At the end of the day on Monday, the situation in Bengaluru was tense: one person had died in police firing, 56 buses of a private Tamil Nadu-based bus operator torched, malls ransacked, hotels attacked, shops forced to shut down and many residents of Bengaluru, who own vehicles bearing Tamil Nadu registration plates, were harassed.

This was the result of the protests over the release of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu – which had largely been peaceful so far – taking a violent turn. As Section 144 was imposed as a preventive measure in the capital of Karnataka, Chief Minister Siddaramaiah appealed to the people of the state to remain peaceful.

Media to blame?

Political observers and journalists alike accused the media – specifically television channels – in both Tamil Nadu and Karnataka of inciting passions that led to attacks by fringe groups associated with linguistic identity on each side.

The Cauvery water dispute has led to protests before. The dispute dates back to two agreements made during the British Raj, which Karnataka claims favoured Tamil Nadu. After Independence the two states took the issue to court repeatedly. Despite several court interventions and the setting up of a water disputes tribunal whose final award was notified in 2013, the dispute continues.

The latest round of protests began on Thursday when the Supreme Court directed the Karnataka government to release 15,000 cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu after a petition filed by the J Jayalalithaa government.

On Friday, Karnataka observed a peaceful bandh to protest against the apex court’s order. No violence was reported over the weekend, with tourists even visiting towns like Mysuru and Mandya, the epicentre of the turmoil over the Cauvery.

However, by Saturday evening, a video clip surfaced on social media, via messaging service WhatsApp, and found its way on to Kannada and Tamil television news channels. It purportedly showed a Tamil boy being beaten up by a pro-Kannada fringe group for his Facebook post in which he mocked protests by Kannada actors on the Cauvery issue.

Tamil channels especially, ran the clip in a loop throughout Sunday.

By 8 am on Monday, reports trickled in of a petrol bomb attack on an iconic hotel in Chennai – New Woodlands in Mylapore, a neighbourhood in South Chennai. “It was a small incident, nothing really happened and no one was injured,” said an employee of the hotel, who requested that his identity not be revealed. “The owners of the hotel are fourth-generation Kannadigas settled in Tamil Nadu. The issue got out of hand once the media landed up.”

Three hours after the first reports emerged about that attack – four petrol bombs were hurled at the hotel. One of them exploded, but caused no damage. Kannada news channels went into overdrive following this incident.

Retaliatory attacks started in Bengaluru and Mysuru with some groups targeting vehicles bearing Tamil Nadu registration plates. In Bengaluru’s satellite bus station, Adyar Ananda Bhavan, which is part of a hotel chain owned by a Tamil Nadu-based hotelier, was ransacked.

In Tamil Nadu’s Rameswaram, another fringe pro-Tamil outfit then attacked a Kannadiga bus driver, forcing him to declare that the Cauvery belonged to Tamil Nadu. This attack was filmed and the video went viral, and was soon picked up by television channels too.

The anchor of a popular Kannada news channel, which telecast this video, repeatedly questioned what he termed as the lack of police action on the attackers of the Chennai hotel. “When Tamil Nadu police silently watched the youths attacking a Kannadiga hotel, why is Karnataka police caning Kannadigas,” he asked on air.

On television, reporters counted burning lorries on the Bengaluru-Mysuru road, Bengaluru-Hosur Road, Nice Road, and Mandya and Bandipalya area in Mysuru, where scores of lorries from Tamil Nadu bring in food grains, vegetables and other essentials into Karnataka.

As both Kannada and Tamil news channels continued to telecast the violence with anchors taking sides, the violence escalated, spreading southwest of Bengaluru to Mandya and Mysuru towns. In between this mayhem, the Supreme Court modified its order, reducing the amount of water Karnataka had to release to 12,000 cusecs per day instead of the earlier 15,000 cusecs, but extending the number of days of water release by five, till September 20.

‘Media taking sides’

Senior journalists blamed the media for inciting passions over an issue that could have been handled in a more sensitive manner.

“One channel in Tamil repeatedly showed visuals of the boy attacked in Karnataka over a Facebook post,” said RK Radhakrishnan, senior journalist based in Chennai. “It is due to this that there was an attack on New Woodlands Hotel in the morning and later in the day on Adyar Ananda Bhavan in Bengaluru as retaliation.”

Radhakrishnan added: "The media has to take a lot of the responsibility for the violence…One media house that owns channels in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has been playing both cards in its respective language channels just for eyeballs. They need to be taken to task as per provisions of law for incitement to violence.”

Said another senior journalist employed with a popular Tamil television network who did not wish to be identified: “The top Tamil channels are all taking a pro-Tamil stand…No one is really condemning any of the violence.”

Mahesh Kollegal, editor of Kannada portal said that journalists, whether from the visual, print or online media, had to exhibit great restraint while reporting such incidents.

“Media channels’ telecast and exaggeration of the incidents is only sensational,” said Kollegal. “They are involved in a rat race to increase their TRPs, and in the process, journalists working in the visual media are being forced by managements to telecast incidents live without bothering about their repercussions on the public and peace in society.”

Kollegal added: “Governments have to draw a line between what should be telecast and what not to be telecast when such emotive issues come to the fore.”

Letter war

In Tamil Nadu, the Director General of Police TK Rajendran met Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on Monday to review the situation in the state.

Chennai city Commissioner of Police S George assured residents that security around Kannada establishments in the city had been increased, and that they had nothing to worry about. Actor Rajinikanth, who is a Maharashtrian hailing from Karnataka originally, was given police protection. Other prominent Tamil film personalities, who are of Kannadiga origin, as well as several other establishments belonging to prominent Kannadigas, were provided with additional security too.

The Chief Ministers of both states, meanwhile, engaged in a war of words. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah wrote to his Tamil Nadu counterpart Jayalalithaa saying:

“Our Government is firmly committed to maintaining law and order in the State. We have taken utmost precaution to ensure the safety and security of all citizens, particularly Tamil speaking people, in the State. You would agree that the incidents of violence against Kannada speaking people that are being reported from Tamil Nadu would incite passions threatening peace in our State, which all of us should prevent.”

Jayalalithaa responded:

“Despite very provocative incidents that are taking place in Karnataka, absolute restraint has been observed in Tamil Nadu by all sections…I am concerned that the situation in Karnataka is serious with several instances of mob violence targeting Tamil speaking persons and their property.”