Media escorts Rajkhowa home

IN Media Practice | 04/01/2011
As freed ULFA chairman Arabind Rajkhowa returned home to a rousing reception and intense coverage by the media, veteran journalists recalled a time when such reportage would have been frowned upon.
TERESA REHMAN trails the media response
“Moi Ahisu” (I have come), said ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa to his ailing mother. And DY 365, a satellite channel aired from Guwahati played the soulful rendition of Bhupen Hazarika’s song “Moi ahisu, moi ahisu. Koto swahidor sapunoke loi” (I have come. I have come. Carrying dreams of many martyrs) in the backdrop as they repeatedly flashed the scene.
 
 
When Rajkhowa set out to wage a war against the Indian state on April 7, 1979, there was no television to tell his story. Television came to Guwahati in 1982 when Doordarshan became operational during the 9th Asian Games. But today, television cameras were seen creeping even into his bedroom where he was having an emotional reunion with his visually-impaired nonagenarian mother.
 
 
DY 365 recounted the poignant tale of his mother, Damayanti Rajkonwari, as she hugged her youngest son, whom she fondly calls saru pai, after more than two decades. They narrated how her life had changed over the years with the death of her husband and the killing of her elder son. In a bid to strike a balance, they also showed another old and ailing mother lying in a hospital bed. She is Miliki Baruah, the elusive ULFA c-in-c, Paresh Baruah’s mother. They ask, ``When will this mother get to meet her son?’’
 
 
This media frenzy was also seen during the release of the other ULFA leaders. But Rajkhowa’s case was different. The chairman of the proscribed outfit came back to the same historic amphitheatre, Rang Ghar, at Assam’s Sivasagar district to chalk out an agenda for the future. Rang Ghar was the place where ULFA was formed by Rajkhowa, Paresh Barua, Anup Chetia, Pradip Gogoi, Bhimkanta Buragohain and Bhadreshwar Gogoi.
 
 
A rousing homecoming amidst full media glare was something Rajkhowa would not have imagined even in his wildest dreams. Inquisitive journalists mobbed him as he came out of the jail in Guwahati and followed him on his 400 km long journey to Lakwa in Assam’s Sivasagar district. He was arrested and handed over by Bangladeshi security forces in November 2009. He was quick to give his comments to anxious reporters wherever he stopped and the media intently followed his speeches at the public rallies he addressed on the way. For a change, national media too trailed him to his hometown.
 
 
Amidst shouts of ‘ULFA Zindabad’ he addressed a massive public gathering and cameras panned on to his bodyguards, some of the hardcore underground ULFA cadres, who had surfaced all of a sudden and had taken charge of his security. Channels tried to outdo each other by providing as much information about these cadres as possible.
 
 
There was also an analysis of what Rajkhowa said at the different rallies. At a rally at Sipajhar in Darrang district, he said, “We took up arms for our community. In the past 30 years we saw that this war could not take us forward.” This was seen to express his views on the futility of an armed conflict. At Sivasagar he hinted that he might join politics when he said, “If we cannot come to an honourable settlement, this time we will not go back to our hideout or a foreign country for arms training. We will come back here to the people’s court and ask if we should hold guns again or assume political leadership.”
 
 
Interestingly one could sense a tinge of cynicism in channels like DY 365 which pointed out that police which had been gunning for him for so long had now formed a protective ring around Rajkhowa and were honouring him.
 
 
DY 365 also carried news on the open unfurling of the ULFA flag. The hoisting of this same flag had cost many police personnel their jobs earlier. Today it seemed to accord moral victory to the ULFA. They reported that some police personnel argued, “How would the common people know that the ULFA chief is coming if the flags don’t announce his arrival?” Later DY 365 claimed that following their news, the authorities tightened their noose and took measures to stop repetition of this in his hometown.
 
 
As television channels vied with each other to get something exclusive, NETV asked Lakwa residents if peace talks were possible without Paresh Baruah. Some sought Rajkhowa’s wife Kaberi’s comments who tearfully said, “It’s a happy moment for entire Assam. But I am sad when I see the ones who became martyrs in the struggle. I am happy that I can see a smile on my mother-in-law’s face. I wish to see a similar smile on every mother’s face.” On day 2 he met families of ULFA cadres who had lost their lives. The channels aired poignant scenes of old mothers hugging Rajkhowa.
 
 
Witnessing this coverage, veteran journalists recalled the situation during the heydays of the Assam Agitation in the early 80s. “There was no official press censorship as such. But there was some kind of a warning from the ULFA themselves on any kind of adverse reporting. We were compelled to censure ourselves. There were many phone calls. There were even some protests by the journalists over the threats,” says senior journalist Radhika Mohan Bhagawati.
 
 
What direction the peace talks take is open to speculation but television channels aired from Guwahati have got enough masala for several days to come. Hemanta Barman, editor of Assamese daily Dainik Janambhumi says, “The competition among television channels is also very stiff. They have to go an extra edge to get that additional footage or sound byte. And then the regional local print media also follow suit.’’
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