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Assam violence stimulates relentless debate

Nava Thakuria
It was a sunny Saturday morning that suddenly turned and remained violent till noon. The residents of Beltola in Guwahati of Assam witnessed a calm procession of around thousand Adivasis

(aboriginals), both male and female, marching from Beltola towards Dispur. The demonstrators, equipped with traditional bow-arrows marched to the Assam Secretariat at Dispur to add voices to their demand for inclusion of the communities in the Scheduled Tribe list. They were hoping that it would benefit the community of tea and ex-tea labours of Assam with the help of reservation policies of the central government   in education and job opportunities.

The demonstrators assembled in Guwahati, the prime city of Northeast India from different parts of Assam following the initiative of All Adivasi Students' Association of Assam (AAASA), an influential student’s body of the state. Initially, the AAASA leaders decided to hold a meeting at Dakshin Beltola High School in support of their longstanding demands. But a section of participants came out for a procession aiming to reach the state assembly at Dispur. And all the unwanted incidents followed thereafter, where one Adivasi named Samson Naguri had to sacrifice and nearly 250 got injured, many of them left in serious conditions, during the mob violence. Even a curfew had to be imposed on the locality for a few hours.

The on-duty police force initially tried to prevent the demonstrators on the street, which only angered the participants. Many of them continued the march. Suddenly, some of them turned violent and adopted unprovoked vandalism. "The angry demonstrators started damaging the government city buses, private vehicles parked at roadside, shops and even personal properties. Even some pedestrians were also not spared by them. Many of them carried their traditional bow-arrows, but few of them were equipped with stick and hammers too," said an eyewitness of the Beltola incident, who incidentally recorded the visual of the moment with his newly bought camera.

Soon the protesters faced another batch of police near the secretariat complex and this time the police with the help of paramilitary forces dispatched them. Facing the harsh action from the police forces, which burst tear gas shells to disperse the protesters, the frightened Adivasis started fleeing back in small groups. But more cruel strides were waiting for the demonstrators as some local people retaliated by attacking them. For around an hour there were group clashes in full view of the media persons, where Adivasi demonstrators were mercilessly beaten up by some unruly youths.

Amidst the chaotic situation, an Adivasi girl was also stripped off by some rowdy youths. The girl, a high-school standard student, hailed from Biswanath Chariali locality in upper Assam. Many local residents however braved to come out and gave shelter to the humiliated Adivasi protesters and one of them named Bhagiram Barman took the risk of his life and saved the girl from further physical and mental assaults. Later, she was handed over to the police. But in the meantime, her naked image was recorded by the media persons and even by some cell phone holders. And the debates slowly but steadily grew up.

The state government of Assam had already received brickbats for the untoward incident from different sections in the society. The condemnations were poured from the main opposition political parties like Asom Gana Parishad, Bharatiya Janata Party and Communist Party of India (Marxist). Condemning the violence, the party leaders demanded the resignation of the Congress-led coalition government. Similarly, a number of social organizations including the North East Peoples Initiative, Barak Human Rights Protection Committee, Gauhati University Teachers' Association, Asom Mahila Samata Society, Lekhika Samaroh Samity, Guwahati Sachetan Mahila Samaj with others came out with demands to take actions against those guilty of creating the violence and vandalism on the day.

A series of citizens meeting, organized by Concerned Citizens Forum, Journalists Forum, Assam with others concluded with strong words of resentment against the Tarun Gogoi-led government and also resolved in appealing peace and harmony among the people of the State. The AASAA leaders called for a 36-hour statewide general strike, beginning on November 26, to protest against the mugging on the Adivasi protesters in Guwahati, which was backed by the All Assam Tea Tribe Students' Union. The All Assam Santhal Students' Union also called another 12-hour general strike.

Facing the heat of public outrages, the Assam government ordered two enquiries (one by the additional chief secretary of Assam and the other to be conducted by RK Manisana Singh, a retired judge of Guwahati High Court. Chief minister Tarun Gogoi publicly admitted that there were lapses in parts of administrative authority during the Adivasi rally in Guwahati. The city police meanwhile arrested three persons (Prasenjit Chakravarty, Ratul Barman and Sudip Chakdar) accusing them for being involved in the stripping case.

The issue was also discussed in both upper and lower house of Parliament in India, where the incident was mentioned as the most barbaric episode. The echo of protest was heard in the State of Jharkhand, one of the source states in central India, where from the labourers were brought to Assam to engage in tea cultivation during British colonial regime. The state witnessed a bandh on November 26 called by the Jharkhand Disom Party, All Jharkhand Students Union and Jharkhand Peoples Party. Meanwhile, prominent political leaders, like the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha chief Sibu Soren and former Jharkhand chief ministers Babulal Marandi and Arjun Munda, took side with the Adivasi protesters, who faced retaliatory actions in Guwahati. The state chief minister Madhu Koda has already urged his Assam counterpart to ensure the safety of Adivasis.

The Adivasis of Assam including Santal, Oraon, Munda, Gor, Kul, Bhil, Ho, and Kharia communities are demanding scheduled tribe status for better access to education and government jobs. These communities are recognised as scheduled tribes in West Bengal, Orissa, and Jharkhand. The central government however has rejected the demand to offer the scheduled tribe status to the Adivasis in Assam. The registrar general of India (RGI) is not in favour of granting the scheduled tribe status to them, Indian Home Minister Shivraj Patil told the Lok Sabha on November 27. "There has been a demand for giving the scheduled tribe status to tea and ex-tea garden communities like Munda, Orang, Gonds, Santals from Bihar, Orissa, and Madhya Pradesh,? mentioned Patil, adding that the RGI had rejected a proposal of the Assam government in this regard.

The trouble torn and alienated Northeast is not a stranger to violent demonstrations, but the unruly situation created on the fourth Saturday of November in the heart of Guwahati city really shook the conscience of Assamese community, where Adivasis remained as an integral part of the society for more than a century now. The grief of the local people was later reflected in a series of public meetings, media columns and editorials of the newspapers published from the region. But the coverage of the incident in a section of media, mostly based outside the region, had shocked the Guwahati citizens most, as they blatantly blame the entire residents of the city for the unfortunate developments that day.

Those sections of media, who projected the incident as an unprovoked attack on the Adivasi demonstrators by the residents of Guwahati, remained silent on the braveness of some Guwahatians, who came out to give shelter to the victims. Moreover, the same media space was full of the description with images of the traumatized girl, during the chaotic situation. Surprisingly, they missed or deliberately ignored the initiative of the citizens to rescue the girl swiftly.

Questions were raised in pubic meetings, media space and Internet outlets- should the media depict the image of a young girl, stripped by some unruly youth in a city street during the broad daylight? Moreover, had they done (or would continue doing so) the same if the victim was from an affluent family? More surprisingly, should the picture of the girl, of course blurring some portions of it, be printed in the front page of several daily newspapers after days of the incident? Questions are also raised, why it was not imperative for the newspaper and television channels to have permission first from the victim to do so? Moreover, had they done (or would continue doing so) the same if the victim was from an affluent family?

A major English daily published her picture in the front page, even three days after the incident. A New Delhi based media watch portal also highlighted the issue. 'Should The Telegraph' have carried a front-page picture of the adivasi girl running naked down a Guwahati street after being stripped by ethnic rioters? It used black strips to conceal part of her nudity but her face was only slightly pixelated. Three readers from Tezpur University said in a letter to the paper that while the strippers showed their barbarism, the editorial board of   'The Telegraph' demonstrated its sadism by publishing the plight of the one stripped, narrated by 'The Hoot' in its web page.

'The Assam Tribune', the oldest English daily of Northeast in one of its editorials, described that the media's handling of the episode (Guwahati violence) as an unfortunate aspect of the tragedy. "When a section of the media continues to come up with the visual of the naked adivasi girl even after days of the incident, it is evident that their purpose is simply to sensationalize and blow things out of proportion. It is in such times that the responsibility and the credibility of the media are put to test. A responsible media should act to diffuse tension and not to arouse passions further," said the editorial of November 28 issue of the daily.

"Was there at all any need for the photojournalists to click her naked photograph from the front and then get it published?" questioned Bikash Sarmah, a Guwahati based journalist. Through his media column in   'The Sentinel', a prominent journalist of English daily of Northeast, Sarmah, however admitted that 'there might be a justification though: that without the visual, the end would not be achieved - of shaking the conscience of the people, of making them aware of such beastly behaviour by a few despite being part of the civilized world, of telling the people bluntly as to how some perverts in their midst would bring disrepute to the entire society'.

The resentment was too high against the satellite news channels and the cable operators of Guwahati blacked out two channels (namely NDTV and CNN-IBN) for few days. The greater Guwahati cable operators' association alleged that these channels were telecasting a misinterpreted version of the group clash in the city. "The clashes engulfed not the agitating Adivasis and Guwahati people as a whole, but only a section of them joined the chaos. But the news channels went on airing that the residents of Guwahati beat up the Adivasis and also stripped off many girls, who took part in the procession," said an office bearer of the association.

Two powerful students bodies of the region namely All Assam Students' Union and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba Chatra Parishad also criticized those media for materializing a gory incident to their benefits. The leaders of both the students' outfits alleged that those media groups repeatedly depicted the image of the Adivasi girl in an obscene way though they preferred not to report that the girl was immediately rescued by a local youth and gave her shelter. A student leader argued, "Media has every right to inform the society about the happenings. But they should not take a way that only humiliate the victim again and escalate an ongoing tension."

Shantikam Hazarika, an academician based in Guwahati also stated that some television channels went on relaying the unfortunate episode for a whole day. The news clippings included the visuals of the stripped girl also. "In fact, those channels were cooking up the story sitting on their studios and playing on the visuals of Guwahati violence. Those media were almost silent on the fact that many local residents came forward to intervene in the violence and give shelter and support to the assaulted demonstrators." As a Guwahatian I am angrier with the media than ashamed of what has happened that day, added Hazarika.

The debate reached to the New Delhi based satellite channels as well. Arnab Goswami, an eminent TV journalist (editor-in-chief of Times Now channel) raised the pertinent question, "Had anyone taken permission of the girl before showing her naked photographs?" He argued that this kind of enthusiasm only added further insult to the already affronted poor girl. However, he agreed, the media persons can prepare the news story with condemnation towards the incident. But for any reason, they should not depict a photograph that may humiliate the victim once again.

"My question to those media persons, who argue that they have right to project the things supported by the facts, that if your daughter or sister is stripped off by some miscreants and visuals are available, would you support showing those photographs?" asked Sabita Lahkar, a Northeast based journalist-cum-social activist. The lady questioned if the powerful people would have the guts to publish a similar photograph of any of their kin. "You should not humiliate a girl repeatedly, as she belongs to a less privileged section in the society," she concluded.                                                                             December 2007

The author is a Guwahati based journalist and the editor of Natun Somoy. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.