Reporting Assam's ethnic cauldron

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 01/10/2009
Mainstream Amnesia, Part II. Assam burned in the two months under review but with the exception of the Indian Express and the Hindu there was no analytical reporting.
Is Assam pre-eminent in the national consciousness as a disturbed state, asks SEVANTI NINAN.Pix: Indian Express

Which conflicts are the most visible in the multi-edition English dailies which circulate in metropolitan India?  Is it a skewed visibility? Which ones are invisible?  What are the policy implications of such invisibility?  What are the implications for the country  when insurgencies on borders are far removed from national consciousness?  How culpable are the country’s leading dailies in perpetuating this amnesia?

A two-month period of monitoring commencing right after the national elections sought to compare the conflict news reported within three states—Jammu and Kashmir, Assam and Manipur, with news reported on these states in five English dailies.  To study primarily the degree of  visibility of conflicts  in the national public sphere, and the manner of reporting on them.

Researchers

Uddipan Dutta (Guwahati),  Rinku Dutta (Calcutta), Sumegha Gulati (Delhi),  Aditi Ravi (Mumbai), Furquan Siddiqui (Delhi).

Assam

The period of May 15 to July 15, 2009 was one of steady turbulence in Assam.  In just the two weeks of May 18 civilians were killed.  Six militants were killed in an encounter with the army and seven injured. In the North Cachar Hills, 56 houses were torched in two separate incidents. Three engineers working on the construction of the national highway were abducted, also in the NC Hills. 

In the month of June there were 18 encounter  reported, the majority between militants of the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB),  and the army and police. Three involve the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Asom), two the KLNLF (Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front and one encounter involves the group called United Peoples Democratic Solidarity (UPDS).

Forty four to 45 militants are killed, while no one from the army, police or BSF is killed or even injured.  Does that suggest they were fake encounters?

Stories/analysis on

Assam during May 15-July 15

Times of India

  16

The Hindu

  18

The Indian Express

  41

DNA

   3

Telegraph

   2

 

Incidents  reported in Assam during monitoring period May 15 to July 15 

Encounters

  Ethinic clashes/attacks

Developments regarding militant leaders

Other

 (blasts, killings, abduction, clashes)

 24

10

13

 

22

 

Ethnic violence also singes the North Cachar Hills.  There are eight incidents of violence in this month:  three separate incidents of houses being torched, two of Dimasa villages being attacked.  Across the state 21 civilians are killed. One local paper writes of the ethnic conflict between the Dimasas and the Jeme Nagas  in  the NC Hills district and says the killings are led by the armed militias of both the groups.

This is a state with four distinct insurgencies, led by different groups:  The ULFA, United Liberation Front of Asom is the oldest, a separatist group seeking to establish a sovereign Assam via an armed struggle. The KLNLF: The Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF), a breakaway faction of the United People’s Democratic Solidarity (UPDS), was formed on May 16, 2004. The split was triggered by a cease-fire agreement, signed on May 23, 2002, between the UPDS and Union Government. Then there is the  DHD (J): Dima Halam Daogah also called "BLACK WIDOW" group and the NDFB, or the  National Democratic Front of Bodoland,  Encounters and killings in the month of June involved all four groups, though the virulent ethnic violence  was mostly  caused by clashes between the Dimasas and the Zeme Nagas in the North Cachar Hills.

People lose their lives, homes, children.  There are bomb blasts and grenade explosions. The central government sends teams for talks. Evidence surfaces of corruption in the Autonomous Hill Council. Its funds find their way to the  DHD (J) group.

Paper

Encounters

Ethinic clashes/attacks

Developments regarding militant leaders

Other (blasts, killings, abduction, clashes)

Times of India

  1

6

5

1

The Hindu

  2

6

3

1

The Indian Express

  1

8

5

3

DNA

 

 

 

1

Telegraph

 

 

 

2

 

The month of July brought more deaths by violence.  Eleven civilians are killed and four injured, some by suspected NDFB militants and the others by unidentified gunmen. A woman and three children, Dimasa villagers who were  part of a group that had gone for jhum cultivation are attacked by miscreants. It is a term the local papers often use. Elsewhere  Three Zeme Naga women were hacked to death, again by ‘unidentified miscreants.’

In the same fortnight eight militants and two troopers are killed. Overall in this two month period then, there are 50 civilians killed, to 24 in Kashmir over the same period. 58 militants, and two people from the security forces are killed during this period.

 

5 encounters in July, 18 in June, 1 in May. A total of 24 in two months. But is Assam pre-eminent in the national consciousness as disturbed state? Chattisgarh gets more attention these days with its Naxal insurgency. 

What is the order of reporting on Assam? With the exception of the Indian Express and the Hindu there is no analytical reporting. Only reporting of events.

During this period The  Telegraph in Calcutta has just two stories on Assam, a single column on page 6 (May 20)  on the killing of a Congress Councillor’s family, and a double column on page 4 on another day (10 June) on  man who escapes after being abducted by ULFA .  No encounters are reported, and none of the ethinic clashes which occurred during this period. No editiorials or analytical pieces are carried.

This is a paper which  has an edition in Guwahati, with a full fledged bureau in that city. It launched a Guwahati edition a decade ago. Today, it has grown to be the second largest selling English daily from the state, behind only the “Assam Tribune”.  It functions as a local edition, carrying local news for local readers and doubtless, editorials as well, with none of it going out to the main edition in Kolkata.  To quote from a Panos paper on the North East media landscape, “In these ‘national’editions, Northeast news hardly figures.”

What was the record of the DNA of Mumbai during this period  in providing coverage to the turmoil in Assam?  It had three stories in two months, on pages 9, 10, and 11 of the paper, two of them single column, one three column, one of them originating from Delhi, none on either the encounters, or the ethnic clashes. One is on an Assam related investigation to be established by the newly set up National Investigation Agency, the other two on a cache of arms, ammunition seized and on an ULFA bandh.

Then we come to the Times of India which also has an edition in Guwahati.  The paper has 16 stories in two months, one of them a  personality piece on Agatha Sangma. Routine coverage, no analytical pieces, nothing to indicate that the paper has a full complement of staff in Guwahati bringing out an edition of the paper in that city. Like the Telegraph, here is another example of papers from outside coming in to compete with the local press but not doing enough justice to the Assam story in their editions outside.

The Hindu has 18 stories, including two editorial analyses, and a front page story on a day when 5 militants are killed.  Its editorial analyses by M S Prabhakara who has long lived in the region and written about it are vivid explorations on the role of identity and ethnicity in the conflicts in this region, most educative for anyone wishing to be educated on the fires burning in this part of the country.

The Indian Express has 41 stories. It has  almost daily coverage, including two front page stories. On one day its correspondent profiles the Black Widow group, elsewhere in this period he writes two graphic accounts of  what it is like when ethnic violence is unleashed. In ‘As NC hills burn, people live in hunger, fear’ he describes the outcome of constant clashes between the Dimasas and the Zeme Nagas. In ‘No end in sight to NC Hills violence; toll rises to 50’ he revisits the subject. Between MS Prabhakara of the Hindu and Samudra Gupta Kashyap of the Indian Express the conflict in this state gets at least some of the coverage it deserves. In July Kashyap tells you, ‘In North Cachar, every Zeme and Dimasa village has turned into a fortress.’

In June when 44 militants are killed, except for one of the incidents which makes the front page in the Hindu, none are recorded by the five papers surveyed. Altogether there are 12 encounters between the NDFB and the army and police, five involving the ULFA, and two involving the Karbi Longri North Cachar Hills Liberation Front (KLNLF). Not a single trooper is killed in any of them. The Indian Express records only two of these.  The others, none.

On May 16 the Sentinel in Guwahat reports that  Union Heavy Industries and Public Enterprise Minister Santosh Mohan Dev sought the intervention of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh into the situation in NC Hills where as many as 11 people were killed the previous day putting the works of the two connectivity projects to a grinding halt. This was raised in a Cabinet Meeting by Dev. he two connectivity projects were the NH-54 and the Railway Gauge Conversion — in North Cachar Hills where killings by suspected DHD(J) militants continue unabated. This did not make it into either the Delhi papers, or the Calcutta and Mumbai ones. But three days later three National Highways Authority of India engineers were abducted in connection with one of these projects.

Incidents reported in surveyed papers in this period.

Also Read

Mainstream Amnesia Part I

Mainstream Amnesia Part III

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