‘Pressured’ by government for supporting citizenship law protests, Assam editor resigns

‘Pressured’ by government for supporting citizenship law protests, Assam editor resigns

Ajit Kumar Bhuyan of Prag News has a history of being arrested and harassed for his criticism of human rights violations and corruption.

By Ayan Sharma

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On December 30, amid the continuing stir against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Assam, Ajit Kumar Bhuyan resigned as the editor-in-chief of the popular satellite news channel Prag News

Bhuyan has been a prominent voice in the Assamese media that has unequivocally supported the ongoing protests. The resignation, according to his friends and colleagues, was a consequence of his consistent criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party government over the new citizenship law.

The amended law seeks to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim refugees who entered the country from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan on or before December 31, 2014. Assam, which has an accord with the Indian government disallowing undocumented foreigners from entering the state after March 24, 1971, has seen sustained protests since the new law was passed on December 11.

Manjit Mahanta, a leading journalist-turned-activist in Assam, put up a video on Facebook on January 5 with details about what led to Bhuyan’s resignation.

“We know that Ajit Kumar Bhuyan has been very vocal against CAA through his news channel and also in his personal capacity,” Mahanta said in the video. “The BJP government, troubled by such a stance, conspired against him and pressurised the management of the channel. The tactics continued for almost a month until Bhuyan had to finally put in his papers.”

A senior editor at the channel, on the condition of anonymity, confirmed to Newslaundry that Bhuyan’s resignation was related to his active participation in the movement against the CAA. “The impression was conveyed to him that he should limit his involvement in the current protests. But he refused to toe the line and resigned instead,” he said.

Prag News, however, is vague on the details. Its owner, Sanjive Narain, said he was disappointed about Bhuyan’s resignation. “We haven’t accepted it yet. We will discuss the matter properly with Bhuyan and try to get him back.” 

But when asked about the government “pressuring” the channel’s management over Bhuyan, Narain said, “People are protesting everywhere. Many journalists have also joined the protesters. The government on its part is trying best to stop the agitations. So, it’s a difficult situation.”

However, Bhuyan’s sour relationship with the political establishment goes back a long time. He was subjected to arrests and harassment by successive state governments in the 1990s for speaking out against alleged human rights violations and corruption.

He was first targeted by Hiteswar Saikia’s Congress government in 1992, when he was booked under the National Security Act. In 1994, the same government booked him under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Prevention Act. In 1997, the Asom Gana Parishad government under Prafulla Kumar Mahanta booked him under the NSA once again. 

Because of the lack of substantive evidence, Bhuyan eventually got bail in all the cases.

Bhuyan’s resignation is a reminder of his bitter past. Since the Citizenship Amendment Bill was first introduced in 2016, he and several other journalists in Assam have vehemently opposed it. In January last year, at the peak of the first wave of protests, minister Himanta Biswa Sarma made snide remarks at Bhuyan and another prominent TV news editor at a BJP rally in Guwahati. 

Speaking to Newslaundry, Bhuyan said attempts to silence him this time around began months ago. “For almost three months before my resignation, I did not conduct any talk show or interview. That is because the atmosphere was not suitable for me to work with a free mind.”

Bhuyan isn’t the only journalist to face the government’s displeasure in Assam. Other journalists told Newslaundry that media houses have faced pressure for adopting a sharp editorial line against the citizenship law. The influential Sadin-Pratidin Group, which runs a popular news channel and the highest-circulated Assamese daily under the Pratidin brand name, has become another target.

“Jayanta Barua, who owns the Pratidin Time news channel and the Asomiya Pratidin newspaper, has been similarly pressurised by the BJP government. This clearly shows the government’s growing fear of the ongoing mass resistance in Assam,” Manjit Mahanta claimed in his Facebook post. 

When contacted by Newslaundry, Jayanta Barua and a couple of senior journalists of the Sadin-Pratidin group refused to comment on any such development. 

Mahanta however added that the government seems nervous by the role played by editors like Bhuyan in mobilising public opinion. “That’s why they are trying to control the owners of different media organisations in the state,” he said.

But will these pressure tactics weaken the citizenship law movement in the state? Bhuyan doesn’t think so.

“We have a responsibility towards the people of the state,” he said. “When thousands have hit the streets on a daily basis, my ideology dictates that I am with them in this mass movement. People are listening to us, not the government.” 

Mahanta agreed in his Facebook post. He said the government’s effort to curb them would only strengthen their fight.

“An influential person like Bhuyan can now fully dedicate his time and energy for the cause,” he said in his video. “We have addressed a number of rallies over the past month. We can see how the BJP is increasingly losing ground in Assam.”