled there was no "them" anywhere. Instead, every bend in the road would unfold new horrors. We saw saffron flags dug deep into the domes of mosques; pages of beautifully calligraphed Urdu covered with the soot and ash of burnt plastic; and people who did not think it unusual to first set alight a family or a factory, and then walk away calmly with the remains of the day-a sack or two of onions, and if they were lucky, an undamaged Godrej refrigerator.

A milk-van ferrying eight Muslim villagers was set on fire in front of our own helpless eyes. There was only one survivor; a waif-like girl of 15 hunched up under a tree sobbing into her torn shalwar-kameez. Alone. When we asked how she had been spared, the villagers said, "She was already half-crazy (paagal thi woh), so there was no point in killing her."

We left much of this out of our TV reports, aware of the impact they could have in a volatile situation. But public commentary seems to argue that the media behaved irresponsibly in the very naming of the community that was being targeted. Press Council guidelines are being quoted to back this.

I disagree. Let's get one thing straight: Gujarat was not a communal riot. A riot by definition must mean incidents of mutual violence, of communities attacking each other in a retaliatory cycle. In those circumstances, yes, it makes sense to be circumspect about naming who is doing what to whom. But there was nothing ambivalent or amorphous about the violence in Gujarat. Several politicians have described the madness that swept the state for those three days as a "spontaneous reaction" to what happened at Godhra. But think about it. What's so spontaneous about an attack that is planned so meticulously that only the seventh shop in a crowded lane gets razed to the ground but everything around it is untouched and undamaged? Wouldn't a so-called spontaneous outburst of anger be somewhat more blind and directionless? Naming the community under siege in Gujarat was moot to the story. In fact it was the story, revealing as it did a prejudiced administrative and political system that was happy to just stand by and watch. Isn't it a journalist's job then to tell that story?

"Andar ki baat hai, police hamaare saath hai" [this is a secret: police is with us]. This was the rioters' war-cry to Muslim residents in Vadi, Vadodara, as they soaked shops with kerosene that once sold kites, bindis and bangles for the Hindu festivals of Makar Sankranti and Ganapati Puja. But the mob had missed the irony of what they were destroying, as had the two cops looking on languorously. Once again, the attitude-and in most cases, absence-of the police was inextricably linked to which community was at the receiving end.Was it covert patronage from the establishment or a communalised mindset? How could we in the media ask these questions without stating the obvious?

The other charge against the media is the use of a double standard: different rules for the reportage of the gruesome train attack at Godhra- screamed the critics-and different ones for the violence that followed. RSS man Tarun Vijay said it was the "secular-mullah mafia" at work. Has honest discourse on secularism been hijacked by political correctness? These are questions we can certainly debate but let's look at the specific accusation. Why were no names taken when Godhra happened? Actually they were. Every newspaper and television channel said kar sevaks were killed, once again because the identity of those under attack may have been central to what happened. Then people said it was preposterous to link Godhra to Ayodhya; they said it sounded like a justification for the murderous attack. Fair enough. So why did the same voices then begin drawing links between Godhra and the mobs which took over Gujarat for the next 72 hours? You can't have it both ways.

In both cases, though, I believe the religious identity of the rioters should have been left unsaid, and for the most part it was. A crazed mob does not speak for an entire community, whether in Godhra or Ahmedabad. The government says there is real evidence to suggest a "terrorist link" to the burning of the train. If so, it only strengthens the argument that this was not "Muslims" attacking the Hindu community. Next, we'll begin describing militant attacks on minorities in Jammu and Kashmir in the same language. Similarly, the hate-filled mobs that trampled the soul of Gujarat were not representing the "Hindu community". We all know enough Hindus who braved threats and violence to shield their Muslim friends.An educated man stopped our crew on the streets of Vadodara, and excitedly leapt out of his car. "You're doing a good job, madam," he said almost kindly, "but why don't you ask the Muslims of Gujarat to apologise for Godhra?" By this time my patience had run thin. "I agree, sir", I said, trying to sound calm, "but will all the Hindus of Gujarat also say sorry for the 600 Muslims who have been killed?""It's not the same," he declared, before storming off.

The writer is with NDTV. The above article appeared in The Outlook magazine, 25 March.

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