- NL Sena
Only CNN-IBN and Indian Express thought the story was news that mattered.
Quick question: Does the name Ishrat Jahan sound familiar to you? How about the name Chungkham Sanjit Meitei? Whatever be your politics or allegiance, you’re likely to have an opinion on the incident that occurred in Gujarat in 2004 where four people, one of them Jahan, were shot dead for allegedly having links with a terrorist group. You may say she was innocent and, thus, was murdered in cold blood. You may believe there was enough proof of her having links to Lashkar-e-Taiba and that when it comes to terrorism, the state can’t care for such niceties as a fair trial. You may assert that the rule of law must be respected and that extrajudicial killings are a blot on our democracy.
Whatever your opinion, you’re likely to have one. But what about Meitei? If Google is a measure of the way we engage with the world, then here’s what it tells us about our levels of curiosity about Jahan and Meitei.
What explains our interest and lack of it? For one, the media reported, and reported continually, on the 2004 Gujarat “encounter”. Developments in the case got prime-time, front-page space, especially in 2013 when details pertaining to David Headley’s confession, testimonies of Intelligence Bureau officers and the resignation of top cop DG Vanzara were extensively reported on. There were enough debates, op-eds and articles for us to know, think and form an opinion. This cannot be said about Meitei, or the 2009 Imphal “encounter”, to which the media failed to draw enough attention, and most spectacularly so this week.
On Wednesday, The Indian Express carried a front-page report by Esha Roy on the startling admission of Thounaojam Herojit Singh, a Manipur police head constable, who said he had shot an unarmed Meitei.
“Yes, I shot him. I shot Sanjit Meitei. No, he was not armed,’’ 35-year-old Herojit Singh told The Indian Express. “I felt no remorse, no sympathy after I killed Sanjit. I felt nothing. It was an order and I had to simply carry it out.”
Meitei was a suspected member of the People’s Liberation Army, a separatist group formed in 1978. According to the Manipur police, he was shot dead in the morning of 23 July, 2009, after he open fired at the police. In this alleged gun battle, a pregnant woman had also lost her life. Herojit Singh’s confession, now, overturns the Manipur police’s assertions and corroborates Teresa Rahman’s detailed report on the encounter in Tehelka that was published in 2009.
This story found zero play on the front-pages or nation pages of any of the other prominent “national dailies”.
Hindustan Times carried a small report tucked inside on the nation page on January 28 and an op-ed today, headlined Everyone Loves A State of Insurgency. The Hindu, again on January 28, carried a snippet on the nation pages. Save Subhajit Sengupta’s report in CNN IBN, most TV channels carried rehashed reports and, of course, there were no prime-time discussions on the implications of Herojit Singh’s confessions.
Could the “exclusivity” of the report have anything to do with the lack of coverage? Paojel Chaoba, senior investigative reporter at Manipur-based Imphal Free Press, details the way the story unfolded. He says Herojit Singh called only three journalists – from the IE, CNN IBN and himself – to an undisclosed location to put his confession on record. “Perhaps he trusted us. He was apprehensive about journalists giving away his location,” he says when asked why Herojit Singh chose only three reporters.
Chaoba broke the story on January 26 but none of the local cable TV channels followed the story. “It was after CNN IBN and IE did the story that people here started talking about it,” he says, adding that the local media is scared to pick up issues because of the backlash they may face from the police. Once a story blows up or gets picked up by the national media, it becomes easier for the local media to start reporting on it. “If you remember back in 2009 also, it was only when Tehelka broke the story that the media here started talking about the encounter.”
Is Chaoba happy with the play the story received in the national media? “CNN IBN did a good job but it would have helped if more journalists had come down here. They could have even got in touch with me, tried to follow the story. I think it’s hypocrisy in some ways, just because one channel gets a story, the other channels decide not to air it or go with some other story,” he says. That may be a reason, but the mainstream media has never shied from following stories when it has thought it to be important.
Human rights activist Kshetrimayum Onil has another explanation to offer: “Water logging in Delhi is bigger news than floods in Manipur, or the northeast, so that answers your question.”
The Ishrat Jahan encounter case may be more sexy, for the lack of a better word, because it involved an international terror organisation and the chief actors were based in Gujarat, a state whose politics has continued to make news after 2002. But in a democracy, should news be driven solely by the persona dramatis, or by the higher goal of making sure the state and the judiciary remain accountable to the people? Herojit Singh’s confessions, if true, point to the callousness with which our political class permits institutionalised killings. The fact that it didn’t create enough of an uproar in the media proves it has very little commitment to the fundamentals of democracy.
Close to 1,500 cases of alleged fake encounters were filed before the Supreme Court by Human Rights Alert and Extra Judicial Execution Victim Families Association in 2012. Meanwhile, Herojit Singh who has confessed to his role in one of the encounters remains in hiding, fearing his life. The least we could do is help his story reach a wider audience.