Assam’s forgotten anniversary
Oct 30, 2008. The windshields of the vehicles were shattering in chorus. The anti-burglar alarms took off in unison, generating a deafening sound which echoed all around. A ball of fire ran across the sky just ahead of us. Voices were crying, screaming, abusing. Charred bodies lay around; one body on fire I remember dragging just next to my feet. Like most around me I was stunned even though I kept narrating the incident on camera.
Four years later I am still stunned at the apathy of India, its civil society, its political class, its media who have preferred to forget one of the worst terrorist attacks in this country. Investigative agencies differ in their data, but as far as I recall 100 people had been killed and close to 700 were injured, some with permanent disabilities. The official Central government data still says 88 were killed and 423 injured.
Twenty-six days later another terrorist attack struck Mumbai. Many lives were lost. An event that changed the anti-terror infrastructure in the country. The accused have been convicted. But compare the two attacks and the follow-up. In Assam, 14 of the 22 accused including the mastermind Ranjan Daimary are in jail but even the topmost police official of the state is not sure where the case stands today. The Central Bureau of Investigation which is looking into the case seems to have forgotten how many they have charge-sheeted. The Central government’s interlocutor, a former Intelligence Bureau chief, is brokering peace with the group accused in the attack.
The National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), a Bodo armed group, has been fighting for sovereignty. The group came over ground and then hatched this plot to carry out serial attacks from ceasefire camps which are designated camps where surrendered rebels are meant to live under strict ground rules. Following the blast, the group split into pro-talk and anti-talk factions. The anti-talk faction carried out abductions (some of which involved government negotiations and were even paid ransom when the victims were high-profile) and killings. Talks with the pro-talk faction are yet to yield any result. The government has already doled out a territorial council with special amendments to the surrendered Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) which has been party to the recent ethnic riots in Assam. In this context, the government is hoping to put the trials of the accused NDFB cadres on a slow burner knowing very well that they are in a tricky situation. On one hand, justice demands that they be convicted. While on the other, the government argues that they must find a “lasting solution” which can be achieved if they can get the NDFB to the table for talks.
But how have we covered this tragedy? Like most tragedies have we forgotten it? It is a calendar event for local media, but I am not sure the nation will light candles and discuss and debate why it is taking such a long time to dispense justice? Why are the survivors still running around for compensation? Why has the government washed its hands off its basic responsibilities of medical care and rehabilitation for those who have suffered disabilities?
One of the truths that we prefer to deny is the character of the terrorist attack. One of them is by a “homegrown” group and the other from across the border. One is predominantly Christian, while the other Islamic. In one, the government can accuse Pakistan whereas in the other they must point fingers at themselves (though prime accused Ranjan Daimary was enjoying Bangladeshi hospitality during the attack and distributing videos of passing out parades of his group from Bangladeshi soil).
It has been an unfortunate pattern amongst us journalists to mimic and copy-paste government press releases into our edits and repeat what political spokespersons scream to the nation. That is why for the last six years we have repeated after Dr Manmohan Singh that “Left-wing extremism” (LWE) is the “gravest internal security threat” the country faces. How did “terrorist threat” switch to “internal security threat”? As Robert Fisk said at the 5th Al Jazeera annual forum, this is how power and media have a cosy relationship with semantics:
“…….It is about semantics.
It is about the employment of phrases and clauses and their origins. And it is about the misuse of history; and about our ignorance of history.
More and more today, we journalists have become prisoners of the language of power.
Is this because we no longer care about linguistics? Is this because lap-tops ‘correct’ our spelling, ‘trim’ our grammar so that our sentences so often turn out to be identical to those of our rulers? Is this why newspaper editorials today often sound like political speeches?”
But semantics aside, even the decision to grade terror attacks comes from a metro-centric notion of news and how the corridors of power sees the terror attack. Come October 30th and I can almost predict that editorials will run out of space for this event in our bloodied terror history. If they do spare a column then I will know it is an afterthought. “Experts” on television shows would have forgotten the magnitude of this tragedy unless the PMO issues a statement which will be read out with care – but certainly not questioned. Who is this mastermind Ranjan Daimary anyway? Except that he has been in this terror business since the mid-Eighties and has run an outfit in three countries and has killed, maimed, abducted hundreds of people. Several more than Ajmal Kasab did.
Meanwhile, the state government has announced that they have kept their promise. Built at a cost of Rs 25 lakh it is a memorial tree of life under the Ganeshguri flyover, one of the sites where a serial blast claimed several lives. A few kilometers away, a survivor of the blast, paralysed, sits at home hoping the government would extend some help so that he can continue with his medical treatment. So while the candles will be lit and a memorial service conducted, the media could perhaps remind the government that more needs to be done to address the grievances of the terror victims.
Kishalay’s book, Che in Paona Bazaar – tales of exile and belonging from India’s North-East – will be out in January.
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