How does a free media handle press releases from increasingly faction ridden underground organisations which often amount to threats issued to individuals under the shadow of the gun on individuals and business establishments?
There is an uncanny familiarity the media fraternity in Manipur senses in the predicament their colleagues in Nagaland are facing today. When you live in an insurgency situation for over half a century, with no conclusion in sight, people adapt to the situation and life carries on. The media is no exception. An apt analogy would be corruption. When it is so widespread, a person no longer feels tipping a petty clerk in a government office to get a file moving is corruption. It’s just an accepted way to get things done.
Earlier this month, the Inspector General, Assam Rifles issued a circular addressed to five of the most prominent editors in the state, reminding them that the S.S. Khaplang faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland had been banned by the Government of India and that carrying its statements could attract penalties under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The NSCN(K), it may be recalled had walked out of its ceasefire with the government when it felt ignored by the latter’s singular pursuit of a peace agreement with its larger rival, the NSCN(IM). The Khaplang group was also responsible for the devastating June ambush in Manipur’s Chandel district, killing 18 soldiers.
The immediate provocation for the reminder, it seems, were three items published on October 17, 18 and 21. In these, the newspapers reportedly “published articles issued by the Ministry of Information and Publicity of the NSCN (K) threatening senior law makers of the Nagaland government and encouraging collection of funds by representative of NSCN (K).” The Assam Rifles circular also said “the intention of declaring the NSCN(K) an unlawful association … is to curb and prevent fresh recruitments, violent, terrorist and secessionist activities, collection of funds, etc.” The patronising presumption that the editors would not be in the know of this, is itself an insult.
As expected, the Nagaland editors responded with a polite but firm reply that they were never partisans to any party in the prolonged conflict situation in the state and that at no point did they cross the limits of the freedom of speech and expression guaranteed to the media by the Indian constitution. They also reminded the Assam Rifles that by publishing news of any given militant organisation, they were not abetting or assisting putative crimes the organisation may commit, but only informing the public of the reality of the political environment they all live in, however oppressive, and this was done as per the mandate given to any news organisation.
They also claimed that it was their honest assessments of the situation, which actually shaped the strong public opinion in Nagaland opposing unwarranted “taxation” by militant organisations. To press home their opposition to the Assam Rifles’ intrusion into their affairs and the aspersion cast on their integrity as law abiding entities, they also left their editorial spaces blank on National Press Day, November 16.
Governor Acharya wades in
To add salt to the wound, the governor of Assam and Nagaland, P.B. Acharya, a long time BJP worker who proudly flaunts his RSS background, declared that the Assam Rifles IG has every right to direct the media to not give publicity to a banned organisation and doing so would amount to transgression of the law.
This statement, which angered the Nagaland journalists, came close on the heels of another controversial statement Acharya made in Assam – that Indian Muslims were free to go to Pakistan or Bangladesh. He later clarified he was misquoted and what he meant was that unlike Hindus, Indian Muslims when persecuted in other countries had the option of either returning to India or else of going to Pakistan or Bangladesh.
In July this year, Acharya courted controversy when he appointed four RSS-VHP members as Dibrugarh University Court members. When questioned, he said that since the RSS was not a banned organization, there was no harm in appointing RSS persons who were interested in improving education.
But leaving aside the utterances of the maverick governor, and returning to the Assam Rifles’ and the directive it issued to the Nagaland media, it must be said that this is reflective of both the unit’s very character and the history behind its formation 180 years ago.
It is the oldest paramilitary force in India, and by definition, neither police nor military, but a bit of both. It is treated as a police constabulary and comes under the Ministry of Home Affairs, but is officered by officers of the Indian Army on short deputations, and under the operational command of the Indian Army while doing military duties. The fallout of this ambiguity surfaces practically at every announcement of the country’s decadal Pay Commission report, in the form of quickly suppressed unrest within its ranks.
The history of the Assam Rifles is curious. It came into existence as a civil militia, much like the controversial and now disbanded Salwa Judum of Chhattisgarh. After the British took over Assam at the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War and the subsequent signing of the Treaty of Yandaboo in 1826, and a possible future threat to its province of Bengal eliminated comprehensively, the British began to feel that it was not cost effective to maintain a regular army in the backward region and began withdrawing its forces to be employed in more engaging frontiers. The British did fight two more wars with Burma, but these were mere wars waged on a reluctant enemy on some pretext or other to annex territory. Scholar Alastair Lamb puts it thus: “The British swallowed Burma in three gulps”.
A peculiar brew
This however was also the time tea was discovered in the Assam hills, and tea gardens began spreading in the province. A need began to be felt for a certain level of security presence again, in particular to keep off raiding hill tribes on these tea estates. The British came up with the brilliant idea of a civil militia, and the Cachar Levy was formed in 1835. The same year the Jorhat Militia was also formed and this soon merged into the Cachar Levy.
The levy expanded in the years ahead, transformed both in structure and nomenclature, till it became the Assam Military Police. This militia, as the first official chronicler of the Assam Rifles L.W. Shakespear wrote in History of the Assam Rifles, was “better armed than the police but less paid than the military.”
One of the incentives given to the militiamen was that if they performed well, they would be absorbed into the then expanding Gurkha Rifles. Indeed, the militia in the years ahead became a very important nursery for Gurkha Rifles and during the First World War, it was literally bled white with most of its experienced soldiers transferred to the army to fight in Europe. This, Shakespear says, is the reason why it took the unit so long to suppress the Kuki Rebellion which broke out when Kuki tribesmen refused to be enlisted in the Labour Corps for deployment in Europe.
After the war, in recognition of its service and soldiering calibre, the militia was rechristened the Assam Rifles and formally recognised as a paramilitary force. This notwithstanding, the initial five battalions of the Assam Rifles were kept affiliated to a unit each of the Gurkha Rifles. Today, the Assam Rifles has 46 battalions, and is officered not just by officers of the Gurkha Rifles, but of all the Army units on short deputations.
This mix of civil police and military characters may be what was manifest in the decision of the Assam Rifles Inspector General’s office to take it upon itself to interpret and remind the Nagaland editors of the provisions for penalty under a civil law. This mixed civil-military identity is again evident in the fact that the AR is given the responsibility of implementing the Government of India, Military-Civic Programme in the Northeast which has an annual budget of approximately Rs. 3000 crores, meant to develop civic infrastructure such as building village playgrounds, roads, community halls etc., aimed at winning over hearts and minds of people in insurgency prone areas.
The lure of insurgency
It is ironic, or symptomatic, that it is these civil duties which have landed the Assam Rifles in serious charges of corruption in recent years. A Tehelka magazine sting operation, with the help of an Assam Rifles accredited contractor in September 2014, exposed how army officers on deputation to the unit have been siphoning off 30% of this Rs. 3000 crore budget into their individual pockets. Perpetuating insurgency does seem to have become the vested interest of even those supposed to be fighting it.
I have not seen the three articles published in the Nagaland newspapers which, according to the Assam Rifles, amounted to threats issued to “senior law makers of the Nagaland Government and encouraging collection of funds by representative of the NSCN(K)”; however, going by its own experience, the Manipur media can well imagine how thin and dangerous the line the Nagaland editors would be walking on.
The moot question is, how do free media handle press releases from increasingly faction ridden underground organisations which often amount to threats issued to individuals, or else are veiled monetary demands made under the shadow of the gun on individuals and business establishments. Especially in a conflict situation deeply embedded in the social fabric itself, this is a difficult question to negotiate.
On several occasions, the Manipur media too has had to resort to not just blank editorials but go off the stands for days to send out the message that the media should be allowed to exercise its own judgments on what is news and what is not without anybody else – the government or its challengers – breathing down its neck. The resolution that the journalist fraternity here have adopted is to drop all press releases from any party which amount to threats to individuals or else are disguised extortion demands. It goes without saying this has not always been an easy resolution to keep.