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India: Social Media Blamed for Fueling Assam Unrest

This is the first post in the 2-part series about the role played by social media in India in the fallout of the Assam clashes that spilled across the country and threatened to upset the nation's peace.

On 25 July, 2012, we reported about ethnic clashes that had broken out between the indigenous Bodo tribe and Bengali Muslim settlers in the Kokrajhar district of the Indian State of Assam.

The mainstream media (MSM) at first chose to shy away from reporting the ground realities of the clashes. After being barraged with questions and criticism on social media about their silence and/or inadequate coverage of the Assam situation, various reasons were offered from their end, perhaps the most curious one being that of the “tyranny of distance” – that the clashes in Assam were happening in a faraway area. Kokrajhar is located at a driving distance of about 215 kilometres from the state capital Guwahati (the distance measured in a straight line would be about 150km), and the national media channels did not have enough reach and lacked the required media vans for reportage.

Kokrajhar is located at a driving distance of about 215km from Guwahati, the capital of Assam

Kokrajhar is located at a driving distance of about 215km from Guwahati, the capital of Assam

This is where social media stepped in. People reported from the ground, netizens mobilized and offered information about shelters, hospitals etc., and soon a buzz was generated on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, blogs and on various websites.

It was perhaps only after the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh's visit to the violence-hit Kokrajhar district that the MSM turned their attention to the situation – yet their coverage as well their analysis of the situation left a lot to be desired as they often came up with conflicting descriptions and reasons for the clashes as well as numbers of people affected. Thus the discourse and narrative on the MSM was unable to clear the air with respect to truth versus hype regarding the situation on the ground.

Ranjona Banerji, columnist and consulting editor with MXMIndia, pointed out that the MSM's “biggest weakness has been exposed by the violence in Assam”. In the same article, she went on to add:

I have yet to read – TV is a complete failure here – any sustained set of articles in any one publication on the Assam situation…The best I have read has been in and if newspapers are not careful, the internet is going to walk all over their domain. Given the standard of newspapers sometimes, I don’t even know if that’s a bad thing.

While the administration took time to react and the MSM (by now having had moved the Assam riots to their front pages) debated passionately about whether or not the Muslim settlers involved in the clashes were illegal immigrants, mischief-makers took this opportunity and used all the means at their disposal – be it by influencing some of the regional/ vernacular media or by using the Internet, social media as well as SMS and morphed MMS images – to spread a feeling of victim-hood and outrage among a section of the Muslim populace across the country.

People returning home to Assam as news  spread that those hailing from the North Eastern states were being attacked and/or harassed across Western and Southern India. Image by Dipyaman Sarkar. Copyright Demotix (17/8/2012)

People returning home to Assam as news  spread that those hailing from the North Eastern states were being attacked and/or harassed across Western and Southern India. Image by Dipyaman Sarkar. Copyright Demotix (17/8/2012)

As authorities delayed, the city of Mumbai saw vandalism caught on camera and a spurt of violence unleashed on the media. On Youth Ki Awaz, blogger Tanaya Singh described the incidents of that day:

In a protest that was meant to condemn the violence in Assam and Myanmar, two people lost their lives in Mumbai and 46 were injured. The protest rally organised by Raza Academy at Azad Maidan Ground, took a violent form leading to the incident. The rally had a collection of about 1000 people, who had turned up (to protest) against the treatment of Muslims in Assam. It is reported that the crowd suddenly became aggressive and put vehicles on fire which included media vans and a BEST bus.

[…] Though Raza Acadamy tried to keep at bay by saying the they had gathered only to protest and triggering violence was not what they wanted, the president of this academy, who was an organizer of the event, did accept that there was an “irresponsible” speech delivered at the Ground, which could have been the reason behind the whole scene.

[Author's note: the crowd was possibly of a much higher number since Raza Academy later said that they had expected a maximum of 2,000 people and were unprepared for the huge turnout. There have been conflicting reports in the MSM about the actual numbers – for example, NDTV pegged it at about 10,000 while Hindustan Times claimed that it was around 20,000.]

Other accounts however stated that morphed, ‘provocative pictures’ available via MMS and/or printed off the Internet had been circulated among the gathered protesters which led to the violence.

Though the police later rounded up over 20 people and Raza Academy, the organization that had organized the protest, tendered unconditional apology for the incident, the unrest spread and soon there were reports from Pune, Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Lucknow, Kerala etc., of sporadic attacks and threats issued to people hailing from the North-East.

The rumor juggernaut rolled on unabated for a while, creating panic and insecurity among the people from North Eastern states, prompting them to flee back to their home towns. The blog Our Funerera, blaming the rumor mongering on “fundamentalist forces”, described the events as follows:

After the Mumbai violence many people admitted receiving inflammatory and instigating messages regarding the planned protest. The messages then spread to Pune and the students of the North East region where Assam is situated were reportedly harassed and threatened. Then the evil designs invaded Bangalore—the IT hub of India. North Eastern students started fleeing their hostels in panic and in thousands taking the next available trains or flights.

The fundamentalist forces are trying to create a communal divide all over India by targeting the North Eastern students in the garb of ‘revenge’. The government of India and the concerned states have been taking steps to reassure the safety of all people from Assam and the North East living anywhere in India. But the rumor mongers and the divisive forces must be stopped before they target new areas.

As the situation threatened to spiral out of control, the Government finally took action – primarily against messaging and social media. A temporary ban was put on bulk SMS and MMS. Local police swung into action and began arresting people forwarding ‘hate’ SMS examples. Social media sites were warned to monitor and remove inflammatory content. About 310 webpages were blocked.

While Google and Facebook have promised cooperation, the government has threatened social media platforms such as Twitter with legal action for non-cooperation, though there are now reports emerging that certain specific Twitter urls have now become inaccessible.

Naga students from Bangalore arrive at the Dimapur train station amidst fears of communal violence against the North Eastern people. Image by Caisii Mao. Copyright Demotix (18/8/2012)

Naga students from Bangalore arrive at the Dimapur train station amidst fears of communal violence against the North Eastern people. Image by Caisii Mao. Copyright Demotix (18/8/2012)

However, even as the government sharpens its rhetoric of cyber-terrorism and blames Pakistan-based websites for fanning the rumors, not everyone is satisfied with such polemics. Rather, many people feel that the situation resulted from the government's failure to maintain law and order and offer timely intervention (in terms of offering reassurance, ensuring safety against attacks/threats, preventing the exodus) as well as identifying and booking the criminals swiftly.

For example, Karela Fry feels that such blame game is the government's attempt to “whitewash the lack of action” on it's part to bring to book the actual perpetrators. It argues:

It should be clear that there are groups working inside the country to create trouble. They may be supported, in terms of organization, money, and material, from across the border. However, until the government takes steps to correctly identify these groups, isolate them and then punish them, such terror attacks can take place at any time.

In the next part of this series, we will examine if this ‘blame social media’ stance is warranted (or misplaced) and what role the MSM is seen to be playing in this discourse.


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