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Media turmoil following allegation of Assam editors' support to "anti-national" elements

By Nava Thakuria*
Reporting turmoil and conflicts was order of the day for most of the Assam-(also northeast India) based scribes as the region was overshadowed by separatist militants with their disruptive activities till few years back. Media persons then faced two edged swords. Reporting would bring brickbats from government agencies, and aloofness could invite wrath from the armed rebels.
Time changed and so did militants’ influence (read power) over the common people. Slowly those militant outfits, who had dreamt of independence out of New Delhi’s “colonial” rule over the alienated region, came to realize that materialization of their golden vision would not be possible in near future. Many turned to peace talks with the government, but few continued their struggle.
While most militant leaders realized their limitations, some elements refused to depart from the notion of armed revolution with the fantasy of a homeland with self-rule. Though never engaged with revolution personally, some emotionally-charged entities too continued their flowery words in favour of militant leaders as and when necessary in public domains.
A section in the media persons is found to be particularly sympathetic towards such a sentiment. Many see this section interpreting an insurgent being killed in an encounter as a Central (popularly termed as Rashtra-Jantra) onslaught on indigenous population. But if a member of armed forces, engaged in counter-insurgency operations in the troubled region, got neutralized, it was projected as a sign of victory to the revolution.
Both newspapers and news channels of the region reported this spirit of the locals, with some even turning sympathetic to the separatists. Even regional newspaper editorials and television talk shows were augmented with such a temperament.
Recently, when most of northeastern localities witnessed an uproarious ambiance with the emergence of the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) that offers Indian citizenship on the basis of religion to asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The ruling BJP brought the bill and got it passed in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament. However CAB lapsed in the upper house, Rajya Sabha, as the saffron party and its allies did not have majority.
Media sentiment followed numerous anti-CAB protest demonstrations. Some media personalities, including a few intellectuals in Guwahati, began to favour the view taken by the banned separatist militants (read United Liberation Front of Assam-Independent) on the issue. When a few Assamese youths joined Paresh Barua-led Ulfa(I),this was reported as an instant implication of anti-CAB sentiment.
Meanwhile, over 25 Guwahati-based editors signed a memorandum opposing CAB and submitted to Assam chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal to pursue with the BJP leadership to withdraw the Bill, which was criticized as anti-Assamese (Jaati-Dhangshi) in nature. Sonowal, on his part, urged them to repose faith on his authority.
The issue of CAB remained visible on poll-campaigns for general elections, with the Opposition Congress raising the issue all through. The outcome of how deep has this sentiment has rooted would, however, be clear on May 23. The north-eastern region sends elected 25 representatives to the Lok Sabha.
The CAB issue has reached to the media fraternity of Assam in different incarnations. Things turned particularly curious after a Maharashtra-based voluntary organization lodged an official complaint against five media outlets alleging that those exploited the turmoil over CAB and helped banned militant outfits in their fresh recruitment drives. Following the accusation of the Legal Rights Observatory (LRO), the Union Home Ministry asked the state government in Dispur to take necessary actions.
Vinay Joshi, convener of LRO, in his public grievance petition sent on February 14, 2019, accused four editors, namely, Ajit Kumar Bhuyan (chief editor of Prag News channel), Nitumoni Saikia (editor of Pratidin Time news channel), Manjit Mahanta (former executive editor of Asomiya Pratidin newspaper) and Afrida Hussain (editor of InsideNE news portal) of propagating militants’ ideology.
The LRO letter urged the ministry to investigate the role of "suspicious" Assam media outlets and their owners, their financial transactions, source of income, possible flow of funds from foreign intelligence agencies and banned terrorist groups to media owners and all other possible aspects related to it”. The letter added that on various occasions, these media outlets had openly professed the need to take up arms against New Delhi and broadcast propaganda videos of militant cadres.
Responding to the LRO letter, Union home ministry official Sanjeev Kumar sent an official communiqué to Assam police chief Kuladhar Saikia and State home secretary Ashutosh Agnihotri on April 16 directing to take necessary actions in the matter.
While the communiqué did not specify the editors concerned, media outlets reported that the Centre was going for investigations against the editors who opposed CAB and it would take action against them. Seen as an anti-media conspiracy of the Union government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it got support from the media fraternity across the country.
The LRO convener, on his part, claimed that they opposed the editors for spreading “anti-national” propaganda during the turmoil and not for their stand in favour or against of CAB, adding, they respected anyone’s stand on political issues but would continue pursuing with the “responsible authorities” against violent propaganda so that Assam could be saved from burning again.
Earlier, a Guwahati-based concerned citizen (Biswajit Nath) sent a memorandum to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) describing “suspicious” behaviour of some print and electronic media outlets of the State. His letter on November 26, 2018 asserted that a section of scribes always glorified the insurgents and often highlighted Ulfa(I) leader Barua with live interviews. As usual, the Centre on February 22 asked the state government to take appropriate actions in the matter.
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*Northeast India-based media activist

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