What Reporting On The Begusarai Dalit Atrocity Case Has Told Me About The English Media

What Reporting On The Begusarai Dalit Atrocity Case Has Told Me About The English Media

by Swati Goel Sharma - Thursday, August 22, 2019 02:35 PM IST
What Reporting On The Begusarai Dalit Atrocity Case Has Told Me About The English MediaEnglish media aversion to reporting Muslim-on-Dalit atrocities
  • Swarajya journalist, Swati Goel Sharma, has had to face online attacks making sly attempts at discrediting her work, questioning her integrity as a reporter and labelling her as a hate-monger.

    And for what? For reporting cases that the English media avoids because it does not suit their Dalit atrocity narrative.

    Here, she narrates her experience

Two months ago, a Dalit family from Bihar lodged an FIR against their neighbouring Muslim family for assault and rape attempt. The family alleged that the accused was putting sustained pressure on them to sell their house and leave the “Muslim village”.

"You Hindus are so few, you won't be able to do anything. Even Bajrang Dal can't help you,” the victims recalled the assaulters as saying, as I reported in June.

No other English publication covered the incident, even though a violent and sexual attack on a Dalit family, especially one with allegations of forced migration, is just the kind of outrage-generating crime that English media preys on.

There is however little surprise as to why they remained completely disengaged with the case – Muslim-on-Dalit atrocities are uncomfortable and inconvenient and go against their narrative of victimhood woven over all these years. This indifference was highlighted by scientist-author Anand Ranganathan through empirical data in 2017, when he showed how prominent national English daily Hindustan Times ignored 13 of 15 Muslim-on-Dalit attacks in its ‘hate tracker’ that aimed to keep a track on hate crimes. The upper caste-on-Dalit attacks made their way into the tracker without fail.

In their worldview, a Muslim is always a victim and a bigger one than Dalits.

Earlier this month, however, a journalist called up the Dalit family. Activist Sanjeev Newar, who is helping the victims with the police case, has released the audio recordings of the conversation that transpired between the family and the journalist.

The journalist in question works for www.factchecker.in, which is an arm of the data portal, Indiaspend. Factchecker.in is a self-certified ‘fact-checking’ website that maintains a database of religious hate crimes in India.

I have been a critic of the portal for its strong bias against Hindu victims of religious hate, and had sought a response on why the Begusarai case was not part of that database.

It was in response to this query that the said journalist approached the Dalit family. The family lives in an almost all-Muslim colony in Begusarai district’s Nurpur village. It comprises a woman and two children — a college-going daughter and a minor school-going son. The woman’s husband and older son live and work in Saudi Arabia.

Here’s how the conversation between the journalist and the minor son goes (as translated):

Reporter: “Please narrate the incident that happened with you in June, and is it true that you were attacked because you are Hindus and they are Muslims and they want to drive you out or was it something else…”

In reply, the boy narrates the events of the night of 10 June when his 25-year-old neighbour Laddu Alam, along with two other men — one of the completely naked — barged into his house and attempted to rape his mother and sister and also thrashed him.

He tells the journalist that the accused’s family has been threatening them to leave the village. Even before the 10 June attack, the accused had been harassing them for quite some time. They would watch his mother bathe and would enter into scuffles over petty issues.

“Now they tell me that their men would soon be out of jail. They say it’s certain that we will have to leave, whether we do that laughing or crying,” the boy says.

Reporter: “Does this Muslim family harass other Hindu families in the village too?”

The boy says that other Dalit families give in to the pressures of the local Muslims and do whatever they are asked to do, such as clean their houses. His family, however, refuses to do so and thus is constantly targeted.

He says that other Hindu families have long been scared into silence.

Reporter: “What was the role of Bajrang Dal in the police case that you lodged? Did they also give their inputs or were the allegations in your complaint real?”

The boy praises the Hindu outfit for their help.

Reporter: “It was published somewhere that Muslims are forcing you out as you are Hindus. Tell me, when the accused threatened you, did they specifically mention that they are doing this to you because you are Hindus? I am sure they never said anything like that…”

The boy says that in village gatherings, the accused often asked the Dalit family why they needed to live among Muslims instead of a Hindu area. “On the night of the attack, they kept on telling us that we should leave,” the boy says.

Reporter: “You go to school, right? You must be aware how the atmosphere has become very communal these days with constant Hindu-Muslim tiffs. Sometimes Hindus are getting killed and sometimes Muslims.

So I want to know whether you consider the attack a criminal act or a communal act. I mean, had it been a Muslim family in place of yours, the accused would have still attacked them, isn’t it? Because they seem to want the house you live in.

The boy maintains they were attacked for being Hindus and many other Muslim neighbours are complicit. He says the village has all of three Hindu families and there are several restrictions on them. They are not even allowed to play their songs. He says the family is seriously considering the option of leaving the village as most residents are pressuring them to withdraw the police case.

This conversation not only confirms the narrative-peddlers’ discomfort with such atrocities but also reveals the lengths they go to for white-washing them.

The journalist makes it clear in the beginning itself that his singular aim is to question the Hindu-Muslim narrative; he shows little regard to the sensitivity of the crime or the fact that the victim on the phone is a minor Dalit boy. He slyly attempts to manipulate the boy into saying that the Bajrang Dal influenced the filing of the complaint.

The publication that the journalist refers to, obviously, is Swarajya. Note the attempt at discrediting the report despite the fact that it was based on video statements of the victims that were made public.

As per Newar, the reporter was attempting to make the boy rethink the hate angle by shaming and guilt-tripping him towards the end of the conservation. “He was clearly trying to make the victim guilty of inciting violence against Muslims across India by talking about the hate angle,” Newar told Swarajya.

He added, “I did not also understand the questions on specific utterances of the attackers to prove hate. Do attackers inform the victims of their motivations? Are religious motivations of a crime established by express statement of the perpetrator?”

Newar, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, and the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta, has been involved with the case since June. He learnt about it through the Swarajya report and took it to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes.

In the following weeks, probe revealed severe lapses on the part of the local police, who were trying to shield the perpetrators. The head of the local police station was suspended for changing the original FIR.

Two counter FIRs against the victim family --- including one where the Dalit boy was accused of creating communal enmity --- were found to be motivated and false. On the commission’s direction, the family was given police protection, as per Newar.

When faced with inconvenient cases such as the Begusarai one, narrative-peddlers first ignore and look the other way. If they can’t, they play down the atrocity. If needed, they shoot the messenger. If victims are to be branded as liars for this purpose, so be it.

That’s what the co-founder of a self-certified fact-checking website, named Altnews, did. He slyly called for my arrest.

“Let's hope people flaring up communal issue r soon arrested as mentioned (sic),” he wrote on Twitter, tagging me. The basis of this call was a series of tweets posted by a Twitter handle, @begusaraipolice, purportedly of the Begusarai superintendent of police (SP). The tweets, posted just a day after the crime, refuted several claims by the Dalit family.

“So far investigation shows the matter is of land dispute…investigation so far reveals scuffle between two parties in which both got injuries…Nothing so far reveals correctness of claims by the woman…FIR is also being lodged against persons who flared up this matter as a communal issue and arrests shall be done soon…,” the tweets said.

To say the least, the tweets were put out in haste and were irresponsible. By that time, no medical tests had been done on the women. As admitted by the SP himself, investigation was underway. The conclusions in the tweets were thus premature and even insensitive.

So, when the head of a media fact-checking website actively pushed the tweets as “clarification”, instead of questioning the police for passing judgement based on half-baked information, he was only reiterating what we already know.

My coverage of the Begusarai case in Swarajya was evidently an irritant for them. As they could no longer ignore it, they now made efforts to white-wash it. The problem was that the victims continued to stick to their allegations and, with the NCSC intervention, the police could no longer cover it up.

So they went on to accuse Swarajya for “communalising” the crime and label the victims as liars based on some villagers’ statements.

A portal called NewsCentral24x7 published a ground report titled, ‘Villagers reject Swarajyamag’s communalisation of dispute between two families’.

It said:

“Media outlets such as Swarajyamag gave a communal colour to the matter and reported that Muslims were persecuting the Hindu family and forcing them to leave the village. However, when NewsCentral24x7 visited the area, that did not appear to be the case.

Both the headline and the text tell a lie.

The report quotes no villager commenting on the Swarajya report. If at all the villagers refuted anything, it was the allegations of the Dalit family. The part about Swarajya reporting that Muslims were persecuting the Hindu family is a figment of imagination; the Swarajya report claims nothing of this sort.

Again, all ethics and sensitivity were set aside in the desperation to wash the communal taint off the case. While the report carries the Dalit family’s allegations of communal motives, it eventually dismisses them based on statements of four villagers --- none of them is an eye-witness.

Sample this:

“Vibha Devi [the complainant] argues that because she lives alone with her children and her house is surrounded by those of Muslims, her family is being threatened to leave the area. She also claims that it is only because of the Bajrang Dal that the police is treating the matter with seriousness. However, others in Nurpur village do not agree with the Hindu-Muslim narrative.”

Notice the words “argues” and “claims” used for the Dalit family. Contrast this with the words “explain” and “express” used for villagers who refuted the Dalit family.

The intention of the report is clear. It seeks not to inform but to target the messenger --- even if it requires lies to achieve the purpose.

It was also little surprise that when cornered for the first time, Factchecker.in cited the above report to refute Swarajya’s.

“Swarajya’s report was refuted by villagers, as NewsCentral24x7 reported here. We will, however, investigate this incident and add it if claims are found true,” Factchecker.in tweeted.

So inconvenient was this case that Factchecker.in ignored its own stated methodology that “the victim’s statement is crucial to establish a religious bias motivation, unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary”.

Are counter statements by four non-eye-witnesses from the village overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

Factchecker’s exclusion of the case from its hate database can only be explained by lack of intent; the portal has indeed exhibited overwhelming evidence of the same when it comes to cases of Hindu victims where perpetrators are Muslims.

After all, here’s all the available proof to support the religious hate angle that Factchecker.in ignored in these two months:

  • Video statement by the family available on social media.
  • Victim family’s allegations in Swarajya report.
  • Victim family’s allegations in NewsCentral24x7 report.
  • A letter by the Dubai-based elder son of the family to the Indian embassy a day after the incident, where he requested protection to his family.
    He specifically mentioned that the family is one of the few Hindu families surrounded by Muslim families and is being harassed into leaving. This letter was carried by Swarajya in its report.
  • No official word or press conference by Begusarai police to counter the family’s allegations.

I always knew that the English media does not like to talk about such cases, but for the victims’ sake, such cases need to be brought to the attention of a wider audience.

And thus, I have been trying to correct this anomaly by giving voice to several such victims --- be they the family of Dalit Sanjay Kumar who was killed by the kin of his Muslim wife for not converting to Islam, or Dalit families of Mantola, who have been gradually migrating out over alleged harassment by their Muslim neighbours, or a Dalit man thrashed with casteist slurs for daring to run a successful coaching centre in a Muslim colony in Amethi.

Almost all of such stories were reported by Hindi media but have been ignored by English media.

In fact, one of my first ground reports at Swarajya, a little more than a year ago, was a Dalit atrocity case from Haryana’s Nuh district. A Dalit family had lodged an FIR against a neighbouring Muslim family for assault and attempts of forced conversion. The family told the local media that sustained pressure was being put on them to adopt Islam.

The police had booked the accused on soft charges like causing hurt and criminal intimidation. But while the police had ignored the conversion angle, the mainstream English media has ignored the case altogether.

The only English news website that covered it, played it down by terming Hindi media reports highlighting the conversion allegation as an “exaggeration”.

Covering the Begusarai case, however, has been a revelation.

One, it has taught me that the concern for Dalits by narrative-peddlers is fake; their show of sympathy ends when the perpetrator is not from the desirable community.

For them, the Dalits’ ordeal is not the real story but the narrative they need to push is. If the story reveals inconvenient facts, the Dalits can be thrown under the bus.

Two, journalists who dare to report Muslim-on-Dalit atrocity cases run a risk. They stand vulnerable to charges of communalisation.

For this purpose, victims could even be manipulated into retrospectively refuting the hate angle or guilt-tripped into hiding it.

The Begusarai family is one of the few relatively lucky ones where activists came to their rescue and the case reached the highest authorities for justice. Else, the family would probably have been in jail over fake counter FIRs. Or labelled as liars in the media or pushed into withdrawing the case.

And I, accused of communalisation with no defense against a hostile police, would have probably been browbeaten and bullied into silence.

Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.

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