The dominant narrative is political, or what security forces allow journalists to see.
For close to two months, a state of the Indian union has been burning – literally. It is caught in what is being described as a civil war. Yet, ask an average person living in what people in the northeast of India call the “mainland” whether they are aware of what’s been happening in Manipur, and you are likely to get a puzzled look.
Manipur is the biggest story that India’s mainstream media, especially television, failed to cover adequately. As always, there were exceptions. But by and large, the channels most viewed barely touched it.
Print media was better. But you could count the newspapers that focussed attention on Manipur in their news coverage. While the comment pages did carry articles by experts and academics, largely missing was the granular reporting that’s only possible with feet on the ground.
Although most national English language daily newspapers do have correspondents or even bureaus in Guwahati, few of these journalists have ventured to Manipur, just a short distance away, during these two months. Surely reduced budgets for news gathering cannot be the only explanation. As a result, over 60 days, Manipur has drifted in and out of the news, mostly out.
As I had argued in an earlier column, Manipur is not an easy story to cover. It is a state with a complex and layered history. The current conflict cannot be reduced to a simple binary of Meitei versus Kuki. At a time when divisions, real and imagined, have been inflamed to the point where no one is prepared to listen to reason, journalists attempting to report in a responsible way face a tough challenge.
Journalists covering any kind of conflict are often faced with difficult choices. For instance, if the only safe way to travel to a conflict zone is with the security forces, do you agree to that? If you do, then in places like Manipur, or Kashmir, or even Chhattisgarh, you risk alienating the local population whose relationship with these security forces is fraught. In any case, what kind of story can you get barring what your hosts are willing to let you see?
Of course, all journalists don’t ask themselves these questions. But it is evident that the choices are not straightforward.
For instance, last week in Manipur, five journalists who accompanied an army contingent to write about its operations had to face an irate local crowd. They were heckled and people demanded that they erase whatever they had recorded. They were left with no option but to leave with the army.
Although the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union issued a statement condemning what happened, this is something for which journalists ought to be prepared. Particularly in the kind of situation that prevails in Manipur, where people on both sides of the conflict have reason to resent the security forces.
The incident is emblematic of the challenges of reporting at times of conflict. But it also points to the need for journalists, who really want people to speak to them without fear, to find ways where they are not seen as part of the very system that people find oppressive.
Earlier, Guwahati-based Afrida Hussain, deputy editor of India Today, received threatening phone calls after a story she wrote. A large crowd had gathered outside her hotel in Imphal. She wrote in a column, “Aren’t we supposed to bring out the truth? No one questioned me when I went to Manipur on May 5 and covered Kuki militants. But one thing against the majority community got me into trouble.”
The media plays an essential role in communicating the seriousness of a crisis or conflict when it occurs in what is considered an area that is literally on the periphery. States in the northeast of India have constantly complained that the rest of India, and mainstream media, fail in reporting on their problems.
Yet, the reality of the way mainstream media functions, and how it decides what news is important, or “national”, often precludes news from far-flung areas. Almost automatically, places that can be easily accessed by media houses, most of whom are headquartered in the national capital, get detailed coverage. The costs for such coverage are not high, and media houses now openly cater to what they deem is their “market”.
Such an approach has cut down reporting not just on parts of India like the northeast, but even on issues that require investment of time and money – such as the processes that are pushing people into poverty, or the continuing problems of the marginalised and those without a voice and social capital. These factors are also affecting coverage of the current crisis in Manipur.
The conflict in Manipur is a national issue. If mainstream media had accepted this, even a month into the crisis, it is possible that there would have been more pressure on the centre to intervene. Instead, the Manipur crisis has been largely reduced to a political free-for-all. Most of what we read in the media are statements made by politicians on opposite sides of the political divide. An occasional report gives you an insight of the suffering experienced by people in the state. But the dominant narrative is the political.
Manipur makes it to the front pages only when an important politician is involved. Thus, home minister Amit Shah’s much belated visit to Manipur at the end of May made it to the top of the news. And on June 29, when Rahul Gandhi went to Manipur, although the reporting on his trip has mostly focussed on the police preventing him from travelling by road to Churachandpur and BJP spokespersons lambasting him for his “insensitivity” for the timing of the visit.
Once again, what politicians say becomes the news and not the voices of the people of Manipur.
For that, you must turn to the independent digital platforms. For instance, Karan Thapar has focussed almost exclusively on Manipur in his interviews for the Wire. He has interviewed a wide range of people representing different perspectives, academics who have spoken of the history of Manipur, activists who have decried the lack of serious attention by the centre, and recently a former member of parliament, a Kuki, who had to leave her home and take shelter in a camp for the displaced. Together, these interviews provide an invaluable record of the many layers that together make up the Manipur story.
Scroll has also provided reports from on the ground including this reporter’s diary by Arunabh Saikia that illustrates the challenges journalists seeking to do independent reporting face.
A recent long-form piece in Frontline magazine that is also worth reading for the insights it provides about Manipur is this one by Angshuman Chowdhury, where he gives the background about Kuki grievances. The writer complains that the media has “avoided an honest discussion on how the government dismissed serious Kuki grievances for years, allowing their discontent to reach boiling point. Instead, the media continues to obsess over guns and drugs, as if all of Manipur’s problems would disappear if one removes these two from the equation.”
Let me end by quoting from a powerful piece written by a respected senior journalist from the northeast, Patricia Mukhim, editor of Shillong Times. In this piece in Scroll, Mukhim spells out the troubled history of the northeast region and its relationship with the centre. What is happening today is grounded in this history. And she ends with these lines: “Delhi could not care about lives lost in the periphery which shares just 1% of its boundary with ‘India’.”
That is a devastating conclusion, one that ought to make all of us, journalists and concerned citizens, stop in our tracks and reflect on what these two months of neglect of a region under siege means for the future of this country.
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