In an emotionally surcharged and polarised polity, even riot politics can become a zero-sum game. So any television debate on Gujarat 2002 must necessarily draw an analogy to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. Failure to do so opens one to the charge of bias and worse. It’s almost as if the opposing sides are suggesting that, “My record in handling riots is better than yours because fewer people died in ‘my riot’.” It’s almost as if a collective sense of guilt at one horrific act of violence will be erased only by equating it with another. Shockingly, the fact that every human life lost in any riot should be seen as a blot on the country is lost in the cacophony of a studio.
The latest comparison being drawn is between Assam and Gujarat. ‘Why hasn’t the media covered the Assam violence with the intensity that Gujarat was reported?’ is a question that has been raised in several fora in recent weeks. At one level, it’s a legitimate question to ask in the era of 24-hour news channels. But at another, there is a more sinister subliminal message which suggests that a ‘pseudo-secular’ media will not cover Assam because Bodos are involved, while it covered Gujarat because Muslims were being killed.
The truth is very different and rather more prosaic. Kokrajhar is at least 150 kilometres from Guwahati. No national channel has an OB van in Guwahati. As a result, by the time most reporters reached the worst affected districts, much of the violence was over. By contrast, Gujarat 2002 took place in the heart of urban centres like Ahmedabad and Vadodara, in many instances just a few kilometres away from news organisation offices. The horror was easily accessible, it could be captured on camera almost as it happened. Delhi 84 took place in the pre-24-hour news network period. I have little doubt that had similar rioting taken place today, the Congress goons who led the mobs would have been exposed in the same manner as the Sangh parivar groups who targeted Muslim homes in Gujarat.
This is not to offer an excuse for the more limited coverage of the Assam riots but to try and explain that not just Kokrajhar, but indeed the entire North-east suffers from the ‘tyranny of distance’. Only a few weeks before this latest cycle of violence, more than 100 people died in floods that left more than half of Assam under water. Did we see any coverage on the scale we see when even one little helpless child is trapped in an open drain in a metropolis? It requires a Mary Kom to put Manipur on the national map, a 100-day blockade that saw the price of petrol go up to R140 per litre in Imphal and LPG cylinders cost R2,000 scarcely got a mention. Unfortunately, instead of focusing the debate on the underlying reasons for the limited media coverage of the North-east, the Assam violence has provided another opportunity to shoot the messenger by accusing the media of making editorial choices based on the religious identity of the ‘victim’.
Even here, Assam presents a more complex scenario than what the bigoted minds who operate in black and white terms would have us believe. As reporting becomes more exhaustive and the real tragedy unfolds through the terrified faces of the many thousands in relief camps, it is apparent that this was no one-sided riot: Bodos, Bengali Hindus, Adivasis and Muslims have all suffered in the melting pot of a diverse, multi-ethnic society. In fact, official statistics suggest that there are far more Muslims today in relief camps than other communities. Yet, if one were to hear the strident voices across media platforms, then it would seem that only one community has suffered. Bodos have lost their land, so have Muslims, but somehow in the popular imagination there is only one aggressor.
Indeed, what unites every riot is the constant search for the ‘enemy’. In 1984, the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards led to the labeling of every Sikh as an anti-national. Almost overnight, a proud and patriotic community found itself being targeted. In 2002, the killing of kar sevaks in the Sabarmati Express created a desire to seek revenge for the act by singling out every Muslim in Gujarat as a ‘terrorist’. Assam 2012 is again more complex: it is still unclear what the real trigger for the violence was since the Bodos and the Muslims of the region have a long history of animosity, aggravated by the formation of the Bodo Territorial Council in 2003, and there have been a spate of attacks by well-armed militant groups on both sides in recent months.
And yet, in Assam too, the ‘enemy’ has been found: the ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrant’ is today a euphemism for almost anyone in lower Assam who is seen to belong to a particular religious community. The historical fact that labourers from then East Bengal had been migrating from the beginning of the 20th century is ignored. The fact that the census decadal growth figures have not revealed any dramatic rise in Muslim population is contested. Instead, a fierce propaganda machine has been unleashed to suggest that Assam has been ‘swamped’ by Bangladeshi Muslims.
Yes, there is a growing problem of porous borders and a weak legal regime that has made Assam vulnerable to an influx of economic migrants from across the border. Yes, there are political parties who see religious communities as vote banks. Yes, there is a fierce battle for land and scarce resources, which gets magnified when demographic patterns alter. But the solution isn’t to stoke the flames of hatred and mistrust. The scars of riot victims are healed by sensitivity, not prejudice. That is true of Delhi 84, as it is of Gujarat 2002 as of Assam 2012.
The views expressed by the author are personal