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New Delhi: A fact-finding report commissioned by the Editors Guild of India (EGI) says that the BJP-led Tripura government used incidents of communal violence in the state in October to consolidate their vote amongst the Hindu Bengali population, justifying it as a “natural reaction” to the attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh.
The report also accuses the police and administration of displaying a “lack of professionalism and integrity” in dealing with the violence and with those reporting on the issue, making them “complicit in the growth of muscular majoritarianism that subverts democratic institutions”.
The report was filed by a three-member team of independent journalist Bharat Bhushan, the EGI’s general secretary Sanjay Kapoor and Pradip Phanjoubam, the editor of the Imphal Review of Arts and Politics. The team visited Tripura from November 28 to December 1 and met a cross-section of journalists; representatives of the state government, including chief minister Biplab Kumar Deb; and civil society activists to “assess the state of media freedom in Tripura”.
After reports of attacks on Hindu minorities in Bangladesh were reported around Durga Puja, hundreds of rallies were organised by Hindutva groups like the Vishva Hindu Parishad in many parts of Tripura. Several instances of communal violence and alleged attacks on mosques were reported around the time. However, the government maintained that the situation was peaceful.
Subsequently, the government cracked down on those who reported events from the ground. Among those who were targeted were journalists, lawyers and activists – some of them under sections of the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).
While commenting on the immediate cause of concern – the government using draconian laws against journalists and civil society activists who were reporting on the violence – the EGI report also covers the state’s broader socio-political context and the state of the local media.
Crucially, the report says that though the police have maintained that no “used” mosque was damaged or attacked, local journalists told the team that at least 10 mosques across the state were attacked and damaged. One of them even said some police officers had been cynical of the government’s version.
An Agartala-based journalist told the team that he had seen three mosques with varying degrees of damages, while he had confirmation from local journalists there other mosques suffered similar damage.
“The police narrative seems to be an afterthought to underplay the conflict. Whenever the police found an alternate and safer explanation for a particular incident, it was generalised to what happened everywhere too,” the report says.
When a mob was prevented from attacking a well-known masjid in the Kakraban area of Gomati district, it burnt down a structure used for prayer some distance away from the mosque. “[T]hat incident was used to build the narrative that only a prayer hall and not a mosque was burnt. This, then, became the general explanation to push the argument that no mosques were targeted,” the report said.
The EGI report also says that the violence must be seen in the context of the municipal elections, which were held in late November. The BJP, the report says, was wary after it was trounced in the Tripura Tribal Areas Territorial Council elections.
“The communal incidents during Durga Puja in Bangladesh provided a perfect opportunity for right-wing religious organisations to polarise their cadre and voters along communal lines. [The] Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Hindu Jagaran Manch used the violence in Tripura to stir communal sentiments in Tripura,” the report says.
The entry of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) into the state’s politics also made chief minister Deb nervous, the report says. After Mamata Banerjee led her party to a massive victory in West Bengal, the BJP did not want it to make inroads in the northeastern state where a majority of the population speaks Bangla.
“The government officials and ministers we met repeatedly underplayed the communal violence,” it says, adding that their common refrain was that “outside elements” had created the situation because “some vested interests (read, TMC) wanted to make a dent in the Tripura municipal elections”.
A minister told the team, “There was provocation in Bangladesh and that had a reaction here. The VHP tried to unite the Hindu sentiment here. We tackled it quickly but you must understand that the VHP is an independent body. Some people did enter mosques with an ulterior motive but they were prevented from doing anything.”
The team reported, “The communal rioting in Bangladesh during Durga Puja came at a time when Chief Minister Biplab Deb and his party, the BJP, were preparing to take on the challenge of the Trinamool Congress in the upcoming civic elections.”
“Counter communal mobilisation in reaction to the violence against the Hindu minority in Bangladesh offered an opportunity to the fraternal organisations of the BJP – the VHP, Hindu Jagaran Manch, Bajrang Dal and others – to foment communal anger to consolidate their vote amongst the Hindu Bengali population of the state,” it says.
Newton’s Third Law also made a return in the context of political violence, the report says, as the communalism was “sought to be justified as a ‘natural reaction’ of the Hindus of Tripura as they had family links with the Hindu population across the border in Bangladesh”.
Crackdown on media, civil society
In the aftermath of the violence, a fact-finding team of Supreme Court lawyers found that there was “targeted violence against Muslims”. Subsequently, two advocates who were a part of the team were charged under UAPA. A case was also filed against two women journalists who were reporting the violence.
“While the local press either cowered before the state government and was too afraid of the ground reality as it was, journalists writing for national media or for media based outside the state tried to report the communal violence for what it was,” the EGI report says.
This did not suit the narrative of “good governance” that the Biplab Deb government wanted to project and anyone who wrote critically of the government was immediately dubbed as part of a “TMC conspiracy”, it says.
“Grand conspiracy theories” were cooked up to present independent journalists as pawns of “enemies of the state” who want to undermine a democratically elected government. “Ever since this matter blew up, the police and an insecure political leadership have used draconian laws like UAPA and the might of the police and a pliant judiciary to pulverise… civil society,” the report adds.
The police used UAPA against critics not just to stop others from tweeting about the violence “but also to forcefully establish the dominance of the state’s narrative”. The EGI report also says that despite the reports of violence during the rallies organised by the VHP and its “fraternal radical Hindu outfits”, there were no arrests of those who participated in the violence till the courts stepped in. “This culture of impunity epitomises the conduct of the state government,” the report says.
Local media ‘cowered’
The report also comments on the state of the local media, which has faced threats and attacks. While saying that the previous CPI(M) government led by Manik Sarkar was “not exactly known for being press-friendly”, local journalists say the Biplab government is particularly sensitive about adverse criticism.
“Like most state governments, the government in Tripura was prompt in denying or tightening the tap on government advertisements to a media platform… that were critical… And if the denial of ads did not lead to changing their ways, then goons were used to beat up critical journalists,” the report says.
The report also highlights an “unspoken patron-client relationship” between the government and the media. The local media has accepted this relationship, because of which “the need for questioning this proximity between the power corridors and journalists has become somewhat redundant”.
BJP leaders were happy with the way the local media conducted itself, with one telling the team that independent journalism is absent in Tripura “because the media is ‘adjustable’ and willing to compromise”.
“The UAPA charges were made against outside media and not local media. Most journalists are happy here because they get pensions, health insurance and low cost housing. If there is tension with the media then it is quickly resolved – it is relationship between big brother and small brother. Local media did not write directly against the government. It is the outside media that came here and did that,” the leader said.
In conclusion, the team says that the Tripura government seems to believe that it is working according to the larger nationalist vision of the BJP in which the media also has a role to play but “not as a foil to the government but as its partner in the nationalist project”.