I do not get to watch much television. But whatever little has passed my eye over the past few days, I felt that rioting in Assam was not jumping out of the screens like it does in other riotous situations – most infamously in Gujarat 2002, billed as India’s first live (sic) riots.
I asked people if my presumption was correct. I got answers in the affirmative – coverage of the situation in Assam was inadequate and in place of hysterical reporting the emphasis was on talking heads inside studios and handout reporting.
One tried to understand why the pitch of reporting was several octaves lower than the recent Guwahati molestation case. There also has to be an explanation why the majority of reports from Assam continued to have the Guwahati dateline and not Kokrajhar well after it became evident that this was not just another small round of skirmish that Lower Assam has repeatedly seen in recent years.
It is not as if Kokrajhar is a great distance from Guwahati. At less than 250 kilometres which most people say can be normally done in a shade more than four hours, it is easily accessible. Yet the media chose to stay away for long.
There has been a debate that the violence cannot be called communal violence because the communities involved are tribals and Muslims. Firstly, this is a very narrow view of communalism – which after all is an ideology and a riot is an extreme manifestation of it. Calling only a Hindu-Muslim conflict as communal violence would be extremely reductionist.
Secondly the violence has been dubbed ethnic conflict with the basic struggle being for control of land among aboriginal tribal residents and migrant Muslim settlers. But the presentation of this argument does not take into account that the trend of Muslim settlers arriving from what was then overcrowded districts of East Bengal, began from the 1820s with the British occupation of these territories. Contemporary settlers cannot be penalised for a phenomenon that is almost two centuries old.
In contrast to the present violence in Assam, social unrest in the late 1970s and early 1980s during the AASU led movement drew greater attention of the national media probably because it was more in the realm of the classical Hindu-Muslim conflict.
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that the reason behind the relatively less coverage – when compared to the riots in Gujarat is because the BJP is a favourite whipping boy of the media – and that the Congress is far more adept at media management.
While not being completely true, the fact of the matter is that the BJP has a more villainous tinge to its saffron and khakhi association. Symbols and colours of other political parties do not have connotations beyond the electoral realm. Moreover, Assam is no economic powerhouse like Gujarat and Tarun Gogoi is not a polarising politician like Narendra Modi.
Unfortunately, just as the media weighs those who are alive to decide what is a good story, it also first labels the dead as sexy before deciding to rush resources for coverage.