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Backstory: The Paper Trail Behind the Assam Eviction Violence

A fortnightly column from The Wire's ombudsperson.

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The violence that marked the eviction drive on the Muslim villagers of Gorukhuti village that lies near Sipaghar town on September 23 is not unfamiliar to Assam (‘Assam Govt Evicts Over 800 Families From Village Populated Mostly by East Bengal-Origin Muslims’, September 22). The Nellie massacre of 1983, in which over 1,800 were butchered within a span of six hours, continues to define the face of mass carnage in post-independence India.

But what the most recent incident reflects is that the one constant over the decades from Nellie to Sipaghar has been the dehumanisation and othering of the Bengali-speaking Muslim, although the forms they assume may vary. The leaps, kicks and blows of a camera-carrying man as he assaulted a grievously wounded body of a lungi-clad man, felled by a bullet fired by the Assam Police at point-blank range, dramatised that intrinsic brutalisation.

So spectacular were his actions that this person, later identified as a professional photographer, Bijay Shankar Baniya, assigned to cover the state-directed eviction drive by the local administration, quickly and conveniently became the blame-holder for an eviction drive that had turned murderous. But Baniya, let us remember, is a convenient fall-guy and detracts attention that should instead be firmly focused on a knot of powerful political interests riding on eviction drives of this kind – from an ambitious chief minister in a race to gain political capital; to a prime minister who made it a point to address a huge rally in Sipaghar this March in the run-up to the Assam elections; to a Union home minister who once referred to undocumented migrants from Bangladesh as “termites”. The hapless villagers of Gorukhuti cannot be termed as “illegal migrants” by any formal measure, but what’s characteristic about the drive against so-called encroachers is the way it has conflated a range of identities around just one: the non-Axomiya “outsider”.

Memes circulating on social media portrayed Bijay Shankar Baniya as synonymous with “godi media” (lapdog media, a Ravish Kumar coinage). Now Baniya may not be a journalist, strictly speaking, but there is a kernel of truth here that needs greater scrutiny. In a 2011 paper, ‘Most fatal malady: Media, Migration and Identity in Assam’, media academic Ksenia Glebova begins with the proposition that “If we accept that identity formation in Assam is an ongoing process that continues to take place in a specific context, then we must address the media as an agent in the process and migration from Bangladesh as a tool.”

The fact is the force that drove Baniya to jump repeatedly and beat that body lying on the grass has a long paper trail. Many prominent newspapers in the state have for decades assiduously fostered their circulations on collectively furthering the ‘Us versus Them’ narrative, by pitting a homogeneous  Assamese identity against an equally homogenised Bangladeshi one. So emotive and fixed is the nature of this framing that any media house seeking to break through this narrative to build an independent perspective would be setting itself up for a spectacular fall.

True, there may be subtle differences in definitions. Glebova, writing a decade ago, pointed out how The Sentinel has tended to frame the Assamese Muslims as essentially non-Assamese, the Assam Tribune regards them as “genuine minorities”. But overall there is a great deal of coalescing of perspective on who is the real Assamese.

Photo: Debananda Medak

A decade later, in February 2020, there was an important debate on the issue in the columns of the Economic and Political Weekly that could never have appeared in the Assamese media. It began with a piece by Assam-based sociologist Nazimuddin Siddique and sharply critiqued the media’s role in fomenting Assamese xenophobia: “In Assam, the Bengali language has been used as a ‘marker of alienage’. Political elites, together with the bourgeoisie media, invented the narrative that millions of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh had taken shelter in Assam.” Siddique goes on to say that  this narrative “which critics term as a hyperbolic and xenophobic construction by the vernacular media” resulted in many Assamese turning hostile to minority communities, adding, “These narratives were then fortified to the point that they began to trespass into the domain of government policies, which were then influenced towards countering the apparent influx of illegal immigrants.”

This led to an immediate rebuttal from the respected Assamese public intellectual Hiren Gohain, ‘Linking Excesses in NRC Process to Assamese Xenophobia Is Unwarranted’, who wrote: “In fact, the whole narrative of Assamese xenophobia stinks, and today, except the Hindutva camp, no mainstream Assamese organisation propagates racist or communal agenda in the state. The attempt to delegitimise indigenous people’s desperation to hold on to their land, language, and culture is itself a disingenuous and conspiratorial venture.”

Siddique in his response to Gohain, once again touches upon the media’s role: “In Assam, the NRC has chiefly evoked two viewpoints: For the Asomiyas, the experience of the NRC is one of indifference, thanks to the ‘Original Inhabitant’ category created by the government to safeguard the ‘indigenous’ people. For most Muslims and Bengali Hindus, however, the experience of the NRC is unquestionably chilling. While some local media outlets have reported on the atrocities meted out to the marginalised people of Assam through the NRC exercise, most of this reportage has been grossly inadequate.”

In fact, so conscious was the state government that it is only through the media that the justification for the NRC could be achieved that it even conducted a media campaign in late 2017 on the “fairness” of the process, titled ‘Our NRC, Fair NRC’ (‘Our NRC, Fair NRC’: In Assam, a media campaign aims to quell fears about the new citizens’ register’, Scroll, November 28, 2017). Even online media like Facebook were used to help build up this state narrative.

Yet none of these attempts were able to still the fear in the hearts of Bengali Muslims in the state and for good reason. The personalised piece that appeared in The Wire by a poet and political scientist, ‘Decades of Discord: Assam Against Itself’ (August 11, 2018) – who self-defines himself as a second-generation refugee from Assam with roots in Mymensingh who is no longer a resident of Assam – explains how fear changes the landscape of the homeland:

“I witnessed the peculiar face and language of the Anti-Foreigners Movement in Assam as a schoolboy between 1979 and 1984. I learnt the meaning of “curfew” and “bohiragata” (foreigner, in Assamese), on a cold day in December 1979. It was the first day of many curfews.

“We were escorted home from the makeshift central government school by the ghat of the Brahmaputra by an official car. The scenes of that day are still vivid. I remember the grim air, ripe with a strange fear. As we were taken through the streets, I noticed all the shops were shut. Shops would shut every Thursday, but never were the streets so deserted…A friend had whispered to me in the classroom, ‘The Assamese are at war with the Bengalis.’ I was bewildered. I had heard of no such war in these years. Things were fine even that very morning when I left for school… I was pursued by a strange fear, because I did not know the reasons behind that fear…

“Fear changes the configuration of the world. It occupies your breath and eyesight. Fear was the defining feeling of my entry into history. I learnt I was an outsider in my own birthplace. A status I earned from the Assamese Hindus, who claimed to be the sole natives of Assam. My schizophrenia vis-à-vis my homeland was born.”

Bijay Shankar Baniya through his assault on a lifeless body only displayed why that fear remains unextinguished in the mind of the Bengali Muslims, no matter whether they were born in the state; no matter whether their ancestors have lived on that stretch of land that the state government now wants to further its political agenda.

Exit of a readers’ editor

A.S. Panneerselvan, the former readers’ editor of The Hindu, signed off with a last column that bore the note of introspection that had always characterised his contributions since they first began to appear in September 2012.

The role of the readers’ editor in any media entity is not always apparent, and even if understood, not always valued. But Panneerselvan in a decade that saw possibly the fastest transformations within the newspaper universe – most of them not for the better – made an honest and informed attempt to make sense of the times. This was because he believed a man he quoted in one of his columns, Michael Getler, who wrote: “An ombudsman shows that the press can take a punch, if necessary, not just deliver one, and that there is also an independent voice to counter the daily claims of ‘fake news’ and to defend, when appropriate, against the sea of unfair and inaccurate criticism.”

Panneerselvan never hesitated to take out those proverbial chestnuts from the fire – the many ‘hows’ of journalism: How is bias to be read and is impartiality even possible? How can a newsroom be genuinely diverse? How is critical enquiry to be fostered? How is credible self-regulation to be achieved? He also had the courage to speak out when required. Soon after Newsclick was raided by government agencies he wrote: “For any observer of the Indian information ecosystem, one issue is clear. The long arm of the government is extended to muzzle the voices of those who are engaged in ‘sense-making news’.”

Panneerselvan’s was a quiet exit with the hope that he has not “dropped the vase”. It may not have created a big flutter, but his clear, well-reasoned advancement of a normative framework for the media will be missed.

A conference that shone a light on today’s India

The totally over-the-top response of Hindutva groups and venerable seers, threatening all manner of retribution to the organisers and participants of the three-day online conference, ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva: Multidisciplinary Perspectives’, which was held a couple of weeks ago, underlines not just the muscle and might of the Hindutva brigade, but its inexplicable insecurity which seems to belie its own sense of power (‘Podcast: US-Based Academics Working on South Asia Are Organising to Fight Back Hindutva Trolls’, September 14).

The wounded cry – “Hindu phobia!” – rang out across the world through a million posts and tweets and amplified by some truly cringe-worthy news television on this side of the seven seas. Some Hindutva-wadis, in this case the Hindu Heritage Foundation of India, tried to immediately organise a counter seminar, ‘Hindutva for Global Good’, an effort which may not have shaken the groves of academe but which nevertheless should be welcomed. It’s far better, after all, to try and raise a counter argument to silence your critics than to call for their extinction (‘What Hindutva Really Is and Why It’s Risky to Debate It’, September 10).

Whatever the ‘Dismantling Global Hindutva’ conference did or did not achieve, it certainly demonstrated that some of the most outstanding scholarship on Hinduism and Hindutva has migrated from these shores. It is in universities based in the US, UK and Europe that such knowledge is now being incubated. This loss of the production of a stream of knowledge that has deep implications for Indian society is the price future generations of Indians will pay for the Modi government’s ongoing attempts to stifle and still academic and media freedoms in this country.

Times Network and its 19 commandments

Journalists in India have to contend not just with government censorship and control but that of their own managements. The Times Network recently came out with a list of 19 dos and don’ts for its employees in their use of social media (why 19, surely intelligent managerial staff could have thought of one more point to make it a nice round 20?).

Basically what those 19 points reflect is a fond desire on the part of the Times management for those “ideal” employees who are a cross between ciphers and foot soldiers. Sorry, this was meant not just for employees but (hold your breath)…even consultants, freelancers, retainers and service providers. It sets up an in-house vigilante team who will ensure compliance of this policy and report non-compliance to HRD. The policy also “strictly forbids” employees from demonstrating “any political affiliation or political preference” on their social media accounts.

So next time when you watch Times Now or Times Now Navbharat and feel a bit green around the gills over the complete servility to power of the reporter on display, remember the 19 commandments that are ushering inan exciting new phase in our Network’s group”, as an email sent by Srivathsan S, the network’s executive vice president duly noted.

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The Wire‘s readers write in….

Remember Adarsh?

Talking of manipulated media (‘Backstory: Why Umar Khalid Is in Jail and Other Tales Spun by Media Disinformation’, August 28), a comment from Brig TK Sinha (retd), present chairman of Adarsh society: “The first such manipulation took place in the case of Adarsh society at Mumbai by Arnab Goswami and the Times of India for very specific reasons. It’s a long story and will some day surface as the actual truth.”

Why NEET should go

Moulvi Shakeel Mohamed, a Mumbai-based biology teacher: “I have taught biology to students of Std XI and XII since 1985 and have recently retired. These are my reasons why NEET should go:

* NEET is based on the same syllabus as that of the state board, so why do students have to do two examinations to clear their medical entrance examination?

* There is a fee of Rs 1500.00 that has to be paid per student. About 15 lakh students attempt the exam every year and it generates Rs 225 crore — a money spinner for the National Testing Agency.

*Out of 100 per cent state medical seats (government and private), 85 per cent of seats is for students from the state and the remaining 15 per cent for all-India students. Why should outsiders be given a state seat?

This allocation was made at a time when students northeastern states had no medical college. Today, every state has a medical college of its own so the all-India quota makes no sense.

* 5) Due to NEET, the cost of a seat in a private medical college has increased from Rs. 4 lakh per year to 10 lakh per year.

“There are other important reasons too for scrapping NEET, including the fact that it requires specific training and comes in the way of college teachers being able to complete the state board syllabus due to a paucity of time. This has led to NEET coaching becoming a necessary evil, leaving state board students in rural and mofussil areas behind since they cannot afford these coaching classes.”

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An unfair four-fold increase in fees

A student of the Government Doon Medical College writes in: “I would like to bring to your kind notice the terrible situation that prevails in the Government Doon Medical College. Almost a month has passed with students of the college being on strike against the unnecessary and unaffordable fees being charged by the college which is around Rs 4 lakh.

“Students have entered the college based upon their hard work and the kind of injustice they are now facing in terms of high fees is unacceptable. Most of the students belong to lower middle class families and this huge amount is making their situation extremely difficult. The earlier fees were in the range of Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh. A four-fold increase suddenly makes no sense.

“Around 300 students of the college including the students of Sushila Tiwari Medical College have gone on strike demanding that the government reduces the fees, but it has instead chosen to be high-handed and inhuman in its response. No national or local media has thought it fit to highlight this cause. On behalf of 300 students, I urge you to do so.

Remembering Kamla

Kamla Bhasin was a jewel which emerged from the Indian women’s movement. She was a great communicator who could reach out to the last person in a packed public hall. It was she who made the slogan ‘Azaadi’ so popular on the streets of this country and across South Asia. So for The Wire readers, here’s one of the jokes she carried in her book, ‘Laughing Matters’:

How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?

None. It’s not the light bulb that needs changing.

Write to ombudsperson@thewire.in