Fake news by Hindi newspapers fuelled 1992 Bhopal riots, killed 139 in communal clashes following Babri Masjid demolition
In 1992, following the demolition of Babri Masjid, fake news published by Hindi newspapers in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh fueled hatred among the communities, leading to one the first and worst riots in the 200-old history of the state capital
Bhopal: Fake news is one of the biggest threat looming on India. The Union government, the Supreme Court and social media companies have shown their concern and took a slew of measures to curb it recently. But fake news is not new to India, it existed way back in 1992 and triggered riots.
A day after the Babri Mosque was demolished in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya on 7 December, 1992, fake news triggered one of the worst riots of Indian history — the Bhopal Riot — which lasted for two weeks and killed 143 people, as per official reports.
According to the Justice KK Dubey Commission report which was set up to investigate the 1992 Bhopal and Ujjain riots, 143 people died in the riots including 11 women, three police officials and a CISF inspector. Of them, 50 civilians were killed in the police firing and rest of them were killed in clashes. However, eyewitnesses claimed that the figure was double the official numbers.
Besides, public property worth Rs 35 crore were gutted down and the state government paid Rs 2.42 crore in 110 cases as per the report. However, eyewitnesses and other reports pegged the loss to be around Rs 55 to 60 crore.
The Bhopal riot was more intense than the Mumbai riot, which followed the Babri demolition, according to senior journalist LS Hardinia. And though it lasted for more than two weeks, it hardly got any media attention. Even local newspapers gave a wide berth to the incident.
According to a joint report of Sanskritik Morcha, Bhopal, and People’s Union for Democratic Rights, Delhi, which undertook an investigation in the third week of January 1993 on the Bhopal riot, more than 1,524 families were displaced, 689 houses were completely burnt down and 139 people were killed in Bhopal.
The population of Bhopal was around 8 lakh in 1992.
Role of fake news in triggering the riot
A day after the Babri Mosque demolition, communal riots gripped Madhya Pradesh as well as the state capital Bhopal.
According to official data, a total of 161 people died across the state, of them, 139 in Bhopal. The reason behind triggering riot was not Babri Mosque but fake news.
However, between 7 to 12 December 1992, the Hindi newspapers dawned on the city with explosive coverage (of the riots). All kind of wild rumors that were in circulation about atrocities being committed on Hindus came home with a stamp of authenticity as news.
According to the 1992 Bhopal Riots report (by PUDR and Sanskritik Morcha), leading Hindi newspapers like Nav Bharat, Dainik Sandhya Prakash, and Jan Charcha published fake stories, based on rumours, constantly for a week. While Nai Duniya, Nav Bharat, and Dainik Bhaskar reported the events with names and communities of the victims clearly identified, the Urdu dailies in the state could not bring out their editions till 20 December.
These news reports fueled hatred among the communities and led to the first and worst riot in the 200-years-old history of Bhopal.
In Bhopal, 7 December, 1992, was just like another day. Everyone went to their offices, factories, workplaces, schools, and colleges. There indeed was some apprehension in the air but not on the land. So, the day began like any other day.
The rumors gripped the city by evening and Section 144 was imposed in some parts of the city after news reports of clash and arson emerged. The same evening, Dainik Sandhya Prakash, an evening newspaper in Bhopal, in its headline reported the toll to 10 instead of the actual eight deaths in Bhopal. Jan Charcha, another evening paper went a step further. It not only published the toll at 12 but also added that 86 people were killed in police firing in Ayodhya on the day the Babri mosque was demolished. Both newspapers ignored the facts and statement issued by the then Madhya Pradesh chief secretary Nirmal Buch, says the report.
The exaggeration in the number of deaths and prevailing rumours worsened the situation in the state capital and reports of riots started coming from north Bhopal (Old Bhopal).
The following day, Nav Bharat, a leading Hindi daily of Bhopal then published a report on its front page with the headline, ‘Barood se bhara tanker Bhopal aaya’ (Tanker loaded with gunpowder arrived in Bhopal). The news gave credence to the rumours that the people of the minority community are gathering arms to attack the majority community. Another rumour which grappled the city was the presence of Pakistani citizens in the Tajul Masjid (the biggest mosque in Bhopal) and that arms were piled up inside the mosque.
A day after the violence, the state government woke up and transferred the collector and superintendent of police and imposed Section 144 in many parts of the city. The situation, however, didn't improve even on the third day (of the riots). On 9 December, Nav Bharat reported, 'kanya chatravas par dhawa (attack on girl’s hostel)' referring to the Maharani Laxmibai College, located on the north bank of the lower lake in old Bhopal’s Budhwara area.
The same evening, in a more lurid fashion Jan Charcha published a news with the headline, ‘Hostel se ladkiyan ijjat bachate bhagti rahi’ (Hostel girls flee to save their honour). The news report gave credence to the rumour that eight girl students, who belonged to the majority community were raped and their breasts were chopped off by the youths of the minority community in old Bhopal.
For sure the dailies were not reaching the curfew-bound parts of Old Bhopal, which comprises 45 percent area of the city, but the papers were being widely circulated in the new Bhopal including the Bharat Heavy Electrical Limited (BHEL) areas. As a result, the riot turned intensive in new Bhopal and BHEL areas from the third day. The areas surrounding BHEL were the worst hit in the riot.
Meanwhile, at the height of the riots, Susheel Chandra Verma, BJP MP from Bhopal gave a statement naming and blaming the Muslim community for the riot. His statement added fuel to the fire. Even the then chief minister of the ruling BJP government Sundarlal Patwa distanced himself from his statement during a media briefing and said that he ‘will talk (to) him (Verma) personally over his statement', the Sanskritik Morcha report said.
The morning of 9 December, 1992, however, dawned on the city with more explosive coverage.
Dainik Bhaskar reported that rioters entered Hamadia Hospital and beat up the injured patients after identifying them. While the Nav Bharat, on its back page carried three separate reports, titled, yuvaityaan utha le gaye (young women were kidnapped); kanya chatravas par dhawa (girl's hostel attacked); and samuhik balatkar (gangrape). Apart from the Maharani Laxmi Bai College Girl’s Hostel, an Adivasi girl’s hostel and a working women’s hostel were also mentioned in these reports.
In addition to that, at least a whole page devoted to photographs of riot-hit areas were being published. The bias was clear in the choice: a partially burnt shop whose name was clearly visible got prominent coverage but Jumerati Darwaza (one of the prominent monuments of the city) which was burnt and not very far from this shop had not been published.
The news dailies also published objectionable photographs which fuelled the riot. An image of a half-naked corpse of a woman in a drain was carried by at least two dailies — Dainik Bhaskar and the Madhya Pradesh Chronicle. Bhaskar reported that ‘in Old Bhopal, a woman was raped and her breasts were cut off'.
The same evening, Jan Charcha quoted Ishwar Singh Chauhan, a lieutenant of Congress leader Arjun Singh, saying, ‘Purane Bhopal mein 70 Hindu streeyon ke stan kaat diye gaye’ (Breasts of 70 Hindu women were cut off in Old Bhopal). The same day, then chief secretary of the state, Nirmala Buch, ridiculed these news reports during the evening media brief. She said, "We have no information of any such incidents."
Newspapers, however, did not stop as on 10 December 10, 1992, an eveninger proclaimed 500 deaths in Bhopal.
Jan Charcha carried a frontpage box with a headline, 'Bhopal mein abhi tak 515 mare’ (515 killed in Bhopal till now) mentioning a colony-wise list of deaths. The toll of the dead in the listed 13 colonies adds to 437, much less than 515 claimed in the title. But who would bother about arithmetic in such a situation? The evening daily published a report with the headline, ‘Patwa ka jhut sabit, Bhopal me pichli raat balatkar huve,’ (Patwa’s lies nailed, rapes occurred in Bhopal last night), even though it had no relation with the story followed.
According to eyewitnesses, the riots were triggered because of fake media reports and sensational riot-hit photos.
Sanjeev Gupta, photojournalist of Bhopal, who then worked for Nav Bharat admitted that the role of his newspaper was suspicious in covering the riot.
“Yes, Nav Bharat had published biased reports based on rumors and they did it because they had to fill 18 pages and there was news crunch during the riot,” he said.
Recalling one such event he said, “On 11 December, I found the dead body of a woman in a drain of Chhola Road in old Bhopal. They cooked a story related to the photo and published ‘20 logon ne mil kar kiya mahila ke sath samuhik balatkar, lash pheka nale me (20 people gangrape woman, throw her body in the drain’. Though the Press Council of India took cognisance over this news, Nav Bharat cooked another story based on a photo of a beheaded body, ‘Purane Bhopal me sar kat kar football khela (They played football with chopped head in Old Bhopal)’ which was also untrue.”
If Hindi dailies would have reported the riot sensibly then the such a massive incident could have been avoided.
LS Hardinia, Bhopal-based veteran journalist and an eyewitness to the Bhopal riot, and who played a vital role in bringing the two communities together post the riot, also criticised the media for its biased reporting in his book, ‘Sampradayik Dangon Ka Sach’.
“Fake news played a very important role in fuelling the Bhopal riot,” he said.
Remembering one such incident he said, “A local newspaper published a report that a woman from the majority community was not only raped, but her breasts were chopped by youths from the minority community and that she had been admitted to Jai Prakash Hospital. The news created a sensation in the city. During the chief minister's daily press briefing we urged him to conduct an inquiry on the report. The chief minister immediately formed a team of five senior officials and rushed them to the JP hospital but found nothing. Later, when the team asked the reporter for details, he started crying in front of the inquiry committee and said he wrote the news on the tip off a right-wing group."
"In the same fashion, we had ridiculed more than two dozen fake news by the government," he added.
Ironically, the leading newspapers which published fake news based on rumours were also carrying the peace appeal of then chief minister Patwa and writing, ‘Afwahon Se Sawdhan (Be wary of rumours)’ at the bottom of the page.
Some areas of old Bhopal and areas surrounding BHEL which are located in new Bhopal were the worst affected. The riot lasted for around two weeks despite the army taking over the city.
The gap which was widened on the second and third weeks of December 1992, has not filled even after 26 years of the riot, and the city has become a communally sensitive area.
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