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Media taking sides? Kolkata police favouring TMC? Questions follow May 14 violence

May 17, 2019
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Media taking sides? Kolkata police favouring TMC? Questions follow May 14 violence

On May 14, BJP national president Amit Shah took out a roadshow in Kolkata, sending BJP and TMC workers at each other’s throats. Since then, the national media has been debating, analysing, and flashing screenshots and videos of the clashes that broke out. Much of the headline space has been dedicated to the violence and vandalism, which included damage to the statue of reformist Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar on the Vidyasagar College campus.

After stone-pelting, arson, and rioting, the incident is continuing to generate sparring over social media. A blame game has ensued over which party is at fault, who started it and caused the most damage, and what the police were doing despite having advance information about the possibility of such mayhem.

An immediate repercussion of this has been the EC declaring 6 pm, May 16, as the deadline for poll campaigning, which means no party can now take out rallies or roadshows, and later issuing an order shunting the officer in charge of Amherst Street police station.

Alongside all this blame game, there is the fourth estate picking sides in its reportage of the events.

West Bengal goes to polls on May 19, the last phase of the elections, in nine constituencies — Dum Dum, Barasat, Basirhat, Jaynagar, Mathurapur, Diamond Harbour, Jadavpur, Kolkata Dakshin, and Kolkata Uttar; the May 14 disturbance is predicted to have a huge impact on the ballot box.

Mainstream English news channels Times Now, Republic TV and Zee News among others focused on the attack on Shah’s roadshow with the hashtags #BengalBurning, #ShahAttacked, and #ShahRallyTargeted trending on top. Arguably, their coverage implied the BJP was the victim.

The regional media, on the other hand, seemed to have gone out of its way to do the opposite. It broadcast fire and clash visuals with inputs suggesting ‘how the saffron gang attacked the college and vandalised the bust’.

Trial by media

Regional mains ABP Ananda, News 18 Bangla and 24 Ghanta seemed like the state’s mouthpieces. They even declared the vandals as “BJP members” way before the police or administration arrived on the scene and started the investigation. Panelists and experts on back-to-back debates discussed and dissected “how the saffron party is changing the dynamics of politics in Bengal” or “how it is causing communal disharmony in the state”.

“Everything happened within an hour, leaving all of us in a state of confusion. Frankly, the violations and provocations came from both sides — BJP and SFI-TMC, Chhatra Parishad. We did our jobs from the field; the rest was beyond our control. Agendas are set at the HQs of media houses,” said a senior reporter with an English news channel.

While the mainstream news channels continued with their take on the roadshow attack, no regional media stalwarts highlighted that the SFI and Chhatra Parishad had united to stop Shah’s rally.

When it comes to newspapers, the clash that erupted between workers of BJP and TMC during Shah’s rally in Kolkata was widely covered by leading Bengali and English dailies of Bengal. Largest circulated daily Anandabazar Patrika’s report squarely indicated that the BJP was behind the vandalisation of Renaissance man Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s bust.

English daily Telegraph’s first page read, “Vidya Smashers” with a big photograph of Mamata Banerjee holding photograph of broken bust of Vidyasagar. The report spoke of how the BJP workers had come up with “Vidyasagar-er din sesh (Days of Vidyasagar have ended). How’s the josh (How’s the energy)?”.

The largest-circulated English daily Times of India published reports that did not specify any particular party’s involvement. Hindi dailies such as Sanmarg published reports that mentioned the involvement of BJP workers behind bust vandalisation.

Bengali daily Bartaman reported about the incident and outrage by Mamata. The news reports claimed that BJP workers started attacking TMC workers, who were present at the scene to protest against Shah’s roadshow, based on quotes by TMC leaders.

Another Bengali daily Ei Samay report also indicated BJP cadre’s involvement.

Administration not in the clear either

Both sides of the media seemed so focused on broadcasting their version of the truth that neither looked into the role of Kolkata Police in the melee, until Shah, in a press conference in Delhi, alleged how his security was compromised on many levels.

“The rally had a crowd of around 20,000 with more joining as it went forward; and yet, the number of police personnel remained surprisingly low. At the same time, when Mamata Banerjee took to the streets and walked her first padyatra on May 15 from Beleghata to Shyambazar, several thousand personnel were deployed,” alleged Sayantan Basu, BJP Bengal’s general secretary.

“Amit Shah is no small leader. He is our party president. How could the police compromise his security like this!”

Multiple reports have revealed that the Kolkata Police special branch had received advance intel on the possibility of a clash on College Street and still did not act on it. People have alleged that the absence of law enforcement gave the mob a free hand to cause greater damage, because by the time the cops arrived, the situation had already spiralled out of control.

“We kept our campus locked from inside but were able to gauge what was happening out there. When BJP supporters were trying to provoke people from our campus, it was our students, staff, and security guards who braved it all and shut the gate. No policeman could be spotted around,” said Abhishek Mani, a student from Calcutta University’s College Street campus.

However, Central Police observer to West Bengal, Vivek Dubey, said that as soon as they received reports about violence, cases were registered based on incidents. He said that while initially 100 men were mentioned, police later detained 58. All of them reportedly belong to the BJP.

On Thursday, Police set up a Special Investigation Team to probe the vandalism. It  will be headed by the deputy commissioner of Kolkata Police (North).