An apology for Majuli

BY TERESA REHMAN| IN Media Practice | 27/05/2010
Lending controversy to the exotic heritage aspect of Majuli which has nurtured the Vaishnavite culture for centuries, a travel editor insinuated "in the absence of women, are these monasteries a breeding ground for child abuse and homosexuality?"
A Mail Today travel story has offended many in Assam, says TERESA REHMAN. Pix: in a Majuli satra. Courtesy, fiveprime.org
It's not often that a write-up published in a national daily manages to create a stir and hit the headlines even in the local dailies here. It's not surprising as there is hardly anything that one gets to read on India's Northeast in the national dailies, apart from the routine staple of violence, road blockades, insurgency, extortion and peace talks which time and again reinforce the stereotypes.

However, an intriguing piece on Majuli, the world's largest river island located in Assam, by Nishiraj A Baruah, Travel Editor of the Delhi-based tabloid 'Mail Today', not only provoked livid reactions from all quarters but also coerced the tabloid to aplogise. Baruah was invited along with a group of journalists by the Directorate of Assam Tourism and Assam Tour Operator Association, to visit and promote a few places of tourist interest.

Lending a different angle to the exotic and heritage aspect of Majuli which has nurtured the Vaishnavite culture for centuries, Baruah insinuated "in the absence of women, are these monasteries a breeding ground for child abuse and homosexuality?" Majuli is a home to the numerous Satras, or the Vaishnavite monasteries, set up by the saint Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciples. It is to be noted that only some of the Satras are celibate monasteries. Baruah's write-up starts with a basic premise. He embarks with a question to a monk, "Have you never felt like having sex?"

It is probably the first time anyone has dared to defy the accepted norms and raise such questions in public. The feedback to Baruah's write-up became one of the lead news items in local daily The Assam Tribune on May 22. The daily stated, "The covert assertions made in a write-up in a daily on the cultural heritage of the people of the river island Majuli have evoked strong resentment here. The write-up published in the tabloid newspaper Mail Today in its May 20 issue has covert indications of perverted sexual behaviour of the monks of the Majuli satras."

The Assam Tribune further states, "Not only this, the write-up has more to offer to introduce Majuli to the strangers."

It says, "Indeed, Majuli floating like a lotus in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra in Assam, will leave you with a zillion questions, but often with no answers. And that's what makes it a little mysterious, a bit like the Bermuda Triangle."

"But instead of disappearing aeroplanes, at Majuli it is about disappearing men and money, NGO activists such as Sanjoy Ghosh get wiped out for carrying out welfare work and welfare funds from the Central government disappear into the pockets of the powerful. Until recently, Majuli was also home to ULFA no-hopers. Besides, Satra politics/rivalry, unemployment and the threat of the Brahmaputra that swallows large chunks of the island every monsoon (and shrinking its size) add to the alarmist psychosis."

"No wonder, behind the calm fa├žade of the famed Satras (monasteries) and its effeminate bhokots, soft-spoken natives, quiet roads and refreshing Liril-green landscapes, there seems to be something brewing. An uneasy calm hangs thick in the air. You realise this when you talk to the islanders. They don't open up easily, are always on guard and just when you are about to ask a few questions, you are interrogated instead...."

Tridip Sarma, the president of the Tour Operators Association of Assam (TOAA) who invited Baruah, was piqued and sent an email to The Assam Tribune which stated, "Nishiraj A Baruah has written the aforesaid article in an objectionable manner which has hurt the sentiments of the people of Assam. The article has defeated the purpose for which his visit was planned by TOAA. The issue raised by him has no authenticity and value. We condemn the questions raised by him and convey our strong resentment in publishing such articles by a reputed publishing house."

Some called it "irresponsible journalism", some termed it "fallacious and misleading" and an attempt to sensationalise things.

Joining in the protest against the write-up were the organizations which have long been struggling for recognition of Majuli as a World Heritage Site. For instance, Bharat Saikia, Secretary of Majuli Island Protection and Development Council (MIPADC) condemned the write-up as defamatory and negative.

President of the Majuli district unit of the Asom Satra Mahasabha, Dutta Dev Goswami described the write-up as an aspersion on the people of Assam. "The write-up is not based on facts and if in the coming days anyone dares to pen such write-ups or publish them, the Majuli unit of the Sattra Mahasabha would move the court for justice," Dev Goswami told The Assam Tribune.

The umbrage was in a way justified as the writer did not give any kind of evidence to corroborate his statements on the 'homosexuality and child abuse' angle in the monasteries at Majuli. It is not pertinent to write only 'feel-good' things about a place even if one is doing a travel piece.

Many felt that if such theories were in fact true, Baruah should have investigated further and put things in the correct perspective. Baruah too agreed that his statements were tenuous and speculative. He tendered an apology which also made front page news in The Assam Tribune on May 25.

The Assam Tribune stated, "Mail Today scribe Nishiraj A Baruah has tendered apologies 'to all concerned' for his report on Majuli that appeared in the Mumbai daily on May 20. In a letter to president of the Tour Operators' Association of Assam (TOAA) Tridib Sarma and all TOAA members, Baruah said that he is "deeply upset by the reactions to his story on Majuli". He however, stated that the state of infrastructure and amenities for tourists in the island left much to be desired.

In his letter, Baruah maintained that it would have been a great story only if he had the proof to back the issues raised by him in the story. However, he had no proof, he said.

He further stated, "It's just that while I was talking to a few Satra kids (six to 10 years old) about their life, etc., I (and my fellow journos) had a distinct feeling that all was not well there. And hence the questions on child abuse and homosexuality have unleashed an avalanche of protests. Since I am a travel and lifestyle journalist, I do not have the expertise nor the inclination to do an investigative piece. And since I thought the question is pertinent enough, I was hoping that someone will take it up further. But the 'travel' section was not the place for such a story -- my editor in chief Bharat Bhushan also pointed that out to me this morning." The May 25 edition of 'Mail Today' carried an apology on this.

Now that a travel and lifestyle journalist has raked up this contentious issue, it won't be surprising if an investigative journalist decides to take it up from here.
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