Anger as Centre Asks TV Channels to “Create Awareness” on I-Day in Northeast

Activists from the region have expressed outrage at the Centre’s assumption that people in the northeast need to be taught about August 15 and January 26.

Children celebrating Independence Day in Guwahati last year. Credit: PTI

Children celebrating Independence Day in Guwahati last year. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: During the height of the recent Assam floods, many from the northeast took to social media to criticise national television channels for “bypassing” the disaster in their primetime slots. This despite the fact that the floods concerned the life and safety of over 16 lakh people and hundreds of animals, including the nation’s pride – the one-horned rhino.

That almost all national channels had sent a correspondent to Assam to dig up the roots of former TV channel owner Indrani Mukerjee after she was accused in the Sheena Bora murder case was widely pointed out.

On July 29, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting intervened to request channels operating in Delhi-NCR – and also others based outside of the northeast – to “consider” giving more air time to the region in their news feed. A much needed advisory, it could easily be said.

However, speaking to the ministry, it turned out that the step was taken only because of Independence Day. That too for a misplaced reason.

Under secretary Sombit Singh, who signed the letter sent to the National Broadcasting Association, Broadcast Content Complaints Council and Association of Regional Television Broadcasters of India, told The Wire, “It has been sent to consider not only giving coverage to programmes to be held on the occasion of August 15 in the northeast but also to make programmes that can create awareness about Independence Day among the people of the region.”

The ministry’s letter suggested that this was in consonance with the recommendations made by the M.P. Bezbaruah Committee for private satellite TV channels, keeping in mind the concerns of northeastern people living in other parts of the country. It quoted four recommendations made by the committee to drive home the point:

a) It is important for the media to reach out to put North East on the national centre stage. Prime coverage should be given to the North East region in the media.”

b) “In the national events like the Republic Day, commentators should cover the event in the most effective way of presenting the northeast.”.

c) As Bollywood plays such a prominent role in forming images in the minds of people, use North East locales for Bollywood pictures should be encouraged. Such incentives may also encourage popular serials in TVs to look at the northeast even to include northeast stories in such serials.

d) Media should be careful while covering race related cases in order to prevent escalation of tension leading to increase of such incidents and they should rather be agents of tension diffusion.”

The government’s letter also said, “An outcome of the action taken may be intimated to the ministry.”

Some TV editors this correspondent contacted confirmed receiving the ministry’s advisory but underlined that the letter didn’t specify coverage related only to Independence Day. They said it seemed it was a general advisory to give wider coverage to the region. However, Singh said otherwise, “If they continue to give wider coverage to the northeast even after Independence Day, it is good, up to them. But this letter was meant for Independence Day.”

David Boyes, a member of the Bezbaruah committee, told The Wire,  “One of the quoted recommendations, (b), clearly meant that the commentators covering national events like Republic Day should present the northeast in a better way. It never suggested that the government should use the media channels to create awareness about national events like August 15 in the northeast. It looks like the government thinks the people of the region are not aware of August 15 and January 26. That the government thinks this way is outrageous. I must remind the Centre that the northeast is much more aware of India than the rest of India is aware of the northeast. This unfortunate reality has triggered a feeling of alienation in the people of the region, something that the government needs to address. But this is a misplaced act.”

“While the mainstream media has never looked at the region beyond the exotic culture, dress etc. and insurgency aspects, the Centre, over the years, has not gone beyond looking at those states only from security or border issues or as a source of mineral resources. That the devastating Assam floods involving lakhs of people got less coverage than a few hundred rich people of Gurgaon stuck in traffic jams till late into the night due to waterlogging, proves my point,” said Boyes, the convener of the Delhi-based organisation, North East India Forum Against Racism.

‘We don’t need lessons’

Alana Golmei. Credit: Google Plus

Alana Golmei. Credit: Google Plus

Another member of the committee, Alana Golmei, expressed “disgust” at the ministry’s action. “The committee suggested measures to create awareness about the northeast in the rest of India and not the other way round. The Centre doesn’t need to teach us how to be nationalistic and patriotic. Since childhood we’ve been celebrating August 15 and January 26 with utmost devotion, like children in rest of the states do. We don’t need lessons on it.” She said, “Soon after the NDA Government was formed, in 2014, the  committee members met the then I & B minister Prakash Javdekar to help spread awareness about the northeast in the rest of India. We suggested so many things to it. In the last two years it did nothing and now it thinks it should teach us how to be nationalistic through news channels that anyway don’t bother about us.”

Ro Hmar, convener of Delhi Manipur Tribals’ Forum (DMTF), too expressed outrage at the advisory. “People of the northeast are much more aware of August 15 than the rest of India. How can we forget a day when people are scared of going to the market place and getting into long distance trains and buses for fear of bomb blasts and indefinite bandhs? In Tipaimukh sub division of Manipur’s Churachandpur district, where I grew up, children particularly remember August 15 because that is the day they get to see the government officials once a year. They come to those offices to hoist the national flag before disappearing again.”

“What the government needs to do,” he said, “is to put in place better governance there rather than thinking of making us aware of national days.”

DMTF has been holding a year-long protest at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar against the killing of nine people in Churachandpur district of Manipur in police firing last year. “No news channel has bothered to cover our protest yet,” he said, adding, “Since the Centre also is not listening to our pleas, the joint action committee spearheading the protest back home, along with members of Outer Manipur Tribals’ Forum, met the state governor on August 7 to tell him that the hill districts of Manipur will abstain from celebrating Independence Day in protest this year. On the governor’s request, the committee later decided not to go ahead with it.”

The Bezbaruah committee was formed by the Manmohan Singh government to look into the serious concerns expressed by the people of the region living across the country following the death of Nido Tania, an Arunachal Pradesh youth, in New Delhi in 2014. The committee submitted its report to the NDA government in July 2014.

Though no ready study is available on the coverage of the northeast by private national TV channels, currently none has any bureau or permanent staff in the region. A 2013 article published by the The Hoot on a study it’s research wing conducted after scanning the contents of four Delhi-based newspapers, said, “A comparison of the coverage of the region over a month in 2012 and 2013 respectively, shows a decrease in coverage by 31%. And indicative of the manner in which these states get covered, 60% of the total stories covered in national dailies were only briefs: full-fledged stories from the eight states find very little space in newspapers.” The observation was made after the writer, Indira Akoijam, made a comparative study on the media coverage of the region in the Delhi editions of The Hindu, The Times of India, Hindustan Times and Indian Express.

On August 6, the headline published in the Delhi edition of The Hindu for a report on the August 5 killing of people in a market in Assam’s Kokrajhar district as ’14 dead as Bodo men target Assam market’ upset many in the state. The daily later changed the headline in its online edition.

Note: The article has been edited to add the comments of Alana Golmei.