The terrorist attack on the Air Force Station at Pathankot on January 2 remained a subject of discussion and debate in the mainstream media for several days. The newspapers carried bold headlines and learned op-ed pieces. Different television channels vied with one another to host commentators from across the spectrum – from the informed to the opinionated to the totally ignorant. The TRP-driven frenzy undoubtedly stretched the resources of the various television channels. As a result, almost every angle of the Pathankot incident was commented upon at length.
Which is all very well. Except that one aspect seems to have escaped popular notice. And that is the fact that Pathankot pushed the happenings at Malda, West Bengal to the bottom edge of the television screens.
An acknowledged limitation of the visual medium is that it has to grab eyeballs. If footage of an event is not available then, for all practical purposes, the event never happened as far as the TV channels are concerned.
And so it was with Malda.
The mainstream print media, too, either chose to ignore the happenings in Malda or remained preoccupied with Pathankot and cricket. The developments in Malda and commentaries on them started trickling into the media only much later. It is remarkable that there were so many sketchy and contradictory reports.
The space left by the mainstream media was filled by the social media, with its inherent biases and conflicting viewpoints. In the absence of any comprehensive or credible report, most people drew their conclusions from information available on the Internet or whatever was circulating via Twitter, WhatsApp et al.
The picture remained as clear as mud.
So what happened in Malda?
From the various reports in the social media and belated analyses carried in some periodicals, it seems that one Kamlesh Tiwari, an activist of an organisation styled as the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, passed derogatory comments against the Prophet Mohammed, for which he was arrested in Lucknow on December 3. A month later, a little known Muslim organisation, Edara-e -Shariah, organised a protest meeting in far away Kaliachak, Malda, at which 10,000 participants were expected. Instead, a huge number of people collected – with estimates varying from 1,50,000 to 2,50,000. How they were mobilised remains unclear. Whether the state government was aware of this huge gathering and whether it took any action is not known. But it is not contested that the crowd went on a rampage, blocked the national highway and burnt the Kaliachak police station and about two dozen motor vehicles.
Around this kernel of events, there have been many assertions, insinuations and accusations.
Events alleged to have taken place include misbehaviour by the Border Security Force, the burning of effigies (whose?) by the mob, raising of slogans against the Prime Minister and Hindutva organisations, unspecified deaths in firing by the crowd, looting of shops and houses and targeting of some Hindu homes by rampaging mobs.
Those alleged to be behind the violence included the whole pantheon of law breakers. They were variously mentioned as drug traffickers, cattle smugglers, illicit arms manufacturers and dealers, illicit poppy cultivators, fake currency cartels etc. The alleged motives ranged from the intention to burn crime exhibits and records in the police station to attempting to ‘teach a lesson’ to the law enforcement agencies. It was also mentioned that the criminal elements targeted the BSF because the border guarding force had cracked down on their illegal activities. Some reports spoke of Bangladeshi migrants taking part.
Politics all around
With elections to the West Bengal State Assembly due in April/May this year, the events were viewed only through the prism of local and national politics. Every major party either got involved or was alleged to be involved. Some prominent Muslim leaders behind the violence were said to belong to the CPM. The Congress was alleged to be making attempts to retrieve the legacy of A. B. A. Ghani Khan Choudhury. The Trinmool Congress was alleged to be appeasing the Muslim organisations and leaders involved in order to make inroads into a former Congress bastion. And the BJP was alleged to be attempting to polarise the Hindu populace in order to reap benefits in the elections.
On January 9, the chief minister of West Bengal is reported to have said that the incident was “not communal”. She went on to blithely make statements to the effect that “It was BSF versus the people. There’s a struggle there. The state is not involved. The issue was distorted and misinformed. The locals had some issues with the BSF.” Another statement ascribed to her was that the incident had “nothing to do with my party or the state government or the state police. But we managed it.” A prominent TMC Member of Parliament held the “social media army” of the BJP responsible for the Malda incident and accused the BJP of trying to give a communal colour to a riot ahead of the elections.
The BJP also reacted to the incident with the elections in mind. The shrill condemnation of the incident was wholly political, right from the fact finding team of parliamentarians, despatched to Malda by the party president, to a delegation of party leaders calling on the President of India.
Even the Union home minister chose to comment on the developments in Malda from a platform which was primarily election oriented. He was quoted as saying in Ashoknagar (West Bengal) that “The incident in Malda is not a small incident. I want to tell the TMC government that the Malda case should be solved.” It was not a surprise that he chose to use the term “TMC government” rather than the “state government” – which, under the Constitution, is mandated to maintain public order.
It would have been perfectly in order for the Union home ministry to seek an immediate report from the state government on the happenings in Malda. Not because there is a BJP government at the Centre and a TMC government in West Bengal but because Article 355 of the Indian Constitution makes it the duty of the Central government “to protect every state against external aggression and internal disturbance and to ensure that the government of every state is carried on in accordance with the provisions of this Constitution”. Such a report seems to have been sought; but in the lackadaisical time frame of centre-state correspondence this could take a while.
Electoral considerations trounce national interest
An authoritarian regime – or even a state more alive to its sovereignty – would have ensured swift retribution for the culprits of Malda. Terms such as ‘uprising’, ‘insurrection’, ‘rebellion’ or ‘waging war against the state’ might have been bandied about. But no such discussions have taken place. Probably this is the price the country pays for having the kind of polity it does.
So what really happened in Malda?
What happened is that the country has started paying the price for the kind of democracy it is. One in which political parties are more important than governments and the pursuit of power trumps the rule of law. Electoral considerations have finally trounced national interest.
Meanwhile, quite curiously, the burnt Kaliachak police station was repaired and repainted in a matter of days. There were reports that broken windows in houses were all replaced. Burnt trees were chopped down and altogether removed. New street lights were installed.
A suspicious mind could well be tempted to conclude that some party, or parties unknown, was anxious to destroy any evidence of the alleged mayhem.
One unrelated question lingers – So was there a major earthquake in Manipur? Probably not; because there was no interesting video footage. Probably not; because no elections are due in that state. Probably not; because no one knows where Manipur is.
K.C. Verma is a former chief of the R&AW. The views expressed are his own.