When the BJP and the media teamed up to peddle rumours and got exposed

The Bandra incident is a wake-up call. It was about time that all state governments began to act against purveyors of fake news

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Sujata Anandan

When migrant labourers milled around the local suburban Bandra railway station in Mumbai, on April 14, the human explosion was said to have been caused by an unconfirmed report by a television channel about the starting of trains by the railways so that these stranded people could go home.

There is desperation among the workers. Many of them are hungry and even those who have access to food are under pressure because they are out of jobs and have no money for rent. Some have been thrown out by landlords and have had to come out onto the streets where they are picked up and beaten by police for violating the curfew. Many others are anxious about families back home who cannot survive without the remuneration they repatriate. And for others, they simply want to be with their loved ones in these hours of crisis.

Many conspiracy theories have been launched since the incident - certain right wing ideologues, upset by the manner in which the BJP has been displaced in Maharashtra, have been trying to make life difficult for Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray who, however, has surprised many of his even diehard critics by the mature, calm and sustained manner in which he has been tackling the Coronavirus crisis. The BJP leaders, including former Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, have been constantly hounding Thackeray for mismanaging the crisis, including writing propaganda articles against him in various publications. But every time they undertake a campaign against the government, Thackeray quietly turns the tables on them and comes out smelling of roses. As he did even during the Bandra crisis by assuring the migrant workers in a very fatherly fashion that he was there for them and they would face no troubles in his state.

The general opinion of the people of Maharashtra is fast turning against Fadnavis in particular and the BJP in general, compelling them to pull down some of their propaganda articles against the Chief Minister and forcing them to seek other avenues to discredit him.

So the Bandra incident seemed tailor-made for the right wing opponents of the government and the fact that these people had gathered near a huge mosque in close proximity to the suburban railway station was grist to their mill. Many, including several television channels, at first tried to accord the incident communal overtones. Due diligence, that is a cardinal principle of honest journalism, was not exercised either by the channel which ran the rumour on the trains or by others in the evening who questioned why the men at the crowding weren’t carrying luggage if they intended to board trains.

The Maharashtra government swiftly arrested the reporter of the Marathi channel who had telecast the train report without confirming from railway officials what their plans were in view of the extension of the lockdown. They also nabbed a self-styled political worker belonging to no particular party. Although the BJP said he belonged to the Nationalist Congress Party, its spokesperson has denied any connection. Vinay Dube had been inciting migrant workers on social media and threatening the government with agitation if they did not restart trains to allow the migrant workers to go home.

Maharashtra home minister Anil Deshmukh also ordered a probe into a leading English language channel which had been spreading rumours of a minister's daughter having a travel history and having turned Corona positive after which, it alleged, the minister and his family were hiding from the world. The minister had himself, his family and his entire staff (who are working in the slums and lower middle class areas of his constituency of Mumbai to distribute free food), tested. All reports came negative. The channel now faces the possibility of arrests of its top celebrity anchors who were telecasting rumours as facts.

Since then, most other channels who accorded a communal colour to the Bandra incident have shifted focus from describing the crowds as sinister Muslims to unfortunate poor workers who need to be treated more compassionately.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from the episode. One, reporters and editors have given up the principles of good, old-fashioned journalism that makes it incumbent upon them to check and cross-check all the facts, rather than run rumours as news in their hurry to be the first off the mark. Secondly, If they had cared to send their reporters to the spot, they would have discovered a railway booking centre near the mosque. Contrary to the opinions of most people that these labourers wanting to go home should have been at the Kurla terminus rather than Bandra, a simple glance at a railway timetable would have told them trains to North India do leave from Bandra as well.

But apart from the lack of fact checking, everyone was willing to jump to conclusions. The presumption that migrant labourers travel with two suitcases and a laptop like the rest of us also indicates that the BJP and the channels are ignorant about how the other half of India lives.

Often, the workers have only one pair of clothes on their back and practically nothing else in terms of material wealth. They travel with small bundles of just food or some worthless knick-knacks and at Bandra, they were attempting to buy tickets, not travel per se.

The two arrests and threats of more have somewhat sobered the critics of the Maharashtra government but while the state is stretching its resources to shelter the migrants, the lack of understanding and compassion on the part of the Centre is wrecking the lives of many of these migrant workers.

Click here to join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines