Kishalay grew up in Shillong and was a teacher and copywriter before joining broadcast news. Half of his two decades in news, has been in conflict zones. He was Chair Internal Security and Senior Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. He is former Resident Editor NDTV (North East) and his recently published book ‘Che in Paona Bazaar’ is based in the north east (though he believes the north east doesn’t exist). He was based in Calcutta, not Kolkata. Since that’s a city Mamatadi doesn’t believe exists, he now lives in Delhi and is Editor-East, New Generation Media, a new national television channel.
Kokrajhar – Where’s That?
While driving back to Guwahati on NH 37 I was wondering what would have happened if Ponty Chadha was from Kokrajhar? Either his death would not have been reported, or Kokrajhar would have been mentioned in The New York Times.
The morning of the Chadha brothers’ double murder, a certain Mano Kumar Brahma was picked up from his well-guarded Kokrajhar residence and arrested on charges of possessing two AK-47 assault rifles, two magazines and 66 rounds of ammunition. In the context of a violent summer in Bodoland and a rerun of the same ethnic tension and considering that Mr Brahma was an executive member of the Bodo Territorial Council (which means a minister of cabinet rank within the council), this piece of news was significant, and was therefore reported as a headline on my channel. Though I have no reason or inclination to monitor channels, my colleagues from other networks were disappointed that there wasn’t enough interest in their newsroom over this rather stunning piece of news; the government arresting members of its alliance partner.
Now who is Mano Kumar Brahma? A former terrorist who is responsible for massacres, blowing up passenger trains, killing people and being part of an outfit who gave up arms and joined the “mainstream” to grab political power with his colleagues. He and his colleagues control the strategic corridor which connects the North East of India to the “mainland”. But after years of terrorising people, first as part of an underground group and then as an elected representative, Mano Brahma and his friends are barely known to anyone outside the state. Even within his own state he is not recognisable. Are the seeds of the conflict in these parts of the country hidden in this indifference or perhaps ignorance?
Kokrajhar has been one of the most militarised districts of the country since the last three decades. It is home to one of the highest internally displaced people in the country. It has witnessed terrorist killings, ethnic violence and communal tension. It is not exactly a remote countryside as many newsrooms may imagine. It is a busy and populated rail and road junction and an ethnic cauldron, but one that is slowly breaking up into violent enclaves. The presence of the Adivasis who have also suffered and have been silenced had evoked some interest in the past, but somehow even that bow and arrow-carrying deep-set victimised look and sharp-featured Adivasi image has departed from the news rundowns; replaced by crass politically-backed, flushed with unaccounted wealthy Ponty Chaddhas.
By then of course the buildup to the demise of Bal Thackeray, “a man of many contradictions” etc was blaring from the screens on television, computers and phones. I was in Kokrajhar and was wondering why a man I had just met, who had similar credentials of spreading hatred, believing in chauvinism, justifying killings – the chief of the Bodo Territorial Council – will never be decorated with euphemisms like “a man of many contradictions”? Does it have to do with geography or “race”? Is it our metro-centrism that drives our sense of news or our deep-rooted caste (community) consciousness?
The following day the nation was forced to watch old interviews of the “man who passed away”. Mumbai was made to shut down and stay indoors. Hundreds and thousands of voices spoke against this show of strength, but two young girls were arrested for mentioning it on a social media page. The “media” said that the “nation” was outraged. What is the measure of a nation? Does it include the twitterati (like the glitterati), people who can follow the English or Hindi language, people who can raise their voice and make themselves heard? Perhaps, yes.
It was the hum in the social media this summer that suddenly raised its pitch and that concern and empathy echoed with the responsible media which descended on Kokrajhar and relentlessly reported whatever came their way. The effort was counterproductive. It evoked adverse reactions in other parts of the country and an exodus of sorts was reported from several cities where people from the North Eastern states (some of them wouldn’t know where Bodoland is) escaped home fearing a communal backlash.
Public memory we know is short and attention spans are getting shorter, so we need to remind the news-hungry millions who don’t spare a moment to express their ownership over grief and ecstasy alike, that Kokrajhar is still “newsworthy” even though it is not a “twitter handle” or will never be “trending”.
This summer 5 lakh people were displaced and 99 were killed. Ten more have been killed in the last one week. Though the government claims only 35,000 people are waiting to go home, the ground situation in Kokrajhar is different. The hundreds and thousands of people sent back home with a rehabilitation package of a plastic sheet, six bamboo poles, a month’s ration and a cheque of Rs 22,700 have been evicted once again, displacing them for a second time in four months.
Ironically, these lakhs of refugees do not figure in the government records of displaced people any longer. According to the government they are back in their villages. The media which believes in “official sound bytes” must have also believed that these people have indeed gone back home. Or else, how does one explain the fury with which Kokrajhar was covered in August, and is now hardly covered or followed up on? To absolve myself from the guilt I travelled to the deserted villages and the “unaccounted relief camps”, but I hope it was not an afterthought.