The Assam conflict: a failure of the press

While debate on Assam's future rages in the Assamese media, the issue continues to be ignored by the Indian national press.

Since April, the intellectual climate in Assam, a state in India's north east, has been in turmoil. Once again, the pros and cons of Assam’s sovereignty and how 21 years of military oppression ravaged the state have been dissected in op-ed pieces and reports. There was even a war of opinion-pieces between Hiren Gohain – the leader of the State Level Convention (SJA) which is reinitiating the stalled peace process – and Paresh Barua, the commander-in-chief of the ULFA. Assam has been reeling under a violent separatist insurgency since 1979, in which 20,000 people have died.

Though a diverse range perspectives were circulated in the Assamese media – in all the major Assamese newspapers, in the panel discussions of the satellite news channels, everyone had largely agreed over one point: the Assamese separatist insurgency was a result of long term accumulated frustration of the people of Assam, their alienation from Delhi, and their material impoverishment (with per-capita income falling from being 4% above the national average in 1950-51 to 41% below the national average in 1998-99), in part the result of the plunder of resources by the central government.

But as Gohain aptly puts it, this movement is a “blind expression”; clearly, he believes, violence doesn’t solve anything. Since 1979, both sides – the government and the separatists – have only been killing people and there seems to be no end to this war. While most rebels have been arrested and have surrendered, Paresh Barua remains as elusive as the Ugandan leader of Lord’s Resistance Army, making occasional appearances through open letters sent to media agencies. He refuses to participate in the peace process unless secession is on the agenda.

Demotrix/Subhamoy Bhattacharjee. All rights reservedAftermath of a bombing. Demotrix/Subhamoy Bhattacharjee. All rights reserved


But “mainland India” is a different world altogether: almost oblivious of what is really happening in its peripheral states. A sensitive and volatile issue such as the demand for sovereignty raised and debated in an Indian state has not yet been discussed in detail in the so-called popular national media since the peace process started. Last month, one of my friends in Delhi asked me why the Assamese don’t identify themselves as Indians when I told him about the internal war in Assam. I had to remain quiet for sometime, because it’s not true; though the separatist insurgency in India’s northeastern state of Assam started with mass support in 1979, its support base has only been eroded in the subsequent years under brutal military oppression and disillusionment with the outfit. When I said that it wasn’t true that the people in Assam didn’t identify themselves as Indians, he refused to believe me. Before signing off, he told me we will learn our lesson when the Chinese invade Assam and take away the people as “slaves”. This appalling instance of patriotic intolerance can’t be laughed away as ignorance, since it shows what an oblivious “national” media is creating. Poor media coverage worsens the humanitarian crisis in Assam since public opinion is uninformed and thus, in turn, no political will is created.

Demotrix/Mayur. Assam Bandh Security. All rights reserved. Security personnel patrol during a ULFA-called strike. Demotrix/Mayur. All rights reserved.

So what does one do to solve the crisis? Since the solution lies in Delhi, the State Level Convention toured the capital from 21-26 July 2010 and met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress Chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Home Minister P C Chidambaram. They also called a press conference where the separatist movement was discussed and debated for two hours in front of all major media houses of India to raise awareness of the issue. But the next day, Hiren Gohain accused the so-called national media in India of its “poor coverage” of an issue that matters for twenty-seven million people in Assam. “At the press meet (in Delhi) we spoke for over two hours and not a single paper has mentioned it. . . This means that the information, on which the government acts, is restricted by the media and on the basis of the restricted media coverage if they take a decision there is every likelihood of error.”

This behaviour is puzzling, since the same media is likely to go berserk, drumming up jingoistic passions and talking of the territorial integrity of India, at any prospect of succession. It’s high time at least that the international press take a deep look at the peripheries of India, where protracted wars by the state on its people continue unabated, mainly due to the absence of a responsible mainstream media in India.