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The media ignores basic facts about the Northeast, J&K in its insurgency chatter

Across India, there is a bonding of searing pain, especially in its northern and eastern peripheries. The hurt and tumult envelops families and communities in a shroud of despair, whether it is in the Northeast, Jammu and Kashmir or earlier in Punjab.

It has its roots in a political definition articulated by regional non-state groups (armed and civil society) that posits ‘mainland’ India as the ‘other’. The political challenge to the state, backed by armed revolt, has not been crushed despite deploying the army and paramilitary forces for over 50 years in the Northeast, and in Kashmir for over two decades. It appears to have been successful in Punjab but at an unacceptable cost. India truly has been at war with itself—locked with adversaries who have refused to blink or budge for the most part—but that appears to be changing.

This is different from the groundswell of anger which has spread in central India as well as parts of Maharashtra, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Maoist campaign has grown from an acute frustration at the lack of delivery on promises, from bad government and governance, from the system’s failure to provide basic health, education and livelihood opportunities 63 years after independence. The focus here is more on inequity and ineptitude of the state than on sovereignty. It should be clearly recognised that the politics of J&K and the Northeast have little or nothing to do with issues of underdevelopment that drive the Maoist agenda. The country’s media misses and messes this up time after time because they don’t have a memory of even contemporary history, forget what happened a century ago.
It could be argued though that poor basic services and slothful, insensitive and corrupt administration have aggravated the political crisis both in the Northeast and Kashmir. This is often where the media fails to make the connection—insurgency and bad governance are part of the same coin, the same story—and often misses the point that lack of services exacerbates alienation. These are the kind of stories that must be leadership-driven, by editors of vision and perspective. For that, you need the kind of determined editors represented by the ilk of B.G. Verghese and P. Sainath. There aren’t many of them around.

The challenge in the Northeast—once India’s primary security threat—has abated in the past decades. On the ground, group after group, tired of unrelenting security pressure and living on the run, have opted for a cessation of hostilities or opened negotiations. The earlier power and romance when they even enjoyed some popular support is truly a thing of the past. Corruption has seeped into the core of their existence, a condition rarely reflected by the media. This is not to discount their capacity to re-emerge because of the Indian state’s ineptness and failure to take political advantage of favourable conditions. Few in the media reflect on this at any depth, for want of space, time or interest or all three.

On the other side, the men in uniform and government officials wonder why the media focuses on them and not the ‘anti-national activities’ of those opposed to the idea of India.

Amid this, the changing nature of conflicts is overlooked. There seems to be a tacit understanding within groups and civil society that an agreement assuring great political power within the Indian Union is better than no agreement i.e. a constitutional settlement, which till recently was anathema.

But the media, especially television, with its desperation for trp ratings (which for the most part are fudged anyway), is totally inconsistent and uncommitted to following up such issues in a sustained manner. Instead, it gives the impression of being a bull in a china shop with noisy, celebrity anchors and breathless reporters.

Thus, whenever the media raises the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which empowers soldiers to kill on suspicion and still not be prosecuted for murder, the discourse often focuses on an individual or the most visible sights of protest in Manipur. These discussions and the articles should have taken place and been written over the years. Too much is taken for granted: the metro media has made the mistake of focusing primarily on AFSPA as in Kashmir, forgetting that the act has been in place in the Northeast for over 50 years and that for most part of the decades where other parts of India had awoken “to light and freedom”, people in this region were being shaken by midnight knocks, destruction of homes, granaries and villages. Even basic facts are not stressed—for instance, in areas of maximum unrest in Kashmir, it is not the army that’s been deployed but the state police backed by central paramilitary forces. Indeed, our focus is limited; our viagra is the immediate, not the consequences or the sustainability of the story.

Yet, in the Northeast, the media’s fractured credibility would still be higher than the government or underground organisations. The reason for this is simple. Time and again, especially in Manipur and Assam, journalists have been the target of arbitrary killing and intimidation by armed non-state groups for their courage in speaking, writing and representing the truth. As far as the state is concerned, what it seeks to hide is extensive and devious—whether it is the atrocities committed under AFSPA or other legislation. Its credibility or otherwise is not helped, for example, when a group of reporters in Assam band together to write a stunning expose of the secret killings of relatives of ULFA members during the regime of Prafulla Mahanta.
That’s why while AFSPA must go, it represents just one challenge. This law reflects impunity, built into the system and mindsets of those who rule, and we have been inept at covering both. Unless we understand that, we’ll get the story wrong and keep talking about street fights when the battles are elsewhere.

Sanjoy Hazarika on Outlook magazine

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