No sooner did the SIT submit its closure report in the Gulbarga Society massacre case, there was a frenzy of reports in the National English Press. Every columnist wanted to be a part of the action-while some called it a ‘clean chit’ for Modi, others averred that he could not leverage the same for getting a national role; some appealed for stopping the demonization of Modi, others opined that it was too premature.
Similarly when Ode verdict was handed down a couple of weeks back, reams were written. Last November Sardarpura judgement grabbed the wholesale attention of national media.
Contrast this with the apathy of media towards Bathani Tola carnage. Many of the readers may not even be aware of the carnage. For the benefit of such uninitiated, members of the Ranvir Sena invaded Bathani Tola, a village in Central Bihar in July, 1996 and killed 21 Dalits and Muslims. Out of the 63 accused of executing the carnage, 3 were awarded death, 20 life imprisonment and rest were freed by a lower court in May, 2010 – 14 years after the incident! A few days back, the Patna High Court set aside the lower court’s verdict and acquitted the 23 menciting lack of evidence. Except for reporting the fact of High Court judgement and the decision of the State to appeal against the verdict, precious little have been written by columnists in the national papers. Apart from Shoumojit Banerjee in The Hindu, no one else seems to be following this story seriously.
The similarities between Gulbarga Society and Bathani Tola are striking. While the victims of the former are Muslims, the victims of the latter are Dalits and Muslims. In both the cases prosecution has been accused of a sloppy approach. Lack of evidence is the reason given by both the institutions-SIT for giving clean chit to Modi and others and Patna Highe Court for acquitting 23 members of Ranvir Sena. If Gulbarga Society massacre is part of a larger Gujarat riots that media evinces keen interest, Bathani Tola also as, Shoumojit Banerjee points out is just one in a series of caste massacres perpetrated by Ranvir Sena . In fact Wikipedia page on Ranvir Sena lists Haibaspur, Shankarbigha, Jehanabad and Narayanpur apart from Bathani Tola where the extremist outfit had unleashed violence on helpless Dalits.
Given the above similarities one wonders why the National media gets unduly emotional in one issue while being extremely indifferent to the other.
Is it perhaps not so much the victims or their plight but the high profile of the alleged perpetrator that matters to the media? If victims, the caste/religious angle or crime per se had mattered to media, then both Gulabarga Society and Bathani Tola would have attracted equal attention. On the other hand a story with Narendra Modi as an alleged perpetrator of a crime makes it a juicier reading than one where some Brahmeshwar Singh aka Mukhia is the accused. After all, an ordinary restaurant brawl becomes something special if Saif Ali Khan is the accused, does it not? But this can, at best partly explain the problem because those convicted in Best Bakery or Ode or Sardarpura cases were not high profile ones; still media went frenzy.
Even in Gujarat riots Godhra carnage did not get as much attention as the post Godhra violence. Rationale extended by some for this discrimination was that Godhra was ‘spontaneous’ whereas post Godhra was pre meditated-it was, according to them intended to ‘teach a lesson’ to Muslims. But Ranvir Sena also claims that its punishments are intended to teach a lesson to Naxals.
Then the point of State’s participation in the violence which could have induced media to pay more attention. While Zakia Jafri and other victims have alleged active participation of Modi Government (which the SIT report is dismissing), Sri Kishun Choudhary, the complainant in Bathani Tola case levels the same allegation against Nitish Kumar Government.
NGOs particularly the Citizens for Peace and Justice (CPJ) headed by Teesta Setalvad have kept the media on its toes regarding Gujarat Riots. There have been allegations of manipulation of evidence by Teesta; but even these have in a way served to keep interest alive on Gujarat Riots. These NGOs have managed their PR so well that arguments like all round economic development in Gujarat under Modi and non-recurrence of communal riots during the last 10 have come to be dismissed by sections of elite readers. In contrast Bathani Tola victims do not have a mentor like CPJ.
Further columnists have over the years queued up on an extreme position-either for or against Modi and Gujarat Government that they cannot move an inch backward, that they need to defend their position with every emergence of a new fact. For those who had taken a position against Modi and his Government, an Ode verdict or a Sardarpura verdict vindicated their position and they went to town with jubilation; an SIT closure report raised a red flag against the theory espoused them and forced them to reassure themselves and their readers that ‘all is well’, ‘we-are-not-proved-wrong-yet.’ For the rest, the above instances presented vice-versa opportunities.
Or could it be that Northern and Western India- particularly Delhi, Mumbai- get more media coverage than the rest of India? The 1984 anti Sikh riots dominated the media scene for years till Gujarat riots eclipsed them. While Irom Sharmila’s fast is cold shouldered even today by the media, Anna’s fast was aired 24×7 last year. Drunken driving cases in Delhi are more important for national news channels than a Cauvery or a Mullai Periyar dispute in Tamilnadu. Either because Southern and Eastern States have their own strong regional media or because the ‘national’ audience does not connect with the problems of these regions, national media traditionally has been ignoring these regions. While the emergence of strong leaders like Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee in the Eastern States and the phenomenon of massive corruption in Southern States( 2G originating from Tamilnadu and Mining Scams in Karnataka)have forced the media to pay some attention to these States, North Eastern States are still largely ignored.
Or is news reporting just all about circulation and TRPs? Is crime less grave if committed in a remote corner? Is ‘balanced journalism’ limited to just presenting the opposing views on popular issues? Does it not extend to balancing the issues themselves?