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The Role of the Media during

Communal Riots in India


A Study of the 1984 Sikh Riots and the 2002 Gujarat Riots

Secularism is the backbone of the Indian Constitution and India is a land of many religions.
However, one can witness frequent communal conflicts between various religious groups.
In a multi-religious society like India, the role of the mass media in such communal conflicts
becomes extremely important. Two of such horrific communal riots have been the 1984 Sikh
riots and the 2002 Gujarat (Godhra) riots. The coverage by the Indian media on both the
incidents received intense criticisms. The purpose of this paper is to analyse the way in which
the Indian media covered and reported the 1984 Sikh riots and the 2002 Gujarat (Godhra) riots.
In analysing the role of the media in both the riots, the paper would also discuss if the media
have been objective and also as to what ideally should be media’s role in coverage of such
future communal riots in India, if any.

Saifuddin Ahmed

C ommunalism is a pervasive phenomenon in the


public life of India and communal riots are the
ugliest expression (Krishna, 1985). Communal riots
Everything is reported in the media, as are communal
riots. The role of the news media has grown in recent
years, perhaps because of the centrality of the news
have become an integral part of communalism in India. media in communal violence and conflicts (Wolfsfeld,
An event can be classified as a communal riot on two 2007). Even the most casual of observers will not deny
grounds: firstly, if there is violence and, secondly, if two the increasing significance of news media under such
or more communally identified groups confront each crisis situations. The influence of the news media in
other or the members of the other group, at some point peace processes is subtler, in part because what is not
during the violence (Varshney, 2002). The reason behind reported in the media is in some ways more important
such communal riots can be superficial and trivial; though than what is reported.
deep within, there are political reasons behind such This paper will look at the way the Indian media
events (Varshney, 2002). India is not new to communal covered and reported the two most horrific incidents
riots; the first recorded riots were in the years 1714, 1715, of communal violence in India—the 1984 Sikh riots and
1716 and 1750 in Ahmedabad (Rajeshwari, 2004). Bipin the 2002 Gujarat (Godhra) riots. On both occasions, the
Chandra in his book, Communalism in modern India, media drew criticisms. The paper would discuss if the
writes that the maximum communal riots in India took media have been objective in covering both riots and also
place during 1923–1926. as to what should be the media’s role in the coverage of
Communal riots in India are not spontaneous and are such future communal riots in India, if any.
rarely due to any religious animosity. They usually arise
due to conflicting political interests, which are often The changing face of news media
linked to economic interests (Rajeshwari, 2004). From the
1960s till the late 1980s, the local political and economic The global media sphere is changing with each passing
factors played a significant role in instigating the riots second. New communications technologies such as
in major parts of India (Engineer, 2002). However, since camera-enabled mobile phones and laptop computers
then the emergence of Hindtuva1, politics has been the are giving journalists an opportunity to gather and
major cause of communal riots (Engineer, 2002). disseminate information easily. This digitisation of the
The role of the news media in the reportage of news industry has led to compression of time and space
communal riots in India is a major area of concern. and thus enabled us to see news and images of conflicts
as and when they happen. The images broadcast in our
living rooms are not only informing the global audience
Saifuddin Ahmed is a Master’s in Mass Communications of the horrific happenings but might also instigate further
graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, violence in an existing violent situation. As a result, the
Singapore. media’s reporting of a conflict situation has become as

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MEDIA ASIA, VOL 37 NO 2, 2010

central to the unfolding of the conflict itself. With the What followed was complete mayhem, which led to
evolution in technology, the tyranny of distance might lethal anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi, India. Sikh homes
have reduced but various hidden realities and factors were systematically singled out in the capital and brutally
still affect the reporting of conflicts. This is suggested by destroyed (Tatla, 2006). The Sikhs were hounded, tyres
a study done by Virgil Hawkings, who explains that the were put around their neck, and petrol doused on their
conflict in Africa, which has been in the post-Cold War faces and bodies set ablaze to brutal death (Mohanka,
world responsible for nearly 90 per cent of the world’s 2005). More than 3,000 Sikhs were killed in New Delhi
war deaths, suffered a complete media blackout. Similarly, itself. Two hundred Gurudwaras, the place where Sikhs
the coverage of the massive war in the Democratic worship, were burnt down and many Sikh-owned shops
Republic of the Congo (DRC), which resulted in over one were looted (Bedia, 2009).
million deaths in the year 2000, was almost insignificant The situation worsened when the newly elected Prime
(Hawkins, 2008). Minister Rajiv Gandhi, the son of Indira Gandhi, said,
The media ignite the opinion-building process and “When a big tree falls, the ground beneath is sure to
impact the political decisions and audience’s reactions rumble.” This gave a sense as if Rajiv Gandhi was giving
in society. This eventually shapes the course of prevalent a boost to the killers who were assassinating hundreds
crises and conflicts (Ballantine, 2003). of Sikhs in the streets of New Delhi (Mohanka, 2005).
Mrs Gandhi’s assassinators were avenging the killings
Media, religion and politics of Sikhs during the Operation Bluestar. In June 1984, Mrs
Gandhi wanted to flush out a few terrorists led by Jamail
With the planes hitting the Twin Towers on 11 September Singh Bhindranwale, who were hiding in the precincts
2001, the relationship between the media and religion of the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine for Sikhs in
changed forever. Karim (2003) suggested that religion India. On 3 June 1984, a 36-hour curfew was imposed
would become an important topic for the media and the in the Sikh-dominated state of Punjab. All methods of
way the media cover events would be influenced by the communication and travel were suspended. Electricity
religious undertones. It is arguable if the world and its supplies were interrupted, a total blackout was created
religions have changed or not, but the media coverage and Punjab was cut off from India and rest of the world
of the same surely has. (Brar, 1992).
Within India, religion has a large impact on the On the night of 5 June, the Indian Army under the
personal lives of millions of people. The country practises command of Major General Kuldeep Singh Brar stormed
almost every other religion known to the world and this into the Golden Temple. By the morning of 7 June, the
is one of the most important facets of the country, as is Indian Army had full control of the temple. The militant
politics. The politicians play on the religious issues every leaders were killed in the two-day battle but along with
now and then, and the media are used as the platform. it, a large number of pilgrims, civilians and children also
The politicians communicate with the common masses died (Ahmed, 1996).
through the mass media. The way in which we know and The Sikh community were agitated. Their holiest
find out about our politicians is through the media. It is the shrine was turned into a bloody battlefield and innocent
media that serve as the main channel of communication lives were lost. Saran Singh, a retired bureaucrat and a
between the politicians and the public. Religion is a famous member of the Sikh community in India said, “It
subject in India that the politicians intelligently use to was sacrilege to send troops inside, open fire and in the
their advantage. process kill innocent devotees gathered to observe the
Academic literature has covered the representation of martyrdom” (Mohanka, 2005).
conflict in religion as well as the media and religion but From June to September 1984, most members of the
not much has been researched on media, religion and Sikh community nursed a festering wound only to blurt
conflict situations in context with each other, especially out in Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
within an environment like India. It would be difficult
to understand the relationship between religion, its
The Indian media’s coverage of Operation Bluestar
construction, presentation and conflict situations covered
and the riots
in the media, without some reference to the broader
political context within which it takes place because in a The media, by nature, play an extremely important
nation like India, religion is certainly driven by political role for any socio-political situation irrespective of the
motives. In order to understand the role the media play boundary they hold (Mohanka, 2005). The media’s role
and should play during communal clashes in India, let in the riots of 1984 is an interesting case. Scholars believe
us analyse the two worst communal riots India has ever that the media can play a role in focusing on a cause
seen—the 1984 Sikh riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots. much before it takes an ugly turn. In the case of Punjab
in 1984, the local media were not supportive of the Sikh
The 1984 Sikh riots causes. Moreover, since the beginning of the problems in
Punjab, the government had strict control on the media
The events and imposed heavy censorship. Since independence until
On 31 October 1984, the Indian Prime Minister, Indira the invasion of cable television in India, the electronic
Gandhi, was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. media had served as the mouthpiece of the government

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The Role of the Media during Communal Riots in India: A Study of the 1984 Sikh Riots and the 2002 Gujarat Riots

(Das, 2009). Similar was the role of the electronic media flow of information is essential to the prevention
in Punjab during the riots. The government had such tight of rights and liberties in a democratic society and
control over the media that the foreign correspondents India claims to be the world’s largest democracy. So,
trying to capture the horrific events were not even allowed they should act as the world’s largest democracy.
in the local land. The Indian government acted as a strict This is the foundation for a democratic nation and
visible gatekeeper and made it impossible to approve is not too much to ask of India to respect the rights
journalist visas for foreign correspondents. The events of of all its people and not just the Hindu majority.
the 1984 riots thus suffered not only from biased media It is not right for any government to deny 16 mil-
coverage but also selective coverage, which projected a lion of its own people the basic political and civil
one-sided, carefully selected perspective (Das, 2009). rights. India has a moral obligation to protect the
The “media blackout” during the Operation Bluestar is Sikh community.2
a prime example of the same.
The national newspaper’s reporting on the Sikhs
The day before the actual invasion by the Indian Army,
made no distinction between a regional political party,
the government ordered all press out of the state and
a handful of militants and the entire Sikh community.
restricted press coverage in Punjab. The press was allowed
Even the senior editors and columnists of the national
only a week later on special organised guided tours. The
newspapers considered all Sikhs accountable for the
aftermath was later described by the press as involving a
assassination of Indira Gandhi and provided no sympathy
small gang of criminals disliked by the majority of Sikhs
to the community during the riots. Through the critical
and Indians. The press described the militants as petty
years of the political crisis in Punjab before the horrific
political agitators rather than leaders of a movement for
riots, the national dailies had not help resolve the issue.
a greater Punjab autonomy, as believed by a majority of
The Times of India, one of the leading national dailies,
Sikhs. Similarly, during the reportage of the 1984 riots,
and The Hindustan Times did more to incite hostility
there were discrepancy between the press release of
between Hindus and Sikhs than perhaps any other
data and images and the actual severity of the violent
national English language newspaper (Das, 2009).
situation that prevailed in the streets of New Delhi (Das,
The media were involved in the dissemination of
2009). This usage of selective information in the Indian
misinformation to the public. The best example of the
media only contributed to the ambiguous image of Sikhs
same would be when a national newspaper carried an
throughout the nation and failed to bring their plight to
article reporting that huge quantities of heroin and drugs
light. During the Sikh Movement, the government of
had been recovered within the Golden Temple complex
India had passed the National Security Act (1980), the
and the same had been used by the militants to illegally
Punjab Disturbed Areas Ordinance (1983), The Armed
fund their operations. Since, the foreign press was banned
Forces Special Powers Act (1983) and the Terrorists
in Punjab; they picked up the story based on the 14 June
Affected Areas (Special Courts Act of 1984). These acts
Press Trust of India (PTI) news report from government
provided the police and army with sweeping powers.
sources. This news was carried in the major international
They could charge and curtail to the right to life under
newspapers. One week into the incident, the government
specific situations. The approach of the media during
retracted the official report on the grounds that the drugs
the crisis had been partisan in taking into account all
had been recovered from the India-Pakistan border and
types of multi-dimensional problem, historical, political,
not the Golden Temple complex. This retraction by the
socio-economic and ideological. The media only focused
government was not picked up by most international
on special restricted information and ignored a careful
news agencies and the damage done by the initial report
examination of all the issues and processes that had led
falsely remained among the masses.3
to the mayhem and the riots. During 1984, Indian leaders
Many scholars believed that the Indian media forgot
were free to make up non-existent stories and broadcast
to prioritise issues and failed to act upon them. Senior
through government-controlled radio and television
Indian journalist, Manoj Mitta along with H. S. Phoolka
channels. Since there was a major restriction on the
in the book When a tree shook Delhi writes that the media
foreign press, all foreign news correspondents were left
focused on the assassination of Indira Gandhi and did
with no choice but to take the twister news of the local
not care enough about the Sikh murders during the riots.
government-controlled media.
Mitta says:
The US House of Representatives had a viewpoint on
the same. It said: The media by and large went by the official line on
the carnage. It focused on the happenings at Teen
As a result the outside world receives a biased
Murti Bhawan, where Indira Gandhi’s body lay
one-side view of what goes on in Punjab because
in state and where from people around the world
the Indian Government has control over most of
had come to pay respect. So photographers were
the domestic media. This contributes to the stere-
flocking to that place and the killings that were
otype that all Sikhs are extremist radicals who are
simultaneously going on in the capital did not get
terrorising the predominantly Hindu nation and
recorded at all. It’s bizarre but true.
that is just not the fact. If the Indian Government
has nothing to hide it should remove the news Not all were pleased by the Indian media’s coverage
blackout and permit outsiders into Punjab. The free of the 1984 Sikh riots.

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The 2002 Gujarat riots networks in India—Star News, Aaj Tak and Zee News—
did not follow the guidelines formulated by the Press
The events Council of India, a quasi-judicial watchdog organisation
On 27 February 2002, the Ahmedabad-bound Sabarmati (Mehta, 2006). The guidelines mentioned not to reveal
Express train reached a small town in Gujarat named the identity of victims or attackers in the news reports but
Godhra (Yeolekar, 2002). Instead of the usual 5-minutes all the news networks carried blaring headlines about the
stoppage, the train stopped for 25 minutes and then killing of the Kar Sevaks. The guidelines were against the
moved out of the platform. Before the train could run mentioning of victims or attackers as Hindus or Muslims
at its normal speed, the alarm chain was pulled to stop because they feared it could inflame passions and lead to
the train at Signal Falia, a Muslim-inhabited locality. revenge attacks. The television news networks with its
No one clearly knows what really happened but after striking visual images made this guideline redundant.
few minutes, the compartment S-6 was on flames. 58 While covering the riots in Gujarat, the television
passengers including 26 women and 12 children were journalists openly identified the victims and the attackers.
burnt to death (Yeolekar, 2002). Among the passengers Varadarajan argues for the naming of communities. He
were the Kar Sevaks4 travelling from Ayodhya. There states that not naming the communities increases a sense
have been different theories believing that Muslims were of suspicion and anxiety among the ordinary citizens
behind this barbaric act. not only in the riot-affected area but throughout the
If this wasn’t barbaric enough, what followed in the days nation. Then people tend to assume that the victims are
to come shook the entire secular nation of India. During “their own” while attackers are “the other” (Varadarajan,
the next three days, from 28 February to 2 March 2002, 1999).
Muslims were butchered, massacred and burnt alive. Famous Indian journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai and
Out of the 24 districts in Gujarat, 16 were entangled by Barkha Dutt of STAR News justified their stand of
organised mob attacks in which over 2,000 Muslims were naming the communities. Barkha Dutt stated, “Naming
killed, 200 mosques and religious and cultural monuments the community under siege in Gujarat was moot of the
were sent to rumbles (Sawant et al, 2002). The Muslim story. In fact it was the story, revealing as it did a prejudice
community of Gujarat suffered an enormous economic administrative and political system that was happy to just
blow with an overall loss of Rs 35 billion. stand by and watch” (Mehta, 2006).
The bold and independent media coverage by the
television media during the riots invited flak from
The Indian media’s coverage of the riots
the political actors who were shown in the bad light.
The television coverage Criticising the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the
For the first time in the history of communal clashes in Hindutva approach in the riots got STAR News and
India, “violence was carried live” on television (Ninan, English newspapers like The Times of India and Indian
2002) as the cameras brought the horrific images into Express bad press (Sonwalkar, 2006).
viewers’ home in Gujarat and elsewhere. There was no The BJP was in power in the state of Gujarat and at
live coverage of the attacks against the Sikhs back in the centre in New Delhi. After the initial violence, when
1984 or during the Babri Masjid fiasco in 1992. Those the news coverage of the attacks against the Muslims in
were the era of print media and television was limited to Gujarat started to reflect badly on the state and central
Doordarshan, a state-owned channel. It was only in 1996 government, the leaders came down heavily on the
when Rupert Murdoch ventured into India with the STAR journalists and media personnel. The Prime Minister,
network and STAR News that India’s first 24-hour news Atal Bihari Vajpayee, addressed the nation a day after
channel made live coverage possible (Page and Crawley, the attacks, regretting the “disgraceful” violence. He
2001). This addition to the television spectrum of India later on added that the news media were presenting an
added a new visual dimension to politics, violence and “exaggerated” account of the situation in Gujarat.6
public sphere in India. In 2005, the television newscape The BJP and the state government under Narendra
had turned dense with a large number of players entering Modi singled out STAR News and banned cable operators
the market; several 24-hour news channels were launched. from showing the channel in the state. The viewers in
This led to intense competitive brand of journalism, Ahmedabad, one of the worst affected regions in the
which was evident during the Gujarat riots. There were a riots, were left with blank television screens, unaware of
large consortium of journalists and television crews from the reality happening on the streets (Mehta, 2006). Cable
various channels on the streets in Gujarat, each trying to operators received calls from local officials in Ahmedabad
outdo each other. When the Gujarat violence happened, and other cities to completely blackout STAR News,
the private television in India had been broadcasting for Zee News, CNN and Aaj Tak. Dossiers and “hitlists” on
about eight years and was easily accessible by 40 million journalists were reportedly prepared while the channels
among the 81.6 million Indians who owned television which dared to reveal the truth and were critical of the
sets.5 This option offered by the private television gave Chief Minister and his plan of actions were not invited
the Indian viewers unprecedented access to independent to the press conferences and hence were denied the basic
broadcasting. right to information by the state itself (Sardesai, 2004).
When the first pictures of Gujarat riots were telecast The main complaint of the BJP and its allies was that
on Indian screens on 27 February, the three major news the news media did not cover and criticise those who were

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The Role of the Media during Communal Riots in India: A Study of the 1984 Sikh Riots and the 2002 Gujarat Riots

responsible for the Godhra train tragedy in which 58 Kar have been dismissed by many scholars. Patel argues that
Sevaks were victims. This, however, remains untrue as the allegation was “specious, self-serving and must be
most of the news channels and major newspapers covered dismissed” (Patel et al, 2002). The Editors Guild of India’s
the Godhra train tragedy exclusively but the follow-ups team observed that:
did not remain as “the story of the day” because the Union
Our finding is that the prompt and extensive por-
Budget followed on 28 February. The budget coverage
trayal by the national media of the untold horrors
was pushed aside when the mass killings and large-scale
visited on innocent people in the wake of the God-
retaliation against Muslims started in various parts of
hra carnage was a saving grace. The exposure of
the state (Sonwalkar, 2006).
the supine is not complicit attitude of the State and
Another criticism was that, the national media
manifest outpourings of communal hatred, stirred
“inflamed communal passions” by providing graphic
the conscience of the nation, compelled remedial
television coverage of the dreadful events. The journalists
action, howsoever defensively and belatedly ...
and the news professional came out against the criticism
However, the role of the sections of the Gujarat
and said that the level of violence would have been much
media, specially the Gujarat Samachar and more
worse if only the news media brought out the real picture
notably Sandesh, was provocative, irresponsible
with the graphic images.
and blatantly violative of all accepted norms of
The BJP and its allies also christened the media as
media ethics. This cannot be lightly passed over.
“Marxist-Mullah combine” and the “Secular Taliban” for
(Patel et al, 2002)
criticising the attacks against the Muslims. Members of
the Editors Guild of India visited the affected regions in Gujarat Samachar is the largest selling daily in Gujarat
Gujarat and were told by a group of Hindutva supporters with a circulation of nearly 810,000 followed by Sandesh
that the Hindu community has been defamed with the with 705,000 (Sonwalkar, 2006). These two newspapers
coverage only being from the Muslim perspective: “They have a large readership and dominate the print market
only listen to Muslims and ignore the Hindus” (Patel et in Gujarat. A study by PUCL in 2002 found that there
al, 2002). were several instances of distorted and false reporting
Sardesai explained the predicament faced by journalists in these two newspapers and also that the circulation of
in covering the riots: Sandesh rose by 150,000 due to its pro-Hindutva stand.
The coverage analysis found that when Muslims were
[If ] any reporter, whether print or television, at fault, their names were clearly mentioned and the
sees large-scale violence being committed, is the perpetrators identified. However, when the Muslims
journalist to ignore the hard reality and merely were the victims of murders, loots, arsons and other
present the facts as seen through the govern- heinous crimes, the attackers were unnamed. The study
ment binoculars? If the Chief Minister says that concluded:
the situation is returning to normal even while
reports are streaming in of continuing violence No sources were quoted for headlines, even when
in several parts of the state, are not the lies to be they were simply lifted from speeches by Vishwa
exposed? And if the government insists that the Hindu Parishad (one of the Hindutva political
army is out on the street when the fact is that the parties in the state). Headlines were also mislead-
army has been kept on stand-by and is waiting for ing, and often followed up by reports that did not
transport trucks, whose version is to be broadcast? substantiate, and even negated the headlines com-
(Sardesai, 2002) pletely … The anti-minority stand was obvious in
the slant in news reporting. (PUCL, 2002)
The press coverage Sandesh was extremely provocative in its reporting.
If the graphic coverage by the television channels hit PUCL states Sandesh’s usage of headlines was to “provoke,
the headlines and raised criticisms, the nature of the communalize and terrorise people” (PUCL 2002). On 28
press coverage also came under the hammer. There were Februrary, Sandesh carried a headline saying, “70 Hindus
two different approaches followed by the local and the burnt alive in Godhra”. Another report on the front page
national media. The local section of the press, including read, “Avenge blood with blood”, which was a quote from
the Gujarati dailies Sandesh and Gujarat Samachar, a statement made by one of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad
covered the events from a pro-Hindutva stand and leaders, but the newspaper used the words as a headline
justified the killings of hundreds of Muslims. While the without mentioning the leader (Sonwalkar, 2006).
national media, including The Times of India and the On 6 March, the headline read, “Hindus beware: Haj
Indian Express, were overtly critical of the channelised pilgrims return with a deadly conspiracy”, when the fact
attacks against the Muslims (Sonwalkar, 2006). remains that hundreds of Haj pilgrims were terrified
The team of Editors Guild of India met several by the happenings in the state and had retuned under
journalists, correspondents, editors, Chief Minister police protection. PUCL emphasised in its study that
Narendra Modi and others to conclude that the English- most news in Sandesh post-Godhra violence began with
language national press played an exemplary role in the sentence, “In continuing spiral of communal rioting
coverage of the riots. BJP’s allegations of the media that broke out as a reaction to the demonic/barbaric, etc
playing an aggravating role in the coverage of the riots Godhra incident.” The comminatory adjectives used in

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describing the Godhra incident were strikingly absent The role of the media during communal
when covering the post-Godhra Muslim annihilation riots: The road ahead
(PUCL, 2002).
One of the reports mentioned that the breasts of two The result of the multiple and complex interests of regions,
Hindu women had been chopped off by Muslim mobs states and/or various types of groups within them leads to
during the crisis. This report turned out be false and economic, social and political conflicts. Such conflicts are
the editor countered by saying that the information had difficult to handle and requires negotiations between the
been provided by the police. The paper’s editor told that parties involved and in this amorphous age of media, the
it was against the policy of the newspaper to carry out governments are finding it extremely difficult to handle
corrections and clarifications for previously published such situations (Terzis, 2008). Despite the increased
articles (Patel et al, 2002). The Press Council of India importance of communication, very few governments
later censured the newspaper for the fault (Prerna, 2003). can speak about successful communication during
Gujarat Samachar also heightened the tension through conflicts because they fail to take into consideration the
its pro-Hindutva stand in the coverage of the events. perception of the conflict in the minds of the common
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi openly praised mass, the scientific analysis of the causable factors, the
Sandesh for its work, which was publishing false and agendas of the parties involved and the changing nature
rumoured reports with a pronounced pro-Hindutva and of the conflict itself (Ballantine, 2003).
an anti-Muslim stance. In a letter to the newspaper’s The role of the mass media in covering and resolving
editor, Modi writes: conflicts, especially those involving religious differences
that leads to frequent communal riots in India, is extremely
The newspapers of the state played a decisive role crucial. We are in the age where the basic principles of
as a link between the people and the government. reportage of facts are sacred, comment-free, get both sides
You have served humanity in a big way. It is the of the story and double check the facts before writing
state government’s primary duty to restore peace and they are not enough in reporting communal riots.
and security ... It is noteworthy that the newspa- There are enough challenges faced by a journalist and
pers of Gujarat gave their full support to the state media personnel in such a situation. The guidelines for
government in undertaking this difficult task ... I a reporter in covering communal riots should be to look
am grateful to you. (Varadarajan, 2002: 286) out for detailed background information, not continue
The one regional newspaper that stood out amid the with the stereotyping of communities, find residents who
Hindutva ideology was the Gujarat Today, notably started deal with both the communities, talk to victims from
by a few liberal Muslims in the state. The report suggested both sides, corroborate the victims’ as well as the police’s
Gujarat Today regularly carried out positive news accounts, discover the role of the police, the politicians
items highlighting interdependence of the communities and the media and highlight stories where communities
involved (PUCL, 2002). The two English-language have helped each other.
national newspapers in India, The Times of India and If we analyse the way Indian media covered the 1984
the Indian Express were critical of the state government Sikh riots, we would understand that the media had
in their articles. However, these two newspapers also failed to understand the causative factors that led to
publish editions from Gujarat and a clear divide was the riots. The media were criticised for not focusing
evident between the two English-language dailies and on the Sikh plights and paying more attention to the
the two regional editions (Sonwalkar, 2006). While the assassination of Mrs Indira Gandhi. The year 1984 was
English-language version was sharp in its criticisms the time when electronic media were not as huge as
of Chief Minister Narendra Modi and his policies, the today with the existence of only one television channel,
two Gujarati dailies propagated the need of Hindutva. the state-owned Doordarshan. Thus, it was largely the
Desai, an Ahmedabad-based correspondent of the Indian work of the print media to cover the issues but that was
Express writes: not happening for sure. A full day of mass bloodshed had
taken place and there was hardly any media coverage of
Today, all the people who once used to look at me the same. The initial coverage was not through any media
with respect question me and abuse me. They do or newspaper agency but rather word of mouth. Rahul
this because I represented a publication whose Bedia, a correspondent working with Indian Express
medium is English and because I reported human back then was informed on 1 November 1984 about
misery in its right perspective ... A friend said: “All of the massive rioting which was taking place in a locality
you from the English language media have tarnished named Trilokpuri in New Delhi. He rushed to the spot
the image of Gujarat”. Today, the “common man” and covered the story, “When Terror stalked Trilokpuri”,
in Gujarat hates the English language media. Even published in the Indian Express on 2 November 1984.
a section of the English language media hates the Rahul Bedia was one of the few to cover the story. Years
English language media. (Desai, 2004: 228) later, Bedia recalls:
There was a demarcation between the coverage of I was working with the Indian Express. A resident
the national media and a section of the regional press. of Block 32, Mohan Singh, managed to reach our
The national media did a commendable job but were office. He had cut his hair to save his life. I happened
criticised by a few. to be around at that time and heard his story. I went

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The Role of the Media during Communal Riots in India: A Study of the 1984 Sikh Riots and the 2002 Gujarat Riots

to Block 32 with two of my colleagues to come upon of television it has become redundant. Questions
this horrible massacre. (Khandelwal, 2004) also remain whether the guidelines are applicable
to the electronic media ... The argument that the
It is understood that there was a limitation on the media
violence in Gujarat would have been worse if the
by the government to cover the local issues in Punjab
media, particularly electronic, had not aroused
during the Khalistan movement. However, having said
public opinion against the killing spree through
that, it was a failure on the part of the media for not
focused and sustained reporting cannot be dis-
doing enough in covering the issues that were simmering
missed out of hand. (Phillip, 2002)
and finally led to Operation Bluestar, the assassination
of Indira Gandhi and eventually the riots. The news The television and the national media were very
media have a tremendous impact on the prediction and aggressive in their reporting of Gujarat riots and were
assessment of humanitarian crises. They play a huge not hesitant to show the carnage. I would agree with
influencing role if they report on an issue at an early Phillip that the situation could have been worse if the
stage (Gerner and Schrodt, 1998). media had restrained themselves from reporting in the
Even if the reporters were not officially allowed in manner they eventually did. The common mass out there
the lands of Punjab during the rebel movement, they needs to know the exact depth and the horrid nature of
could have done enough to analyse the situation and the events unfolding. Though the regional media took an
bring the issue to light. The media chose to ignore it entirely different approach and one could sense Hindutva
over other issues in the country. There is this argument being reflected in the way they covered the same events,
that prevails: The media were not as large an industry it would be wrong to blame the entire regional media but
as today which could cover every issue in the country the likes of Gujarat Samachar and Sandesh were leading
but the Khalistan movement was not just any other the road to Hindutva.
small group terrorist movement in any remote corner of Whenever a national or regional media reports or
India. If it was indeed an insignificant movement, then broadcasts images of communal riots as breaking news or
the government would have not banned the media from a cover story, millions of people are glued to it. So, what
getting first-hand information and outlook of the subject. is reported and the manner in which it is reported is of
Reporters would have been freely allowed in the state to enormous significance. The 1991 Gulf War introduced
cover the events and come up with their reports, which, the CNN effect and with what is happening today, the
of course, did not happen. The media, as a watchdog of current conflicts may produce the NDTV effect or the
the society they claim to be, failed miserably during an Aaj Tak effect. The mass forms its opinions based on the
event of national crisis. instant coverage of the conflicts by the reporters on the
However, the media industry in India grew by leaps ground and how it is analysed by the television anchors
and bounds and this was truly reflected in the way the and the media expert analyst sitting in the studios.
Gujarat riots of 2002 was covered and analysed. One Reporters and journalists are human beings and,
major difference between the media coverage of the two therefore, not value-free. Communal riots are a sensitive
riots under discussion is television. Gujarat happened issue and their personal thoughts and processes may
to be India’s first television riots. There was remarkable get in the way of professional reporting. It would be
journalism done in the 1980s in India but, somehow, the extremely difficult for a reporter or a journalist to cover
power and sanctity of the written word cannot match and report on a communal riot. However, this problem
the impact and immediacy of the television image. This
would cease if the reporter or the journalist keeps the
was true during the Gujarat riots, when the visuals of
basic concept reporting in mind, where he or she needs
a street carnage in Ahmedabad or the voices of Sangh
to understand that conflicts, such as a communal riot, is
Parivar foot soldiers shouting slogans and rejoicing their
a social process in which he or she is an important social
“achievements” was broadcasted in each home, thereby
actor, an actor whose job is to facilitate the conflict and
confirming and perhaps magnifying the gravity of the
not add to it (Ahmed, 2008).
crime that was being carried on.
On the broader aspect, the many functions of the media
Journalism schools in India in the 1970s taught almost
in general and reporters in particular include preventing
nothing about reporting on communal riots except
or moderating a conflict so that a viable solution is reached
that the communities involved should not be named.7
and there is peace. During a communal riot, the media
Bland reports about two groups clashing and places of
can even get the international perspective on the events
worship being destroyed will keep all the communities
and thereby create an environment where the world
in the dark. The national print and television media did
starts to discuss the same. Ultimately, it might force the
a stupendous job in the coverage of the Gujarat riots.
national and the state governments to act accordingly.
They were criticised for flaming passions and naming
The media have the capability to provide a great deal of
the communities involved, but I think it was the best step
information during an ongoing communal riot. They can
to take under such circumstances. As Phillip observed:
inform the public or communicate directly with the victims
When the television camera focuses on a riotous and their families (Berry et al, 1999). The media should
mob or its victims, it leaves little to imagination of realise that they can either alleviate or aggravate the situation.
the viewers ... The ban on naming the communities Thus, controlled steps and actions should be taken in order
was a fit case for review, although with the advent to prevent the situation from further aggravation.

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There is a difficult and complex relationship between
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