In this age of social media, the grim business of inciting communal violence has changed drastically. Instead of calls from religious institutions, the message comes straight into your phone. Hatred and venom, available at the touch of a button.
This has been the gradual change in the nature of communal violence, not just in West Bengal but also other states such as Uttar Pradesh during the last five years. In Bengal, where the robust Bengali-language media adopts a policy described by one senior editor as, “the not giving of too much publicity” to communal incidents in a bid to ensure “the violence doesn’t spread” – this becomes a problem.
Opposition parties across the board, from the BJP on the right to the Left and the Congress, allege that the TMC government has “taken steps” to ensure that the Bengali-media doesn’t cover riots. However, the vernacular media’s alleged “failure” to report these incidents has created a vacuum, which is readily filled by right-wing elements associated with Hindu and Muslim organizations which have – according to police officers – “made things worse”.
One senior police officer, posted at Hazinagar explained, “It is true that it is impossible to have a complete media blackout anymore. Social media, WhatsApp and other avenues allow people to spread their message, unedited, which in turn makes it very difficult for us to monitor the situation. For instance, we’re ensuring that no one from outside comes into this area bearing arms or even with aim of creating mischief. But how can you stop someone from sending a video? The problem with reporting is that no matter how factually and objectively, you write your piece or show the news – you’ll end up taking a side.”
Police officers who’ve been posted at Hazinagar since the incidence of communal violence at Naihati from October 12, have been dealing with this problem every day. At least three different messages – none of them verified – have been circulated. While two show Hindu youths claiming that they’ve been attacked, a third shows a Muslim youth claiming that he’s had to flee despite the local government’s support. The police have confirmed that all three videos are from “dubious sources” while another senior police officer alleged that the role played by ultra-nationalist Hindu organization, Hindu Samahati was key in “spreading violence”. Tapan Ghosh, the chief of Hindu Samhati has since maintained that the allegations are false and his social media posts said, “I have done my duty”.
Further misinformation has revolved around the October 6 order by Justice Dipankar Dutta, which had deemed arbitrary the prohibition order on idol immersion due to Muharram, saying it was a “clear endeavour” by the West Bengal government to “appease the minority section of the public”.
While the local BJP councillor claimed that the order had removed all restrictions from idol immersions – the order states that the lifting of restrictions would apply to “household pujas and pujas organized by apartment owners in their respective complexes” and not community pujas. Prior to October 12, residents at Hazinagar maintained, that the confusion regarding the immersion and the consequent order from the Calcutta HC had further created tension in the area. This too was broadcast across social media, maintained the police.
This is not new for Bengal. In the past few years, particularly the last two, the state has seen an upsurge in communal violence that has at its centre, the use of social media and the police’s relative inability to deal with it.
Take for instance, the Illambazar riots sparked off by an objectionable Facebook post that a 21-year-old student had posted on his Facebook wall in March. Within hours, the knowledge of this post had left his entire village fuming. In a few days, the entire district was seething and it wasn’t until the violence actually began that the understaffed police officers at the Illambazar police station realized that there was something wrong.
The police reacted predictably, arresting the boy and promising swift action. “But this is where things went wrong. There wasn’t enough publicity regarding the arrest. So people came from outside, seething in anger,” said the officer. BJP president Dilip Ghosh visited the area, exhorting people to “chop off the heads” of anti-nationalists which only added fuel to the fire. Further violence followed and by the time the administration had disabled wireless communication in the area, one person was dead.
A senior editor who had worked at two leading Bengali dailies – Bartaman and Pratidin, said that the traditional belief that Bengal was immune to communal politics was fast-changing. Among allegations of “minority appeasement” directed at the TMC and the BJP’s efforts to occupy the political vacuum created after the weakening of the Left has resulted, he said, “in a deadly cocktail”. “When you take the political scenario, the overt religious polarization in the country, use of social media to create violence and of course electoral politics – caution needs to be exercised during the reportage of riots. But to ignore such incidents is perhaps no longer viable.”