Media, Militants and State Actors in Northeast India

Monjib Mochahari

Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

Published in the International Research Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities, Vol. 1, No. 3, October, 2012, ISSN 2320 – 4702

Abstract

Over fifty years of violent armed insurgency has converted the entire Northeast region into a media minefield pausing serious challenges to the working journalists and the media fraternity. Due to inept handling and political expediency on the part of respective State and the Central Government, the region has remained a ‘war-zone’ leading to frequent targeted killings of journalists both by the state and non-state actors. This paper is a critical investigation into the existence of an uneasy quadrangle between the newspersons and the state actors in Northeasterns region. The objective of the papers is on the challenges of media-persons, who are often confronted by the State and non-state actors for being critical of the insurgency movement, human rights violation, state accesses/impunity, etc. It also identifies some of the key obstacles to free and fair functioning of media in the Northeast region.

Keywords: Northeast, insurgency, conflict, non-state actors, media, reporting

 Introduction

The Northeast comprising of the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Sikkim is one of India’s ethnically most diverse and culturally richest regions. The eight North-eastern states share porous borders of at least 4,500 km with Burma, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and parts of China. Parts of them are also quite close to Nepal. A slender 22 kilometre stretch in Siliguri—often termed as the Chicken’s Neck—connects this entire zone with the rest of the country. It is a land of plethora of race, religions, cultures and dialects; a land mass of 2, 55,083 square kilometres, i.e., eight percent of India’s geographical area; and has little rover 39 million populations, accounting over 3.75 per cent of India’s total populations. Over the centuries it has seen an extraordinary mixing of different races, cultures, languages and a religion, leading to a diversity rarely seen in India (Bhaumik 2009). The region has been widely recognised as an ethnic minefield of India – with more than 100 tribes, over 240 languages and dialects, a cultural and ethnic microcosm – that became a bone of contention in the twentieth century.

With 98 per cent international borders and only two percent borders with the rest of India, the region has its numerous challenges such as underdevelopment, insurgency, poverty, displacement, political instability and others challenges that have crippled the region for in the past sixty years. Arguably, this geographically isolated landscape has indeed remained a problem child since the very inception of the Indian republic in 1950. More so, after India’s independence. The situation isis best described well by Bhaumik (2009) who said that ‘Northeast has been South Asia’s most enduring theatre of separatist guerrilla war, a region where action has usually been the first, rather than the last option of political protest.’ In the last sixty years, Northeast has birth of 117 armed rebel groups, which culminated into violent struggles for political alternative, and thus producing vicious cycle of violence and ethnic clashes between different ethnic groups. According to the government report, there are more than now 30 active militant organizations operating in the region and across the international borders, whose demands range from autonomous districts to separate nation states. The root causes of these rebellions are diverse and complex that keeps have only multiplied in absence of pragmatic political intervention.

Sen (2011) argued that the idea of resistance against alleged Indian domination and territorial claims gave birth to rebel groups in Nagaland and in Manipur. In Mizoram, a famine and utter neglect by India government gave rise to the Mizo National Famine Front in 1966 who bowed to liberate Mizoram from Indian domination.’ The demand for sovereignty state gave rise to extremist groups like the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (NSCN) and other smaller insurgent groups in Nagaland. In Assam, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) grew out of a movement popularly known as “the Assam Agitation” led by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) and Assam Ganan Sangram Parishad that demanded expulsion of illegal migrants from Bangladesh between 1979 and 1985. While the birth of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) on 3 October 1986 and the Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) in 1996 had its roots in land alienation, socio-economic, linguistic and political discrimination of the indigenous Bodo tribe by the ruling Assamese elites.

On the other hand, inter-communal disputes and partisan violence remain common, and popular demands for local autonomy, boundary changes, and new states continue to proliferate, irrespective of the central government’s supposed military “successes” in the region (Lacina, 2009). For the working journalists, these cycles of unending turmoil in the region could have been a choice for better media role, but they have became silent victims instead due to either direct or indirect pressures that emerge both from the state and non-state actors and the civil society. Reporting of conflicts that keep repeating in most of the north-eastern states is not an easy task altogether. In the recent past, over two dozen media persons who have been critical on issues such as insurgency, state accesses, state terrorism etc., have been targeted. The prevalence of unholy nexus between journalists, state and non-state actors continues to threaten and complicate the state of media affairs in the region, the detailed of which has been discussed in the later parts.

Media Growth in the Northeast

The credit for initiation of journalism in Northeast goes to Baptist Christians Missionaries. Way back in 1846, the Christian Missionaries launched the first monthly Assamese-language paper named ‘Arunodoi’ meaning “the dawn”. It was published from Sibsagar and continued to be published till 1879. Following the example of Orunodoi, several newspapers and magazines were published in Assam in the second half of the 19th century. Prominent among these were Asam Bilasini, (1871, published by Dharma Prakash Press, Auniati Satra, Majuli) Asam Darpan (1874, Tezpur), Asam Mihir (1872, Guwahati), Goalpara Hitshadini (1876, Goalpara), Chandrodaya (1876, Nagaon), Asam Dipak (1876, Guwahati) Jonaki (Calcutta, 1889) and Assam News (an Anglo-Assamese weekly, 1885, Guwahati), Assam Bandhu (1885, Nagaon), Mau (1886, Calcutta). Almost half a century later, two English newspaper were launched namely the Assam Tribune (1939) and the Shillong Times (1945). Until 1979, the print media in Assam and in Northeast were merely another facet of social work.

The historic Assam Agitation in the 1980s’ launched by All Assam Students’ Union (AASU) to drive out illegal Bangladeshi immigrants dramatically changed the social life and living of the Assamese community, which resulted in many new socio-political values confronting the people of Assam (Thakuria 2009). Amidst all the turmoil and social chaos, the regional media, especially the language newspapers witnessed a rapid boom in the nineties across Northeast. ‘By 2006, the Guwahati city, which is the gateway to all Northeaster states saw publication of more than 23 daily newspapers, half of them published in vernacular Assamese language having multiple editions in major towns of the state. Half of them are claiming circulations of more than 25,000. Circulation in the first decade of the twenty-first century was claimed to have passed 440,000 a day and penetration exceeded their dailies per thousand speakers of Assamese’ (Jeffry 2011). Lately, half a dozen 24/7 private television news channels have sprang up from in Guwahati, giving a boom to media industry.

In Assam state alone, the media, including print and the electronic media have created over 8,000 direct job avenues and provided indirect employment opportunities to 20,000 throughout the state. Similarly, there has been a sharp improvement in terms of reporting, writing, presentation, designing, etc in the last 10 years. Currently, there are more than 40 daily newspapers circulating in Assam catering to the reading needs of different sections of society. The media boomed also happened in Manipur. The technological advancement has brought a sea-changed in journalism of Manipur. It is interesting to note that, a new publication is hitting the newsstand every year during the past decade in Manipur. The Imphal Free Press and the Sanghai Express are the most popular dailies in Manipur today, enjoying wide readership across insurgency infested state. Noted media scholar and writer Robin Jeffry says:

 The life-or-death quality of politics in Assam and the northeast helps explain such increases. People with causes to champion were prepared to put up money to have a voice in print, which potential readers had reason for curiosity – as both spectator-voyeurs and citizens who realised that knowledge of political activity could keep one out of trouble. By 2008, five Assamese dailies were members of the ABC, and though their circulation was less than 450,000 copies a day, membership of the ABC indicated that advertising and commercial revenues were at least as important as ideology and notoriety (2011: 241).

Key Challenges to Regional Media

Despite witnessing a spectacular media boom in Northeast, the quality of journalism is far from the desired level. The quality of news reporting continues to remain sub-standard as the reporting of news has become an exercise in materials namely reporting the number of causalities and violence that keep repeating. Despite the entire region being engulfed with protracted conflict, the regional media is yet to play constructive and tangible roles. The existing news media are failing to make any mark in this respect as the logic of commerce tend to focus on issues that cater to their commercial interests – journalists have to work under tremendous pressure from the managements. Ironically, mediapersons cannot function objectively as they are either directly and remotely controlled and influenced by the State and non-state actors (rebels). It has the potential to engage in more constructive role such as – peace building, socio-economic and development of the region, but this is somewhat invisible.

There are other facets to media in Northeast that ruins the journalism. While the media houses in the rest of the country have moved to contract salaries, those in this part of India are so resource poor that they find it difficult to pay salaries prescribed by periodic wage boards. Most of them are underpaid, poorly trained and work in conditions that are often dangerous, with little physical or financial security. For instance, only 10-12 per cent of journalists and media-persons in Northeast are being entitled for the benefit of health and life insurance coverage. This is a clear indication that most journalists are compelled to work without the adequate facilities which are recommended by various provisions including the India Labour Act.

In the words of Thakuria (2009) ‘…more than 70 per cent newspaper employees in Assam, who are deprived of even basic minimum facilities such as appointment letter, paid leave, provident fund, etc. They are emotionally exploited by the management and subjected to no job security…’ The situation is far worse in other North-eastern states. However, one characteristic of media in Northeast is the absence of strong and powerful media journalist’s union. Till date, there is no such kind of organisation that can influence the policy makers in general and the media management in particular for protection of media-persons and upholding freedom of expression.

Newspersons in the Insurgency Crossfire

Northeast India has been stigmatised as a “paradise in peril” by various forces. The general image of the region is that Northeast India is a “minefield” for the working journalists. The obvious reason is that the newspersons who have been vocal of the violent armed insurgency in Northeast have been caught in the insurgency crossfire for decades. Owing to recurring cycles of violence, over two dozen local journalists have become the soft targets in the hands of the state and the non-state actors for being critical on the respective State governments and for resisting the violent armed movements by insurgent groups. Clearly, they are engulfed by numerous threats coming from the insurgent outfits, the surrendered militants and the paramilitary forces and state apparatus. Since 1991, the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) set in a new trend by killing a teacher-journalist Kamala Saikia for criticising its ideology (Karmakar 2009). Since 1987, altogether 25 of them have fallen to bullets in Assam (The Statesman 2012). In addition, the existence of dangerous liaisons that journalists develop with the militant groups becomes a potential sources of income that they are forced to tap because of they are given appallingly poor levels of compensation. Bhaumik wrote:

For a journalist based in India’s northeast, it has meant not only following conflicts within one’s own border but also beyond them. Besides keeping a watch on the complex development of India’s troubled border regions, we are compelled to look beyond our immediate borders and link it to the changing geopolitics of Asia. It has often meant “operating like a guerrilla” – illegal border crossings, dealing with intelligence agents, drugs lords, smugglers and ruthless rebels…. snooping on corrupt politicians and government officials with illicit links to rebels and drug lords. Any journalist trying to expose such linkages, which explain the spurt in smuggling of drugs and arms, runs the risk of becoming a target.’ Physical and professional survival has not been easy. Many journalists who did not hail from the region left for areas safer and less complex or switched over to other profession (2008:83).

There are also instances of media firms or individual reporters being sympathetic to militants and their causes. “They speak and write patronizingly- sometimes even glorifying their deeds and motives. This is obvious from the way a section of the media present human rights violations by armed forces and gets even

international organizations to champion their cause. On the other hand, they maintain a studied silence when militants violate human rights, kill and kidnap innocent people, intimidate and paralyse life and stifle economy” (Plathottam 2008:12). Sen (2011) further expressed that ‘the regional newspapers come under a lot of pressure from underground groups to carry their press releases verbatim. In Manipur, militant groups want newspapers to publish only their handouts and ignore the others. If they do not cooperate, they are either targeted or intimidated by militant outfits.

The situation is no better in Assam and Nagaland. Small newspapers do it for survival. If they do not, their reporters are attacked. Even the state the government also tries to arm-twist the regional media. For this, the archaic Prevention of Seditious Meetings Act, 1911 has been used in the past. In addition, if a newspaper is overtly critical of the state, often the state government responds by refusing to give it advertisements (ibid). People who could have formed critical public opinions are caught in the middle of a tug of war between the Indian Government and the insurgent groups (Das 2007). Indubitably, the State of Manipur witnessed the longest period (a record of fourteen days) wherein newspapers ceased publication, protesting the assault against the fourth estate by “ultra-legal” and “legal” forces in the past decades – where around 20-armed militant groups are actively operating and several battalions of government forces are deployed to counter the acts of militants (Gante 2009).

The situation is even more disturbing in Nagaland. According to Hazarika (2005):

…The major insurgent groups use newspapers in Nagaland as platforms for their viewpoints, against each other and the Central and state governments. The op-ed page would invariably have a graphic chart of allegations and counter-allegations by one group or the other, in addition to letters to the editor, supporting one point of view or the other. The papers are seen as platforms for venting political spleen and vendetta and they are expected to carry the statements in their entirely.

The killings of mediapersons stands as a testimony to the fact that, media has come under strong attack from both the non-state actors. The following table shows the list of journalists killed in Assam in the recent past.

Journalists killed in Assam (1995 – 2009)

Name of Journalists
Perpetrators Place Year
Pabitra Narayan Timber smugglers Sibsagar 1995
Dipak Swargiary Unidentified miscreants 1995
Manik Deuri BLT Diphu 1996
Parag Das Surrendered ULFA Guwahati 1996
Panja Ali Unidentified gunman Kokrajhar 1997
Nurul Hoque Suspected Mafia Nagaon 1998
Alfarid Shazad Grenade explosion Sivasagar 1999
Jiten Sutiya Grenade explosion Sivasagar 1999
Ratneswar Sarania Shastri ULFA Barpeta 1999
Indramohan Hakasama Goalpara 2003
Dinesh Brahma Assassin Dhubri 2003
Prahlad Gowala Golaghat 2005
Kanak Raj Medhi Died under mysterious circumstances 2006
Mohammad Muslimuddin 2007
Bodosa Narzary Suspected BLT Kokrajhar 2007
Jagajit Saikia Kokrajhar 2008
Anil Mazumdar Unidentified gunman Guwahati 2009

Sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_journalists_killed_in_Assam, accessed on 13 January 2013

The state of Manipur has also been turbulent for working journalists, giving a number of media martyrs who have been caught up in the crossfire between the militants and the paramilitary forces. Between 1997 and 2007, there had were thirty two incidents in Manipur in which scribes were assaulted at reporting sites, two cases of attempt to murder. Twenty-two cases of detention of journalists while on duty by armed persons were recorded; a case each of reprimand, kidnap, and a case of taking journalists into hostage by armed persons were also recorded. There had also been 17 cases of ban of media houses by the concerned authorities. Moreover, Manipur has been witnessing blank editorials, ban of newspaper publications and private TV channels by legal and ultra-legal forces repeatedly. Editors like Bharat Bhusan, N Biren, RK Ranendrajit, to name a few, were put behind the bar for their writings.

 Media Persons killed in Manipur (1993-2012)

Name & Designation Organisation Year
R.K. Sanatomba, Editor Kangla Lanpun – monthly vernacular) 1993
Th. Brajamani, Editor Manipur News 2000
Khupkholiyan Simte Lentai- monthly 2001
Yambem Megha Electronic Media 2002
H.A. Lalrohlu, Editor Shan – Hmar daily 2008
Konsam Rishikanta Singh Imphal Free Press- daily 2008
Dijwamani Thangjam, freelancer DD News (freelancer) and Prime Time News 2012

Sources: http://e-pao.net/epSubPageExtractor.asp?src=features.Focus_On_Media.Safety_of_Journalists_in_Manipur

In all the incidents of the murder – excepting the cases of H.A. Lalrohlu and T Khupkholian Simte – no individual or group claims responsibility of the killings while armed militant groups active in the South district of Manipur have claimed responsibility in the killing of Lalrohlu and T.K. Simte respectively. Even the State Government was not successful in uncovering who is responsible for the cases. The facts sum up that local journalists are no less vulnerable to professional hazards. Given the service rendered by the media persons, the authority concerned should not take easily that the murder of a journalist remains as a mere law and order problem of the State. The following three cases describe the nature of killings of journalists in Assam and Manipur:

Case 1: Parag Kumar Das

Parag Kumar Das, former Editor of Asomiya Pratidin was shot dead in Guwahati in broad daylight on 17 May 1996 while he was picking up his 7-year-old son from school. He had been a firm crusader for civil rights in the backdrop of unlimited powers conferred on the armed forces in tackling insurgency, as also against the kind of anti-social behaviour indulged in by a section of surrendered cadres of the United Liberation Front Assam (SULFA) (Dutta, nd). On 28 July 2009, after a wait of thirteen agonisingly long years, District and Sessions Court, Kamrup, acquitted Mridul Phukan alias Samar Kakati, the prime accused in the murder case due to “lack of solid evidence”.

Case 2: Anil Majumdar

Forty years old, Anil Majumdar, editor of a prominent Assamese daily newspaper Aji, was shot at point blank range by unidentified gunman outside his house late night on 24 March 2009 in Assam’s main city of Guwahati (International Press Institute, 2009). Majumdar had been campaigning for peace talks between the separatist United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) with the Central government (Mochahari, 2009). Mazumdar was killed under the command of ULFA leaders who were opposed to peace process (Times of Assam, 2012).

Case 3: Konsam Rishikanta Singh

Konsam Rishikanta Singh, aged about 22 years was shot dead on November 17, 2008. He was the Junior Sub-Editor of one of the prominent English language dailies in Manipur–the Imphal Free Press. There are allegations that the security forces stationed in Manipur is behind the murder, as it happened in a high security area, where no one who commits such an act can escape undetected (Asian Human Rights Commission 2008).

Conclusion

The Fourth Estate of a democracy has been hit hard in the Northeaster region since the past three decades. A handful newsperson has lost their lives in the hands of the state and the non-stat actors and many have disappeared in mysterious circumstances. In all these cases, impunity reigns and no media organisation is powerful enough to pressure the state governments to bring the killers to justice. The working journalists have shown resilience, but are hard to persevere when the state machinery itself remains complicit in the crimes. Except issuing a few lists of “dos and don’ts,” no serious attempts have been initiated by the government to protect journalists in the region. Unless the government comes out with serious policy measures, the working journalists will continue to be soft targets. A strong and effective mechanism is must to protect journalists who work in hostile situations without adequate facilities. Absence of strong and powerful journalists association is another factor adding to the agony to already unprotected journalists. Due to the non-existence such entity the working journalists and media fraternity can hardly pressurise their state governments to initiate protective measures, which can go a long in protecting the lives of the journalists and can uphold the freedom of expressions. Meanwhile the media management must also be exerted pressure to provide basic amenities to journalists, who are otherwise deprived of.

 References

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