Naga papers: lots of comment, little reporting

BY VIKAS KUMAR| IN Media Monitoring | 14/06/2017
Covering Nagaland’s anti-women’s reservation agitation - Part II. Local coverage lacked in investigation and ground interviews.
VIKAS KUMAR delves into coverage by Morung and Page

Travelers walking out of the airport (Jan 29/Morung Express) 

 

The first part of this article examined how New Delhi-based newspapers covered the controversy around women’s reservation in Nagaland. It also discussed the criticism in Nagaland’s newspapers of the unfair coverage in “mainland” newspapers. This part examines the coverage in Nagaland-based newspapers – The Morung Express (Morung) and Nagaland Page (Page).

The continuous and substantial coverage of the issue in Morung and Page rested on the three legs of front page news, opinion pieces/editorials, and the front page cartoons. Some report related to women’s reservation was daily the lead story on the front page during the period of interest to us. On an average, Morung published about 18 opinion pieces and more than three editorials on the women’s reservation issue per week. Several opinion writers contributed more than two pieces on woman’s reservation in less than two months. Also, Morung allowed exchanges between contributors. Almost half of Morung’s cartoons published during this period were related to urban local body elections and women’s reservation. One of Morung’s weekly polls also asked a question about women’s reservation (Jan 23).

Page published about four opinion pieces and an editorial per week on the issue of women’s reservation. The coverage included images of violence, arson, disruption of daily life, but also of non-violent protests as well as the irony of women participating in protests against women’s reservation.

Both newspapers, particularly Morung, accommodated press releases of a large number of organisations. However, the proliferation of civil society organisations (CSOs) has reached a stage that even “local” newspapers are unable to figure out alleged impostors (Morung, Feb 5, 6, 14, and 18).

Morung also attracted opinion writers from almost all walks of life, even though almost all of them belong to five educationally and economically advanced tribes. However, the professional diversity of contributors did not translate into a substantive diversity of views. Moreover, the open door policy also meant that several deeply prejudiced, ill-informed, and deliberately misleading pieces were published. In fact, after a point a large proportion of the opinion pieces opposed women’s reservation on flimsy grounds and relied upon blatant misinterpretation of laws and facts. (There is no easy way of deciding if the editors should/could have rejected such submissions that advocated a socially regressive worldview.)

"The open door policy also meant that several deeply prejudiced, ill-informed, and deliberately misleading pieces were published."

 

Also, with the passage of time religious piety began to claim more opinion space with contributors lamenting how the violence marred the image of Christian Nagaland as well as reflected the rot at the heart of Christendom that is Nagaland. We heard the same things after the Dimapur lynching in March 2015. Religious outpouring often crowds out serious debate in Nagaland and diverts attention from the core issue.

The overall coverage was not uncritical though. Morung’s editorials adopted a neutral stand, supported the basic premise behind women’s reservation, and questioned the approach of the protestors, while the editorials of Page consistently defended the cause of women’s reservation.

Both Morung and Page provided ample space to those who supported the cause and, as discussed in the first part, reproduced supportive opinion pieces published outside the state. More importantly, Morung highlighted the lack of discipline of bandh volunteers (Feb 18), vandalism of alleged volunteers (Feb 15), robbers impersonating as bandh volunteers (Feb 15), harassment of women (Feb 18) and journalists (Jan 29, Feb 14, 15, and 17), unruly behavior of inebriated volunteers (Jan 30), and misuse of vehicles carrying stickers of organisations behind the bandh (Feb 17). Public inconvenience, particularly, the problems facing students appearing in board examinations, was highlighted throughout the course of the protests. Also, an opinion writer “shed some tears for” “those thousands of Nagas and non Nagas alike who are to feed their Wives and Children’s mouths by earning their daily bread” (Feb 24). But, as discussed below the coverage in both newspapers lacked depth and bite. Several points stand out in this respect.

 

   

Shops vandalised by alleged bandh volunteers (Feb 15/Morung)

   

 

The coverage was restricted to urban areas closer to Assam. Longleng, another major centre of protests, did not receive as much coverage as Dimapur, Kohima, and Mokokchung. For instance, among the three youth who lost their lives in the protests, the one from Tuensang was given very little space. This disparity in coverage has, in fact, been a persistent feature of Nagaland’s newspapers.

Morung and Page did not interview the (women) candidates, who were intimidated by mobs and forced to withdraw their nominations or maligned and excommunicated from their communities/villages, or the heads of women’s organisations, which withdrew from the NMA after years of fruitful association and joint struggle. More importantly, they did not ask how these developments might affect the morale of women. How long might women take to rebuild the momentum, especially, when campaigners for women’s rights are maligned and threatened and a beauty queen, who extended support to bandh volunteers, is hailed as an exemplar? A former Miss Nagaland too opposed reservation: “Because in Christian religion men and women are equal in the eyes of God, more over God does not allow prejudice and discrimination against women or in any form of such. That is why Nagaland being a Christian State, we the women folks enjoy equality with men folks, rather the men folks treat us as Princess and Queens of their heart” (emphasis added).

"Morung and Page did not interview the (women) candidates, who were intimidated by mobs and forced to withdraw their nominations or maligned and excommunicated from their communities/villages."

 

The newspapers did not discuss the arguments for or against women’s reservation in light of customary laws, evidence related to the treatment of women in customary courts, folk literature, and contemporary Naga literature, which is a good gauge of the condition of women as most of the writers are women. Praying Mantis and the Naga Men, an opinion piece, is perhaps the only contribution that examined the position of women in light of concrete examples from customary law (Jan 9). A Naga Tribunal (Feb 21), an editorial, and What is customary law for the Nagas? (Feb 24), a Morung Express Feature, both of which appeared after the agitation had subsided, and the summary of a panel discussion (Feb 3) are partial exceptions. Surprisingly, most opinion writers, including those with first-hand experience of the working of customary courts, did not venture in this direction except when they questioned the dubious customary sanction for excommunication of contestants and politicians ordered by CSOs.

 

     

On exclusive consultations on women’s reservation

On the use of misinformation to rally support for poll boycott

On the opposition to women’s reservation as an alibi

Cartoon 1/Jan 7, Morung

Cartoon 2/Jan 17, Morung

Cartoon 3/Feb 18, Morung

 

 

The newspapers made no attempt to investigate issues surrounding the protests: how support bases were built among divided communities, what was the role of misinformation in mobilising people (see Cartoons 1-3, though), why was the post mortem of the youth killed in firing not carried out, who funded the month long protest, what was the socio-economic profile of protesters, why were protests more virulent in districts with higher rates of literacy, urbanisation, and participation of women in the modern economy. An editorial of Nagaland Page is an exception in this regard insofar as it briefly noted that “unless Naga tribal bodies are rolling in money, the source of which the public has the right to know, who really has that kind of money to fund and sustain over a week's “bandh”.” Moreover, there was hardly any in-house assessment and analysis of the problem. Morung’s first and only in-house background note appeared almost a week after the protests tapered off.

In absence of any direct examination of the customary law and the all too visible intra- and inter-tribal (political) conflicts that shaped the anti-women’s reservation protests, both editorials and opinion pieces that supported of women’s reservation read like pieces that could have been written by anyone supporting the cause of greater participation of women in decision-making anywhere. 

"The newspapers made no attempt to investigate issues surrounding the protests: how support bases were built among divided communities, what was the role of misinformation in mobilising people"

 

The gaps in the coverage discussed above ensured that the real factors driving and shaping the protests were not properly catalogued, let alone being subjected to proper analysis. Inter- and intra-tribal and inter-generational tensions in the course of protests and political manipulation were fleetingly reported, but not at all examined. The pattern of excommunications and intra-organisation tensions, which could have revealed a lot about the primary drivers of protests, were mechanically reported as facts. Exceptions such as Naga Society Lies Wounded Again, an editorial of Page Sorry Saga, and an opinion piece/open letter in Morung, whose authorship was disputed later,briefly hinted at the internecine fighting behind the façade of joint protests. Also, Morung and Page did not try to relate developments in Nagaland with similar protests in other parts of the country that would have helped figuring out the contribution of some of the deeper structural factors that transcend Nagaland’s border. Likewise, the two newspapers did not relate the latest outburst with similar incidents in the past. Morung’s editorial Need for soul searching dialogue (Feb 3) is an exception insofar as it briefly reminds readers of Dimapur lynching and attack on Wungrum colony in Dimapur.

To an extent, editorials and opinion pieces, mostly by people who do not declare their affiliation but would be known to the readers in a small state such as Nagaland, fill in the void identified above. However, sandwiched among multiple factions of insurgents, armed forces, and aggressive CSOs, newspapers avoid investigative journalism and address sensitive issues obliquely in editorials.

Morung’s first editorial (Of reservation & opposition, Jan 9) raised several questions and concluded with the following words: “There are many other concerns. But infringement [of] Naga identity is not one. Culture is not simply reliving the past and reducing it to a static entity . . . Does equal parameter exist between male and female in Naga society to negate demand for reservation?  . . . women are not represented in decision making and political arena and the existing mechanism does not provide any platform to correct this reality.” On the following day two editorials in Morung raised further questions. The first of them (Decolonizing framework) argued that the post-colonial state retained both “rigidly defined” customary laws and “arbitrarily drawn” borders, which were originally used by the colonial state to contain the Nagas. It called for “a liberated ‘customary law’ shaped by a dynamic Naga jurisprudence” that transcends Article 371A and is based on the values and aspirations of the present generation.

Two wonderful editorials of Morung bear special mention for their creativity - Playfields are shrinking (Feb 17) and Learning a native culture (Feb 23). The first of these notes that bandhs gave children much needed time (disruption of school calendar) and space (empty lanes) to play and uses that to reflect on the attitude of society toward children (“In a time when playfields are fast shrinking, the days of bandh in Nagaland have become a boon for children who have been deprived of outdoor games.”). The second used children playing bandh-bandh as the point of departure (“From the hidden windows and terraces of their homes, children looked and learned the ways of a new cultural wave that took shape through the past few weeks . . . They blocked the road using a string of shoes and a few toys . . . They wrapped up in their tiny traditional weaves and declared them “our bandh dress.””).

During the period under consideration, the first opinion piece in Morung on women’s reservation (Women Reservation – A Logical Perspective, Jan 6) exploited the internal contradictions of the anti-reservation argument and concluded that “We as a Christian State would become worse than radical Muslim States if we do not give women even a small voice to speak her heart and mind in our decision making bodies.” The following day, Morung published two opinion pieces. One of them questioned the grounds for opposition to women’s reservation and the threats of excommunication. The other argued that traditional lack of representation of women in decision-making bodies could be corrected through consensual revision of customary laws provided the government slowed down the election process. (The author, however, did not ask why the community failed to revise customary laws in the 16 long years after reservation was first opposed.) The fourth opinion piece questioned the continued validity of customary law, which has many retrograde elements. This was followed by pieces that questioned the “mainland” origins of the (women’s) reservation policy that made it culturally unsuitable for a society that is free of casteism and other related social evils. A few subsequent pieces asked if women’s reservation alone was repugnant to Naga culture or reservation in general (including ST reservation) was incompatible with Naga culture.

"We as a Christian State would become worse than radical Muslim States if we do not give women even a small voice to speak her heart and mind in our decision making bodies."

 

Among Morung’s opinion pieces a few stand out. The Debate on Reservation for Women (Jan 15) presented a detailed critical assessment of the legal-constitutional arguments against women’s reservation and allayed apprehensions that women’s reservation is repugnant to Article 371A that protects Nagaland’s rights. Debunking deniers of patriarchy in Naga culture (Jan 17) systematically unpacked cultural, legal, ideological, and ethical objections. Naga Women Must Stand Together with Naga Mother's Association (Feb 14) was perhaps the only piece in Morung that openly supported the NMA. The author, a lecturer at a theological college, noted that she was not a member, but “by virtue of being a mother and a Naga, I deem myself to be a member of NMA by default.” Yet another piece that deserves mention was written by three women, a teacher, a social worker, and a research scholar (The other voice of the people, Feb 15). It argued against facile comparisons of the condition of women in different societies and raised questions about the nature of structural discrimination against women in Naga society and the silencing of women’s organisations.

Page published fewer editorials and op-eds, but managed to highlight several issues left untouched in Morung. For example, a piece borrowed from Hindustan Times briefly related the protests in Nagaland with Jallikattu protests in Tamil Nadu: “In Tamil Nadu, bulls were made to pay the price for populism. In Nagaland, it shouldn't be the turn of women to be sacrificed” (Feb 7). Page also gave space for voices that otherwise had no chance to be heard in the middle of protests. It published a few hurriedly put together expressions of solidarity, appeals, and petitions signed by a wide range of feminists, civil society activists, and NGO workers from different states in support of women fighting for reservation, who were otherwise completely isolated within their own society. The extent of isolation is reflected in the NMA advisor’s contribution to Page: “For a community who lived and thrived in the glories of war, here we are again, women of the twenty first century, being abused, defamed, ridiculed, insulted by men . . . They have declared a war on us and for those of us who live within close knit societies and not in towns and cities, will have to bear the brunt of the war” (Jan 09).

The editorials and opinion pieces of Monalisa Changkija and Patricia Mukhim in Page raised hard questions about the origins and continued usefulness of inflexible, yet malleable customary laws that deny justice to women. They also put CSOs and New Delhi under the spotlight. (Also, see the discussion on Mukhim’s opinion piece in the first part of this article.) An editorial of Nagaland Page (Jan 14) stands out in terms of the clarity with which it established the need for reservation for women in elected bodies:

 

How many families would encourage a female family member to contest elections financially by placing all family wealth at her disposal to win, especially if she doesn't get a party ticket and more importantly if she doesn't get the endorsement and support of the majority of the all male Village Councils in a constituency? . . . how many Naga men would allow their wives, daughters, sisters, etc., to be out of the home from sunup to sundown campaigning and attending election meetings or even allow the home to be the venue of election meetings and other interactions necessary while contesting; and actually cook and serve food to supporters and voters if Naga women contest? Would Naga men provide the same emotional, psychological, intellectual and physical support, besides financial support, they expect from their women, if and when men contest? . . . There is so much resentment against Naga women who are educated, intelligent, talented, think independently, independent, and have moved up the ladder of life on their own merit, would such women be acceptable to Naga men and women, who have not quite made it themselves and form the majority of voters? . . . How many intelligent and capable Naga daughters have inherited their father/family's political legacy?

 

This editorial seems to be a response to the gratuitous advice offered by the chairman of the ruling coalition, who is presently the chief minister, in his opinion piece published in Page: “It is high time that good sense should prevail. NMA should also know that even if they win in the Supreme Court, that cannot change the mind of the Naga people; situation will remain the same. So, this may be taken as an opportunity to show the magnanimity and show some decency to normalize the situation by withdrawing the case on their own.”

 

Concluding remarks

Occasional editorials and opinion pieces notwithstanding, the mainland media is mostly distracted from the country’s ethno-geographical periphery. The oldest small state of the country is asking questions motivated by real or imagined fears about its place within the Union (i.e., the future of Article 371A) and the mainland (media) does not have space for its concerns. Even when the mainland media belatedly and briefly makes some room it is clueless. While it is “understandable” that the mainland media might not have the resources to provide firsthand coverage for some of the smaller states, it is not clear why they cannot borrow material from the regional media to enrich the worldview of their readers. On the other hand, Morung criticised the biased coverage of Nagaland in the mainland media, yet both Morung and Page ensured that readers had access to the views of the rest of the world. A caveat is in order regarding Morung’s justified critique though. To the best of this author’s knowledge, Nagaland’s newspapers, including Morung, have not examined the persistent reverse bias in their own opinion pages against the “mainland” and its culture. Such unexamined biases have to an extent contributed to the impasse over women’s reservation because for years people have been reading that they are different in a better sense from plainsmen. No wonder they readily accepted the argument that a law designed to address the problems of the plains society is irrelevant for the hills.

The anti-women’s reservation unrest also revealed a few shortcomings of the newspapers of Nagaland. The extensive coverage and commentary in Morung and to a lesser extent in Page notwithstanding, these newspapers did not carry out an independent investigation of incidents. Press releases and unfiltered opinion currently occupy the space that ought to belong to investigative and critical journalism and in-house analysis. Likewise, they failed to put together background notes outlining the facts of the matter until after the unrest subsided. This is remarkable as women’s reservation has been intermittently discussed since 2001. If newspapers based in Dimapur take seven weeks to put together a note on local developments, it would be unfair to expect the New Delhi-based media to get things right in the first go.

The poor coverage of the state’s remote districts in Dimapur/Kohima based media is another shortcoming highlighted by the recent agitation. Eastern districts and tribes could not arrive at a consensus over participation in the election until the very end and a wide range of internal discussions and conflicts took place in the run up to as well as after the annulled elections. This diversity of opinion was noted in passing. An proper engagement would have possibly revealed that the people there have different needs and aspirations compared to their cousins in Kohima, Dimapur and Mokokchung. The cultural and physical distance between the eastern districts, on the one hand, and Dimapur and Kohima, on the other, is certainly lesser than that between Kohima and New Delhi. So perhaps it would be unfair on part of Nagaland’s newspapers to expect more and nuanced coverage of Nagaland in newspapers published from New Delhi than they themselves give to their eastern districts. (Likewise, before New Delhi-based newspapers criticise New York Times for the unfair coverage of Mangalyaan, they should ask how fair their coverage of the people in the country’s periphery has been.) The lack of coverage of the eastern districts in Nagaland’s newspapers is particularly noteworthy because these districts account for more than one-third of the area and population of the state and need special attention as they suffer from a significant and persistent development deficit vis-à-vis the rest of the state. Over the past few months, Morung has published several front page stories on the problems of eastern districts, though.

 

Part 1 - Coverage of Naga women’s reservation agitation

 

 

(Vikas Kumar teaches economics at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.)

 

 

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