Can we sing ‘O mour apuna dekh’ again with joy, freedom and conviction, celebrating our homeland? Is it truly the most wonderful place on earth, unparalleled in beauty, this land of our birth, our ‘mother’? Indeed, perhaps it still is – but despoiled by the depredation of humans, their greed, their hunger for power and dominance, especially that of men.
The last word has not been spoken about the molestation incident outside the pub that brought nationwide recognition to the reality that women from the North-east were not just unsafe in the national and other metros but outside their own homes, in their own towns and neighborhoods. Even if you want to read about the incident, to try and get some facts, what leaps at us from the Internet are ugly images of ugly men at their ugliest.
Are we ashamed that the incident involving a young girl brought this to the notice of nation after all our protestations in Delhi, Bangalore and the North-east itself about how people from the region were treated in those cities: remember those events? If we are, then we are being hypocritical: are we ashamed that people took notice of our ways after the tragedy where louts beat, grabbed at and chased the girl in full public view?
as the late and, in his hey-day, great, Rajesh Khanna said, sab kuch jaante hain. But let us add a qualifier: Lekin public mushkil se kuch karte hain.
What short memories we have: remember the Adivasi girl who was stripped in broad daylight in Guwahati during a protest and filmed before an elderly man came to her rescue? What justice has she received? What sentences have the accused got – the case hasn’t even come anywhere near a conclusion. It is better to announce that victims will not receive justice and the guilty will get protection than to promise justice and an unending trial.
What about all the massacres and killings over the past decades, in the name of one cause or another; of villagers butchered, of people pulled out of buses and shot, of children thrown into burning homes, of men, women and entire families living for years – it is nearly two decades now – in “relief camps”, where they fled anger, disorder and hatred. And the cycle repeats itself, as we see in the tragedy in the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts.
And we proclaim that we are a tolerant, peaceful society or societies! Who are we fooling? Why do we refuse to face the truth that insecurity, intolerance and lack of peace has bedevilled our region for over six decades: the militarization of the State, the use of draconian laws and powers relentlessly and continuously since the 1950s has bred an atmosphere of immunity and impunity that has seeped into every pore of our social, political and economic life. People, in and out of uniform, have felt they can get away with murder, rape or worse.
In fact, government after government at the ‘national’ level has followed a path of appeasement with those who have fought the State with weapons and bombs, and in the process, killing uncounted innocents: they come for dialogues, discussions, negotiations and settlements and are rewarded with political power and posts. The only place where this policy has worked is Mizoram and that is partly because there was a public consensus on the issue added to the fact that the Mizos are perhaps the most practical and homogenous group in the North-east.
Do tell me if this approach has worked anywhere else: in Nagaland? In Assam? In Manipur? In Tripura, the Marxist government used the police not the army to crush the two armed factions.
Appeasement of those who have been brought or bought over to say farewell to arms, without resolving the crucial political, social and economic crisis that remain at the core of why they took up arms in the first place, has led to a growing feeling that those who break the law will not just get away with it but will end up by being feted and rewarded in some form or other. It is an unending process of crime and appeasement. Such a policy of brinksmanship cannot work; it destroys the fabric of the society we claim to honour by tearing at its very foundations.
Indeed, the following remark by the celebrated author Ayn Rand which I received in my email today sums up the situation brilliantly: “When you know that in order to produce, you need to obtain permission from men who produce nothing, when you see that money is flowing to those who deal not in goods but in favours, when you see that men get rich more easily by graft rather than by work, and your laws no longer protect you against them but protect them against you, you know that your society is doomed.”
Let me deal with two basic issues here which keep coming up both in the media and in public discussions. One is the role of the media when incidents such as the abuse of the girl took place in Guwahati and the other is a larger issue relating to our understanding of changing social norms. I am not getting into the blame game of whether X or Y or Z organized that horror show. It is crucial to establish whether the media organized it or not. But that is not something that the media itself can establish: we have to enable laws, now reinforced, on sexual assault and the courts to do that. But one would urge that this is the time for special courts which can move such cases into the fast lane so that justice is done, swiftly, seen to be done and the guilty are punished.
As far as the media is concerned, there are two fundamental realities: we are human beings first, citizens next and everything else later. I wish to state my own position on this: if we witness an individual or collective act of harm against another human being(s), it becomes our duty to help that person. As the editor driving by the bar that night did in Guwahati. By not taking action, we become complicit in harming the victim and violating his or her rights. This is also related to the quality and nature of the media: many journalists, whether in the regional or metro media, have not gone through any training by their peers or had any mentors. Many of them say they don’t need to.
Straight from school and college, or via some ‘journalism’ colleges/communications centres, they land in the visual and print worlds, trying to grab headlines, create a role for themselves. Media treatment of certain subjects, and the role of its editors and reporters, especially metro reporters, is held in contempt by ordinary people, especially the discerning public. This is visible in the visceral comments on the Guwahati and similar cases on the Internet as well as media discussions.
Most professions have a code of ethics covering their work: whether lawyers or chartered accountants, sports persons, bankers and hackers. These are violated but there is something to hold people to. Why on earth should the media be the only profession that refuses to abide by a professional code? What makes us so special that we can ferret out the dirt on everyone’s personal and professional life but refuse to follow basic rules ourselves? Who does not know of journalists across the country, in smaller towns and the big metros, who have enriched themselves by little better than blackmail.
A final point on changing social processes: much has been said about how women should dress, where they should or should not go at night. Otherwise, ‘They’re asking for it.” Such medieval arguments are heard everywhere, from Afghanistan to Assam. The extension of such logic is that men can’t be trusted to conduct themselves like civilized beings on streets and in pubs. So, let them stay at home. Then the streets would be safer. On what basis does a journalist declare that most of the women who go to pubs in Guwahati are prostitutes? If this is indeed the case, then can it be assumed that the men who frequent such pubs go to buy sex?
There are more than 40 journalists whom I have mentored across Assam and the North-east. This is their test, it is also their hour, to mould themselves into a force for good, professional reporting. Either they will rise to the occasion or they will fail themselves, their profession, the larger cause of compassion and transparency in the region.
Mobilize, motivate, rigorously research, work together. These must be the guiding forces which guide our personal and professional lives.
And our talisman can be Bhupen Hazarika’s anthemic song, Manuhe Manuhor Bhaabe, which rings true and loud for the media. “If a human being does not care for his fellow human, who will, Comrade?”