Exaggerated and sensational

BY KABIR ALI| IN Media Practice | 24/09/2012
The reportage in Urdu newspapers was substantially responsible for the after-effects of Assam violence.
KABIR ALI calls for an end to the untenable theme of “conspiracy against Islam and Muslims”.

The recent violence in Assam and the exodus of the people of north-east from different parts of the country have highlighted the misuse of social media for spreading rumours and creating a crisis. With social media abuzz with rumour-mongering regarding the “genocide of Muslims” in Assam and Burma, incidents of violence against people from north-east were reported in several cities including Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Pune, which have large concentration of students, workers, and professionals from Assam, Manipur, and the neighbouring States. This further gave an opportunity for the rumour mill to work overtime in creating an atmosphere of fear among the migrant population about the plans for violence against them once the holy month of Ramzan ended, leading to the panic-stricken youth taking the first train back home.

On the other hand, one witnessed protests and demonstrations by Muslims against the “genocide” in Burma and Assam, in various parts of the country. The protest organised by the Raza Academy in Mumbai’s Azad Maidan turned violent and so did several protests in Kanpur, Lucknow, and Allahabad. These protesters engaged in violence against the mainstream media as well accusing them of not covering the killing of Muslims in Burma and Assam. The feeling among Indian Muslims that the media and the government are biased against them, which triggers such behaviour, has deep-rooted reasons and has been a matter of intense debate and research for a long time.

Indian Urdu newspapers earnestly followed the incidents of violence in Assam giving day-to-day reports on the turbulence. Apart from reports they also carried columns and op-ed stories on the issue.
India has a large number of Urdu-speaking people--55 million according to preliminary 2011 census figures.[i] While not all Urdu-speaking people are Muslims, all Muslims are also not Urdu speakers. However, the popular perception of a link between Urdu and Muslim has slowly turned into reality after Partition, and a significant majority of Urdu speakers now are Muslims.
According to Registrar of Newspapers in India, 463 Urdu newspapers (including 191 dailies) are published all over India and with 9,217,892 copies they have the fourth largest circulation after Hindi, English, and Gujarati newspapers.[ii] These newspapers are published from various cities of India and they largely cater to “traditionally educated” classes, self-employed, and lower strata among the Indian Muslims (that constitute the majority within the community).
The Indian Urdu press, however, has not behaved in a responsible manner as far as reporting on the violence in Assam (and Burma) is concerned. The reportage and opinions in a number of Urdu dailies across the country have been biased, inciting, and divisive. Yousuf Saeed in his article How to start a riot out of Facebook on Kafila has pointed out the way Urdu newspapers from different cities picked up false and morphed pictures from social media sites and “printed them with inflammatory titles and headlines”.[iii]
Another article by C.M. Naim in Outlook has highlighted the inciting commentaries in the Urdu daily Sahafat asking Muslims to come out of their slumber while also urging them to boycott Buddhists and their business establishments.[iv]
In fact, these are not isolated instances of Urdu press behaving in an irresponsible manner as far as violence in Assam is concerned. The reportage has subtly tried to give a message that it is an all-out war on Muslims by the Bodos, largely ignoring the actual nature of violence that has occurred from both sides.
The issue of illegal migrants that has been lingering on for a long time has been by and large ignored by the Urdu newspapers. Even though the reportage fell short of being extremely sensational, the opinion and commentaries are not just biased but also inciting and divisive.
For example, Hyderabad-based Siasat in its editorial titled Assam, Kab Band hoga Musalmanoka qatleaam (Assam, When will the Genocide of Muslims Stop) on August 26 says that the “genocide against Muslims in Assam is continuing”, it terms the violence in Assam as “ethnic-cleansing”.[v] It further blames the Indian media for not reporting the violence against Muslims and the State and Central governments for failing to contain violence, and stops short of taking a threatening tone.
Sahafat, on a number of instances, has given highly inciting headlines to its reports on violence in Assam. On August 8, its Delhi edition carried a front-page report on Assam violence with the title Assam me Musalmano ka qatleaam jari (Genocide of Muslims continuing in Assam) even though there were reports of people from both sides being killed in the violence.[vi]
Likewise, Sahafat’s Delhi edition on August 18 gave the headline, Assam me Musalmano par yaktarfahuahamla (It was a one sided attack on Muslims in Assam), while writing on the report of the National Commission of Minorities (NCM) on the trouble in Assam.[vii]Interestingly, even the NCM report talked about the role of both the sides in the violence calling for strong punishment for the perpetrators.
Another Urdu Daily, Hindustan Express, in its editorial on August 1, puts the blame squarely on the State and Central governments terming the action taken by them as Politics over “Bloods of Muslim” which was also the title of the piece.[viii] The same day it came out with a commentary on the violence against Rohingya Muslims in Burma. It had the usual tone of “the world up in arm against Islam and Muslims”: a fine example of the siege mentality most of the opinion makers in the Urdu press suffer from.
Recurring theme
One continuous and recurring theme of commentaries and columns in these newspapers on a variety of issues from “Arab Spring” to issues of Indian Muslim women has been that the entire world is engaged in conspiracies against the Muslims and Islam.
HamaraSamaj, in its editorial on August 18 titled Assam fasad par raddeamalkiafwah (Rumour on retaliation for Assam riots) tries to portray that the threat of violence against Assamese people across the country that was circulated in social media and through smses was an act of machismo and an example of strength of Indian Muslims.[ix] The tone was as if it was a matter of celebration that people from the north-east were packing their bags from major cities. It reminisced that the government and the police had taken note of the “rumour-mongering” but had largely ignored the violence on Muslims in Assam.
Newspapers such as Inquilab, which has a pan-India circulation, and Hyderabad-based Munsif and so on have also taken a divisive tone on numerous occasions in their coverage of Assam violence. Inquilab’s Mumbai edition in its front-page report on August 1 on JamiatUlema-e-Hind leader Arshad Madni’s visit to violence-affected areas in Assam said that all the Muslims in Assam were Indian and there were no Bangladeshi migrants, which was not correct. Moreover, it termed the violence as one-sided “killing of Muslims by the Bodo extremists”.[x] In fact, Inquilab published a series of reports after Madni’s visit that drew a grim picture of the condition of Muslims in Assam owing to the killings and the government’s inaction.
Most of these newspapers do not have their own correspondents in Assam, but some have sent their reporters to the violence-affected areas to report from there. However, these newspapers mostly depended on word-of-mouth kind of information for their reporting. They do depend on national agencies such as the Press Trust of India (PTI) and the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) for facts and reports. But largely the reports are mixed in the way of attributed, sourced, and acquired facts. Moreover, majority of the columnists and op-ed writers, who find space in these newspapers, depend mainly on their imagination to comment on the violence, sitting far away from the affected areas.
The reports, columns, and commentaries in Urdu newspapers on the recent violence in Assam which in a way led to mass exodus of the people of north-eastern origin from different parts of the country and violent protests by the Muslims in several cities, have been irresponsible and far from factual. On a number of instances, efforts have not been made to cross-check the sources of pictures even as the facts have not been taken into account.
One cannot deny that there has been violence in Assam, and the Muslims (Bangladeshi migrants and local people) have been targeted and the latter have taken refuge in camps, but several Bodo villages have also been attacked. One can only hope that the Urdu press will behave more responsibly when it comes to trouble in any part of the country and not see every problem from the prism of its siege mentality.

(Kabir Ali is a pseudonym. The author is a  freelance journalist based in New Delhi.)

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  • Census of India, 2011, Office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, www.censusindia.gov.in
  • General Review, Registrar of Newspapers for India, Government of India, www.rni.nic.in, These figures are for 2005-06, the latest annual figures available with the RNI.
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