Is media painting a true picture of Assam's displaced Muslims?

BY Abdul Kalam Azad| IN Media Practice | 08/10/2014
Does the professional ethics of journalism permit anyone to create a 'risk perception' out of context to make a particular community vulnerable to persecution, humiliation and marginalisation?
ABDUL KALAM AZAD~s rebuttal of an India Today article.
(Reprinted with permission from TwoCircles.net.)
 
Editor’s note: Guwahati-based Abdul Kalam Azad had originally sent this rebuttal to India Today after he found out that its reporter had misrepresented the facts about displaced people living in pitiable conditions in camps in Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) in Assam. Azad neither received a reply from the India Today group, nor did they publish his rebuttal.

The role of media in perceptualising risk is very crucial; especially when the risk is augmented by deadliest terrorist organization with double-edged potentiality to create disaster in anywhere in the world. 
 
Ever since the declaration of Al Qaeda’s Ayman Al Zawahiri that his organization is going to open a new branch in India to protect the Muslims of South Asia, media has been extensively covering the issue and trying to create a perception of risk among various stakeholders to mitigate the vulnerability and disaster. It is something that the media ought to do.

But, does the professional ethics of journalism permit anyone to create a ‘risk perception’ out of context to make a particular community vulnerable to the risk of persecution, humiliation and marginalization?

A case in point is the story by India Today dated September 18, 2014 titled “The Next Tinderbox: 160 people killed since 2011 on clashes between indigenous people and alleged Bangladeshi Muslims immigrants in Assam”.

Let me put it in perspective.

On September 13, 2014, I had accompanied the author of the story to the interior areas of Bodoland Territorial Area Districts of Assam as one of the local contacts. I joined him and the team from Guwahati, while another local language journalist joined us from Sidli of Chirang district of BTAD.
 
Though we met for the first time, it didn’t take much time to get friendly. We talked about many things during our journey, but ‘radicalisation among Muslims’ remained at the centre. As I have spent a good amount of time with the inmates of ethnic violence-induced internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps in BTAD, the author asked me if I had noticed any instances of radicalisation among the victims of ethnic violence.

There are numerous IDP camps within and outside BTAD area, many of which are more than 20 years old. The inmates were displaced by Bodo ethnic violence, often called as ‘ethnic cleansing’. The IDPs are living in inhuman conditions without basic amenities like food, shelter, education and health facilities.
 
Over the years, during my stay and working with the inmates in various camps, I observed that the instances of religious practice were increasing, but I felt it was obvious because even the experts of post-disaster psychosocial-support argue that religious engagement helps the victims and survivors cope up with the mental trauma of violence.

Does it have anything to do with ‘radicalisation’ or Al Zawahiri’s claim to open a branch of Al Qaeda in India? A clear, firm NO!

That afternoon, we visited an IDP camp at Hapachara near Bongaigaon town. The inmates were uprooted in 1993 by an ethnic violence in Sidli subdivision of Kokrajhar district (now in Chirang, after the creation of BTAD). Officially 3,658 families were affected and 72 people were killed. They are still living in camps without government support.

Hapachara camp is the home to such 1,118 families. I introduced the author to the inmates and informed the gathering that he will write about their apathy to create pressure on the administration which may eventually help them get justice.

The author took a stock of the overall conditions of camp; then he asked, “Don’t the youngsters get angry?” One of the inmate answered, “We get angry but what can we do? Police batons cool us down”. President of the camp, Abdus Salam Choudhury, informed that two of their inmates were killed by police in 2004 when they were demonstrating in a democratic manner against government inaction.
 
The author informed the gathering that he was told by some youths of other camp that they wanted gun instead of relief and books. The president of the camp said that they don’t require guns but school to educate nearly 500 children, whose admission are being denied in the nearby government school only because of the stigma of being ‘displaced’.
 
The author further iterated that having a gun will not only help kill others but also protect them and once they own a gun, even CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) will not come to their camp! Fortunately, nobody bought his suggestion and they remained adamant about their stand. The authored finally winded up saying, “So, you only want school?”

But in the story, the author didn’t find it relevant to include the feedback he received from the inmates, suffering for more than two decades. Instead, he quoted an Indian Revenue Service officer Ashiq Zaman’s comment about 2012 violence: “We went to distribute clothes and books. Many youngsters asked if I could provide them with guns. These camps are the most fertile ground for spread of Islamist Terrorism”.

Incidentally, Zaman had made another statement – and quite a contrasting one – on September 11, 2014, on his Facebook timeline on the "arrest of three poor fishermen in Majuli as suspected Al Qaeda jihadi who were later on released".
 
“Whole Assamese media covered the news with much ‘fanfare’ on the front page with sketchy details of how Jehadis can ‘attack’ Assam through river route (Like the Mughals did ehh?”) Well, if this is the understanding of the media about the so called Jehad and this is the ‘preparedness’ of our security forces to fight jehadi elements, then God only can save Assam”, Zaman had posted.

The author didn’t even find this statement relevant to Al Zawahiri’s announcement and subsequent developments in Assam.

Another important point needs clarification: In the beginning of the story, the author has analysed the data of people killed in last three years in Assam. Actually, the data represents the killings within the four districts of BTAD area of Assam and not for entire Assam. He termed the Muslims who have 80% share in the total death toll as alleged infiltrators from Bangladesh.

Is it fair to term the Muslims of BTAD as infiltrators? Why do we hesitate to take the pain to look into their identity and history of existence in BTAD conscientiously?

As per the 2011 census, the decadal population growth in Kokrajhar district of BTAD is lowest (mere 5%) in the state? Does it mean Bangladeshi infiltration? The interesting fact is that not only the Muslims but other non-Bodos including mainstream Assamese Hindus are out-migrating from BTAD area to safer places.

If we take the data of last two decades, it would make the picture clear that Bodo extremists not only attacked the Muslims but also Adivasis, Nepalis, Bengali and Assamese Hindus etc. More than 30000 Adivasi families, who were displaced by ethnic violence in 1996 and 1998, are still living in camps. Are these too ‘infiltrators’ from Bangladesh or from any other country?

The last thing I want to put forward is about my personal experience as a tenant in Guwahati which author has wrongly incorporated in the story to satisfy his perspective. It was 2007; I, along with one of my friend, had a tough time renting a house. We found a room but, as the author mentioned, we were warned not to consume beef as there was a temple at the ground floor.
 
My friend sarcastically asked the landlord whether same rule applies to pork as well; we all laughed. And we had a good time at his house. For the last three years, I have been residing in another house owned by an upper caste Hindu. I eat beef, dry fish and everything according to my appetite. The landlord has no issue.

I think it has nothing to do with Al Qaeda or ethnic violence in lower Assam. I also don’t think this story merits getting published in a national magazine. (The author has also misspelt my name.)
 
As a disclaimer, let me make it very clear that I am forced to write this piece because I am accountable to all those victims of ethnic cleansing whom I assured that the author will publish their agony and apathy in India Today to put pressure on administration and thus to get the justice delivered to them.

On the contrary, India Today not only made them alleged Bangladeshi immigrants, but also propagated that they are crying hard for guns, not schools!

 

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