Northeast India: Urging Media Accountability

As the alternate media expands its reaches to hundred thousand Indians across the country, thanks to increasingly cheaper internet connectivity, its restraint and liability also start surfacing in public discourses. The limitation and gradually losing credibility of the mainstream media may pave the way for a boosting alternate media, but it is still miles apart from the trustworthiness among users.

In fact, voluminous media coverage in Assam of Tibet bordering northeast India following the relentless rumour, continued uncertainty and inherent fear had recently resulted in the elimination of two innocent lives along with severe injuries to
few others and also stranding of thousand railway passengers for days in different isolated locations.

The rumour of incorporating many parts of Assam including the Dima Hasao district  in the greater Nagaland (Nagalim)  continued to hunt the people of Assam since the virtual end of Naga movements. The proposed Nagalim  continues to claim many areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur and also northern Myanmar localities.

The uncertainty over the government actions remains fully intact as the content of Naga Framework Agreement is yet to be made public. The Union government in New Delhi signed the agreement on  3 August 2015 with  the influential Naga armed outfit (Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-IM), when Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself announced the peace deal through the social media. With this background of anxiety and worries, a report was published in a reputed portal (https://thewire.in/215195/revealed-rss-draft-plan-nagaland-accord/) indicating that  Dima Hasao district in central Assam may be incorporated in Nagalim. The contributor Sangeeta  Barooah Pisharoty in her report titled ‘Revealed: RSS Draft Plan for Nagaland Accord’ quoted Jagdamba Mal, an understood   Rashrtiya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideologue based in Nagaland for decades and tried to authenticate it.

The trouble-stricken Dima Hasao, which is an autonomous district constituted under the sixth schedule of the Indian constitution, homes to Dimasa tribe people with a sizable Naga population. Since Eighties, the district witnessed various ethnic insurgent outfits and most notorious was the  Jewel Garlosa led Dima Halam Daogah, which once terrorized the entire district.

The content of  TheWire might have reached to few readers, but the same story was reproduced by a section of local (read Assamese) newspapers and satellite news channels to attract the attention of hundred thousand residents of the State. Soon the resentments among the Dimasa people about their inclusion in Nagalim surfaced and it grew abruptly.

Various agitating Dimasa groups including the Jadikhe Naisho Hoshom, All Dimasa Students Union, Dimasa Mother Association and Dimasa Women Society etc called for a series of protest rallies across the hills district, where  the local political party representatives also participated. The agitators demanded a clarification from the governments over the matter at the earliest.

One such public protest in front of Maibong railway station on 25 January turned violent. The police resorted to firings as the
protesters started vandalism at the railway properties. Two tribal agitators namely Mithunjay Dibragede and Prabin Hakmaosa were killed in police firings, where as ten others received injuries. The killings were condemned widely and strikes continued  in the district for days which resulted in stranding of thousand railway passengers from southern Assam with Tripura to Guwahati.

Three State ministers namely Chandra Mohan Patowary, Keshab Mahanta and Porimal Suklavaidya visited the trouble-torn district to take stock of the situation. They also met the victim families and assured possible government supports at the earliest.
Amidst the chaos, Assam  chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal invited a group of Dimasa civil society representatives and reiterated the government’s stand that not a single inch of Assam land would be ceded for Nagalim. Assuring the delegation of civil society groups in presence of Dima Hasao Autonomous Council chief Debalal Garlosa on 30 January, Sonowal categorically stated that the State’s territorial integrity would  not be  harmed.

Mentioning about his telephonic conversations with the  Union home minister Rajnath Singh, the chief minister declared that  even no satellite council or special development authority of Nagalim would also be allowed in Assam. Sonowal informed that necessary steps were taken to provide appropriate government jobs to close relatives of both the victims (of police firings) and free treatment to those injured in the incident.

The State government has already constituted a one man committee headed by the State’s additional chief secretary VB Pyarelal to inquire into the circumstances that led to violence and subsequent police firings. Public angers however continued for days and it was visible in  a massive protest rally organized at Maibong  locality later in presence of AASU adviser Samujjal Bhattacharya, ABSU general secretary Pramod Boro with many others.

Jagdamba Mal, who is facing a formal police complaint in Assam, lately clarified that he personally put some suggestions to settle the six decade long Naga antipathy, but the concerned reporter blew the content ‘out of proportion’. Mal declared that he was not a RSS member. So his suggestions were ‘nothing to do with the RSS or the BJP governments’.

India, out of its over one billion population, houses nearly 200 million smart-phone users. As the internet connections turn relatively cheaper in the country, more and more upper and middleclass nationals start possessing the net connection and it finally helps growing the number of alternate media browsers. Meanwhile, expressing serious concern over the recent unpleasant
incidents in Dima Hasao following few media contents, a scribe’s forum appealed to the common people to be judicious over reacting to media reports.

Demanding a regulatory authority over the alternate media, the Journalists’ Forum Assam (JFA) also urged the government to empower the press council with the inclusion of electronic and social media. “While the concerned portal should have reported the matter with right perspective, the vernacular news outlets must have authenticated the facts before publishing the news item,” said Rupam Barua, president of JFA.

He also added that those newspapers might have recognized the news portals as  trustworthy as the established news agencies and so found it logical to use the content of the portal over a sensitive issue without  verification. Once we have a powerful media council,  Barua asserted that this kind of flaws could be addressed more efficiently.

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Nava Thakuria

The author is a Guwahati (northeast India) based journalist and media rights activist

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