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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , August 10, 2012 at 00 : 10

Assam riot victims need our sensitivity, not our prejudice


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 a comparison 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 which 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 rather try and explain just why 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 a hundred 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 Rs 140 per litre in Imphal and LPG cylinders reach the Rs 2,000 mark scarcely got a mention. Unfortunately, instead of focussing 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 the 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 Mrs Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards led to the labelling of every Sikh as '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 Bodoland 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. 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.


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More about Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He has 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.


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