Three Case Studies
Media Coverage on Forced Displacement in Contemporary India
Samir Kumar Das
Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata, 2004
This initiative was made possible by the support and collaboration of World Association for Christian Communication (WACC) and the Nepal Institute of Peace (NIP).
Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (CRG)
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In search of the victim:Auditing the mainstream media in contemporary India by Samir Kumar Das
Auditing the mainstream media: The case of Jammu & Kashmir by Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal
We owe a special word of gratitude to Pradip Thomas of WACC and Kamal Prasad Niroula of NIP for their active encouragement and support and to Ranabir Samaddar for his precious and thoughtful advice. We thank the three anonymous referees who have gone through the reports with great care, extensively commented on them, offered their suggestions and advice and thereby, helped the authors substantially in updating and improving the case studies included in this publication. Since CRG works as a group and is keen on retaining its group character, I think it wise not to break the protocol by thanking my colleagues – all of whom were pressed into action in some way or the other, as part of what always turns out to be a very efficient crisis management team. I take the opportunity of thanking Ayan for designing the cover and rendering excellent computer assistance. Lapses, if any, are ours.
Kolkata Samir Kumar Das
In search of the victim: Auditing the mainstream media in contemporary India
Samir Kumar Das
This publication – an assemblage of three case studies conducted in the states of Jammu & Kashmir, West Bengal and Assam respectively, reflect on the media coverage on forced displacement of population in contemporary India. The studies were commissioned as part of a larger project on ‘Media and Displacement’ that Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group (heretofore CRG) has successfully completed in the last calendar year. While as first part of the project, the case studies are intended to make an audit of the media – particularly of what we — albeit loosely call, the mainstream media, from the perspective of human rights, peace and democracy, the second part promises to bring out a source book on the creative writings of any particular community of victims. We have requested some of our colleagues to collect specimens of creative writings – both fictional and non-fictional, by the Bhutanese refugees now exiled in Nepal for more than ten years and the publication of a source book is now being finalized. As the third part of the project, a Creative Writers’ Workshop on Forced Displacement of Population – perhaps the first and only of its kind till date in South Asia, was organized in Darjeeling, West Bengal from 6 to 10 November 2003. A total of about 25 participants drawn from all over the country were invited to join the Workshop and it not only provided a forum for but laid the foundations of a vibrant and continuing network of academics, refugee and media activists, film critics, theatre and literary personalities, editors, reporters and photo-journalists, lawyers and young researchers etc. CRG is deeply committed to the furtherance of this initiative in the coming years.
Although important in many respects, the case studies have some limitations, three of which should be mentioned at the very outset. First, two of these studies were conducted in states that have been a standing witness to substantial amount of violence and ethnic conflict. West Bengal of course is not absolutely free from border-related violence. But, much of it — being of everyday nature involving conflicts between the villagers and the Border Security Force on such issues as smuggling and illegal theft of cattle and livestock, is not episodic and dramatic unlike in the two other states. The everyday violence is yet to be converted into full-scale insurgencies. Studies of this sort may also be complemented by similar studies on media coverage in comparatively peaceful and tranquil regions where displacement especially, internal displacement is not an unknown phenomenon. Such comparisons will give us some clues to the understanding of the differential patterns of media responses. Secondly, both Assam and J & K cases concentrate on internal displacement while West Bengal is relatively free from the problem of internal displacement induced by ethnic and communal conflicts. Internal displacement in a state like, West Bengal is induced mostly by development. Thirdly, although restricted mainly – though not exclusively to print media, they provide to our mind, an excellent point of departure for further studies.
As we have already pointed out, the three case studies were prepared with a view to auditing the mainstream media from the perspective of human rights, peace and democracy. In fact, human rights, peace and democracy may be viewed as a triad. For human rights and democracy are the essential conditions of peace. Peace is made not by depriving others of their capacity for engaging us in conflicts by making their claims and asserting their rights through the use of superior force but by respecting their claims to human rights and democracy. Hence, peacemaking in the first sense is not more than perpetuation of conflict – ‘a war by other means’. What we call, the mainstream media is believed precisely to play this role of numbing and taming the victims of forced displacement, of preventing the displaced persons from voicing their rights claims and most importantly, of setting forth the media rules and norms in a way that makes their representation in the public domain not only difficult but, impossible. Displacement is not the summit of victim-hood; in fact victim-hood begins with displacement. Displacement occurs not only from their homes but also from their own moral selves. It necessarily comes with the double and the mainstream media plays a role in doubling it. Our case studies amply reveal how it transforms the victims into ‘border problems’, ‘infiltrators’ or ‘refugees’, ‘Muslim terrorists’, ‘ISI/ al Quaeda agents’, so on and so forth.
The Mechanics Of Erasure
Our case studies point out how the victims suffer the erasure of their subjectivity. Victims first of all, are subsumed under and appropriated by certain categories — some of which have been mentioned above. It is always interesting to examine the mechanics of the process. Insofar as the categories overtake the victims, they no longer appear before us as living human bodies that are suffering and are subjected to the constant violation of human rights and justice that are due to them. In the absence of a living body, the sufferance hardly elicits any empathy from us. As the Assam case illustrates, the reporter who reports on most occasions hardly ever cares to visit the victims: as a piece of lazy journalism, he only covers press conferences, browses through whatever is dished out in the form of press releases and handouts and attends only luncheon meetings. Thus, as there is no living contact established between the reporter and the victim, reporting literally means covering the victim. It is with the thickening of the cover with every passing day that the victim is pushed more and more into the oblivion. Displaced persons are thereby reified into the phenomenon of displacement, an act of suffering without a sufferer. Since our categories preexist the data and information the reporters and journalists are asked to gather, only those data and information go into the making of the ‘news’ that fit into them. In a sense, information cast in the mould of our preexisting categories constitutes news. Similarly, the information that is not newsworthy are censored and screened out from the public. It is for this reason that the out-migration of the minority pandits from the Valley is considered as newsworthy and the internal displacement in Doda, Poonch and Rajouri – no less significant in terms of number or intensity, is not. The Kashmir report shows for example, how reportage on displacement identifies ‘national security’ with the well being of merely the minority pandits. It also goes a long way in showing how the mainstream media is responsible for the slippage of the ‘national’ into the ‘communal’ and fills in the categories with connotations that suit it.
Secondly and as a corollary to the first, the categories and stereotypes are deployed in a manner that they appear before us as totally unproblematic and uncontestable. Thus the act of reporting is simultaneously the art of writing the ‘truth’. The categories and stereotypes are deployed as if there is nothing beyond them. Everywhere ‘free’ democracy seems to survive side by side with a totalitarian media. If our categories do not exhaust the reality that they are supposed to correspond with, we accuse ourselves of being incapable of exploiting their potential to the fullest extent; it is a problem with the reporter, not with their act of reporting.
The Assam report for example points out that there are hardly any attempts made on the part of the journalists at deeply probing into ‘the root causes’ of displacement. Interestingly, the stories once hogging the limelight are also not ‘followed up’. Displacement in other words, is an event that does not have any pre- or post-history. It looks like a one-shot affair that takes everyone by surprise every time it takes place. News of massive displacement always springs an element of surprise because left to itself media tends to subject it to the politics of forgetting. The nature and extent of display of the news in print media – as both the J & K and Assam cases underscore, play a crucial role in hierarchizing and dispersing public memory. Why does the media not show any concern for those who still have been living under pitiful conditions in camps after the last Bodo-Santhal clashes occurred in Kokrajhar (Assam)? The fading out of what once was a ‘big story’ from the headline to the anchor and then from the front page to the centre-spread corresponds to the forgetting and amnesia that are slowly inflicted on the public by the media. It does not mean that those of us who are lucky to have a settled existence and are spared of the agony of having to suffer homelessness are simply immoral and insensate animals. Many of us actually itch for the information we need most of the time, without any avail. Media prefers to make us forget it. Their trauma of being homeless is not allowed to disturb our memory. Media plays the role of soothsayer. It does not intend to unsettle the cocoons of our settled existence. Categories are the cocoons that give us comfort and protect us from the bothersome obligation of remembrance. The victims exist only in the media: they have no existence outside the world of the media. The words of the print media make up the their world that strikes us. As the self-appointed moral guardian of the society, media shoulders the responsibility of calming and soothing our nerves.
Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal’s study on J & K points out how media in the trouble-torn state refuses to associate anything other than the safety and security of the minorities with ‘normalcy’. Normalcy as we have already seen, is communally defined. Thus, displacement of the Hindu pandits is considered as a threat to it; that of the Muslims in the same state – though larger in magnitude and of no less social and political significance, is not. The ‘abnormal’ does not give unto itself any history worth its name. Similarly, none of us cares to check whether the identity of the ‘infiltrator’ was ascertained before she was ‘killed’ at the border; the victim’s identity as an ‘infiltrator’ is too taken for granted to require any proof. If one were allowed to problematize the information coming from the media, it is possible for one to actually find out that she was killed not because she was an infiltrator’, but she was an ‘infiltrator’ because she was killed. Truth is not a casualty of reporting. Reporting is a casualty of ‘truth’. Media defines the world in black and white terms and in the process wipes out the gray that stands in between. The West Bengal report for example quotes police source in order to drive home that a great majority of the so-called ‘infiltrators’ happens to be landless peasants and abject poverty is what forces them to migrate. Moreover what is written in fine print in a semi-literate society like ours is taken to be ‘truth’. The lure of fine print that many of us cherish in the depth of our minds emanates from the same desire of being the purveyor and custodian of truth. Truth is what lends to the fine print its hallowed status. But as the J & K case emphasizes, in a region where conflicts of highly violent nature take place almost on an everyday basis, printed words are always taken with a note of suspicion. They do not seem to enjoy the same epistemic status. Jamwal argues that in the Valley, words of mouth travel faster than the printed words. It actually attests to the more or less empirically validated conclusion that communally inflammable rumours seldom refuse go in times of high-pitched communal riots, in spite of concerted and at times vigorous media campaign against communalism and communal riots.
In simple terms, mainstream media is a party to the conflict that induces displacement. As it doubles the victim-hood of the displaced persons by way of depriving them of their subjectivity and cognitive resources of communicating their rights claims, it is in league with the forces that displace them. Mainstream media provides the site where the displaced are called upon to embrace as it were, their new victim-hood. The new, doubling of victim-hood is no ordinary addition. It is certainly different from the victim-hood that directly results from displacement not so much in degree, but in kind. Loss of one’s home is a loss in every conceivable sense of the term. Home in South Asia is not simply a place where we live; it is a space that over and above, makes us feel home and confers on us our selfhood. It is where one could be in one’s ‘true’ moral self. Self is inconceivable without home and vice versa. Contemporary researches on home in such states as Maharashtra and Assam draw our attention to the wider dimensions of home in South Asia. If home is so deeply ensconced in our social and moral existence, its loss amounts to a loss of our own selves till the media provides us with our new selfhood and make us rediscover our home within a larger body called, nation. Nation becomes our new home – a home without a home, the shelter and destination for the homeless. We tend to believe – thanks to the media, that our homelessness caused by the barbed wire fencing of the Indo-Bangla border or by heavy mining of the Indo-Pak border/line of control is the necessary cost to be borne by us in the interest of the nation. The displaced persons who fail to emplace themselves within the imagined home of the nation, are unpatriotic at their best and anti-national at their worst. If the nation takes her home, it also gives it back to her. Media is the vehicle that ferries her to the new home. Both the J & K and West Bengal cases emphasize how the media contributes to the entrenchment of the borders that separate the nations. Each one of us is called upon to place ourselves in either side of the divide. We have no freedom of being left in the middle. It is the imagined recovery of the new home that makes any longing for anything else redundant, a forgettable sin, an unpatriotic or anti-national act. The tradeoff between the loss of the old home and the recovery of the new one makes it impossible on our part to voice our rights claims, particularly our right to home that is exclusive to us. The home in the nation is not exclusive to us. In the process, the mainstream media makes the victim an ever-elusive creature. A victim is also not a victim. The new subjectivity only helps cover her early victim-hood, makes it a thing of the past and throws it into oblivion by giving her a new home.
From Victimology To Victim-Hood
Victimology catches the victim in a bind. The home of the nation is only for the displaced to enjoy; displacement is a precondition of the rehabilitation into the new home. Nation blesses only those who are forcibly displaced. The rehabilitation rules out the possibility of redemption of her victim-hood. Or to put it more accurately, the victim’s redemption in the eyes of the mainstream media, is not an end in itself; it is only a means to the fulfillment of some grand nationalist project. The victims are thus the nuts and bolts of the nation. The double continues to shadow her till the grand nationalist dream of vanquishing some enemy or acquiring incredible economic prowess is fulfilled. The victim never gets rid of the double. In fact, the double outlives the victim for her rehabilitation within the nation announces the death of the victim as she is — displaced, homeless and decimated and the birth of a new nationalist self, a self without the self, always ready for self-sacrifice, a self that has a home in the nation and that finds its ultimate fulfillment in and through the nation.
If our case studies emphasize overshadowing of victim-hood of the displaced persons, they also strive for rediscovering the victim and recovering her from the double that more often than not outlives her. We certainly are not in search of the ever-elusive victim who is at the same time not a victim. We do not seem to look for the double. Our objective is to search for the victim who loses her home precisely because she was grounded in it, lives through and negotiates the experiences of her homelessness and most importantly, who refuses to get her experiences mainstreamed into the grids of well-established categories. Her refusal is what makes such mainstreaming perpetually necessary. The more she refuses, the more the necessity is felt. A careful comparison of these cases is expected to enrich our knowledge about the victims and evolve diverse media strategies in order to cope with the problem of forced migration. Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal makes a strong case for objectivity. The advocacy has a tendency of pitting the imagined home of nationhood against the fact of the loss of home, of opposing the perceived double against the living victim. Is her double that promises to offer her home within the comforts of nation any less a fact than the fact of her displacement and victim-hood? Is it possible for the victims to get rid of the baggage of these persisting perceptions and imaginations without being involved in the fact of politics? Will not this itself be considered as a fact and most importantly, a political fact?
The point is not so much to emancipate the fact of victim-hood from the shrouds and hazes of imagination. There is no essential victim living for us beyond the mediated world of doubles. The idea of recovering the essential victim seems once again to posit her as an inert and passive being who is deprived of her cognitive and emotional means of resistance to the appropriation by the categories. It fails in appreciating that her everyday living as a displaced person, implies a struggle against the mediated world, its diverse categories and stereotypes and its almost surreal acting by the doubles. The fight against mainstreaming is not for her future survival, it is precisely how she survives now. It is here that the role the alternative media becomes very important. For it is expected to decouple her from the double and restore her victim-hood. The alternative media creates a space where the victims tell us what Richard Rorty calls, ‘their long, sad and sentimental story’ that does not merely enrich our understanding about them but ‘move us to action’. Human rights culture is all about those ‘long, sad and sentimental stories’ and how they are woven and told in order to strike the right chord in our hearts and evoke the appropriate sentiments.
Of the three case studies, the one on West Bengal brings these everyday struggles into the sharpest focus. It points to the everyday nature of such struggles. When the band of snake-charmers got caught at the zero point of the Indo-Bangladesh border and the women members of the band had to suffer humiliation and molestation in the hands of the ‘masked’ men on the borders apart from hunger, cold and destitution, they threatened to set free the poisonous snakes at their disposal against them. ‘Men might betray, their snakes do not’. Even under such desperate conditions when both the rivaling nation-states seemed to have deserted them, they thought of holding on to the ground and protecting their dignity of their own moral selves all on their won. The extensive quotes from various newspapers seem to portray how the affinities the residents of the nearby villages on both sides of the border evolve in order to meet the emergent situations cut across the international borders. Much against the diktats of the border personnel, the villagers on both sides of the border felt that the band of snake charmers who were caught between the two contending nation-states too were human beings and were entitled to their right to life. The poor villagers on this side of the border even agreed to take the responsibility of their rations and drinking water. It has to be kept in mind that they are not ‘activists beyond the borders’ with lots of money in their pockets; they are pretty poor people who find it difficult for themselves to make both ends meet. The gynecologist who supervised the birth of a baby of a woman who had apparently migrated to West Bengal without legally valid papers maintained that what he had done was in the interest of the humanity whether or not the woman had illegally entered the country. Krishna Bandyopadhyay for example observes: ‘the question whether there should be borders or not is irrelevant to the question that the migrants – whether ‘infiltrators’ or ‘refugees’, are above all human beings and suffer from miseries’. The women according to her, took a leading role in building such cross-border and human fraternities. These are stories that the West Bengal report narrates with great sensitivity and helps in demystifying the regime of categories and stereotypes that media subjects her to and most importantly, in evoking empathy in us.
Surprisingly, all our case studies point out that the dichotomy between the mainstream and alternative media does not necessarily coincide with either the national and regional/local or big and small house publications. Many of Krishna Bandyopadhyay’s ‘long, sad and sentimental’ stories cut across the otherwise well-established dichotomies between national and regional/local media or for that matter between the big and small house publications. The case studies in other words, do not give us any scope for celebrating the vernacular or local publications. It only shows that what we call mainstream, exists only as a syndrome generously evident in all the divisions mentioned above. Mainstream in other words, is not an adjective; it is a verb. It is not the mainstream media; it is the media that mainstreams.
From the Shahdara flyover, the ramshackle plastic tent camp looks just like any slum in the capital’s underbelly. Negotiate the slope down to the camp and there you are amidst victims of history - Hindus and Muslims, but Kashmiris all - staying and dreaming together of a better future together. The refugees arrived in stages - Hindus from Doda came early last year; Muslims from Anantnag, who dared to vote in the J&K elections, followed later. The composite camp stares in the face of those who see Kashmir only through the prism of communal division. … Sajjad from Kulgam in Anantnag, a CPM (Communist Party of India, Editor) activist, has suffered at the hands of ‘terrorists, Army and Ikhwanis (renegades)’. He has a perspective too: ...‘We proved we believe in an undivided J&K and also disproved the stereotype that only Hindus are suffering in my state’.
This story appeared in the Times of India as recently as in March 2003, more than thirteen years after the first influx of Kashmiri migrants from the Valley to Jammu and other parts of the country and is indeed a rare piece of journalistic pursuit for the quality of pacifism it projects in the Kashmiri society. Several columns have been written about the plight of the displaced people in Jammu and Kashmir over the last decade. But a majority of them has been lost while delving selectively in the communal discourse of just one community being victimised. The media becoming a tool in the hands of right wing to project a communalised Jammu & Kashmir - Muslim terrorists versus the Hindu victims. Much of the columns of newspapers and magazines being consumed on the mass exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits in the beginning of 1990 in the discourse of a threatened minority at the hands of a demonised majority. The journalistic discourse later narrowed down to an automatic space for a select group of elite Kashmiri Pandit leaders who incidentally found the media more accessible to them as did the media find them more articulate and inspiring enough for a story to talk about.
This had several drawbacks. Not just the media began gradually, unknowingly ignoring the other groups among the migrants or the genuine migrants in the camps. It also caused sharper strains and divides among the Kashmiri society as a whole. While the Kashmiri Pandit who dared to stay in the Valley through the thirteen years of strife was totally unheard, the Kashmiri Muslim, whether he migrated or stayed put was totally marginalised as far as media was concerned. Besides, the pampering of one kind of migrants by the media, howsoever drifted away from the focus remained the discourse, also caused resentment among later set of migrants from Doda, Rajouri-Poonch and thereafter from all along the international borders and the line of control.
Much of the news reports and articles have sought to see the issue of Kashmiri migrants as stories, characters and voices in isolation from totality, silencing the multiple voices, merging them into the singularity of repetition. They have remained by and large like fragmented versions of a larger story, much like the loose lost pages of a diary, much of which has been destroyed or ignored.
When armed struggle began in Kashmir (1988-89) for ‘independence’, not many people in the Valley were aware of what they were heading for. The slogan of azadi gradually caught the fancy of the Kashmiri Muslims and by the beginning of January 1990 separatists and youth who had undergone arms training were mobilising the public. The Kashmiri Pandits, comprising a minuscule — less than 2 percent population of the Valley, were caught in a dilemma, whether they should be assuming their traditional role of ‘loyalty to the Indian forces’ or ‘sway along with the mood of the majority ethnic community.’ Some Kashmiri Pandit leaders may have compounded the confusion with dubious statements. So did the lack of information amidst an insecure atmosphere enhance the threat perception to the minorities in Kashmir in the backdrop of killings at the hands of insurgents, many of which were of the Pandits. The virtual collapse of the administration added to the insecurity. The exaggerated media reports and spaces provided to extreme views may also have been a factor. The damage had been done and the Valley witnessed one of the worst events of its history when in mid January, in a matter of two days, large-scale Pandit exodus began from the Valley to Udhampur, Jammu and other parts of the country.
The earliest reports were either vague about the genesis of the migrations or did not touch upon the background, over-simplifying the turbulence in the Valley. Without studying the complexities of the basic issue, an anxious media willingly offered its columns in print on narratives of a Hindu minority ‘hounded’ out by the majority without questioning the ‘uniformity’ of the threat perception faced by the people round the Valley, the sudden overnight disappearance of Kashmiriyat. What went wrong? How did the trust between the two communities snap all of a sudden? Nobody questioned the historic background of this Kashmiriyat that was the hallmark of a composite culture of Kashmir with a near 95 percent population of Muslims. Much of the media chose to ignore these questions. The national media jumped to conclusions. Eager reporters in an undying bid to be the first ones to file the story saw it as a consequence of an essentially Hindu-Muslim conflict. Most columnists, got busy, whatever their bias, over-simplifying one of the most complicated phenomena of the Kashmir turmoil. Senior journalists wrote that Kashmiri armed struggle was a consequence of the major chunk of government jobs usurped by the Kashmiri Pandits. Others, including local Srinagar media, chose to blame then Governor of Jammu & Kashmir Jagmohan singularly without choosing to probe how the Governor could act as a catalyst in the exodus without the ‘insecurity’ existing for sometime. The case of ‘insecurity’ of the Kashmiri Pandits has been most misreported in the early years of militancy. By the time the first reports started being filed, the Pandit exodus had already begun in January 1990. In the aftermath, media, while reporting the exodus seemed to have lost all its principles of objectivity. There were either reports on Kashmiri Pandit (KPs) as the protagonist ‘victim’, to which majority media fell prey, or briefs on how the KPs had been misled by Jagmohan. The media, either due to its own partisan views, or handicap of playing into the hands of one vested interest or the other failed to probe the complexity of the genesis of the migration. The Kashmiri Pandits - when militancy first began, were indeed gripped by a kind of a minority syndrome, which may have been natural not because of any widespread intimidations, but also because of the basic character, attitude of the community, their timidity and history and the culture of Kashmiri society as a whole where word of mouth spreads faster and where rumour-mongering can contribute its own bit in spreading panic. Indeed, direct or indirect intimidations were not ruled out. In the second half of 1989, a number of Kashmiri Pandits were killed. The media has given different figures, but most of us put it at around 80. Many of them were shot dead for their affiliations with the intelligence agencies or their role in government decision-making. Kashmiri Pandits occupied a prominent place in government jobs and bureaucracy despite being a microscopic minority in the Valley. Were they killed because they were Kashmiri Pandits or because they were being seen as government agents? When Pandit leader H. N. Jattu shared a common platform with the armed Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), and said the community was with their struggle, as reported in the local press, was it a half-truth? In retrospect, the statement has been interpreted in many different ways. One section of people among Kashmiri Pandits opines that this was a hypocritical way of dealing with the threat perception. Another maintains that Jattu had assured conditional support if the armed struggle was not aimed at the creation of Nizam-e-Mustafa (Islamic rule). In the beginning of January 1990, when the armed struggle in Kashmir began becoming a mass movement, the militants and their supporters occupying mosques to rant nightlong slogans was again a subject for misinterpretation and exaggeration. Not that this did not happen. Though the use of mosques may have been universal, probably a part of historic tradition to use religious symbols for any political purpose, the Islamic slogans were heard only in certain pockets and areas. But the generalisation may have been less a product of ‘word of mouth’ and more of media. By January 1990, most reporters of national agencies and national dailies were sitting in Jammu and filing their stories. The projection in the media of the Kashmir situation as having been overtaken from the pro-independence and secular JKLF by the fundamentalists might have enhanced the fear psychosis that the Pandits were going through at this juncture. One such report in India Today (April 1990) states:
For what once used to be a mass movement for the preservation of ethnic identity, of Kashmiriyat, of which Article 370 was supposed to be the symbolic guardian, has been consumed by fundamentalist fury that gives the movement sustenance and spiritual guidance. The liberal spirit of Sufism that had so infused the Valley has now been exorcised. The movement is now largely conducted from the mosques where thousands of loudspeakers preach jehad in a terrifying cacophony.
The reports on threatening letters Pandits received in some areas, equally generalised, had a similar effect. Most of the people in the initial months of militancy were killed for their affiliations with government, mainstream political parties or on suspicion of being informers. The Kashmiri Pandits, with their monopoly in government jobs, their symbolic sense of security stemming from a pro-Centre ideology, may have been easy targets as compared to the Muslims, who were also being victimised for the same reasons. But the media was engaged in the pursuit of providing more space only to the killings of minorities, thus giving an impression that only Pandits were being killed. A majority of Pandits is literate and thus reliance on media is only natural.
Did all these factors - of mosques, threats and killings amount to increasing the threat perception? It may have. But the absolute blacking out of this kind of a threat perception in the local media prior to the migration may have only added an enigma to the reasons behind the exodus. While local Srinagar-based media chose to deny or negate the mosque slogans, others mention that the mosques and Islamic slogans created a fear psychosis. The use of mosques for political ends has its own history in Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah used the Hazratbahl as his own launching pad. The militants and their supporters began using the mosques for ranting out azadi slogans in the beginning of January 1990. There are contradictory views on whether they shouted Islamic slogans as well from the loudspeakers of the mosques or not. It may well have been a case in some areas. But since panic spreads faster by word of mouth and rumour mongering in Kashmir, it may have been easy for vested interests to create panic. The media being unable to shed much light on this has thus made answers to queries like, who these vested interests were, lost in oblivion. The Srinagar-based newspapers projected the exodus that stemmed from a sudden eruption of militancy turning into a mass movement backed by the majority community as a sort of collective thinking on the part of the Kashmiri Pandits. This might be an aberration, undermining the trauma of the Pandits. Insecurities may have bred from the sudden developments, with both communities trying to fit into the space of the changing scenario, shocked and unsure, making knee-jerk reactions a possibility. By the beginning of January, some fundamentalists joining the armed struggle and some lumpen elements also creeping in with reports of brutal killings taking place added to the shock and trauma. A feeling of mistrust was gradually creeping in also with the Srinagar newspapers become mouthpieces of the militant organisations, relegating themselves to the task of issuing their diktats. Alsafa even published warnings from some militant organisations to Kashmiri Hindus.
The role of the government in packing off the Kashmiri Pandits to safer refuges within just two days becomes equally enigmatic. In retrospect, moderate Kashmiri Pandits in Jammu may not agree that the then Governor Jagmohan either engineered the exodus or facilitated and encouraged it, but they do admit that the collapse of the administration in providing security to the minorities may have been the last nail in the coffin. “Instead of allowing us to leave, they could have instilled confidence and discouraged the trend of migrations,” some of them say, though they do not like to mention Jagmohan’s name. Interestingly, Jagmohan is seen as a symbolic mascot among the Kashmiri Pandits, who even regard him as their saviour. Kuldip Nayar was one of the first senior journalists to comment on Jagmohan’s role behind the large-scale exodus. He even accused him of planning and engineering the entire exercise in some of his articles, published widely in a number of mainstream newspapers. Senior journalists in Jammu and Kashmir, who met Jagmohan several days before the exodus, endorse the viewpoint, quoting him: `The Kashmiri Pandits are safe targets for militants. There should be strongarm methods against militants to the extent of frightening the Muslim population through demonstration of the might of the Indian state. Ruthless operations in different localities of Srinagar could be fruitful counter-insurgency operations. But in some areas, there is mixed population and Pandits may become targets of security forces.’ The journalists maintain that Jagmohan’s mindset that he wanted to colour and present militancy as a fundamentalist `anti-Hindu’ movement was betrayed.
The media in Delhi was absolutely silent in addressing these questions. It went about in a more simplified manner. All it did was offer space to the Kashmiri Pandit leaders who were articulate and to whom media was more accessible, owing to their elite backgrounds, though certain centimetres were also reserved for the people in the camps. But the discourse often got repetitive - about the pain, agony, anguish, harsh climatic conditions, poor educational facilities, without dealing in detail with the trauma being faced by the displaced community. Thirteen years of migration, but the discourse continues to be repetitive. With the genesis of the mass exodus remaining un-investigated forever, the complexity deepened even as it slipped into oblivion, remaining invisible for the reporter in the field or an unexplored arena for the editors at the desk who dared not transgress into the untreaded path.
While the national dailies played to the tunes of the larger Hindu interests, some local papers in the Valley underscored the minority syndrome. In the backdrop of this, several questions that were never raised or asked in due course of time became a mystery, allowing prejudices to seep in through the conflicting voices. Now whether the Kashmiri Pandit leadership had at one time shared the same platform with the separatist leaders and professed that they were with the movement and whether there were slogans raised from the mosque calling for ‘Nizam-e-Mustafa’ that threatened the people throughout the length and breadth of the Valley, one would never know. Whether the Islamic sloganeering from mosques was widespread or this happened only in select pockets, since there is no recorded document or media reports, and since it was never followed in later months, the truth is likely to be a casualty with imagination and prejudice clouding the real picture. But the moot question is: would the response be so uniform in the event of one or even all mosques of the Valley echoing the Islamic slogans? Was there some underlying unheard, unsaid, understood thread that motivated the Pandits from across the Valley to migrate en masse in just two days? Why in just those two days the entire scenario changed? Why did the ‘Islamic’ militarisation suddenly become threatening since the killings had been going on for months? The media obviously has done no homework.
Politicising the issue
The trend only encouraged the Kashmiri Pandit leaders to set up their shops and begin politicising an issue for personal motives or of those of another under whose influence they seemed to be operating. The last thirteen years interestingly saw the mushrooming of organisations professing to plead the cause of the Kashmiri Pandit migrants. Some of them like Panun Kashmir and All India Kashmiri Pandit Sabha had a wider reach up to the editorial desks in New Delhi, managing to hog limelight frequently even in the newspapers with wider circulation. And in due course of time, with the electronic media beginning its news channel war, also managing some footage before the camera. With these key elitist leaders regularly chipping in with their sound bites on their ideology of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Valley and their perception of the woes of the migrants, the genuine migrant remained at the receiving end of injustice. Interestingly, the media also roped in Anupam Kher and Mahesh Bhatt to plead the cause of the migrants. Interestingly still, leave aside the superstars, even much of the Kashmiri Pandit leadership was not the recent settlers in Delhi. Most of them were neither migrants nor regular visitors to the Valley even prior to the days of militancy. The figures of genuine migrants have often been disputed. Jammu and Kashmir government in the mid-nineties began probing the cases of ‘fake’ migrants and names of several people, known to have migrated much before militancy, receiving relief were struck off from the list. The Panun Kashmir would love to quote the displacements at 3.5 to 4 lakh (one lakh = 100,000, Editor) persons. In Jammu, which is home to largest number of Kashmiri migrants, only an estimated 59,000 are registered till date.
With the problem of migrants overshadowed by the politics of convenience, not only the Kashmiri Pandit leaders usurped much of the space in print in the initial days and years of migration. It was also the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) and other units of the Sangh Parivar that sought to cash in on the plight of ‘terrorised Hindus’. While a section of media willingly offered space to even the most provocative of discourse, others were a little less friendly but not many questioned or even mentioned the Kashmiri Hindus newfound love with the followers of Hindutava. Neither BJP nor RSS or any other communal organisation had made such inroads into the Valley in general as they did in the camps of the migrants. The phenomenon was again dismissed by and large when in October 1992, two Kashmiri Pandit migrant boys in Jammu were caught carrying bombs, one exploded in the hand of the youth who was killed in the incident. The youth, investigations pointed out, were affiliated to a Hindu communal party and were assigned the task of blasting the bombs at Ranbirsingh Higher Secondary School in Jammu, where board exams for the migrant students were going on. The bomb accidentally exploded in the hands of one of them while they were on their way. The incident was a grim reminder of how the Kashmiri migrants were being wooed and co-opted by the RSS and other Hindu right wing parties. A report in India Today (March 31, 1990) also pointed out the changing affiliations of the displaced Pandits, narrating the story of one migrant as thus:
On his third day in Jammu, Sohan Lal was exposed to an alien phenomenon. He was part of a 10,000 strong procession led by VHP (Viswa Hindu Parishad, Editor) acting president Vishnu Hari Dalmia ... But Sohan Lal was just one among over 10,000 Hindu families which have left the Valley ... And should they fall into the net of communal propaganda, they can reverse the political efforts for normalising the Kashmir crisis.
Communist leader, trade unionist and human rights activist Hridyanath Wanchu was incidentally killed two months later on December 3, 1992. Was it pure coincidence that Wanchu’s killing came after his call to the Kashmiri Pandit migrants to desist from falling prey to the Hindu fundamentalist organisations? A report quoting him on October 30, 1992 said: ‘Migrants should come out of the clutches of Hindu fundamentalists’. Wanchu was referring to the bomb blast in which one Kashmiri Pandit youth was killed and his accomplice was caught. The media never followed the investigations, beyond the police version that the material used in the bombs was similar to the ones used in recent blast incidents. But this report in itself indicated that the involvement of a Hindu fundamentalist organisation was not restricted to just one incident. It was a phenomenon that could not be neglected. After Wanchu’s killings, PUCL (People’s Union of Civil Liberties, Editor) was quoted by the media: ‘the killing is engineered’. Interestingly it was reported that Wanchu had filed 100 cases against the government for human rights violations and was also seeking release of several detenues. But thereafter, the media followed suit of the official line. It abandoned any idea of further investigations in the issue. Anyway, the proximity of the displaced Kashmiri Pandit youth with the Hindu fundamentalist groups engineering violence may have been short-lived. No such incidents were reported thereafter. However, the Pandit leaders continue to churn out rhetoric after rhetoric that was much in the line of the Hindu right wing. Unfortunately, the media projected them more than the moderate Kashmiri Pandit leadership, which never really surfaced in a big way.
The post-exodus massacres on minorities, no doubt shocking, interestingly were projected in such a way by the media as if these were the only killings going on in the Valley or the entire state. Suddenly the central leaders and the media teams, almost in unison, descend on the state when such killings take place, negating the killings of the Muslims at the hands of militants, security forces or in cross-firings. An editorial in Indian Express on March 26, 2003 commenting on the Nadimarg massacre on March 24, 2003, states, ‘the state of Jammu and Kashmir was slowly reverting back to normalcy, it was shattered on Sunday night.’ The editorial obviously chooses to see the Nadimarg incident alone as a precursor to sabotage of peace, negating that killings have been going on in the Valley all along. The ‘normalcy’ paradigm is being deliberately invoked when the killings of minorities stops. Whether, it was Wandhama, Prankote, Sangrampora, Chittisinghpora, Raghunath Mandir or Kaluchak, defying all logics of statistics, the impression doled out by the media is one of ‘ethnic cleansing’ much to the delight of the Hindu right wing that wishes to counter any slogan of azadi by co-opting the media to toe their line. While the killings have been accorded primacy, due to a prejudiced media and also due to sensationalising an event, the issues of the victims are once again ignored, displacements thereafter simply vanish in print, radio or television. A rare report in Frontline following the Nadimarg massacre on March 24, 2003, looking at the previous massacres, sheds a bit more light:
Five families that survived the 1997 massacre of seven Pandits at Sangrampora, the first of its kind, continue to live in homes in Budgam vacated by refugees who left in 1991. They have received no compensation for the homes they had to flee; nor do they have any security of tenure in their new homes since no rent is paid to their original owners. “Two chief ministers promised us help,” says Ashok Kumar, who spent a year in hospital recovering from the bullet injuries he sustained in the massacre, but neither has done anything for us.
The Nadimarg massacre triggered fresh exodus from the Valley from among the estimated 8,000 Kashmiri Pandits who have continued to live there through the years of turmoil. Jammu-based newspapers have reported over 100 displacements to Jammu. The Relief Commissioner has no record because fresh migrants are not being registered. But newspapers quote Kashmiri Pandit organisations, relying on their word for numbers. Indian Express (March 31) reports:
Officials accused Kashmiri Pandit migrants based in Jammu of instigating the survivors into migrating from the Valley. “This fits with their agenda of souring communal harmony in the state. They even accused the state government of holding the KPs as hostages,” said one official. ... Political observers say that the recent statement by Deputy Prime Minister L. K. Advani about providing all facilities to those who wish to move to safer places has prompted fresh migration by Pandits.
Jammu-based papers and Delhi based reporters, in the aftermath of Nadimarg, relied more on the Kashmiri Pandit organisations as their source for analysing what happened. Their propaganda was provided more space sometimes than the victims and even the displaced. One Pandit organisation even alleged that no post-mortem was carried out on the victims and that the authorities are forcefully resorted to mass creations. This was provided space in print, even though it was an arrant piece of fiction.
One of the important questions that media failed to probe, even during the Nadimarg massacre, though the security lapse angle had been well informed, why the Pandit community in Nadimarg had begun to feel threatened after 13 years of living in the Valley following the mass exodus of 1990. An important question connected with this is also why they felt secure for thirteen years. Not reported by media, migrations in 1990 in some villages in the Valley came to a halt when local militants offered to protect the minorities. So is the story of a Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) commander providing a protective cover to the Nadimarg villagers because his teacher, a Kashmiri Pandit, happened to be from the same village. The HM commander was incidentally killed a few months before the massacre. The insecurity of the Pandits living there and the massacre thereafter are not seen in the backdrop of these events. For the Delhi-based journalists visiting Valley frequently for news, it may not serve any purpose to project the Kashmiriyat spirit manifested by some militants, who are demonised as ‘jehadis’. As for the Srinagar reporters, they fear intimidation and pressure from both the security forces and the foreign militants, in doing so. A report in Frontline in March 2003 mentions one such case.
Hizbul Mujahideen militant Abdul Hamid Bhat code-named Hamid Gada, charged with the Wandhama massacre in which 27 Pandits were killed in January 1998, hailed from Tulamulla, home to the Pandit community’s most sacred shrine. For generations, his family lived at the shrine, where his father worked as a watchman. In 1992, two terrorists arrived in the village, determined to burn out the temple. Hamid Bhat stole their rifles and handed them to a friend who passed them on to central reserve police force (CRPF). The temple was saved but Hamid Bhat and his family had to pay a heavy price. He and his mother were kidnapped. The family had to sell its land to pay a ransom of Rs. 20,000. His mother was found naked, badly beaten and incoherent days later. She will not discuss just what happened. For reasons no one in the family quite understands, Hamid Bhat chose to stay on with his captors. He was, perhaps, unable to face humiliation of what had happened to his mother. Whatever the truth, the teenager who saved Tulamulla temple went on to become one of the most feared leaders of HM. ... “Hamid never allowed anyone from Tulamulla to join his group, and no one from here became a Mujahid after him,” recalls his uncle Farooq Ahmed. All but four of Tulamulla’s 100-odd Pandit families left the village in the mass exodus, and its festival celebrations are today made possible by Muslim families, including that of Abdul Hamid, who tied their fate to the shrine for generations.
The registered Kashmiri Pandit migrants in Jammu and outside the state are getting Rs. 2500 as relief per month and government employees are drawing their salary. But media has been unable to dwell much on the rehabilitation proposals in the last six years. In 1997, the National Conference (NC) came out with one. In 2002-2003, PDP (People’s Democratic Front)-led coalition government came out with another. The announcements were covered. But that there was no implementation was not followed up. The only voices heard were those of the Kashmiri Pandit organisations who had their own vested interest.
In striking contrast to the Kashmiri migrants, their counterparts from Doda, the hill-district of Jammu region, and later twin border districts of Rajouri and Poonch, the displaced more or less due to similar conditions, were not accorded the same space in the newspaper columns. Nor were they at any point of time provided the same kind of footage by the television crews. Their exit from their homelands almost went unnoticed without a whimper. Though local and regional papers donated some space, the Delhi-based papers almost turned blind. Negligible coverage on their plight and issues was marked by poor display of the news items and lack of information. The reasons were plenty. The Doda migrants, being lesser-educated and coming from far-flung remote areas, were often handicapped, being less articulate and often devoid of any contact. Interestingly, even the right wing Hindu organisations, which were freely pleading the cause of Kashmiri Pandits, were silent about the plight of the Doda migrants, even though most of them in the initial years belonged to the Hindu community. Interestingly, even the champions of statehood for Jammu did not find their plight an issue. This happened despite the fact that compared to the Kashmiri migrants from the valley, they were discriminated against in terms of relief, jobs and condition of camps. Ironically, several organisations advocating statehood for Jammu and trifurcation of the state reasoned that there was discrimination by successive Kashmiri governments. The Doda migrants never suited their agenda, which was communal in the first place and secondly, most trifurcation theories sought a divided Doda along the Chenab river. Since the majority of the migrants from Rajouri-Poonch was from rural remote areas, mostly nomadic tribes - Gujjars and Bakerwals, Muslims by faith, their cause may have been abandoned for similar reasons. What was interesting was that while the Delhi-based media was by and large unaware of such issues, the local media only ended up complimenting the role of the right wing - choosing to remain silent.
Compared to the displacement of less than 59,000 people from the Valley, the number of people displaced from militancy-infested Doda and Rajouri-Poonch areas is put at 7000 (unconfirmed). While all the registered migrants from the Valley are getting relief to the tune of Rs. 2500 per month, (now promised Rs. 3,000 relief), the Doda migrants in the initial years got nothing. It was much later when a set of migrants from the Doda area approached the court, seeking parity in relief, at par with the Kashmiri migrants that justice was delivered. But only to the migrants who approached the court. No mechanism was devised to register the migrants with the Relief Commissioner. Only those who approached the court on the basis of the court judgment were accorded the privileged status of the migrant.
As for the displaced persons from the twin border districts of Rajouri and Poonch, the displacements are often temporary, more within these districts - often from the rural remote militancy-infested areas to the towns. Often it was a migration of just half of the families. Often only specific groups of people were threatened by militants or security forces. Often only men and young boys, often leaving behind the women in the militancy-infested areas to fend for themselves or to look after the homes or the agricultural farms. Reports from these areas trickle down as second hand or third hand information, the victims being inaccessible to media. It is both because the media does not track and because the internally displaced people (IDPs) are no so well-organised to be contacted easily. While the families who have migrated in Surankote town, Rajouri or Poonch from the militancy-infested far-flung areas on account of denial of relief, unemployment and other problems, the women who stay behind to look after the homes are the worst sufferers in the bargain. Unfortunately, not much has appeared about them in print or on television channels. For the largely urban based media, whether Delhi based or from Jammu and Srinagar, the issue is not considered important from the news perspective. The media is probably also handicapped due to its utmost reliance on the official organs, which do not consider the people from the remote areas of this belt as genuine or legitimate migrants. Most of the media-persons are stalled in their footsteps by the simple narration that the displaced in this region are often temporarily displaced, and make frequent visits to their homes, keeping in regular touch with their families or that most of the displaced are victims and they are insignificant in number. Therefore most of the news-stories eventually are virtually table stories, despite weaving fictions of field visits either with the tacit understanding of their editors or their absolute ignorance of the topography and the rough terrain of Jammu & Kashmir and its inaccessible areas. Barring the Valley, most militancy-infested areas in the hilly tracts are not approachable by road and often take hours of trek to reach there, that too subject to weather conditions.
Due to lack of transparency, the exact number of people affected in this region has never been probed. The fate of women, who stay back to tend to the homes while the men folk of their families seek safer refuge in the towns, is even lesser known. That contributes to undermining their trauma officially. The media further endorses that. But some locals reflect on the plight of women in the inaccessible remote areas. A senior doctor in the Surankote hospital maintained that the almost abandoned women were undergoing medical termination of pregnancies (MTPs) very frequently. Evidently, the women who were not being seen as vulnerable targets either by the men or the officials, were being wantonly raped by whosoever could lay hands on them. He claimed as many as 150 such cases in a year in the Surankote township alone. The culprits were either security forces or the militants. There were also cases of incest.
In a way, the media neglect of the issue of rapes has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The manner in which most news-stories and comment turn out to be narratives isolated from the context, and often based on hurried research, there is every likelihood that an issue that demands a more sensitive dealing would have been sensationalised only to cause more trauma and add life-long stigma to the women, as has been the case of the mass gang-rapes of Konanposhpora in the early days of militancy. The showcasing of rape victims in film capsules to be commercialised as an end product called ‘news’ is already too well known.
Some more displacements are totally overlooked but for the brief reports of bulk migrations from the Kashmir Valley to areas across the line of control in the Pakistan-administered Kashmir. There they often rot in shabby camps, often without jobs, though there is meagre relief from Pakistan government. The mainstream media chooses not to dwell on it altogether since this too is considered as against the national interest.
The much-publicised Operation Sarp Vinash in May 2003 by the army against the militants staged in Poonch district turned out to be another mini-Kargil. The encounter seemed to have taken more in the media than on the hills of Hill Kaka in Surankote tehsil of Poonch district. A Select group of media-persons were handpicked from Delhi and taken on a chopper ride to come back with the tale of heroism of defence forces in killing militants, that ranged anywhere between 60 and 200 from one report to another both in the electronic and print media. Who were the men killed and how many were there? There seems to be no definite account. In some later reports that appeared, the number was put as less as 25 to 28. Were they dreaded foreign terrorists or mostly local boys used as porters, as disputed by a report in Frontline — is something that may never be known. Where the militants disappeared is also disputed by a section of the media that questioned the earlier claims of wiping of militancy in the area. They were said to have escaped either to Thanamandi in Rajouri or towards South Kashmir. But one thing in the midst of the much-publicised operation once again went totally missing. Displacements of 3,000 to 4,000 people from the Hill Kaka area towards Surankote and peripheries where they were neither registered nor getting any doles. Army claimed they were offering rations to some. But that seems to have been on pick-and-choose basis. There were no official figures to substantiate the estimated number of displaced persons. But most of them putting up on their own, and were scattered, in a totally informers-infested area of Surankote where talking becomes a crime. Efforts of media-persons at going to these areas and talking to the victims would have been futile. The place earns notoriety for having a rather high number of informers, working either for the army and security forces or the militants, or sometimes even both. With people under surveillance all the time there is little likelihood of them opening up to disclose their fate for fear that they may be victimised once the media-persons are back in their offices with their stories.
A step-up in counter-insurgency encounters in the entire region this year had also deprived the nomadic people of the twin-border districts of their summer grazing lands, which the security forces occupied. The nomads were said to have been compensated well, however. But not much appeared in the media about the nomads’ side of the story.
Though, this attitude of the government in creating disparaties in the form of relief has not really caused an open conflict between the two ethnic communities from Kashmir and Doda, it has created enough heart-burning among the people of Doda. The anger and animosity are as much against the media for not giving them the attention that was accorded to the displaced Kashmiris. However, to see the issue of conflict between the Doda migrants and the Kashmiri ones, in this light, might be an over-simplification of facts.
A majority of the displaced Kashmiris was government employees and getting their share of salaries. Some teachers were adjusted in migrant schools and colleges but most of them were jobless with a salary. While some managed to get both the salaries and got adjusted in the private sector, some rotted in frustration with free salaries but nothing to do. Indu Killam – a human rights activist and a teacher of the MAM Evening College now run from a camp for example narrated her experience. Indu migrated along with her family from the Valley in 1990. Her husband was employed as an engineer in the state government’s power development department. She maintains that the relief and salaries in their favour have ultimately become a slow poison for a community that was hardworking. Her husband, who she says, had been a workaholic till he was busy with a job in the Valley, now just sits idle at home the whole day. Because the relief is coming in and so is the salary. “It is losing our dignity and changing the character of our community,” she rues.
That is one side of the coin. A major chunk of Kashmiri migrants is qualified, well educated, most of them equipped with government jobs. In fact, the character and professional culture of the Kashmiris need to be studied at this pint. The Kashmiri Pandits despite being a minuscule population in the Valley bagged a major chunk of all professional jobs - teachers, officers and doctors for decades together. Over a period of years, from the sixties onwards, with the increasing literacy level of the Kashmiri Muslims, the Pandit community felt that their exclusive domain was being encroached upon. But with the mass exodus in 1990, the Pandits lost their domination and monopoly in these fields altogether, something that has not been maintained in the younger generation that grew outside the Valley. They have access to better education outside with several states offering seat reservations solely for the Kashmiri migrants. The Kashmiris are thus benefiting economically but at the same time losing culturally with the younger generation abandoning the traditional vocations and choosing other careers and other cultures outside Jammu and Kashmir and assimilating themselves into an alien culture.
The Doda migrants, or for that matter those from Rajouri-Poonch or other border areas, do not have such a choice. A majority of these displaced people is either employed in defence forces or depend on agriculture or nomadic way of life. Practically, agriculture or nomadic lifestyle is not feasible in their new places of refuge - mostly in and around Jammu. Since they are not very well educated, they remain deprived of jobs as well. Even basic education remains a far-fetched dream.
The media has not been very analytical about the genesis and background of such issues and the ground realities. The issues are viewed in isolation, either by coverage of press conferences or based on hurried visits to the largest camp at Belicharana, near Jammu airport, where a myopic view of the problem is observed. Much of the cause of the genuinely displaced from these areas was lost when cases of illegal occupation of forestland at Sidhra came to light. Media reports prior to this were negligible.
Is there a planned design in media complimenting the official stand in differential identification of the internally displaced people? Should the media be relying only on the official jargon to recognise anyone as internally displaced? Should only those who are officially recognised as ‘displaced’ be treated as the legitimately displaced even by the media? One reason for the prejudice, as mentioned earlier, is that media often relies on the official version. Secondly, there is also a differential perception in how the local and national media treats and construes an important news. Though the local media occasionally reports the issues of the migrants of these lesser-known areas, they by and large do not appear in the national newspapers or the electronic media as do the stories related to the Kashmiri Pandits displaced from the Valley. Is there a deliberate design according preferential treatment to the people displaced from the Valley, by and large Hindus, over the mixed displacement from Rajouri-Poonch and Doda areas. The media has often reported the Muslim majority in Jammu & Kashmir in poor light to suit the political interests of the successive governments at the Centre or other vested interests in the name of `national interest’. Is this differential treatment of the displaced an offshoot of the same policy? This is seen not only while reporting the displaced people but also the victims. The coverage and space are often determined by the community of the victims with the Hindu and the Sikh minorities making banner-headlines, often distorted out of context and picture. Even though, majority of the people killed in militancy-related violence are Muslims - civilians or those involved in militancy, they are neither accorded the similar kind of space or importance. During the 1996 parliamentary polls, the Times of India specially flew in a senior correspondent to cover the polls, probably feeling that the local reporter in Srinagar would be hamstrung with a local bias. But ultimately, the paper used the reports filed by agencies because the coverage of boycott of polls by this specially flown-in correspondent did not suit the `national interest’ of the newspaper.
Either the local reporters are not taken seriously by the national dailies or they toe the official line. The Muslim displacements disappear totally when it comes to national media or much of Jammu-based media that toes the official line as well. Ironically then, media organisations and reporters who have played an objective role in the communal riots of Mumbai and then Gujarat have played in the hands of vested interests in Jammu & Kashmir - probably to balance their defence of Muslim minority in India with the projection of victimisation of selectively Hindus in a Muslim majority state. Even though, this picture is far from the truth. Even though, it is one of most irresponsible specimens of reporting facts. A news-item published in the Hindustan Times on September 10, 2002 datelined Surankote chooses to see a design in communal killings, their displacement and the assembly elections. The reporter argues that the Hindu vote-bank is being affected.
Most of the Hindu population has fled the Valley. They have sold off their properties and shifted to Jammu and elsewhere, they say, adding: “We could not run away. One day we will either be killed or driven away from here.” … On Sunday night when the militants wiped out the last two Hindu families in Dodasan Pain, near Thanna Mandi, the message for the community was clear. Officials may call them terror acts, but the people of the area describe it as `ethnic cleansing’. The resentment rings loud. ... “The Hindus believe the militants who have set up bases here can strike anytime and are using the elections as an excuse to exterminate the community in the hills”, they add.
There is no record whatsoever of the fleeing families though such incidents do trigger off temporary displacements in the region. Which sources is the reporter relying on? Are they residents of the village? And where exactly are they putting up? But most importantly, the report ignores the killing of eight Muslims in a nearby village a few days after this Dodasan Pain incident as against the five Hindus killed. Is the Muslim killing supposed to be accidental? Terror act? Or election related? Or supposed to be simply non-existent? Facts take a back seat in any conflict. They are often distorted and misinterpreted, making it historically dangerous. Arrant pieces of fictional journalism on lesser-known displacements have done much damage. Absolute blackout of the stories has done greater harm still, leaving the historical reality of these people as merely oral stories mouthed out locally, with of course the perils of being misinterpreted in the face of absence of documentation at all. Much of the displacements from Rajouri-Poonch or Doda, or stories of victim-hood are thus mired in mystery, re-appearing in print only when ‘newsworthy’ massacres take place. The connected stories become only a part of what could well be called, local ‘folk-lore’.
The migrations from the border areas or across the borders is an abiding reality rooted in the division of India in 1947, leaving the state of Jammu and Kashmir disputed forever. The more the borders and the line of control are fenced or militarised by increasing presence of troops, ironically the greater is the insecurity and war threats, causing frightening displacements internally or across the dividing line. As is the case between India and Pakistan, Jammu and Kashmir facing maximum brunt, being the major bone of contention between the two giants in the south Asian region. Over a period of five and a half decades, Indian and Pakistani leaders have allowed the prejudices of 1947 to get the better of peace, thus deteriorating the situation. Three full-fledged wars and the mini-scale Kargil war have been waged on the soil of Jammu & Kashmir with the leaders of two sides engaged in a war of rhetoric and perpetrating a propaganda of hatred, projected by the media, often in the name of ‘national security’ and ‘national interest’. The search for peace thus remains trapped in the paradigm of ‘national security’. The media, obviously, either does not question who or why and for whom is the ‘national interest’ or ‘national security’ being constructed or either is too scared to do so, fearing it would invite slapping of legal proceedings in the name of sedition and official secrets or other draconian acts. Thus, the enemy is demonised day in and day out, creating a wider gap and making peace an even remoter possibility. So much so that war or no war, troops build-up or no build-up, exchange of firing and shelling between the Indian and Pakistani troops is a routine feature. Jammu & Kashmir, which shares a common boundary of 1820 kilometres, faces the maximum brunt. Any action of violence on the borders and stepped up firing is naturally followed by forced displacements on both sides, temporary or permanent. Over the years, lakhs of people have borne the stamp of refugees or the internally displaced people on both sides of a divided Jammu & Kashmir. Whether it was 1947-48, 1965 or 1971 war, people were displaced from their native lands and forced to seek refuge across the borders, where they have spent several decades with or without a proper refugee status.
After the partition of India, people from both sides crossed the border. Those who came to the India-controlled Jammu & Kashmir are still treated as refugees and they yearn for Indian citizenship rights. Rehabilitation packages have been promised several times but forgotten about. The biggest migration took place in 1971 during the Indo-Pak war when the entire Chhamb area in Jammu division went into Pakistan. As the area could not be re-captured, the displaced families had to be kept in tented camps at Manwal, about 60 kilometres from Jammu. The government provided them with some land and cash doles in 1976 but their demands of adequate rehabilitation are still pending. A peculiar case is of the people of Turtuk in Ladakh. The region near the foothills of the Siachen glacier was occupied by Pakistan in 1948 along with its people and re-occupied by the Indian forces in 1971 along with its entire population. The question is not just of displacements but also of identity crisis. A set of people, for whom the ethnic identity alone is constant, goes through an identity crisis because they have not been given right to choose their national identity. The net result is that they are mistrusted and dubbed as outsiders, despite their landholdings being kept intact. Sankarshan Thakur writing in the Telegraph in 1999 wrote that the area typifies the symptoms of what we call a border dispute. “The uncertainties of its history and geography have alchemised a complex psyche - Turtuk straddles a shifting line between India and Pakistan so perhaps it is no wonder its loyalties too shift”.
Whatever the long chronology of displacements in history, media plays a somewhat silent role vis-à-vis the traumas of the displaced and the people affected in the hostilities and violence on the borders while it remains pre-occupied largely with the task of playing a tool in the hands of the state-actors in building up war hype or demonising the neighbours called, ‘enemy’. Or, it chooses to do so for creating a market for news. The focus on the violence and the statistics of violence thus suits the interests of the leaders of the country, who would want to shift the attention away from the issues that would necessitate the construction of an opinion for peace.
For all practical purposes, the greatest disservice was noticed in 1999 when electronic media joined the bandwagon to propel the state role in demonising the ‘enemy’ and thus, began an era of ‘glamourising’ the war manifold by what is commonly called ‘bringing the war straight to the drawing room’ syndrome. The war stories revolved around statistics of killings and shelling events or told of the heroic deaths as coffin after coffin sent from Kargil of the martyred soldiers was featured more prominently than any other consequence of the war. While the electronic media had been obviously selectively pampered and co-opted by frequent helicopter trips to Bataliks and foot of the famous Tiger hills or satellite telephones, much of the print media relied simply on the official handouts. A. K. Chaturvedi, chief of New Delhi Bureau of Hitavada in his recently published book Information War: Challenges in the twenty-first century acknowledges this fact but defends the decision to provide special facilities to television channels with an international reach as serving a ‘national purpose’. He makes another interesting observation: “The Union government has decided to invest over Rs. 400 crores to expand and strengthen AIR and Doordarshan’s facilities in the border areas of Jammu and Kashmir so as to reach out to people in the remote and isolated hamlets”. The decision came close on the heels of Kargil war when there was a realisation that media could be used to give a ‘suitable’ twist to the war. The people in the border areas, who have all along relied more on the Pakistan radio stations for news and communication because of poor AIR (All-India Radio) and DD (Door Darshan or the state-run television channel) reception, were being offered a facility, not for facilitating communication for these residents, but only for the purpose of reaching out the government propaganda to the masses of the borders. This is an apt example of how the state players co-opt media and employ it for political ends.
Kargil coverage only bolstered the confidence of the vested interests as war jargon simply oscillated between the ‘enemy’ and the ‘heroic martyrs’. That was the official line. But the media appeared to be no different, imaginative or investigative. It was like more-loyal-than-the-king attitude as the voices in media questioning the logic of war and intelligence failure or those warning of the perils of the war became marginalised with reporters and editors donning the role of warmongers. Issues of the majority of the people did not make news. Not even those related to the war — price hikes and not even displacements. These figured were simple statistics, mostly doled by the official agencies and often were not followed up. Most of the stories were too small and poorly displayed to be noticed. And they hardly projected the people’s perspectives. Instead the media relied more on the information by the army regarding the help rendered in the migrant camps at Kargil and elsewhere in Jammu & Kashmir. The Star News that took the lead in glamourising the war and demonising the enemy, also boasted of having churned out the humanitarian aspect of the war. It invoked the sensibilities of the Indian elite and the upper middle class with the saga of martyrdom, coffins and widows. But the voices of thousands of people uprooted, rendered homeless, landless and penniless became totally voiceless, as if they did not exist or did not matter. As if it did not serve the ‘national interest’ to talk about the ugly face of war - that was neither heroic nor demonising the ‘enemy’. It was a vulgar over-simplification of the war.
When Kargil began, people in thousands were uprooted from the borders of Kargil, forced to a life of deprivation in the already backward cold desert. The intensified war also accentuated the hostilities all along the line of control and the international borders and people throughout the border areas, in Kashmir & Jammu region were forced to flee from some areas. Prominent is the case of the migrants from Palanwalla, in Akhnoor sector, most of whom are still putting up in Devipur camp near Akhnoor, four years hence. They are still voiceless as far as the national media is concerned, hamstrung as the reporters are with issues of territorial security, obsessed as their editors are with larger national interests that cannot question the defence wisdom or lack of it.
Though, the regional media was more benevolent, highlighting their plight in shabby tents, their affected agriculture, homes, perished cattle and plight of education but there was very little said on the basic question of the justification of the war or how the warnings of local Kargil people were ignored about infiltrators. The editorial comment and the dominant news stories continued to be trapped in chauvinistic kind of patriotism, the jingoism and hype reinforcing the worst kind of prejudices. The kind of havoc the war wrought on the common people was lost in the paradigms of national security. The media was either implicated in giving out the official version, often quoting them as highly placed sources, or in uncritically reporting irresponsible, chauvinistic and motivated statements by politicians against Pakistan or the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan) repeatedly to create a hype that forbids anyone to think beyond the guns that roared on the hills of Kargil. The only tragedy being acknowledged stemmed from the coffins that flew out of Kargil every day. Calls for cease-fire and peace were derided and denounced as anti-national, military security over-powered and over-shadowed the notion of human security. A Times of India editorial even lashed out, when intellectuals in India and Pakistan advocated restraint, “It is like advocating restraint equally to the rapists and the rape victim”. It was a mad frenzy being created in the name of patriotism, media becoming a force multiplier, refusing to report from the other side or even from the humanitarian angle even when it came to Indian citizens becoming victims of war. Like, Rajendra Yadav, a writer and then a member of Prasar Bharti Board said at a seminar on `Kargil and media’ organised by the Press Club of India on July 25, 1999: “This frenzy appears to have been created to help a political party. It was therefore more dangerous than war itself since it questioned the patriotism of the minority community”. He also felt that the way the dead bodies of the soldiers were highlighted in the media appears that there was a design behind it to whip up nationalistic fervour. He feared media became a part of that design. But the Indian Army has claimed that the role of Indian media was “supportive” during the Kargil War. But a more important question is - should the media be pleased about this certificate given by the Indian Army? Should the media gloat over the achievements of playing into the hands of a ruling party at the Centre at the cost of human loss, of displaced people, fear, panic and destruction?
The border residents, who were displaced or stood in their villages to bear the brunt of the war silently, became totally invisible, their access to media further threatened by the jingoistic hysteria of war and martyrdom. They simply did not exist unless and until some army officer or politician wanted them to. Professional standards of factuality and impartiality became hostage to the politics of nationalism and patriotism. The victims were constructed on the basis of what would sell more as news and thus, one could see showcasing of relatives of martyrs and ceremonially draped coffins as the victims of the conflict. There was no mention of how the war-hype had rendered people homeless not just on the Kargil borders but also in distant Akhnoor, where the people had to bear the brunt of the fallouts of Kargil hostility, without being noticed by the media. There was a deliberate attempt to blanket out the facts about the displacements during Kargil, thus de-legitimising their victim-hood for the sake of the more ‘newsworthy’ live coverage and statistics. Were the displaced people not being seen as the victims? Not much has appeared since about the Akhnoor migrants putting up in the shabby Devipur camp where lack of privacy, penury, growing unemployment, frustrations landlessness and disturbed education is still an unheard saga. For months the displaced were not noticed but for regional media, for months they had no relief. When it finally came, it was too meagre, not more than Rs. 1000 per family and minimal rations for a largely rustic population who consider the inadequate food as a poor joke. But the peoples’ access to either corridors of power or the media was so minute that the issue came to be highlighted much later when the January 2002 India-Pakistan standoff forced fresh exodus from the border areas all along the state of Jammu & Kashmir. Jammu & Kashmir shares a 1820 kilometre common border (of which 1600 kilometres is line of control) with Pakistan. According to a study on the print media’s Kargil war coverage by the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC) Delhi, more than 1000 human-interest stories appeared in 300 issues of several newspapers surveyed. It mentioned that human-interest stories (condition of present and former soldiers, neglected for years) occupied prime newspaper space. But did not say a word on the civilians affected by the war.
India-Pakistan Standoff (2002)
The belligerence in media has a natural bearing on the cases of injustice, social inequalities and sufferings of the people as these are marginalised because the bellicose voices must be given front page coverage, or in the case of the electronic media a better footage. And in case, the sufferings are a cause of the belligerent mood of the country, these must be treated as trivial and sacrificed at the altar of national security and national interest. The belligerent trend in media was even more visible when India-Pakistan relations were further strained after the December 13 parliament attack. Though, this trend was more noticeable after the May 2002 Kaluchak massacre in which 24 people, mostly families of army men, were killed, in the news-items and the editorial comment, the early signs of this trend were noticed in December 2001 when media went on a spree of Pakistan-bashing. The electronic media repeated reel after reel of the attack on the parliament and print media began seeing the attack in the backdrop of the Kargil conflict and the Kandahar hijacking to demonise Pakistan. So steadfast was media in bashing Pakistan that most senior editors and reporters backed out of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA)-organised media conference in Kathmandu on January 1, 2002. The conference was a follow-up of the July 2000 conference held in Islamabad, which had the blessings of both the Indian and the Pakistani governments. Nobody wanted to be a part of any South Asian meet which could become a probable platform of criticising the Indian stand of snapping air-links, communication channels and the troops buildup along the borders that came in the wake of December 13 attack. In fact, senior editors took time off their busy schedule to influence others to drop out of the conference at the last minute. That was a reflection of how the media was to behave in the next six months or so. Barring comment by a handful of regular columnists, which some newspapers and magazines were benevolent enough to accord space, there was no other word on the utility or logic of the troops build-up and the politics behind it.
While there was little or no transparency about the troops movement and the kind of conflict Indian troops were engaged in with their Pakistani counterparts, the news reports once again were reduced to a chronicle of statistics. The immediate displacements of the border people were reported this time, finding space both in the electronic and the print media but mostly existed as numbers of families without going into the causes of why this happened. In the light of lack of information by the army and the border areas becoming inaccessible, an obvious attempt of any media-person reporting the conflict from the displacement perspective was to shift the needle of suspicion to the Pakistan shelling and firing, which of course was true. But only partly was it true. Equally true was the number of sufferers among civilians on the other side of the border, which could not be reported because portraying the army in poor light would not serve the national security interest. Much of the migrations around this time took place, not just due to the shelling and firing exchange between the two troops on both the sides but more so, because of the heavy landmines emplaced by the Indian and the Pakistani troops in their respective territories, making villages and agricultural fields a forbidden zone for the villagers of the border areas. The logic being used by army officials and the politicians was that this was imperative to check infiltrations. Not many questioned it, not even when the coming months saw the infiltration on a higher side and allowed militants to strengthen bases in the interiors while the troops were busy engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball conflict. Frontline reported (May 25, 2002): “One official justification for the border buildup was that it could serve to restrict cross-border movement, a claim official data themselves rebut”. It adds:
When the border build-up began, Army officials had been told that the enterprise had the support of US, which wished to use it to leverage Pakistan to de-escalate in Jammu and Kashmir. If the claim was indeed true, the US evidently backed out of its end of the deal. By March, US officials had begun to assert that there was a reduction in cross-border movement. This assertion flew in the face of Indian intelligence data and demonstrable fact of high levels of violence in Jammu.
At least 25,000 acres of land was affected by the 2002 mine-laying operation in Jammu & Kashmir alone. This meant several people were rendered homeless and several acres of agricultural land rendered barren and fallow. Besides, the landmines that were being treated as military wisdom, also took a heavy toll of the people, rendering several killed and making many permanently disabled. A Human Rights Watch report in May 2002 stated that this was one of the largest scale mine-laying operations anywhere in the world since 1997, when 122 nations signed the Mine Ban Treaty. Neither India nor Pakistan is a party to the treaty. India apparently began to mine its own territory on December 25, 2001. According to news reports, B. G. Kurvey, Indian convenor of International Campaign to Ban Landmines, the Indian troops planted as many as one million landmines on its territory, all along the borders. Though the army was not willing to admit that the large-scale displacements had taken place because the border villages had been heavily mined, Jammu & Kashmir police chief, speaking to newspersons in Jammu in the last week of December confirmed that there was a correlation. The issue was not given much weightage by the media. In less than three weeks time, mining in the border areas of Jammu, forming a stretch of 300 kilometres of international border, was almost complete and the villages looked like ravaged historic monuments, the people having moved to comparatively safer zones. Initial reports in the media, both in print and electronic provided ample space to the displacements and the landmines, without seeing a connection between the two. The displacements were often stories of victim-hood, without actually going into the deeper consequences, without bothering to go into the causes at all. When Human Rights Watch and International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) released their respective reports in May and September 2002 on the landmine operations by India and Pakistan, the media did not report them. The latter mentioned that Indian army officials admitted in July 2002 that mines had been laid over 70,000 hectares along the frontier that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Earlier, ICBL expressing concern over the use of landmine in civilian spaces and agricultural fields had written to the Indian prime minister in a letter dated January 4, 2002:
In a January 2001 letter to the ICBL, your government stated, “India is fully committed to the eventual elimination of antipersonnel landmines”. Yet, the factors and reasons that justify a ban on antipersonnel mines in the future are just as valid today. The antipersonnel mines that are being laid today by Indian troops are likely to take the lives and limbs of numerous Indian civilians in the coming years. Indeed the media has already reported civilian casualties - a bicyclist was killed on New Year’s Day in the Bikaner district, and a child was injured in the same region last week. In addition to the casualties, large tracts of agricultural land are now being denied to Indian farmers. Clearance will no doubt be a long, costly and dangerous process.
But the contents of the letter were not made public knowledge by media. The landmines were reported only when casualties were recorded in mine blasts. But here too, the reliance was more or less on the official handouts and official spokesmen, who often underscored the threats of landmines to the civilians. One of the earliest reports was carried by Hitvada, and English newspaper from Nagpur on December 27, 2001, stating that one person had been injured and two camels and thirty goats killed when they strayed into minefields in the districts of Bikaner and Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. Hindustan Times, stated 50 army men had been killed by the landmines accidentally between December 2001 and February 2002 alone. It did not state, how much area had been mined and what was the likely outcome of the same. One of the more detailed accounts appeared in the Chandigarh based Tribune on January 31, 2002. The report quoted Deputy Commissioner of Ferozepur district of Punjab, stating that 27,127 hectares (105 square miles), including 350 villages along the 210 kilometre long international border in the district had been acquired by the Indian army to lay mines to construct fortifications. But there seemed few apparent follow-ups on the kind of havoc the landmines were out to wreak on the people of these villages.
A report in the Times of India on February 9, 2002, more aptly gave an account of the expected perils. The report noted that four people were injured in separate incidents in the Amritsar district during the week of January 16-20, 2002. It said:
Thousands of acres along the Indo-Pak border have been mined by the Army, with no markers to give warnings. In some places, a narrow ribbon with a faintly written ‘Danger’ sign in Punjabi is the only indicator for the largely illiterate village population not to stray into these heavily mined fields. ... Army officials in Delhi counter these fears by insisting that all minefields are laid according to a plan and that records of the mine-laying are diligently maintained. Army spokesman Col Shruti Kant says: “Each mine is accounted for and taken out by the same set of troops after the assigned task is over”.
According to a report in Tribune on January 6, 2002, Indian Army officials requested that the Punjab government impose controls on the movement of journalists in border areas after several stories appeared about deaths caused by mine explosions. The same report notes that local prosecutors may take action using the Indian Official Secrets Act to prevent information about minefields being disseminated.
Interestingly, NDTV team accompanied by the army officers visited the R. S. Pura border sector in Jammu and took photographs of Indian troops laying mines. But despite being an escorted visit, the incident created uproar in the army, which decided that filming the ‘landmines’, was a ‘breach of security’. The reporters were thereafter denied any access to the border areas. Those who managed to go had to sneak in as locals.
On the whole reports on civilian casualties and losses due to landmines were rare in the mainstream media. And still rarer — when it came to the question of mining the areas in Jammu and Kashmir. What was reported about Punjab or Gujarat was almost considered blasphemous when it came to Kashmir, when it becomes a question of national security and national prestige more than the question of human security. The regional media fared better than the national media on reporting landmines. Several reports appeared in the Srinagar and Jammu-based newspapers, notably in the Indian Express (Chandigarh edition) and Kashmir Times, which reported on May 10 and May 12 (series of reports), a few days before the Kaluchak massacre when tensions had slightly eased off on the borders:
The possible war between India and Pakistan may have eventually been averted and the things may return to normal but for the border residents of Jammu and Kashmir there is no way out and they might continue to suffer for years to come due to the landmines laid by the army on at least 25,000 acres of land along the Indo-Pak border in the state. ... Official records reveal 27 persons including 20 security personnel have received critical injuries in mine explosions in the Jammu and Kashmir borders in the last four months. But unofficial reports suggest that the number is much higher than what is being actually shown and it is expected to increase as the troops are withdrawn from the borders. ... For the residents of more than 35 villages in Pargwal sector near Akhnoor, who have just returned to their villages after spending more than two months in inhuman conditions in various government buildings, home is no more a place of safety with bullets fired from across the border and the landmines laid by their own army. … Although, the defence officials claim that the residents of border villages have been strictly prohibited to step into the minefield, which have been demarcated, the border residents say that since the crop is ready for harvesting they have no alternative but go to the fields.
The report notes, quoting doctors working on the mine blast victims, that most of the injured victims of mine blasts suffer permanent disability and often come from the lower strata of society. It makes an interesting revelation about why the effects of landmines are likely to be more prolonged than the hostility between the two countries. It quotes army officers on conditions of anonymity that most of the mines are never de-activivated. Firstly because clearance is a difficult job that claims several lives and takes many years to complete in striking contrast to the emplacement of mines. Secondly and more importantly, it states that army was rushed into the job of laying landmines and much of the operation was carried out in haste without relying on the proper maps, thus making detection and defusing them a difficult task.
The report mentions two incidents. One in Arnia sector of Jammu district where a victim died on the spot and it took the army more than six hours to evacuate the body from the field. Another incident is mentioned by Pamela Bhagat writing for Women Feature Service, about Kargil mining operations, which was heavily strewn with mines in 1999, quoting an army officer.
A team of soldiers led by a Lieutenant was assigned the job of detecting the landmines, he said, and added that it took the team 24 hours to clear a 10 X 10 metres area to pitch tents for immediate encampment. The team detected more than 250 APLs in four days. Despite all the precautions the Lieutenant, leading the team, stepped on a landmine and his leg was blown up.
However, much of the media space dedicated to the issue of landmines was simple statistics that too as per the official spokesmen, who obviously always played down the casualties of the civilians and were even discreet in the initial stages in disclosing the casualties suffered by the army jawans. A recent story in the Outlook is a case in point. (May 19, 2003) It is the story of 387 Indian soldiers killed in the ten month long Indo-Pak standoff on the borders. It paints a sordid picture of the trauma of the soldiers and their families in the India-Pakistan hostilities, giving statistics about the number of soldiers killed and injured in landmines as 75 and 291 respectively. It also gives details of the killings in army action, due to accidents and environmental psychological strain. It shows how the hostile atmosphere brought havoc and deaths and destruction. But it does not mention any civilian death, undermining and underscoring the human tragedy that the standoff brought. It mentions, while questioning the wisdom of the operation:
More than anything else, the human cost of that build-up is what is bothering many serving officers. Many heart-rending stories of jawans and officers losing their lives - either by stepping on landmines or committing suicides - forms the sub-text of the country’s largest peace time military mobilisation.
But no word on the civilian killings in action, in landmine blasts, their displacement thereof. Did that not fit the bill of the ‘human cost’ the reporters were talking about? Curiously, while media has chosen to underscore the human tragedy suffered by the civilian population and refused to acknowledge the correlation between landmines and displacements, it has also failed to give a detailed account of the kind of threat a landmine actually spells. Its aftermath is not as short-lived as that of the booming guns and mortar fire shelling. Once the hostility is over, its perils continue. A report in Indian Express (9 June 1003) ‘All in the family: 3rd one victimised by mines’ is reflective of the kind of havoc mines wreak in the borders. It is a moving tale of three victims of landmines in the same family from a border village in Kupwara – all of whom were disabled over a period of years. The latest casualty (till the time the report was submitted, Editor) was on June 5. The border villages of Mendhar tehsil in Poonch have the unfortunate distinction of highest number of mine casualties. Locals say, ten percent population in these villages is either maimed or dead due to mine blasts. As Tim Carstairs of the British Mines Awareness Group said in an interview to the ABC: “If you take the idea of mining a border, or mining an area which may be contested, what you are doing really is creating a wasteland for many years to come, a wasteland that people cannot use, cannot farm effectively”.
But that is not how the media would choose to report. Just days before India and Pakistan started their heavy mining operation in late December 2001, UNI/Reuters had reported on the Afghanistan mining, the viewpoint of some experts:
Some military experts in Afghanistan, the most mined country in the world, which has decided to sign the ban treaty, voiced their concern that the definitions contained in the treaty are so loose as to make it almost useless. One of them said, “many people think of a landmine only as something you put in the ground and which detonates when you stand on it or drive over it. But what is to stop someone using a grenade with a trip wire attached to the pin to cause the same effect. Is that a mine or a grenade?
The report also reveals a strong undercurrent in the media in reporting the issue of landmines. While the national media preferred to blackout or pay little attention to the landmines on the Indo-Pak borders, it had spent months in the aftermath of the September 11 and US aggression on Afghanistan probing about the landmines in Afghanistan. Much like the role of the CNN and the BBC in liberally reporting landmines in South Asia while ignoring those in Afghanistan or Iraq. Since the reliance is more on the official information and since the question of landmines gets trapped in the vocabulary of defence wisdom and security concerns, the ‘nationalist’ reporters rarely ever want to touch on the controversial subject. The same is true of the Indian, American or the British reporters. It is almost like a universal truth.
Thus, media often fails to go ahead in probing the wisdom and propriety in actions of military preparedness. Though, the media did not altogether blackout appeals by Amnesty and other human rights organisations warning against landmines, there was an obvious attempt not to see the mining operation as a violation of international conventions and laws. As civilian casualties in mine blasts, howsoever downplayed and underscored, were reported one after the other, not a single report or comment questioned why this was happening. The newspaper reports detailed about the fields rendered fallow, the crops damaged and the casualties due to landmines, about the compensation and relief farmers and victims received thereof. But failed to take note of the fact that much of the relief was not adequate, as in the case of Jammu & Kashmir where even the un-mined fields had become inaccessible due to the mining of some fields. But there was no compensation for that. It failed to point out how this was against the international conventions and laws, against the 1996 Amended Protocol II of the 1980 Convention on Conventional Weapons, to which both India and Pakistan are signatories, and which restricts the way countries can use anti-personnel mines and the types of mines they can use. It forbids use of landmines in civilian areas and in agricultural fields. There were questions raised by a handful of columnists, which found place in some magazines and newspapers or the editorial comment in Kashmir Times. Even the Srinagar-based papers were treading very cautiously on the issue. The landmines, being used extensively by the militants in the last one decade and over 1,000 people in the interiors having been killed in these killer mines, it was not considered ‘safe’ to comment on a ‘war strategy’ that was also endorsed by the militants. In the Valley, where the journalists are caught between extremely dangerous positions, it becomes very difficult to criticise either the militants or the government agencies. In fact, some of the Srinagar-based newspapers including the Urdu dailies abandoned their editorials altogether during the peak of militancy when they felt that they were under tremendous pressures from both the sides. The fear persists even today and becomes more pronounced every time a major incident takes place or any media-person is attacked.
The ICBL carried out a field research in the border villages of Jammu region in February-March 2000. Researchers identified more than 200 victims from mines planted in the 1947-48, 1965 and 1971 India-Pakistan wars. A Kashmir Times report in January 2002 also pointed out the long-term perils of landmines that lay embedded in the borders for years, stating how weather and time actually cause landmines to shift from the original place, thus making the mapping exercise a redundant process if the mines continue to exist for long. It also pointed out how the mines of the previous years have still continued to play havoc with the people. It noted:
According to rough estimates, 2,000 landmine victims were recorded between Rajouri and Poonch border areas, constituting a length of 300 kilometres, alone between 1947 and 1989. The border district of Kupwara has been no exception from 1947 till date. Some years back, an army spokesman had confirmed that there are 51 minefields near the line of control in Kupwara district with a minimum of 100 landmines in each field. In a stretch of 12 kilometres of land, at least 5,000 landmines lay buried for decades.
Another report in January 2003 also points out the de-mining operations in Samba and Kathua but non-existence in Akhnoor and beyond, where the line of control begins. The army has not refuted any of these claims and there is a possibility that LoC may never be included in the de-mining agenda at all. The report also points out how laborious and grinding the de-mining process can actually be. Compare this with a Hindustan Times report in August 2002, when the Indo-Pakistan standoff better known in official parlance as the Operation Parakaram was called off. It mentioned how the army was busy with the process of de-mining. It quoted no source, did not reflect on the areas where the de-mining process was beginning, how much time it would take or question the practical difficulties, giving an impression that mines could be de-activated at the press of the button.
Officials were tight lipped till as late as January 2003 on whether they were actually going ahead with de-mining or not, and were not willing to divulge any information. The displaced people, however, had begun moving back, even though their movement, due to the landmines, still continues to be restricted around their villages and in their own fields. It was as late as in March 2003 that the figures of de-mining were detailed in the parliament. A UNI report from Delhi on March 11, 2003 mentioned, 58 percent de-mining operation on the border was over, quoting defence sources. There was no other investigation on whether the figures doled out were the actual truth. It did not mention the scale of the de-mining operation or how long back it had begun and how much more it would take to de-mine the entire area or whether this was in the cards in the first place at all. It did not mention whether the statistics doled out also including the line of control. It mentioned that 63 persons had been injured, including 3 civilians accidentally, during the mine recovery process. All the rest were army jawans (soldiers). By all probable indications, the de-mining process had begun as far back as in January 2003 or even much before. The figures being doled out officially stood for the entire Indo-Pak border including Jammu & Kashmir, Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat. But according to reports appearing in Kashmir Times, during the period of February 1, 2003 and March 20, 2003 alone, four civilians were reported injured in mine blasts in Jammu district alone, most of the patients undergoing amputation of limbs. Between January 2003 and April 26, 2003, the paper reported 13 mine victims in Jammu district alone, some of whom had died. The reporter states these reports could be misleading, since there is never any compilation of the record of the civilian landmine victims, though these are maintained at the tehsil level every month. The number of casualties may be on a higher side since the reporter had based his stories on the victims in the largest government hospital in Jammu, Government Medical College Hospital, where these victims were admitted for treatment. Obviously, several other patients admitted in sub-district hospitals were not being reported at all. But, even these fragments of reports have exposed the lie of the official figures doled out on the casualties of civilians.
Once the media starts talking about de-mining, the general impression goes that all is now well and the farmers and the victims have been adequately compensated which is far from being true. Pamela Bhagat writing for Womens Feature Service ‘Landmines in Paradise’ (April 2002) mentions several survivor assistance programmes for rehabilitating the victims through prosthetics and self-employment as well as ‘locomotor disability’ relief under the Persons with Disabilities Act of 1995. She, however, regrets that this Act is not applicable to the state of Jammu & Kashmir. She also points out that the irony of Indian army being involved in UN-sponsored mine clearing programmes round the world while this expertise is not used in India where formal mine awareness programmes are absent. I point out, this is grave neglect considering the numbers that continue to be victimised by the landmines that continue to be laid wherever the military is deployed to counter external aggression.
A report in Frontline in May 2002 mentioned:
Along much of the international border in Jammu, it is easy to imagine that the war has already come about. ... On May 19, full-blown artillery exchanges began to the north of the Line of Control (LoC), from Lam and Rajouri to Uri. Almost 500 rounds landed around a single village of Gakhrial near Akhnoor. Till May 19, only two soldiers and two civilians had been reported killed while some 25 civilians had been reported injured. But losses in terms of property and cattle have been high, provoking an exodus reminiscent of the one that took place in January this year.
The exact number of internally displaced people from the border areas following the troops buildup on the borders in the aftermath of December 13, 2001 attack on Indian parliament and the heavy mining operations is not known. Any headcount would be elusive since not all the displaced people are putting up at the camps. Some of them being left behind gave a graphic description of how a sparsely populated village, after the migrations took place, deals with the situation, while hoping for the best.
Media on the whole presented a more or less realistic picture of the trauma of the displaced people during the 2002 tensions on the borders. But what landed them in the mess in the first place was something that media was more or less divided over. Some were tightlipped on why all these events took shape. Some even went to the extent of launching an offensive on behalf of the state-players to counter the criticism against the troops buildup, a decision that was being questioned by some columnists and editors. The former wrote editorials on the plight of the displaced people in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir camps to counter the criticism against the government for forcing the border residents to flee and then providing them with shabby treatment in the camps on this side.
Displacements in Pakistan-held Kashmir
Absolute reliance on the information doled out by the official organs mars the projection of the picture on the other side. Though the usual defence handouts mentioned the jawans and civilians killed on this side, houses devastated in the shelling by Pakistani army, they remained silent on the death and devastation on the other side. A usual principle is followed, necessitated by the paradigm of ‘patriotism’ being invoked - ‘never report from the enemy side’. The traumas of the people in the Kashmir on the other side of the firing line thus became a subject to be ignored by the media. The displacements on the other side are never reported, one-third of Jammu & Kashmir state totally blacked out due to lack of information. Even in an age of cyber-world, the Pakistani websites are hardly ever relied upon unless the newspaper editors are downloading articles critical of the functioning of the Pakistani government. During Kargil, the worst thing happened. The Indian government, courtesy the VSNL, blocked some of the well-known Pakistani sites. PTV (the state-run Pakistan television) was also put off air on the plea that it was churning out anti-India propaganda, thus ensuring that people got to read and listen what the government wanted them to see and hear. A Telegraph report on June 3, 1999 thus comes as a rare surprise. It notes:
Pakistan’s Kashmir government ordered all schools along the shell-ravaged border closed on Wednesday after a second school was hit in as many days by Indian shells. On Tuesday, 10 high school students were killed when Indian shells pounded border villages in the Neelum Valley. ...
These two groups seem to be moving at totally differing wavelengths. Do media reports negotiate the structure of the project being taken up by the non-government organisations? Very rarely. But recently when Oxfam, a multi-national funding and monitoring agency, took up the project of providing better infrastructure to the border migrants in their camps in Jammu region, the coordinators maintained that initially it was the media reports that held their attention. The Oxfam, which collaborated with three Jammu-based NGOs worked for a brief period of six months. The change in the border migrants’ camps, they had adopted, may have been significant. But the Oxfam coordinators were not very satisfied. The problem was the lack of vision among local NGOs and their total reliance on the funding agencies, whether from outside or from the government. The approach is so project-based that media reports could hardly play a role in inspiring them. Before Oxfam finished its programme in March 2003, it facilitated several meetings calling for a networking of NGOs working in border areas, intellectuals and academicians. The need was felt to bring a closer liaison between the media and the NGOs to make NGO activism more broad-based. But it is seemingly turning out to be a difficult task to make the local NGOs come out of their basic shell of dwelling only on specific problems like water shortage and lack of schools without seeing the issues in totality including those of the border migrants for a long-term solution. While much of the media fails to project in totality the fundamental issues and problems of the people in general and displaced people in particular, the NGOs too refuse to borrow any vision from the media, even if there is one, and work on it. Not only because of their lack of far-sight but also because of the losing credibility of the media in revealing the truth. Even for their smaller projects, they rely more on their own local networking. For instance, two groups working on landmine victims, providing the permanently disabled with artificial limbs, in Akhnoor and Poonch respectively do not wait for the news-reports to reach them, They have their own networking in their own areas, which functions by word of mouth. Either the distressed people get in touch with them or they contact them through the word that is spread.
Women and Media
Women and children comprise over 75 to 80 percent of the population in any conflict and bear the brunt of displacements. But media reports on displacements, while being repetitive in the discourse of victim-hood, have not focused on the women trauma and agony. The women’s perspective has only been offered space by researchers and outside agencies. The women’s voice is absolutely missing or finds negligible space. Social activist and teacher Indu Killam says, the women who suffer the misery of displacements more by virtue of being mothers, wives and sisters and also because of the cultural erosion that hits them directly, have not been covered adequately by the media. The changing cultural identities of the younger generation and the teenagers, opting for new professions and better career prospects outside the state is also something that hits the women more. Yet, as far as media is concerned, despite thirteen years of displacements, the women in Kashmiri Pandit camps are almost invisible. She points out several traumas of the women displaced inside and outside the camps. The camps have turned into virtual casinos, becoming hubs of gambling for the men and youth. The women, to earn an extra buck, have begun stocking cigarettes for sale, something that is alien to the culture of Kashmir. Since they are relegated to the four walls of the one or two room tenements that are now their homes in the camps, more than the men do, they are denied privacy and space to interact freely. Some Kashmiri Pandits including Dr K. L. Chowdhary, also a Panun Kashmir activist, working on the consequences of the stress and paucity of space in the camps, have also carried out random surveys on how thirteen years of displacement have led to induced menopause among women and impotency in men in their late thirties and forties. This has also led to a negative growth rate in the camps. Similar trends are also noticeable among Kashmiri Pandits outside the camps even among the upper class displaced; stress, alien culture, shock and alien climate taking its toll. The stress factor itself began before the displacement. Killam quotes minor things like Pandit women removing their bindis (vermilion marks as the diacritical marks of married Hindu women, Editor) before boarding the bus at the peak of militancy for fear of being identified. Those who stayed on in the Valley after the mass exodus have since foregone their traditional dej-waru, an ornament worn by married Kashmiri Pandit women in the upper part of the ear lobe. The large-scale school dropout rate among the displaced is also a cause of concern for Kashmiri Pandits who were earlier known for their highest literacy rate in the state. The remarkable cultural difference between the older generation and the teenagers who have grown up in an alien land is another area of concern for the women.
Ironically, hordes of women journalists from Delhi have descended in Jammu & Kashmir from time to time to cover the conflict as well as displacement all over the state from time to time. A fresh crop of women journalists has also come up in Jammu, which is home to a large number of displaced people - from Kashmir, Doda and the border areas. But the women’s issues are still something unwritten or unspoken about. A major tragedy is also that women leadership has not emerged. Among the largely illiterate population of Doda and the border areas, this may have been on expected lines. But among Kashmiri Pandits, given their higher literacy levels, it comes as a rude shock. Killam explains this as a consequence of cynicism surfacing among the displaced Kashmiri Pandits on the whole and women in particular. The cynicism also stems from a rat race most displaced joined in a bid to improve their living standards or move on with life in their new habitats. Majority of the affluent Pandits were gripped by an insecurity syndrome which has also led them to join the race of building houses in several cities - Jammu, Pune and Delhi, following the exodus which rendered many homeless. There has been little time for leadership, women included. The women are totally marginalised.
But by far, one of the greatest traumas of the displaced women, especially those living in the camps and ghettoes outside the camps, has been the rising prostitution. A report in Kashmir Times in 2002 made a passing reference to the trend in both Kashmiri camps as well as border migrants’ camps while reporting on the overall increase in prostitution in the state. But so far, there has been no sensitive account of the same and how women suffer from the phenomenon. Similar is the story of the women from the far -flung remote road-less villages in Rajouri and Poonch, where they become victims of molestations and rapes of militants, surrendered militants or security forces, or even distant or close relatives, whoever can lay hands on them, specially in cases where the men-folk have been forced to flee. The cases of forced marriages in these areas are also something that has not been written about. In a much-publicised encounter in which several militants were gunned down by the army at Hill Kaka in Poonch district, nobody reported the plight of three three ‘kidnapped’ women who managed to escape back to their village in Harhi Marore in the same district. The women were probably kidnapped and forcibly married by the ultras and have since the encounter returned back to their village along with one infant. Their kidnapping, says locals, was never reported. Such incidents have become accepted and so have forced marriages - the women given no choice in marriage, their uprooting from home and then finally back to home in case their husbands are killed in encounters. They have no option. But who knows of their plight back in their homes where they continue to wear the shroud of stigma. So far, such incidents have not been reported in the media. But on the other side of it, that might have only been favourable to the women. Majority reporters having a nose for the sensational news, an insensitive manner of reporting their trauma might only do them more harm than good. Who knows, which newsmaker might actually want to showcase such traumas in film capsules and commercialise them in the news market? Unless the media is sensitised, it might only be a blessing in disguise that such women’s issues stay away from the limelight. Besides, adding stigma to the victim, insensitive reports could also damage the cause of the women trying to create their space despite all the pulls and strains of displacements. As Anuradha Chenoy of Jawaharlal Nehru University argues: “Victim-hood has become an integral part of woman’s cultural and social identity. ... Women are first and primarily seen as victims and that tends to put them in a particular hierarchy. It continues to show that they need to be protected and therefore are unable to be empowered”.
World Association for Christian Communication (WACC)-workshop on the information and communication rights of refugees held in Bangalore in October 2002 revealed that none of the countries in South Asia is a party to the UN Convention on Refugees. At the same time it also identified major refugee issues. The consultations took note that refugees have a right to inform and be informed. In the issue of the right to communicate, the theme of access is important - such as access by the refugees to judiciary, to the media and information resources. A consistent programme of bringing to the notice of the media issues relating to refugees is necessary, it was felt. The deliberations also emphasised that human rights community, media practitioners and other concerned communities have to deliberate on alternate media and communication practices, given the fact that news relating to human rights violations reach the audience of the mainstream media only through several stages of filters.
Then given a situation where the state turns its back to the issues of the displaced, can media make a difference? Going by the Kashmir experience, it has already been established, beyond any shadow of doubt, how media while playing into the hands of vested interests, has not only added confusion to the conflict but also communalised the situation, making it difficult for the clock to reverse or the displaced people to search for long-term solutions. For the sake of national interest, it has allowed itself to become the mouthpiece of propaganda that has only enhanced the risks involved in conflicts and wars.
Propaganda has accompanied majority conflicts and wars, as a precursor, during the war or conflict, and then as official history after the dust settles or the displaced move out. The media has thus played in the hands of the state actors to propagate the myth of a conflict with communal overtones or to demonise Pakistan for sponsoring militancy and for infiltrations inside the Indian borders, thus shifting away focus from the traumas of the displaced community and the harassed people caught in the midst of the conflict. Whether it is conflict on the borders or armed insurgency in Kashmir Valley and other parts of the state, the media has willingly toed the state perspective by selective reporting and hypocrisy. As John Keller writing on the Yugoslavian and Afghan refugees points out: “We saw media assigned to specific press liaison officers, and trucked around from location to location under constant supervision. The press, as usual ate it up. The military employs multiple strategies to shape public perception of the news by controlling the information released to the media”. The same is true of Jammu & Kashmir. The military often decided what must be reported and what must not be. This has been largely the case in 2002 mining operations. Conversely, reports in a section of media, on civilian casualties in several border areas due to mine blasts, did bring Indian government and the army under severe international pressure to begin de-mining operations or pay compensations for the agricultural land affected.
In the insurgency-hit areas of Jammu & Kashmir, the media has not only remained engaged in the pursuit of selective reporting to project an image that the armed struggle is communal by nature by invoking words like Jehad and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ but has in turn largely vitiated the atmosphere by communalising the situation. Going by the contrasting roles of the Srinagar-based Urdu dailies and the national press and DD on side, the media may have acted as a catalyst in 1990, facilitating the large-scale exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits.
There has been a continuum of media’s propaganda war even after the migrations with vested political interests occupying prime space in the columns of newspapers. The Kashmiri Pandits have been provided a voice only through the Hindu right wing parties, thus marginalising the presence of the moderate Pandits and the genuinely displaced people from the Valley. Even in the displacements from the borders, such vested interests and politicians preaching hate-soaked anti-Pakistan ideology have been provided more space than the displaced lot, in an obvious bid to shift focus from mundane issues as well as to justify war or troops buildup. There is a clear design to use media to ‘manufacture consent’ — a phrase used by Noam Chomsky to justify war, in the name of ‘national interest’. If the traumas of the displaced and their issues are highlighted, they are seen as isolated from the context, from the ‘wisdom’ behind wars, which the media feels must not be questioned. A curious vocabulary is in play to make it easy to sensationalise and glamorise violence. Words like ‘Operation Vijay’, ‘Operation Parakaram’ and so are coined, deployed and used to cash in on the sensibilities of the middle class elite while ignoring the problems of the people denied human security, the lack of which is justified by human ignominy since what is at stake is a larger issue of fighting the ‘traitor’ and the ‘enemy’, at whose altar everything else must be sacrificed. The media has projected ‘enemy’ as the perpetrator and India as ‘victim’. No other victim can consume that space.
For the same reasons of ‘national interest’, media has not been able to report or do justice to refugees and the displaced on the other side. The trauma is often underscored or overemphasised to put the ‘enemy’ in poor light. In 1989, smitten by newspaper reports on startling revelations of infiltrations and insurgency that appeared in media, the Farooq Abdullah government countered with a bill to gag the press freedom. According to the bill, which was criticised by the media unanimously as draconian, urged the reporters not to print any reports without official verification. The bill, which came into implementation, may have been withdrawn some months later following massive opposition. But ironically, years since the bill, the media seems to be under some inexplicable obligation only to report from the official side, whether it is the conflict or the people suffering due to the conflict.
[The report was prepared before the commencement of the current Indo-Pak peace process was initiated. Editor]
‘Infiltration’ across the borders: Auditing the mainstream media in West Bengal
Today, ‘infiltration’ across India’s borders with Bangladesh has acquired new and hitherto unprecedented media hype. In order to trace this problem, we will have to go back to the year 1947 or even before it. The British rulers hastily struck a deal with the political leaders of then-undivided Bengal and decided to divide the country. Before the people could hardly realize anything, the country was partitioned into pieces. Division of the land actually meant dividing the entire populace on the basis of religion. The detrimental effects of partition are still being borne by the people. Whoever gave a thought about the masses? Two of the states that were worse affected because of this division were Punjab and West Bengal. The sore all this created is yet to heal up. In fact, newer dimensions have been added to it. In this report we would deal exclusively with the problems of West Bengal.
With the partition having taken place, Bengal has lost its hallowed name. While the Indian section was called West Bengal and the other was known as East Bengal. Today’s sovereign and independent ‘Bangladesh’ is the name of our erstwhile East Bengal. Bangladesh has two third of her common land border with India. That’s why the problem is so deep rooted. Of the entire stretch of borders, we want to discuss only the one that is common with West Bengal.
Religion was effectively manipulated in the politics of ‘divide and rule’. Religion had always been kept in the forefront of the wars that took place between the two countries. Wars have stopped today but only to give birth to an uneasy calm. Peace was never given a chance. Although Bangladesh is independent, the crisis has never ended. In the new politics of the 1990s, religion has once again become the key factor. In fact it is a global trend. In the last five years, this had been the rule of the day. In the Indian context the communal problem has intensified and resulted in such almost serial events as, the demolition of the Babari Masjid, the riots of Mumbai and the recent genocide in Gujarat.
Border problems particularly the one relating to ‘infiltration’ are permanent problems in the sense that they are an integral part of the bounded nature of the contemporary nation-state system. But these problems largely fomented by the religious factors. None of the leaders of the two countries are truly concerned. Trafficking of women and children, smuggling of cattle, livestock, arms, goods and contrabands, constant firings and killings are perennial features of the so-called ‘border issues’. The state always dictates its administration to be more alert and tighten its security noose around the borders. One wonders whether this really prevents infiltration in the borders. Instead, it heightens the problems of the people residing on or close to the Indo-Bangladesh borders.
Role Of Media
Be it electronic or print, media ‘mediates’ the sociopolitical problems of the day and brings them to us in the way it ‘mediates’ them. We will discuss the role of media in the context of ‘infiltration’ and border and will restrict our discussion to the print media. Different newspapers, magazines and journals are published from all over West Bengal and they play a meaningful role in their representation and assessment of political, economic and social situation of the country. So the reporting of the border-related news from both the established and the lesser-known predominantly local publications will help us in building awareness around this issue.
As an editorial of the Ananda Bazar Patrika with the heading “Problem of infiltration” had once said: “... it is true that the percentage of infiltrators from the Bangladeshi end is much higher than that from West Bengal. But again the repatriation from West Bengal to Bangladesh is higher than that in Assam. Five lakhs (one lakh = 100,000, Editor) of people had been sent back in the last five years. This is mostly because of citizenship related-regulations maintained by this State. Thus a demand for similar laws is on the rise in Assam. The demand is raised by Asom Gana Parishad and seconded by state-level BJP. It will finally have to be passed in both houses of parliament and given the composition of the upper house, it cannot be passed without Congress`s support. And the Congress is dead against it. Yet it is good that the bill could be placed in parliament. Now there will be national-level debates on the bill and on the detection and expulsion of illegal infiltrators in Assam. In fact, why only Assam, a coherent legislation is necessary in respect of all the northeastern states contiguous to Bangladesh, the states bordering Nepal in the north and all the Indian provinces bordering Pakistan in the west”. Infiltration and border problem have a direct correlation to the nature of relations we share with our neighbours. If there is constant enmity, infiltration will never stop. India does not always share cordial relations with all her neighboring countries. India is comparatively larger than both Pakistan and Bangladesh. This had given them the reason to think that India is bossing over them. Whether its right or wrong on their part to think in this manner is debatable but that’s what they think. The threat of superpower intervention in cold war days was always complicating the interrelations between the states of South Asia.
All this does not mean that spies do not cross over the countries. But are all those who get killed on both sides of the border or are being taken into custody by either of the rivaling states all spies and involved in anti-state activities? This is a big question. The spies know how to escape the enemy fire. So, whose lives are at stake? The true victims in short are the common people. In the absence of a political solution, border is dealt with as a problem of security and management. As a result, the Border Security Force (BSF) becomes all too powerful in securing and protecting our borders. It seems that their display of power is often aided by such provocative statements of the politicians as, “Bangladeshi intruders must go and those entering West Bengal from Bangladesh without valid papers will be considered as infiltrators and pushed back”(Times of India, 2002).
If we observe the regular reportage in the dailies, weeklies and fortnightly journals and newspapers, it becomes apparent that every other day somebody or the other is killed across both sides of the border or is being taken into custody. Those who are killed are lucky for they are spared of the ignominy and torture. But what happens to those who are not killed and compelled to live? The newsprint is not spent on writing about them; only regular reporting mentions that infiltration continues unabated. However, infiltrators are taken into custody not only from areas adjacent to borders but also from the heart of the metropolitan Kolkata and also from other metropolises. Some specimens of how the infiltrators are nabbed and arrested will be evident from the following reports:
The men had small packs with them and they had a distinct dialect, said the Deputy Commissioner of detective department Narayan Ghosh. Cops in plain clothes engaged the men in conversation and learnt that they had crossed the border after paying Rs. 500/-. The immigrants had come to Calcutta from Noakhali looking for work. They have been remanded in jail custody till August 5th. (‘Six Bangladeshi infiltrators held in Calcutta’ in Times of India, July 30 1999)
A Bangladeshi was arrested in front of Park street Metro railway station on Sunday evening. His name is Zia ul-Haq (19). Haq was unable to produce valid documents and had been remanded to custody till September30. (Times of India, 22 September 1999)
4 Bangladeshis held. They had no valid documents. Chief Metropolitan Magistrate M. M. Mukherjee remanded them in jail custody. (Times of India 30 September1999)
When BSF personnel opened fire on a gang lifting cows at Pardewanapara near Bangladesh border on Sunday. … BSF sources said, that a gang of 7 to 8 people was taking away cows from Indian side to Bangladesh. (‘One killed and other injured in BSF firing, Malda (WB)’, Times of India, 29 November1999)
For the thousands of poor people entering West Bengal through Indo-Bangladesh border without valid documents, the so-called ‘infiltration’ is basically driven by poverty. They come to West Bengal for livelihood — often better livelihood. They make any of the districts of West Bengal their base or move further to other states of the country. They are always in the group of 2 or more.
197 Bangladeshi held in Midnapore including 76 women and 40 children were later remanded to 15 days judicial custody by Tamluk sub-divisional Judicial Magistrate for traveling without valid documents. (Times of India, 23 January 2000)
7 Bangladeshis arrested from Calcutta and Howrah claimed to have been moving under suspicious circumstances. They said they were from Pabna and had crossed the border at Nadia in search of work. They were found carrying 25 lakhs Bangladeshi ‘taka’ in Taka 500 denomination.
Another important border problem is trafficking of girls and children. Murshidabad of West Bengal is allegedly one of the major centers of such trafficking. It’s not only Bangladeshi women, who are largely trafficked in but also extreme poverty leads to trafficking out of the women of Murshidabad district. They are generally taken to Nepal and Maharashtra. Both women and children are trafficked through Murshidabad border of Bangladesh. Trafficking rackets are extremely active in this region. In most cases there is no way that these women and children being trafficked in or out can be tracked down later. Some of the NGOs are working on this problem. That’s why people are getting to know occasionally about these incidents through news. It is nearly impossible to publicly oppose such a powerful and big racket. The following are some of their stories selectively exposed by the mainstream media:
Beauty Khatun, a 13-year old girl from Bangladesh was rescued from a brothel on Panchanan Baral street in central Calcutta on Tuesday morning. A pimp and the man who brought her have been arrested. (Times of India, 23 June 2000) Nine children aged three and a half years along with eight men and women were rescued and sent back to Bangladesh. On Friday while taking them under custody at Chennai airport, the adults identified them as the parents of the children. Police suspected, the children were being trafficked to Dubai for the infamous camel race. The team was detained during the interrogation in the immigration department of Anna International Air Terminal of Chennai. They were sent back to Calcutta by Indian Airlines that night itself and subsequently returned to Bangladesh. Calcutta airport sources said that a 17-member-strong team with 9 children had crossed Indo-Bangladesh border through a convenient point in North 24 Parganas. They did not carry any passport. They went to Chennai from Calcutta. On Friday while boarding the flight to Jeddah from Chennai, a pimp had given them 8 passports. In accordance with these passports they had all traveled by air from Bangladesh to Calcutta but the passports were all duly stamped from the immigration department. On interrogation the adults revealed that they were going to Arabia for better livelihoods. But the police think that they were trying to sell these children for the camel race. At the cost of these children the adults intended to resettle in Saudi Arabia. (‘9 children rescued from being trafficked from Bangladesh’, Ananda Bazar Patrika, 6 January 2002).
On the early morning of 31 January a BSF vehicle dropped 50 Bangladeshis near Phulbari pillar 147. 20 of them were women, and there were 30 men and children. When these people were trying to enter Bangladesh from Kazipur side, the BDR personnel spotted them. They forced these people to move towards the Indian side by physically assaulting them. Even the women were beaten. The women of Bangladesh requested BDR (Bangladesh Rifles) people not to beat these women. They of course did not pay any heed to the locals. On the other hand, BSF personnel prevented them from entering Indian Territory. In fact apart from three men in the group they could manage to scare away the rest of the group. To escape they hid themselves in-between the fencing area of the two countries. They made it a point not to allow the villagers to help these people. Finally BDR men gave them few biscuit packets. But can biscuits help people sustain? The villagers reported this to Karimpur (Nadia) unit of APDR (Association for the Protection of Democratic Rights, Editor). APDR members rushed to the spot. They spoke with the women, some of them were Rina Akhtar, Kohinoor Bibi, Bhanu Bibi, Satma Bibi, Laju Begum. They were residents of Muralgang village, in the subdivision of Bagerhat of Khulna district of Bangladesh. Badshah Miya (pimp) had helped them cross over the borders. They were whisked away to Simapur in Delhi, where the men started working in nearby steel factories while women got employed as domestic help. Hesitant to reveal her identity, one of the women reported of being sexually exploited in late hours of the evening. One of the team members Ali Hossain with his three daughters expressed how desperate the situation was for women. APDR members requested BSF men to rescue these people before it would get dark. Everyone especially the women of Phulbari took full responsibility of these Bangladeshis. The Bangladeshi women from across the borders sympathized with them. In this entrapped team, the two-year old little child of Rina Akhtar fell ill. APDR activists intimated the DM of Nadia. He in turn intimated DIG Krishnanagar. This in fact helped spread the news and the administration noticed it. M. S. Sharma, Commandant of 195 BSF, Swapan Sarkar, SDOP, Circle Inspector /CI Nirmal Bhattachariya, O. C. Murtiya and Arup Sarkar rushed to the spot. They are given medical help, while the villagers took care of their food. At night they were deported to Bangladeshi villages. (An APDR (Nadia Branch) report)
In the backdrop of war or any other conflict, women are the worst affected. But does the gender issue take a front seat ever? Men are killed in wars but the show goes on and the women shoulder the burden of a struggling existence. In the borders, at home and outside “women’s body” simply becomes an important issue. So many of them are molested and exploited in the borders, not a flash of these incidents is reported anywhere. The community is too scared to react. Occasionally political parties give these issues an exposure ... for a change things move, but one cannot say if such temporary moves make any difference in the lives of the exploited women. A minimum level of sensitization happens though. So many are killed in the borders and only a small percentage of them is reported. Some of the immigrants are remanded behind bars on the ground that they have entered illegally, while few are taken into custody for spying. The judgments are hardly ever published making it a minimal possibility to find who all had crossed the borders. Some reports:
A suspected agent of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was detained by BSF men from Maliksalampur border outpost in Kaliachak area of Malda district on Saturday. The man named Abdul Latif, holding Pakistani passport was trying to cross the border when he was intercepted by BSF. He was coming from Karachi. He named certain ISI recruiter during interrogation. Latif had also traveled to Afghanistan and UAE in the past. (‘ISI agent held’, Times of India, 6 September1999)
ISI man admitted to have played a role in IC814 hijacking named Abdul Jalil, arrested in Bashirhat. (Times of India, 27April 2000)
But this statement by the chief minister of West Bengal that “if somebody who migrates from Bangladesh is by religion a Muslim then (there is a tendency) of identifying him as an ISI agent” will have to be kept in mind. He also said: “sporadic ISI activities in the state had no link with infiltration as these are two different problems”.Sometimes while crossing the borders the BSF on mere suspicion open fire without any provocation. Here are some examples:
In the Chopra subdivision of Uttar Dinajpur BSF had killed a Bangladeshi smuggler. He was trying to cross over to Bangladesh when BSF fired at him. The deceased man’s identity is yet to be revealed. (Pratidin, 1 August 2002)
Bangladeshi infiltrator Afzal Ali is dead. DSP Jayanta Pal said, while a group of 5 infiltrators was trying to cross BSF fired on it. One was killed in the firing while the others escaped. (Pratidin, Siliguri, 14 August 2002)The district magistrate of South Dinajpur told PTI (news agency) telephonically that the clash ensued when the BSF intercepted a group of miscreants while they were trying to take some cows to Bangladesh. The BSF open fired 15 rounds killing Nur Hussain (24) on the spot. Aminur Rehman (20) who sustained bullet injuries succumbed on his way to the hospital. (Times of India, 18 October 2000)BSF sources said that the jawans (soldiers, SKD) opened fired when a group of people started throwing stones at them on being challenged when trying to lift cattle from the border adjoined localities. (‘2 hurt in BSF Firing’, Times of India, 22 November 2000)
Bangladeshi intruders killed in border clash. (Times of India, 20 June 2001)
Three Bangladeshi nationals were allegedly killed and another injured by BSF jawans along the West Bengal border, news reports said in Dhaka on Friday. Six Persons were also kidnapped added Daily Star quoting local BNP MP who flayed the Hasina Govt‘s foreign policy. (Times of India, 16 June 2001)
Such incidents are part of the daily routine in border areas. A substantial percentage of these do not get reported but whatever finally makes to the newspapers is scary enough. Those who survive while crossing the borders know their fate once they are taken into custody. Thus they try to escape even after being injured.
Cooch Behar: A sick Bangladeshi citizen imprisoned in Raiganj in North Dinajpur on charge of theft, escaped from hospital lock-up on Saturday. Md. Anisur Rehman, the prisoner was arrested on May 31st and was under treatment in the hospital. It was noticed during the lunch hour that he has escaped by breaking open the window grills of the hospital lock up.
Those who crossed the borders were earlier called infiltrators but after Kargil war and 9/11, they are identified either as ‘ISI’ or members of the dreaded terrorist group called, Al Quaeda. Media too generously contribute to the formation of such stereotypes:
Police sources say that Bashirhat route is a paradise for the ISI spies to commute. (Ananda Bazar Patrika, 1 February 2003)3 youths of Raiganj, Kaliaganj, Radhikapur taken to custody had been identified as members of Jamaat e-Mujhadeen. (Ananda Bazar Patrika, 19 February 2003)
Role Of Little Magazens
Now we propose to assess the role of little magazines. While some of them like the mainstream media express their concern about the infiltration problem, others reflect on the subhuman existence of people in the border trying hard to cope with different problems. Although they are homeless without losing their homes insofar as their daily living is marked by insult, humiliation, assault and even by death. Often they are forced to leave home for security reasons in the border. Let us present some samples of this genre of reportage from the little magazines and also from the better known ones.
Murshidabad district of WB adjacent to the border of Bangladesh has recently witnessed the problems of smuggled livestock particularly cattle. Cattle smuggling was always there but insecurity in the borders proves to have added to the crisis. However everything is done in connivance with the locals. Two of the district BSF camps are situated at Singhapara and Dayarampur respectively. Cattle smuggling across the river Padma (Bangladesh), is routed through two of the demarcated ghats monitored by the BSF in close proximity of the above camps. The smugglers have a vested interest in smuggling cattle so they had spent 6 lakhs in repairing the one and half km. stretch of the un-metalled road. Last February in Nazirpur of Islampur a tussle between the police, the middlemen and the cattle smugglers occurred resulting in problems for local people. In lieu of identifying smugglers police would make it a point to comb the area during the daytime while curfew was prevalent during night. Repeated incidents of this nature had happened in Beldanga. In such cases the concerned businessmen, police and BSF personnel are all under the magnifying glass of suspicion. (Blackers’ [black marketers, Editor] security force at the border’, Writers Guild, 22 Phalgun 1406 BS)Armed Pakistani spy arrested in Jalangi. On 25.06.1999 the customs officer on duty in Jalangi Hukahara arrested an armed person and handed him over to the police. Md. Mohidul Sheikh is suspected as a part of Pakistan’s Military Intelligent Department (Inter services intelligence or ISI) spy network. (Writers Guild, Murshidabad, 5 July1999)69 Battalion of BSF reported that in Suti Subdivision two particular moujas namely Purapara and Raghunathpur had witnessed farming done by the Bangladeshi farmers in connivance with local farmers. The yield of course is taken away to Bangladesh. Cases have been filed against some of the Indian farmers for having been involved in such illegal activities. BSF have been ordered to fire as soon as they identify Bangladeshi infiltrators stepping on to the Indian territories, said the sources. (Writers Guild, Murshidabad)Finally it has been proved that Murshidabad has the largest percentage of Bangladeshi population across the state. It was suspected that Murshidabad’s population was on rapid and abnormal rise for a long time now. This year during the election 284,856.00 people had applied as eligible voters for the first time. Of them 58722 have been recognized as bona fide voters and their names had been enlisted. On suspecting that 226,000,00 applicants are non-Indians their applications had been subsequently cancelled by the Office of Election Commissioner. All of them within the age group of 35-45 claimed to be residents of Murshidabad. But they could not give any satisfactory answer as to why they had not applied as voters till date? None of them could show substantial proof of Indian citizenship. Most of them are suspected as Bangladeshi infiltrators. (Murshidabad is crowded with Bangladeshi Population’, Writer’s Guild (Murshidabad), 4 September 1999)
Berhampore 5th May: For Bangladeshi infiltrators, Murshidabad is a secured hideout. In 1921 census Murshidabad was overwhelmingly Hindu. The then 52% of the population were Hindus. In 1970-72 after Bangladeshi war of independence few lakhs of refugees entered India through the districts of North Bengal. They were provided asylum on humanitarian grounds. But a majority of them exploited such empathy and stayed back and settled in the Muslim-dominated areas of Murshidabad. In 1971 census it was found that Muslim population in the district was 56% while the Hindus and the Christians together constituted 44%. In 1991 census it was found that Hindus constituted 39.8 percent while the Christians formed.14% percent. Infiltration is very much prevalent. It is presumed that the percentage of Muslim population would rise up to 80 during the next census. (Unrestricted infiltration turns Murshidabad into mini Bangladesh’, Idaning, Murshidabad, November 2000)
In the early morning of 9 February 2000 a feud between villagers and BSF around cattle smuggling started. Later in a direct collision 5 were injured because of BSF firing. Both the parties have filed complaints against each other in local police station. The first question is that Beldanga is not a border area. So why did the BSF intervene in an area that is 80 km away from its place of duty? (‘BSF firing injured 5’, Sera Khabor, February 2000)
In the name of protecting the border, the BSF is regularly involved in violation of human rights and killings of innumerable common people. It remains completely un-accountable. Often the ground of its firing is smuggling or espionage. However, BSF cannot be blamed, they merely execute the order. They are the part of state mechanism. The state is happy while observing this execution of responsibility. But it doesn’t care to know whether smuggling has stopped and the resources of our country are transferred to foreign lands. It is quite evident from the border areas and in the kind of reportage through the little magazine and smaller publications. The BSF is here to resist refugee infiltration; smuggling is not in its agenda.
Everyday, (such items as) onions, salt, sugar, livestock worth millions are smuggled across the borders of Nadia to Bangladesh. Recently BJP has won the Lok Sabha seat from Krishnagar. This has further pushed smuggling up by a step. The middlemen from Chapra, Krishnaganj, Tehetta, Karimpur subdivisions are well connected with smugglers in the border and in broad daylight they would take away sacks full of onion, salt and sugar in public buses from right under the vigilant eyes of the administration. Often the police camps would take a token sum of Rs. 50/ to 100/ and let them go. The route through which most buses ply are Madhabpur-Ichapur, Chapra-Krishnanagar, Raiganj, Krishnagar, Hatishala. Such essential commodities are regularly smuggled out of India (across the Nadia border) to Bangladesh mostly because of the secret pact with BSF. Chapra of Chapra subdivision, Majdiya of Krishnaganj subdivision are now literally known as undeclared free trade zones for the smugglers. It has been learnt that Rs. 1 lakh 70 thousand is extorted monthly from Majdiya by Krishnaganj police station. On the other hand, auction bid of Chapra market is Rs. 2 lakhs. It is known that BSF at the borders usually take a fee for allowing things to be smuggled in and out. They have a fixed rate of Rs. 25/- per sack, Rs. 100/- per livestock and Rs. 250/-per person for crossing over. Apart from this they have a weekly toll at the BSF camp. In all, the police collect a revenue of 1 and a half crores (1 Crore = 100,000,00) from Nadia district only. Not the smallest fraction of this revenue is submitted deposited to the government coffers. Experienced sources say, that the central and the state government should investigate into these incidents along the border to set up new laws. (‘Rs. 1.5 Crores earned by the police administration in the borders of Nadia’, Sera Khabar, October 2000)Within a short interval of 7 days in December after the death of 2, 1 was killed again and 3 injured by BSF firing. BSF collected 26 rims of silk cloth from three licensed shops without any warrant and even sealed the shops. In the morning of 24 December and on the embankment of Harubhanga of Raninagar subdivision BSF fired on the suspected smugglers killing 1 Bangladeshi while 2 escaped. The brother of the deceased had claimed the dead body but BSF arrested him and took him to Kaharpara BSF camp where he was severely beaten. The local people were agitated and of the three who escaped one also died. On 23 December, Lalbagh BSF sealed three shops in Jalangi-Narshinghapur market area. The local people had gheraoed the DM for long. Last October BSF had killed a mason in Sumatinagar of Jangipur subdivision. On 17 November they in fact killed one of the brighter students of Lalgola. The atrocities and killings of BSF are a regular feature now. All this has been escalated just to conceal the fact that BSF has been in connivance with the smugglers. (‘BSF firings at Raninagar and Jalangi’, Jhar, 31st December 2001)
On 14 November in Islampur‘s Karivit area Kartick Singha and somebody else were badly injured. They are from Hariharpur and Kaliapara of Bangladesh. On crossing the border they were robbed by the middleman of Rs. 10,000/. Now they are under treatment in Islampur state hospital. (‘Bangladeshi loses everything in broad daylight’, Suryapur Barta, 1 December 2001)
Four Bangladeshis killed in BSF firing in Habibpur. In Kalaibari of Habibpur subdivision very close to the border of Bangladesh 4 were injured when BSF fired on 15 June in the afternoon. Police super — Debashish Roy had said, around 12 noon, when some Bangladeshis were trying to take away two buffalos across the border, BSF personnel on duty resisted. The Bangladeshis attacked the jawans, the jawans too reacted in defence. They started firing. Four were killed in the process. Bangladeshis escaped with the body of 3. The guards on duty were Ramlal Prasad and Ramesh Chand. Ramesh had first opened fired, instead of being scared, the Bangladeshis attacked. Then Ramlal fired 6 rounds, which killed 4. BSF IG M. S. Bisht had reportedly said that the BSF had only retrieved one body. So officially it cannot be declared whether 3 of them are alive or dead. BSF sources said, in order to reduce tension they would sit in a flag meeting with the BDR. (Rupantarer pathe, 17 June 2001)
During the 1965 Indo-Pak war, BSF was brought in to take care of the security along the line of Bangladesh – the erstwhile ‘Purba (East, Editor) Pakistan’. The war ended. East Pakistan became independent and was renamed Bangladesh. BSF becomes jobless at the borders. In fact its presence started making things more complicated. Instead of protecting the country it was turning out to be a menace for the people. It exploited the situation in the name of guarding the country. It earns hefty sum illegally, kills people, heckles and humiliates them, rapes women and vandalizes villages. People do not know how to get rid of BSF. While discussing refugee problem, it is important to know how BSF tortures the people. Without knowing this it is difficult to assess the true problem of borders. Of the innumerable instances, I would mention just a few though the role of BSF has been earlier mentioned in our discussion.
Meritorious student of Madhupur village in Lalgola subdivision was killed by BSF jawans. The incident that took place last 17 November happened like this. On the evening of Pehla Ramjan (the first day of the Muslim fasting month, Editor) Samayun and his friend Golam Mustafa were returning home from tuitions, when Samayun observed that BSF jawans taking away their cow from their home. He got down from the cycle and told the jawans that this was the one they used for farming. The BSF jawans threatened him and when he tried to resist they fired point blank at him. With three bullets piercing through his body Samayun died on the spot. A little away was his brother Sanarul Haque who is also injured and is presently under treatment in Krishnanagar hospital. From the hospital Sanarul reported, ‘the moment he wanted to protest, they beat him with the baton of the gun on his knee. They hit him on his hands and waist. When Samayun wanted to talk again they simply fired’. The villagers alleged that BSF does not spare anybody, tortures the children, women and elderly alike and even called names. Finally they fire also. On 19 November Jhaltungi high school was shut. On 21 November, all the Madarsa schools observed students’ strike. In protest the road was blocked till the midnight of 18 November. (‘Pehela Ramjan: Samayun Haque, a student martyred, picketing in protest and total students’ strike’, Ramdhanu, Murshidabad 1-15 December 2001)Student of eleventh standard killed in BSF firings. MP Mainul Hassan has intensely criticized this incident. Reporting this incident he has sent messages to the chief minister and the central home minister. CPM`s Murshidabad DC member Mr. Madhu Bag said, ‘the duty of BSF is to guard the borders, instead they are torturing the hapless people mostly residing in densely populated areas’. (This issue would be raised in parliament: Mainul Hassan’, Murshidabad Barta, 2 November 2001)
Under the leadership of Sri Kamal Guha, the minister for agriculture, Government of West Bengal, a delegation had gone for a statewide tour to conduct investigations into areas bordering Bangladesh. As a tour companion narrates some of their experiences below:
Goyalpokhar Block, Phulbari border, Uttar Dinajpur: Here BSF‘s diktat is: if you have to keep a cow, keep it at home. Moving around with the cow is not allowed.
Hemtabad Block border area: BSF has driven away 50 Santhal families from the other side of the wired partition. Presently they are refugees.
Kumarganj Block‘s Daudpur mauja, Krishnapur village, South Dinajpur: River Atreyi flows parallel to the road. The river was 500 yards away. Further was Bangladesh border’s zero point. River erosion has brought it close to the road. BSF claims that this is the border. Nobody is allowed to get into the river. “Our land is on the embankments, it is now farmed by the Bangladeshis, they are catching fish from the river. In this river, there are five RLI projects, they have all fallen on the other side of the barbed wires. The farmers are in no way able to use the water from the RLI for irrigation. Where will these people go now?
Jamalpur border of Hili Block: Beside the barbed wires near the jungle stood a small village. Across the gate, third-class citizens stood with lamps in their hand. They are Indians but cannot come over for the gate is closed. So the children and the women are peeping. BSF is patrolling with arms. The imagery seems as if they are in some zoo. (From, Gobinda Ray, Border problems of West Bengal: A national problem)
A group of people of Kuripara in Jalpaiguri district is knocking at the doors of justice after submitting a mass petition to the local police station. In the petition it is stated that in one night of last July they were picked up from their houses to the BSF camp where they were mercilessly beaten and tortured. They had been ordered to arrange 2 kg of ‘Ganja’ for BSF’s seizure.
The people of Saudavita of Garalbari had no other option but to cross the border, leaving behind their ancestral homes in order to get rid of this regular torture. But the residents of Tiapara and Jamadarpara are not so lucky and they are subjected to these unnecessary tantrums and torture on a regular basis. Their pain-stricken faces have a single request, ‘Hamar towner bagalat jami kini dao, rickshaw chalaya khamo, too BSF jamduter nedia na khai’. [Please buy me a piece of land nearer the town in exchange of my land here. I will not mind earning my livelihood by pulling rickshaws.] People of Maringapara are all Indian citizens. It is the ancestral home of local MLA — Gobinda Ray. It has been incorporated into the Bangladesh map. The Indian map has not included it as it falls into the Bangladesh territory.
The marriage of Babu Burman of Khochabari Chhat has been settled. But the diktat from the camp came that the marriage could not take place without the prior permission from the BSF.
Dinhata’s Binoy Burman (Dighaltari) went to seek the permission from the BSF for the bridal car for his daughter’s marriage but to his dismay was told that the marriage could not take place at night.
Students en route to their private tuitions are often obstructed by BSF.
A mother and her daughter while returning from the village fair were beaten by BSF. In Dighaltari, some others had been subjected to corporal punishment.
Rajanikanta Sen of the same village went to the camp seeking the permission to sell his bullock in order to purchase medicine for his ailing mother but only to be denied. They taunt ‘Tumhara Jyoti Basu ko bulao’ (call your Jyoti Basu, the former chief minister of West Bengal).
Moreover, there is a persisting cause of worry regarding the use of border roads and the opening of the barbed wire gates in the border. Shankar, son of Ramanath Burman and a student of fourth standard was repeatedly beaten by the BSF as he failed to name the smugglers residing in the village.
In 2001, on the Islamic auspicious day of holy Eid, two Indians were shot dead by BSF – another instance of BSF’s brutality in the Sitalkuchi village of Mathabhanga subdivision.
Amal Roy of Jharsingheshwar was forced by BSF to remain for several hours on the molten-tarred border road under the scorching sun.
Amulya Sarkar of Dangapara village of bigger Haldibari pointed out that across he border, just after the zero point, Bangladesh Government has built a colony amidst an endless vacant land under the scheme ‘Cluster Village’. The tin roofs of these huts were glittering in the sunrays. People are residing in this colony adjacent to the border area apparently without any source of living, as it is hard to find one in this vast underdeveloped landscape.
While walking along the border road we could see hundreds of men, women and children standing on the other side of the barbed fence. They were shouting ‘Sir please rescue us’. The young boys complained ‘Sir we cannot go to our school? Will not the intellectuals, poets, artists, littérateurs and politicians raise their voices for these people who are ignorant of the civilisation that culminates in the fencing at the border. (Source: Ibid.)
Darjeeling District: After visiting the border areas of Kharibari – Fansidewa block of their district, Smritish Bhattacharya, Karunamoy Chowdhury, Parimal Ray and Khagen Roy had reported that common life here is very much disturbed owing to BSF‘s torturous presence.
Modern urban civilization does not speak of these people residing along the borders. The BSF, instead of safeguarding the borders are creating havoc in the lives of these people. The visit of Sri Kamal Guha with some of his associates, a faint ray of hope seems to fill the minds of these distressed and dejected people.
In 1950, Coochbehar was declared a district of West Bengal. But during partition some of the lands acquired by the King of Coochbehar were by some mistake involved in the territorial division, included in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). These enclaves of land are known as Chitmahals. In simples terms Chitmahal means a piece (chit) of land, which is surrounded on all sides by the land of an alien country. It is almost like an island. The piece of Indian territory surrounded by the Bangladeshi land is Indian Chitmahal while the opposite is called, Bangladeshi Chitmahal. The proposal of exchanging these Chitmahals was initiated long back in 1958. Eventually before 26 June 1992, in a booklet published, Government of India declared that all the problems regarding the exchange of Chitmahals will be solved once the Tinbigha corridor is awarded to Bangladesh. The state government followed its footsteps. But suddenly everything fell silent — the Central government, West Bengal government, and even Bangladesh government chose to observe silence since then. This problem is dragged in such a manner that the people residing in these Chitmahals are leading their lives in constant fear – any day they might become citizens of another country owing to this exchange.
In India there are 51 such Bangladeshi Chitmahals totaling an area of 9110.02 acres while there are 111 of such Indian Chitmahals summing up to 17158.13 acres of land in Bangladesh. (South Dinajpur Katha, 1 November 2001) [Note: According to another estimate, the number of Indian Chitmahals within the Bangladeshi territory is 132, while that of Bangladeshi ones is 88. KB]
As one problem begets another, the Radcliffe award brings with it the current problem of adverse possession. The problem had had its roots in the idea of partitioning the country on the basis of the jurisdiction of police stations. Five villages of the main block of Jalpaiguri district are shown in the Bangladeshi map though these villages have been attached to India since independence. Nearly ten thousand people residing in these villages namely, Chilahati, Nawtari, Debottar, Barashashi, Kajaldighi, Paranigram, Singimori, Khendipara, are Indian citizens – though these villages do not find any place in the Indian map. Another example, Charmeghna is a small place in Shikarpur, which falls under the Karimpur police station in Nadia district. In this stretch of 1400 km. of Bangladeshi land about 1000 Indians reside. Often they are asked by the BDR to vacate the land while the BSF asks them to stay on. According to these people, ‘We are living here for four generations, but still we do not know where we belong, whether in India or in Bangladesh. In case we have to leave this place where shall we go? Won’t we become refugees?’ These people are living here in an unbelievably sordid state.
Who are these migrants who come to India crossing the barbed wire fence from Bangladesh? Why do they come and what treatment awaits them?
Some call them ‘infiltrators’, according to some others, they are the ‘ISI agents’, while many of them come, after being deprived and tortured there as they belong to the minority community. They are the constant source of tension between the two countries. Some of them however manage to stay stealthily here while the others are forced to return. But many simply lose their way in the process. The problem cannot be eradicated even after 57 years of independence Most of the people who get arrested are poor commoners. The minority Hindus who flee from Bangladesh are also poor. These are reflected in some not so known newsletters and newspapers. The feelings of the political leaders are also reflected there. Here are some samples:
The top brass of West Bengal police admit on an over whelming majority of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in India have nothing to do with terrorism. They even acknowledge that in most cares, touts working on either sides of the border mastermind the infiltration.
“We know that 99 per cent of Bangladeshi infiltrators are landless peasants who look forward to a better life in India. This could mean just a wholesome meal a day”, a senior police official told TNN on Friday.
Where they end up instead are the interrogation chambers as policemen go through the rigours of identifying the odd “ISI agent” before handing over the rest to Border Security Force for a pushback. Though the state police has really no records on how Bangladeshis enter the country through West Bengal illegally. They say 800-900 persons are pushed back on an average every month. “There are touts in India as well on Bangladesh who supply cheap labour to labour contractors in Maharastra, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. They take commission from the Bangladeshis as well as contractors …” an official said. … the officials though acknowledge that several Indians living along the international border do not own land and have not had any formal education. In the absence of identity cards or any other credible records, pushing back an Indian, as a Bangladeshi. (‘Most Bangla migrants landless poor’, Times of India, February, 2003)
A member of Saman, an anti-communal organization who is a native of Murshidabad and a state government official, had the shock of his life at the Kolkata book fair this year. He had tried to reason with police officer who stopped some youths from putting up a poster on Gandhi’s assassination in front of their book stall on January 30. As soon as the officer heard to his Muslim name, he barked, “when did you come from Bangladesh? Do you want a push-back?”… Many other migrants to Delhi, Mumbai and other big cities are having the nightmare of eviction and expulsion from India, points out CPM MP Somnath Chatterjee. The Parliament witnessed a heated exchange between the Left and the Shiv Sena when trainloads of “Bangladeshis” had been sent back from Mumbai two years back. Some Left Front supporters snatched away some of them. “I contacted many of them and found that they were migrant ‘zari’ and jewellarey artisans from Howrah and Hooghly.” Says Jaidul Haque, an NGO activist in South 24 Parganas . … (‘Communal mindset rising in State’, Times of India, February, 2003)
Dayarani Ketri, a 12- year old girl was gunned down by the BSF while she was sneaking into India at Bindol border (North Dinajpur) in September 2001. Her brother, who also sustained bullets injuries, told newsmen that the family had fled their home in Thakurgaon district on the other side of the border to escape sexual and other atrocities on Hindu families in Bangladesh. According to an affidavit filed by the West Bengal government before the Supreme Court in 1998, out of 10, 24, 322 Bangladeshis who overstayed their Visa in India since 1972, as many as 6,67500 were Hindus. A total of 5,73,334 Bangladeshi nationals including 1,61,079 Hindus, who had entered ‘clandestinely’, were pushed back during the same period, it said. Apparently, the poorer Bangladeshis, both Hindus and Muslims, sneak through the border while the more affluent people cross over with documents.
Continued persecutions of the minorities in Bangladesh has been an important factor: Vote observation for Transparency and Empowerment, a Bangladeshi NGO, recorded 102 rapes, 87 murders and 3,545 injuries during 2-28 October 2001 alone, exposing the extent of post poll violence on minorities….
…. Noted expert in Kolkata Amalendu De quotes Bangladesh census reports to show that the percentage of the Hindu population had decreased from 28 percent in 1941 to 10.5 percent in 1991. According to him, 1.28 crore Hindus entered India between 1947-89. (‘Liberals fight persecution in Bangla’, Times of India, 2002)
After the change of power in Bangladesh i.e. when Khaleda Zia‘s coalition with Jamaat took over Sheikh Hasina in the general elections, the minorities started facing the torment and the brutality. Those who protested in favour of the minorities were all arrested. A large number of minorities who were mainly Hindus started leaving Bangladesh for India.
An estimated 60,000 people have entered India from Bangladesh after the last general elections in that country in October 2001. Asiatic Society president Amalendu De, an expert on Bangladesh affairs, revealed this in Kolkata on Wednesday. Presenting a research paper on the problems of refugees at the institute, De said these Bangladeshis had scattered in West Bengal and other states. (Times of India, 2002)
In different parts of Bangladesh the torture over the minority Hindus have risen to such an extent that most of them are fleeing to India evacuating their homes in Bangladesh. It is debatable whether they are infiltrators or political asylum seekers. But it is clear that Bangladesh has given rise to fundamentalism to a large extent. Actually it is taken for granted that all the Hindus are Awami League supporters.
The same thing happened during the days of East Pakistan. During 1950, 1964, 1970-71, many minority Hindus were kidnapped, many were driven forcefully out of their houses and were left with no other option but to cross over to India. In 1992, long after the independence of Bangladesh the same thing continued. (‘Rise of Fundamentalism’ [editorial], Sharjaal, 5 December 2001, North 24 Parganas)
Ganapati Biswas, the general secretary of Motua Mahasangha says that “since BNP and Jamaat coalition came to power, the minorities are being subjected to devastating torture and humiliation. Being heckled at the hands of the fundamentalists many are crossing to India evacuating their homeland and memorandum in this regard has been submitted to the High Commissioner of Bangladesh in Calcutta. It is stated in that memorandum that peace should be restored immediately and the political, social, economical and religious rights of the minorities should be preserved honourably. Moreover, a part of the land is to be preserved for the minorities where they can reside without any disturbance. (‘Protest against the torture over minorities in Bangladesh’, Seemanta Bangla, 13 December 2001)
In recent years after the general elections in Bangladesh, the lives of the minorities are devastated by the rising pressure and torture from the fundamentalists. Owing to that lots of people are forced to cross to India. But in Anadabazar, the situation is compared to be the same with Keshpur of Midnapur.
We think refugee camps should be organized to shelter these Bangladeshis and they should be treated as asylum seekers. Also their names and addresses should be enumerated and handed over to the Bangladesh Government. Moreover, this should be brought to the notice of the refugee-related department of the United Nations. (‘Why Bangladeshi are not treated as political asylum seekers?’ [editorial] Rangdhanu, 1- 15 December 2001)
Malda: A 12 year old girl became the first casualty of the refugee crisis along the Bangladesh border, when the BSF fired upon a family early on Saturday, killing the child. The incident took place in Bindol, in North Dinajpur. A. K. Roy said that the people fired at were infiltrators, not refugees.
The family from B. D. was trying to cross over around 5.30 A. M. through a village namely Bahar in the Raigunj Police station area while crossing over to the Indian side, the family was challenged by a BSF patrol party. When the family saw the BSF men, they panicked and stared running and the personnel opened fire.
The girl, Jaya, died on the spot whereas her elder brother, Shanto took a bullet in his abdomen. The rest of the family simply disappeared. Shanto was admitted to Raigunj Sadar Hospital.
In Kolkata, leader of opposition Pankaj Banerjee strongly condemned the shooting, describing it as an act ‘barbarism’. Banerjee said the incident established the ‘Killer instinct’ of government. ‘We were fearing just this. The state government must set up refugee camps in the area. (‘Child killed in border firing’, Times of India, 11 November 2001]
On the one hand it is said that the infiltration should stop while on the other hand, there is a strong opinion that the migrants belonging to a particular religious community should be treated as refugees rather than unwelcome infiltrators. The interview with the state secretary of BJP speaks of how religion determines who is an infiltrator and who is not. Some specimens:
Tathagata Ray, the state president of BJP said “as per the definition of the United Nations, those who have migrated owing to their religions belief should be treated as asylum seekers”. Hence all the Hindus who have come from Bangladesh are asylum seekers. There is no question of driving them out. All of them will stay in India and not a single of them will have to leave for Bangladesh. We will see to it that the torture over Hindus in Bangladesh ceases. We will put political pressure on Bangladesh on this issue. But the Muslims do not come to India for the same reason. It is not a tenable logic that the Muslims cannot stay in Bangladesh owing to their religious belief. So the Bangladeshi Muslims are intruders and not the asylum seekers. We will shove them off from India. We have already driven such intruders from Hili and other borders. These who sympathize with them and propagate against this action of ours are the enemies of the nation as well as all the Hindus. One should keep a keen watch on them. Their intension behind allowing this infiltration is to enhance their vote banks and smuggling. Nowadays, leaders like Kamal Guha are criticizing BSF. But the BSF jawans who come from far distant places are doing a commendable job at the border. Not only they are protecting our motherland, they are also protecting those Bangladeshis who have settled in India. For the last few years the Indo-Bangladesh border is an issue of feud. Owing to this continuous intrusion the Bangladeshi Muslims are able to increase their numbers not only in West Bengal but also in Assam, North East states and even in far away Delhi and Maharashtra to such an extent that the demographic balance is endangered. He again repeated that all the Hindus will stay in India and will not have to go back to Bangladesh. (‘Interview: Bangladeshis to be driven away from Indo-Bangladesh border’, Uttar Banga Sambad, 13 March 2003)
Whenever, this issue arises, the general notion is, will there be no demarcation then? And if there is the need for demarcation, the barbed wire fence is essential. But what would be the problem if there is no barbed wire fence? Though this article is not to debate on this it is true that these fences are causing a serious problem to the border people. It has been observed that some schools, someone’s land and even graveyard sometimes have fallen on the other side of the fence and this is creating a new problem. The border people are raising their voices against it but all are falling to the deaf ears. In September 1992, the central government decided that there will be the barbed wire fence all along the stretch of 2200 km. long Indo Bangladesh border and to protect it there will be border roads. Without wasting much time the contractors of the central civil department started erecting the fence. It was decided that the fence will be erected at a distance of 150 yards from the Indian zero point, then there will be a road and then the Nayanjuli. Hundreds of acres of land inclusive of agricultural areas were acquired. The BSF was entrusted with more power. The stretch of 8 km. from the zero point is the territory of the BSF. The rights of the people on this territory are being curbed. Calculation-wise 2200X8 i.e. 17000 sq km of land has turned out to be no mans land.
The much-disputed border Survey has been completed in Jalpaiguri and a report has been sent to the government.
More than 3,500 residents of the district live in the restricted area, area of the Indo-Bangladesh border, which is within 150 yards from the zero point. Divisional Commissioner of Jalpaiguri, Debaditya Chakraborty said: “Survey work has been completed and a report has been sent to the state government.” 99 and 913 families live within 150 yards from the zero in Raiganj and Sadar blocks respectively.
Soumyajit Das, the officer of the district administration who is in charge of the Survey said, “The survey has revealed that there is a higher concentration of residents in Sadar block as compared to Raiganj: Land holdings are 2143.88 acres in Sadar and 76.41 acres in the Raiganj block. The population living within the 150 yards is 3,039 and 504, respectively. (‘Another facet to the border problems: the barbed wire fence’, The Telegraph, 31 January 2003)
People residing on the Indo-Bangladeshi border in Jalpaiguri district, from the zero point to 150 yards inside Indian territory would be shifted to other khas and patta land by district administration.
Mr. Das said a multipurpose identity card would be issued to residents of the border areas in the two blocks. The cards will be helpful in their daily work, he said. The Survey is likely to be completed by December this year. Mr. Das added. (‘Border residents to be shifted’, The Statesman, 22 November 2002]
The commissioner of Jalpaiguri Division, Mr. Debaditya Chakraborty, said here today that work on the Indo-Bangladesh border fencing in Jalpaiguri and other districts in North Bengal is progressing well and is likely to be completed by 2007. [Around 150 families are staying in the 150 yards stretch between zero line and the proposed fence. They have to be relocated and rehabilitated] (‘Border fence by 2007’ in The Statesman, 21 November 2002)
In a letter to the state government the central government has asked them to clear the 150 yards of land along the border. On 1 September, the state government issued a written instruction to the district magistrate on this. Kamal babu raised the point that if this 150 yards of land is evacuated then where will all these Indians residing there go? According to him this letter is the result of the unholy compromise between the state and the centre. If this instruction is carried out, the 50,000 residents of this place will become refugees and more than one lakh bighas of land will remain un-utilized. The letters to the DM bear no word regarding the resettlement of these refugees. (‘Letter of evacuation for the border people – Kamal Guha agitated’, Bartaman 30.12.2002]
How should these common people who are continuously losing their homes and are forced to migrate owing to various factors like partition, religion, torture by the BSF, barbed wire fences, new policies of the government and mostly owing to poverty be treated? Should they be called ‘infiltrators’? … There is no scope of studying Islamic law in Bangladesh whereas in Hyderabad in India once can study the subject. Seven young Bangladeshis while coming to India to study Islamic law were detained by the BSF. According to BSF they were not carrying any legal documents. BSF even stressed that since their intention is to study Islamic Law hence they are the ISI agents. (Sera Khabar, December 2001)
A Bangladeshi mother has given birth to her child in an Indian jail. As per our country’s Constitution the newborn will be an Indian citizen. This incident occurred at the Raiganj jail in North Dianjpur. On 30 April, the woman then carrying was arrested by the BSF and was remanded in the jail custody. After serving four months in jail the woman gave birth to the child in August. The doctor who has seen the woman in labour says, “the nation will take care of its own rules and regulations. Being a doctor I have a humanitarian obligation and it is my duty to look after the well-being of the mother and the child”. He also named the newborn, ‘Naveen’. (Pratidin, 8 August 2002)
In the year 2003, 213 people were found marooned under the open sky at the zero point. While a lengthy argument was going on between the two feuding countries these men were starving in that intense cold and were prevented from entering any of the countries. After a few days they could not be traced anymore. This became the cover stories in most of the newspapers. Some of them are reproduced from Uttar Banga Sambad.
As the flag meeting between the two countries held at the zero point at around 10 A.M. failed, the fate of this group of Bangladeshi nomads remains undecided. The Indian media is crowding at the zero point. Responding to Mr. Chandan Sinha, the DM of Coochbehar; the International Red Cross Society on Saturday evening has distributed 1 quintal of flattened rice, 20 kg of molasses, 30 packets of biscuits, 100 lbs of bread, water and the required medicines among these needy people. Dr. Asit Chakraborty, a pediatrician from Mathabhanga Mahakuma Hospital has gone to the zero point to check the health of the ailing children. After being fed and medicated the children were seen playing in the vast field at the zero point. (3 February 2003)
Deen Islam with his group of 213 Snake charmers were arrested at zero point. Abdul Salam, Pratap Miya, Rezina Bibi, Nurbegum, Moner Miya with the rest of their group of 213 snake charmers which also consists of 80 children are marooned at the zero point in between Satgachi BSF camp of Coochbehar and Nazirgumani BDR Camp of Bangladesh. They are all held from Manikganj subdivision in Bangladesh.
They are shelter-less and the 2-month old child of Rezina Bibi is suffering from pneumonia. Bangladesh is accusing India of driving out the Bengali-speaking Indian Muslims. However, India has denied the charge. Abdul Salam, a member of the group remarked, ‘there is no question of going to India. Even Bangladesh is reluctant to accept us. We have nowhere to go. It will be better if they kill us. (1 February 2003)
Tension is mounting at the Indo-Bangladesh border in Coochbehar. Delhi has warned Dhaka. The chief minister is very much worried about the situation. The BSF has been alerted. A brawl broke out between the citizens of the two countries. Evacuation notice has been served to 6,000 families (4 February 2003).
People residing at the border are moving towards this side. Dhaka is firm on their decision. BDR is not interested in continuing further discussion regarding these nomads. (5 February 2003)
The Bangladeshis have vanished from the zero point. After following their footmarks the BSF has decided on this. (7 February 2003)
Wartime situation is prevailing at the Indo-Bangladesh border as Bangladesh had refused to take back the group of 213 Bangladeshis on also the 6th day. To solve the crisis a meeting between the two countries at the level of foreign ministry is being initiated. Mr. Tufail Haider Karim, the Bangladeshi high commissioner after meeting our foreign minister Mr. Yashwant Sinha on Wednesday evening said that the foreign minister of Bangladesh might come to Delhi. Today our deputy prime minister Mr. Lalkrishna Advani on his arrival at Kolkata Airport said that the government is very much concerned about the situation. He had an exclusive meeting with the state chief minister Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya for 20 minutes regarding the border crisis at the airport itself. In Bangalore, the defence minister Mr. George Feranades has said that the border situation has gone out of control and it is unfortunate for both the countries. Owing to this grave situation Mr. N. C. Vij has arrived at Kolkata on Wednesday itself. At Fort William he had an emergency meeting with the head of the Eastern Command. The armed force is being put under alert so that they can get into action any time if the border situation deteriorates any further. Bangladesh government has once again made it clear today that under any circumstances they are not going to take back the group of 213 snake charmers. They even bluntly refused to accept the Indian government’s proposal of a joint enquiry to find out the citizenship of these people. At Kolkata, Mr. Touhid Hussain, the deputy high commissioner of Bangladesh has said today that the discussion regarding the citizenship of these people may start only after they are brought to India. … Mr. Advani stated, ‘ We will not allow any kind of infiltration. The entire world is aware of those who are infiltrating. According to the foreign minister, ‘a discussion at the political level is on between the two countries to solve this crisis’. All the 68 men, 65 women and the 80 children who are marooned at the zero point at present are from Purabari village under Sabar police station near Dhaka. Their names and addresses have been reported to Bangladesh government. Apart from having the electricity bills of the Bangladesh rural electricity association many of them are also holding the Bangladeshi ration card. Most of them are also having the names and addresses of the moneylenders from whom they used to borrow money. One of this group, Sufia Begum — a housewife says, ‘For God’s sake, we are Bangladeshis but our own people are killing us.’
From the way both the governments are getting stern on this issue, it seems that the future of these 213 snake charmers is very grim and dark. (Pratidin, 5 February 2003)
Writhing in tension and hunger, the 213 Bangladeshis have already spent five long days under the open sky in this chilling weather at the zero point near Satgachi border. Their tension and hunger have given birth to hatred and fury and as a result these snake charmers have warned that they would release all the snakes at their deposal if their lives and modesty are threatened. Many of the Kalnaginis, Dudrajs and cobras have already succumbed to the cold and hunger. But Somdas and Sadans are taking care of the rest, as they believe that human beings can betray but not these snakes. Moreover, they have decided that if anyone dares to lure them with evil intentions they will release these snakes on them.
According to Nur Begum, ‘given a chance these 100 snakes can destroy everything around. The snakes will not tolerate anyone who will try to outrage the modesty of their mothers and sisters and we will bite them to death.’
Everyday two to three snakes are dying of starvation. Pain and grief spread in the group as soon the death news of a snake comes. Tears trickle down their eyes irrespective of their age. But still Somda, Nur and others believe that these snakes will save them. Every night some men draped in blankets come near their camp from Bangladesh. They first signal them to come nearer and then try to drag them away forcefully, Sabina says.
‘We have failed to realize it at the beginning. They assure us that they will show us how to cross the border. But we are not supposed to disclose it to our men now. As soon as Begum and we three take interest to their words, they have started pulling us by our hands and are continuously prating that we will stay with them once we cross the border.’ The enraged Sabina continues, ‘Babu we have lost everything. We are not even sure whether our children will survive or not. My husband has sustained a head injury from their beating. Without the BSF we would not have survived till date. They try to allure us and want to enjoy; our modesty is at stake. We have decided that if anyone again returns with same intentions we will release our snakes on them and the miscreants will then realize what they really deserve.’ (‘Threat by the women snake charmers of letting their snakes loose if their modesty is violated ‘, Pratidin, 5 February 2003]
Tension is mounting at different parts of the border regarding the issue of forcibly sending back the Bangladeshi infiltrators. Bangladesh has already declared that those men whom the Indian government is trying to send to Bangladesh are Indian citizens though they speak Bengali. On Monday India tried to send back these 213 men to Bangladesh from Coochbehar border but the Bangladesh Rifles and other villagers from Bangladesh proved their efforts futile.
Our own correspondent from Dhaka has quoting Bangladeshi official sources stated that BSF is trying to send many Bangladeshis forcefully to Bangladesh via Patgram sub-district of Lalmanirhat district, which is the other side of Mathabhangha.
Regarding this the chief minister of West Bengal, Mr. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya has said today in Behrampur, that the infiltrators have to go back to Bangladesh and though these men are claiming themselves to be citizens of Bangladesh, their government is not acknowledging this. He again stressed that these men must return to Bangladesh. (‘People in dire straits owing to cold and hunger: The feud between BSF and BDR at the tensed border’, Pratidin, 3 February 2003)
The tussle between the two countries regarding the identity crisis has made these men who have gathered near the border suffer to a great extent. While BSF is trying to send back these people to Bangladesh through various borders starting from Coochbehar to Nadia and North 24 Parganas. Similarly BDR is also trying their best to prevent it. These men with the intention of entering Lalmonirhat via Mathabhanga have been forced to be stationed at zero point since last Thursday. They are facing a major crisis of food and warm clothes in this chilling weather of North Bengal. Red Cross once has supplied some dry food and baby food to these men but since then not a single aid has reached them. (‘Bangladeshi infiltrators or Bengali speaking Indian citizens’, Pratidin, 3 February 2003)
The oustees have infuriated the BDR as they moved away towards them from zero point. It has been reported that BDR has summoned one of them this morning to their camp and vehemently beaten him. Md. Sahabuddin who went to the BDR camp this morning later said that ‘BDR has enquired why we have entered Bangladesh. Then at gunpoint I was threatened that they will shoot us if we ever try to enter Bangladesh again’.
Again district secretary of CPIM Mr. Chandi Pal and the local councilors Mr. Sudhir Pramanik after discussing with the villagers have decided to support these poor men. But their effort cannot clear the fear from the minds of the villagers. Lalit Burman of Satgachi village said, ‘for the entire day the BSF and the BDR are pointing their guns to us; how can we not be scared’. (‘BDR not interested in discussion, the Bangladeshi at the border are still in dark’, Pratidin, 6 February 2003)
At Kolkata airport the deputy prime minister with Buddhababu beside him has declared today that, ‘the Bangladeshi citizens who have illegally entered India have to return to Bangladesh. The entire world is aware that a lot of Bangladeshis are entering India illegally and are settling here’. Buddhababu agreeing to this has said that no inhuman steps should be taken and this crisis is to be solved in a humane way only. But that does not mean the illegal immigration will be allowed and accepted. (‘For the sake of truth, Bangladesh should take back the infiltrators, urged Advani’, Anandabazar Patrika, 6 February 2003)
The Satgachi incident has forced the people of entire Fansidewa inclusive of Nurikhaoa to spend sleepless nights. To ensure that the Satgachi incident is not repeated the residents of Fansideoa are patrolling their area with the BSF during nights. (‘The residents are accompanying the BSF while patrolling night’ in Anandabazar Patrika 6th February 2003]
After traumatic 7 days at the zero point in Indo-Bangla border eventually on Thursday night under the cover of dense mist the 213 persons have returned to their own places. Their sudden return matches their sudden arrival at the Satgachi border on last Thursday, says BSF. But still the BSF has no clear notion of how these men have returned and what role the BDR has played in this. IG North of the BSF — Mr. Kailash Chandra Sharma says, ‘from the very beginning we were stating that these men are Bangladeshis but the BDR was not agreeing to it. Later somehow they have realised that these snake charmers are none but Bangladeshis and then only they have made the arrangement for their silent return. The footprints are proving that this group has entered Bangladesh via Patgram of Rangpur district’. An inspector of BSF has remarked curtly, ‘The BDR had to give a lot of explanations if these men whom the BDR refused to recognise as their own at the beginning were taken back in broad daylight. And to save their face they used the veil of the dense mist’.
Our own correspondent from Dhaka has reported that the Bangladesh government is not yet acknowledging that these men could enter Bangladesh only after they came to an understanding with the government after a series of dialogues. The foreign secretary Mr. Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury on Thursday night at Dhaka said that though the Indian media is pressing hard but the there is no definite proof that these men have entered Bangladesh after crossing the border. He also insisted that if it is proved that these 213 men are Bangladeshis then of course they will be taken back. According to the official sources, it is known that the BSF has gathered almost 25,000 people in their territory to push them to Bangladesh. To prevent this thousands of villagers from the Bangladesh’s border villages are guarding the borders during nights with the BDR. (‘Eventually Bangladesh has taken back the 213 men’, Anandabazar Patrika, 7 February 2003)
In tomorrow’s chief ministers‘ meeting, strategies that the central government should take regarding Bangladeshi infiltrators, will be discussed. The prime minister — Mr. Atal Behari Bajpayee will inaugurate the summit. The discussions will focus on the possibilities of photo-identity cards, modernization of the police force, internal security matters etc. There will also be a detailed discussion regarding the identification of the foreigners and their deportation. Not only from Bangladesh, many illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka and Pakistan are residing in India at present. As per the report of home department, there are almost 11,500 Pakistanis residing illegally in India now. (‘Chief Ministers‘ summit in Delhi regarding the border problems with Bangladesh’, Ananda Bazar Patrika, 8 February 2003)
Our own correspondent from Bangladesh has reported, that with an intention to reduce the border tension the foreign minister of Bangladesh — Mr. Morshed Khan is going to Delhi for a three-day visit on next Monday honouring the invitation from his Indian counterpart — Yaswant Sinha. Bangladesh has not yet acknowledged that the 213 snake-charmers, who were at the zero point in Coochbehar border has entered Bangladesh though BSF has said that these men have entered Bangladesh but as per the BDR sources, the BSF has taken these groups of Bengali-speaking Muslims people to an unknown destination from the no-man‘s land of Nazir Gumani. … In the recent past both the countries were engaged in verbal battle relating to this issue of infiltration. Bangladesh government has denied the charges of Delhi that there are almost two crores of Bangladeshi infiltrators in India. Mr. Moudud Ahmed, the law and constitution minister of Bangladesh has accused that like Kashmir, Palestine and Chechniya the ‘push-in’ problem in Bangladesh is violating the human rights. BDR has reported today that in the firing from the BSF one Bangladeshi is killed while 100 others are seriously injured. They have also reported that the BSF at the borders of Lalmonirhat and Panchgarh are guarding with mortars and heavy artilleries. (‘The foreign minister of Bangladesh is coming to Delhi’ in Andabazar Patrika, 8 February 2003)
This verbal battle will continue. In the name of smuggling or infiltration, both parties will continue firing at each other and as a result the helpless and ordinary people will die. The tension is not only on the land border it also prevails over the waters where lots of fisherman are getting killed while others are disappearing without leaving any traces behind. Although the words – ‘refugee’ and ‘infiltrator’ bear separate meanings altogether, with the rise of the border problem they have become synonymous. One who is an immigrant to me becomes an infiltrator to others only for his religion. There is always an odour of conspiracy in the word ‘infiltration’ and this odour is generously sprayed in the borders. ‘Infiltrator’ or ‘refugee’, they are no mere words; they are over and above human beings. Not a single discussion is initiated at the centre or at the state level for their well-being or for resolving their crisis. The needle of discussion points only to the numbers and statistics.
Here we are discussing only those people who become refugees owing to the partition. While discussing the homeless, we cannot however ignore those who are regularly becoming refugees in our own city. In order to transform the city into a high-tech one, the people who were residing beside the Tolly Nullah a few days ago have to evacuate their houses. Where will all these people go now? Where will all those people go who have lost their homes, lands and everything owing to the complete washout of the banks of the Ganges? We will find many of these homeless and landless men engaged in smuggling or in the girl and child-trafficking business, while the women and the girls will find their places in the red light areas of this country or in some other country. Though it may sound impertinent, still I cannot help saying here that in the name of national security, crores and crores of money are being spent. But, what meaning does the country convey to us? Is it only a piece of land? I wish to end the discussion by way of quoting the words of a great poet – ‘Desh mante maltika doi, desh mante manujulai’ i.e. ‘a country is not the soil but the people residing there’.
[The draft translation of the report was prepared from Bengali by Niloshree Biswas. Editor]
For decades, thousands of people in Assam have been displaced from their original habitats, the displacement being forced on them either due to natural disaster or man made situation arising out of ethnic conflict, industrial growth and large scale construction activities. Apart from this internal displacement, the state has been witnessing migration of a large number of people from neighbouring countries—Bangladesh and Nepal, adding to the process of demographic change1.
Of the various factors, displacement forced by natural calamities like flood and erosion account for the majority of the displaced population. Ravaging floods render thousands of people homeless every year while erosion caused by the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries has forced thousand others to leave their ancestral places to safer but disadvantaged places making their life more difficult. The migration of flood and erosion affected people to new areas, either on their own or due to rehabilitation programme of the state government sometimes leads to social problems insofar as such displacement has an impact on the existing demography of a particular area and affects their livelihood.
Adding to the displacement caused by natural calamities is the large-scale displacement of people caused by man-made situation like ethnic conflicts. Assam is home to more than eight major and several smaller ethnic groups. The socio-political and economic aspirations of these ethnic societies to emerge as big powers and their outburst against negligence of the successive rulers leading to underdevelopment often led to a series of ethnic conflicts. The ethnic riots between the Bodos and the Muslims in 1993 and those between the Bodos and Adivasis in 1996 and in 1998 forced many people belonging to all the three communities to leave their houses amidst incidents of arson, looting and killings and counter killings, and take shelter in make-shift relief camps in lower Assam districts of Kokrajhar, Bongaigaon, Barpeta, Dhubri and central Assam districts of Darrang and Sonitpur. Similarly, ethnic clashes between the Hmars and Dimasas in 2003 led to the forcible displacement of thousands of people belonging to both the communities in the two southern Assam districts of North Cachar Hills and Cachar to leave their houses and take shelter either in safer places or in relief camps set up by the government.
The state also witnessed displacement of large number of people in several districts following massive eviction drive undertaken by the forest department to carry out the Supreme Court directive to the states to make the reserved forests free from encroachment. Over the years, large numbers of people had migrated and settled in forest areas. Due to increasing population pressure, some of the forests have been completely denuded. However, as these villages were not de-notified the Forest department had to undertake eviction drive in these areas to carry out the Supreme Court directive, leading to the displacement of a large number of people in different parts of the state. The state capital Guwahati also witnessed such displacement in 2002 when the Forest Department undertook eviction drive in the hills surrounding the city. Another man-made situation leading to forced displacement in the state is the setting up of large industries and mega projects of dam construction. A large number of people are displaced from their original places, as land required for these projects is acquisitioned by the government. These forced displacements of people caused by various factors are not isolated events and they have a chain reaction which have given rise to many other issues like human rights violation, aspirations of various communities for self rule, creation of new administrative set ups, protection of tribal belts and blocks, demands for enactment of new land laws etc.
The purpose of this study is to find out how the media (particularly the local news papers) perceived displacement in Assam over the last five years. The study covers media analysis of issues of forced displacement and looks at the origins and structures of displacement, attitude of the media to laws, measures, relief and rehabilitation of the victims of displacement. The study also aims at presenting a coherent profile, on the basis of the conditions and patterns of displacement, attitude of the state as well as the civil society to the cases of displacement.
Besides consulting most of the local newspapers, (mainly, the Assam Tribune, the Sentinel, Dainik Asom, and Amar Asom) the study is also based on observations on the present situation of some of relief camps located in Kokrajhar, and discussions with the local journalists of Bongaigaon and Kokrajhar.
A good number of local dailies in both Assamese and English languages are published from the state. Altogether nine dailies in Assamese language, three in English, three in Bengali and two Hindi dailies are published from the capital city. Some of the Assamese dailies have their local editions in different places like Dibrugarh, Jorhat, and Lakhimpur.
Three other national dailies namely, The Telegraph, The Hindustan Times and The Asian Age have their Guwahati editions printed in the capital city. All other leading national dailies including The Times of India, The Hindu, The Indian express, The Statesman, The Economic Times and others reach Guwahati during afternoon. Apart from these, there are newspapers published in other languages like Bodo. Local dailies, published in Assamese languages are- the Dainik Asom, the Asomiya Pratidin, the Amar Asom, the Ajir Asom, the Asomiya Janasadharan, the Dainik Agradoot, the Asomiya Khabar, the Dainik Janambhumi, and the Aaji. Out of these, the Asomiya Pratidin has two local editions at Dibrugarh and Lakhimpur, while the Amar Asom and the Dainik Janambhumi have their local editions at Jorhat. The Asomiya Pratidin is the largest circulated local daily published in Assamese language having a total number of circulation of more than one lakh. Local dailies published in English language are The Assam Tribune, The Sentinel and the North East Times. Among these, The Assam Tribune is the oldest daily in the state having the highest circulation of the English dailies. Apart from the daily news papers, there are a good number of weeklies, bi-weeklies, fortnightlies, and monthly magazines including some little ones in different languages, which have been putting their best effort in creating public opinion on human rights issues related to internal displacement situation, happened in the state from time to time.
The state has a good network of electronic media. Apart from the Door-darshan Network, there are local correspondences from Zee News, Star News, ETV, Sahara and NDTV. Programmes aired by the All India Radio are very popular form of media access in rural Assam.
With a literacy rate of 64 percent in the state, according to the census of 2001, media access to common people is relatively high in comparison to some other states. Dailies, published from several places of the states through satellite communication, have made it possible for readers to have access to daily newspaper during the morning hours.
Media have been playing more or less a positive role in creating public opinions on issues of serious public concern, including the issues of displacement. Dailies published in local languages have greater access to common people in comparison to the national and others published in English language. Similarly, the electronic media also have been trying to focus on these issues though their reach is still limited. In rural Assam, inaccessibility to cable network made people dependent on Doordarshan network.
Media Coverage Of Displacement Issues During The Last Five Years
Major causes of forced displacement that took place in certain parts of the state during the last five years can be categorized as follows:
a. Ethnic conflicts
b. Natural calamities like high flood situation and erosion
c. Mega construction activities
d. Eviction in reserve forest areas
The Bodo Issue
During the 1990s, Assam experienced a series of ethnic conflicts, specially in Bodo-dominated Barpeta, kokrajhar, Bangaigaon and Dhubri districts of lower Assam which rendered several lakhs of people homeless and claimed over 3000 lives. Before all the people who were displaced in the 1993 ethnic riot between the Bodos and the Muslims in Barpeta district could be rehabilitated, fresh breakout of ethnic riots between the Bodos and the Adivasis in 1996 and again 1998 uprooted more than two and half lakh (1 lakh = 100,000) poulation and forced them to take shelter in makeshift relief camps for years together2. During the year 1993, the ethnic conflict between the insurgent groups of the Bodo people and the religious minorities took life of more than 1000 people, mostly women and children, in nearly 60 villages of Barpeta district in lower Assam. The conflict forced several thousands of innocent people to take shelter in relief camps3. In 1996, ethnic conflicts between Bodos and Santhals in Bodo-heartland — Kokrajhar and Bangaigaon districts took life of more than 2000 and displaced over 2.5 lakh people. Subsequent incidents of ethnic violence occurred in Kokrajhar, Bangaigaon and Dhubri districts during the years 1998 and 1999 took life of hundreds of innocent people4. While ethnic conflicts in the year 1998 rendered 25,000 people mostly of Santahls and Nepalis, homeless, ethnic riots in the year 1999 in the district of Dhubri in lower Assam resulted in displacement of 7,000 people including the Santhal and the Bengali communities5. Most of riot victims in these relief camps had to live in sub-human conditions over the years leading serious human rights issues. Ethnic tension of the state is one of the burning issues, which finds regular place in media as it has not only led to the breakdown of law-and-order situation in lower Assam districts but also created a feeling of distrust among different communities including those who were not directly involved in the conflicts. Some of the local dailies have been putting their best efforts not only in reporting the incidents that led to these displacement, but also focusing on all other related issues including the human rights conditions of the displaced people who have been forced to live as camp inmates for several years, schemes undertaken by the state government for their rehabilitation, issues of women and children, fear psychosis and distrust prevailed among the communities. It has also been playing a positive role in creating public opinion for restoration of peace and communal harmony, through publishing of reports, editorials and articles of leading citizens in this regard.
The Assam Tribune, the highest circulated local English daily published a detailed report on April 29, 1999 on the sub-human condition of over 20,000 inmates of relief camps who were uprooted from their homes during the 1996 Bodo-Santhal riot. The report also highlighted the simmering tension of the inmates because of distrust of each other due to continuous incidents of violence taking place in the areas where the relief camps are located. It revealed how the riots affected both the communities, “as a good number of Adivasis (Santhals) earned their livelihood by working as labourers in the lands of Bodos and now they are deprived of their only source of income, while on the other hand some Bodo landlords were forced to sell off parts of their lands because of non-availability of labourers6.” The report also has highlighted the issue of encroachment of forest lands in reserve forest areas as a number of these camp inmates, after receiving the rehabilitation grant of Rs.10, 000 could not be rehabilitated in their original places as these fell in the reserve forest.
Highlighting the issue of human rights condition of camp inmates in Jaypur relief camp, where the number of camp inmates was 2500, including 900 children below the age of six years, The Assam Tribune, on its April 29, 1999 issue, reported, “when this correspondent has visited the camp, it was raining, and the small kids who do not have clothes to wear, were moving around with stray animals in the rain and mud, with every apprehension of outbreak of diseases in any moment. A foul smell greets a person who visits the camp, due to proper hygienic condition, and some people were seen boiling roots of jungle trees to have their lunch as the government failed to provide relief materials to the camp regularly.” It also reported death of 250 camp inmates mostly children, since the day it was set up immediately after the massacre of 1996.
A study report prepared by UNICEF on “the impact of insurgency and conflict on children in Assam”, focussed on the status of more than 70,000 children in different camps of Kokrajhar. It reported the existence of 76 relief camps sheltering 2,54,787 inmates of which the number of children was 74,103, during the year 1998, due to continuous ethnic violence. The reports also revealed that with a total number of 1,05,799 child population of the district, nearly 70 per cent of the total population of the children had been displaced in the violence. The report further revealed that altogether 1,257 children were orphaned in the massacre. The UNICEF study report further focused on how children became the easy target of the extremist groups. Of the 254 people killed in Kokrajhar between April and September 1998, 102 were children, according to the UNICEF report. It also focused that, between October and November during the year 1998 out of the total number of 59,528 children in 56 camps, 16,116 (22.07 per cent) were reportedly sick7.
Some of the local dailies have reported on the conditions of the people in the relief camps8. The displaced children are deprived of education for years. There is no privacy in the camps and the camp inmates cannot go out because of safety reason and fear-psychosis. There are no provisions for medical facility and even for immunization of the children to protect them from epidemics. As a result children in large number have died of simple diseases, malnutrition and starvation. There are also reports in some of the local papers about selling out of these children by their parents out of poverty and vulnerability. Similarly, young girls from these displaced families have been forced to accept prostitution out of starvation. The food provided for them from the state government is inadequate and the monthly ration hardly meets for a week. Hundreds of these camp inmates also killed by insurgent groups at the time when they were trying to collect firewood or fuel from the nearby forests9.
Local media has been carrying out evaluation of the rehabilitation process of the displaced people by publishing regular reports of phase-wise rehabilitation schemes undertaken in the relief camps. It has come to the light through media that till the month of July 1999, more than 2.59 lakh people including 1.88 lakh Santhals, 61,000 Bodos, 8305 religious minorities, 1121 Rabhas, and 581 Nepalis were still living in 78 relief camps throughout the district of Kokrajhar. According to the report, while some persons affected by 1996 riots went back to their villages, situation aggravated though fresh rounds of ethnic violence. A detailed report published in the Amar Asom on April 5,2000, focused that there were nearly 2,00,000 people still living in 78 relief camps located in the districts of Kokrajhar and Bangaigaon. It was also pointed out that all these camp inmates had to live in a sub-human condition as the state government provided them food for five days a week only. The report published on March, 15,2000 in Amar Asom also pointed out that the government had made provision to bring altogether 1,758 families of the Bodo and Santhal Community under the Central government sponsored Indira Awas Yojana and as a result nearly 5000 inmates left the camps. As on fresh reports of a leading daily published in July, this year over 5000 families of riot-hit Kokrajhar district have been rehabilitated. However, some 31,000 families still continue to languish in the 44 relief camps, as the report said. It also focused on the need of another Rs. 32 crore to rehabilitate all the people. A sizeable section of these poor people, who used to live in reserve forest areas, cannot be settled in their original villages, because of the Supreme Court direction. Even, many of those who used to live in revenue villages cannot go back to their villages due to perceived threat. Although media sensitivity to focus on the plight of these people is relatively high, these reports, however had failed to create the required public opinion as these were not followed up to inform the readers at regular intervals. Media has failed to raise a collective and continuous resistance against forced displacement of these marginalized communities. The common source of information for most of the reporters associated with local media has generally been the office of the District Public Relations Officer of the concerned district. Therefore, the print media generally focus on more or less the same issues. However, the local media have completely ignored the gender issue in conflict situation.
The Hmar-Dimasa Issue
The NC Hills, is a part of the autonomous hills district of Assam. It is inhabited by a number of ethnic groups, with the Dimasa being the dominant group. Over time, the passes of Jatinga and Haflong have become home to a number of tribes and ethnic groups such as the Hmar, Hrangkol, Kuki and Jaintia. Most of the tribal population is engaged in shifting cultivation. The region, like other hill areas of the Northeast, is characterized by the lack of any large-scale industries. Over the last two decades, the people of NC Hills have been struggling for an autonomous state. The process of land alienation and state induced violence has overshadowed the dynamics of this political struggle. People on a large scale have been displaced since the month of April 2003, in a series of ethnic conflicts between the Hmars and the Dimasas in the districts of Cachar and North Cachar Hills. The conflict between the Hmars and the Dimasas may probably be characterized as a battle for supremacy between the Hmar People’s Convention (HPC), representing the former and the Dima Halam Daogah (DHD) representing the latter, operating in parts of these two hills districts. In April, suspected militants burnt down 80 houses belonging to Dimasa people at Semkhar, near Haflong in north cachar Hills Districts. On the same day the Hmar Students Association alleged of suspected Dimasa militants have killed over 56 persons leading forced displacement of 1400 people belonging that Hmar tribe10. The reports published in the Sentinnel, on April 20, 2003, revealed burning down of about 400 houses of both Hmar and Dimasa people has forced 6000 people to flee from their respected villages and to settle in relief camps.
A recent report of The Times Of India revealed that the violence not only affected people of both the communities, but a sizeable section of nearly 800 Pnars, have been forced to flee their homes from their villages in the districts of North Cachar Hills, Cachar, Karimganj, and Hilakandi of Assam bordering the Jaintia Hills of Meghalaya. These people flee from their villages following the gunpoint threat of militants who asked them to pay Rs.2 lakhs as tax to inhabit in “their lands” within June 1. The militants also threatened that failing in paying taxes may force these innocent people to face dire consequences.
A detailed report on the sub-human condition of the displaced people belonging to Hmar tribe in different relief camps at Mahur, 39 Km away from Haflong was published in the Amar Asom, one of the leading Assamese dailies, published from Guwahati. The report revealed how the acute food-crisis has gripped in these relief camps as the suspected Dimasa militants threatened the truck-drivers not to enter into the localities of Mahur. Apart from highlighting the events and conditions of people of both the tribe, local media have also been trying to create public opinion through editorials, and also using the space of “letters to the editor” and other columns. But, media response in focusing the human rights conditions of the thousands of innocent people is insufficient to create a public opinion.
While media plays a great role in highlighting events of fraternal killings, as well as the human rights condition of these affected people forced to live in relief camps over the years in sub-human condition; it still has a lot do to go into the deep causes of the dissatisfaction and age-old discontentment of these communities who had to remain backward due to lack of proper conditions of sustenance, proper health and education. While the so-called development process has uprooted these communities from their traditional way of life, these people are still to get a proper alternative way of life. The relative backwardness, illiteracy, lack of communication and the absence of a good will from the parts of successive state governments in designing a viable policy for equal growth of each community, have only aggravated the situation. As most of these displaced people belong to the various marginal groups living in the state, in absence of an effective intervention from the government conflict and violence have become a regular issue in the state.
Ravaging floods and erosion caused by the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries over the decades have uprooted thousands of indigenous people in different parts of the state from their ancestral land and property. Continuous flood and erosion have threatened the very existence of thousands of villages on both banks of the river Brahmaputra, and specially, in Char areas (sandbars). The bare fact is that people in these areas have been uprooted completely from their land and property, leaving no means of livelihood in their original habitat. Due to massive erosion caused by the river Brahmaputra, more than 60,000 innocent people in South Salmara of Golokganj constituency in Dhubri district, lower Assam were rendered homeless from 1971 to 1998. The constituency had lost around 16,000 hectares of land during this period. Nearly one third of its total area of Majuli, the largest river island in the world and the nerve center of Vaishnavite religion, in upper Assam have been washed away by the mighty river Brahmaputra since past several decades. Severe erosion in other parts of the state like Jorhat, Nagaon, Dibrugarh, Kamrup, Dhemaji and North Lakhimpur have also uprooted thousands of people from their original land. Erosion by main tributaries of the Brahmaputra including the Kaldia, Pagladia, Subonsiri, Dhansiri have also led to forced displacement of countless people.
The first wave of floods began on 13 June, displaced 400,000 people, and then subsequently receded. A second wave of severe flooding began in June when the Brahmaputra river breached its banks at several places. Since then, continuous rain has caused the river systems in Assam to rise above the danger level, submerging hundreds of villages and causing widespread destruction to buildings, roadways, power facilities, crops, and wildlife. Hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to flee the rising floodwaters to take shelter in government buildings, relief camps, and makeshift shelters on higher ground and embankments. As per UNDP reports, about 2.36 millions people are affected by the current floods. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, as of July, altogether 2953 villages in 20 districts of Assam are hit by the floods. Official sources also reported that a total of 7 people in Assam had been killed, although media sources report a much higher figure. The worst affected districts in Assam are Dhemaji, Nagoan, Hailakandi, Nalbari, Dhubri and Goalpara, in which an estimated 1742 villages have been flooded. As on 14 July 2003 the UNDP reported that in the district of Goalpara alone, rising waters have affected more than 260,000 people in 452 villages. Impassible roadways and flooding have greatly impeded the ability of relief and medical workers’ ability to access and assist those in need. The health situation in the flooded areas of the state was severe. Large numbers of people were suffering from water-borne diseases such as gastroenteritis, dysentery, jaundice, malaria, and typhoid, although the situation has not assumed epidemic proportions. In flooded areas the wells have been submerged, making safe drinking water inaccessible. While the government has failed to take necessary steps to design out a proper rehabilitation scheme for the flood-victims of these areas, people have been living under threat of life and property, throughout the ages. Of late, a sizable section of people from the Char areas, has been starting to migrate to the town-areas of the state in search of livelihood, resulting in a massive internal displacement. These people have been working as daily labourers, domestic labourer, rickshaw-pullers, or in construction sites at very low wages living in sub-human conditions in unhygienic slum areas of these towns.
The issue finds its space in newspapers only during the high-flood situation. While thousands of the people from the flood-prone areas shifted to safer places in search of food and livelihood a very few reports reflecting the sub-human conditions of these people have been published in the media. Thousands of innocent people forced to migrate to the town in search of food and security are very often vulnerable to unhygienic conditions. Parents put their children in sources of earning instead of sending them to school. They work as rag pickers in the streets, or labourers in railway stations, hotels etc. These children, mostly the young girls, very often become the easy target of racketeer of illegal trafficking of girls and children and also of drug smugglers in the capital city.
It is also reported that a large number of young girls in severe flood-prone Dhemaji district in upper Assam are being sold to neighbouring states by their parents under the condition of engaging these girls as domestic servants or agricultural labourer. These girls are, however mostly vulnerable to rape, molestations by their owners at work place. Some of them are even engaged in prostitution. Despite having innumerable opportunities in bringing these issues to common readers, thereby creating a public opinion to influence the policy-makers to come with a proper solution, media sensitivity to the issue of focusing human rights condition of these victims are very poor. With an exception of publishing a few of scattered case studies of such illegal trafficking of young girls there are no accounts of their conditions. Similarly there is no proper media audit highlighting the issue of rehabilitation process of the flood and erosion victims. While large numbers of people have been forced to displace from their ancestral land and property, in most cases no traces could be found out of their migration to other parts of the state.
Displacement Due To Development
The state has also witnessed a major development activity during last several decades. The mega projects of dam construction, bridge construction on the river Brahmaputra, and other industries like Assam Gas cracker project and others have led to displacement of hundreds of people from their original places, as land required for these projects is acquired by the government. The implementation of the Rs 3500-crore Assam Gas Cracker project, near the oil township in Duliajan of Upper Assam’s Dibrugarh district, is feared to have evicted nearly 150 tribal families with around 1500 people. The proposed Rs.600-crore Pagladia dam project on the river Pagladia in Nalbari district of lower Assam, is feared to destroy over 70,000 Bighas of agricultural land, leaving tribal people of 27 villages homeless. During the process of land acquisition for the Rs.1700 crore Bogibeel bridge project, on the river Brahmaputra, connecting Dibrugarh on its southern part and Lakhimpur on its northern part, is feared to make hundreds of families belonging to the Mishing tribe of lose more than 1000 bighas of cultivable land. Despite the displacement of people in these series of development activities, a few reports have been published on the issue of forced displacement of local people. The Nov, 22, 2000 issue of the Assam Tribune, had carried out a report on the allegation of the Tribal Student’s Federation’s (TSF) for not rehabilitating the tribal people who had to face forced displacement due to a series of development activities. The students body had alleged that hundreds of tribal people displaced during the setting up of Dinjan Army cantonment in Dibrugarh district, during the implementation of NEEPCO project in Duliajan, and during the setting up of Nagaon Paper Mills at Jagiroad, in upper Assam. The TSF demanded proper rehabilitation of nearly 150 tribal families, with around 1500 people, at Lepetkatta area of the proposed Assam Gas Cracker project.
Since independence, a huge number of tribal people in the state have been uprooted from their original soil in the name of the process of development. In India, Nearly 5 to 7 million tribal people, mostly due to construction of dams, hydel projects, mines and other development activities have been displaced from their original places. Approximately, one in every ten tribal in the country has been displaced by development activities. There is no reliable data, nor accounts of the vast section of these tribal people who were displaced from their original habitat. While, the illiterate tribal people have become the easy target of eviction of the development activities, the rate of compensation is very poor to provide a suitable alternative for their livelihood. In most cases, the development agencies provide them compensation after prolonged waiting. The above projects are the best examples of how the tribal people have been the soft targets of forced displacement of any development or industrial work. The capital city, Guwahati was once the original habitat of the Bodos, the largest plains tribe and the Karbis, one of the colourful hills tribes of the state. Most of them have been completely uprooted from their soil in the process of modernization and urbanization after independence. Today, one will find no trace of these original people. A few of them, who managed to survive in some pockets, have been marginalized in the process of urbanization fighting the harshness of life. This is, in fact, one of the major areas of concern of age-old discontentment of the ethnic societies in the state. It is of great concern that media, either local or national, have completely failed to bring these issues of human interests to common people. There are concrete studies made from the part of media to draw a baseline in these issues.
Displacement Due To Eviction In Reserve Forests
The six-week eviction drive launched in May, during the year 2002 by Assam’s Forest Department, a much-delayed response to a Supreme Court of India directive issued in December 1996, led thousands of people displaced from their original habitat. With more than one million permanent residence, Guwahati the largest city in the entire northeast experiences a massive rural-urban migration since last two decades, resulting in major encroachment in the reserve lands in and around the city. Huge encroachment, which began in the early parts of the eighties of last century, continued for recent days unabated. These people even supplied with telephone and electricity connection, although there are rules that one is not considered to avail of these facilities in illegally constructed houses. Residents of all these areas expected regularization of their occupation from concerned authorities. However, the sudden eviction drive carried out by district administration and department of forest uprooted thousands of people from their homes, killing one and injuring several others. The Supreme Court, in its ruling during the year 1996, had directed nine States including Assam, to stop further encroachment of reserve forest lands. This was followed by repeated interventions by the Supreme Court and the High Courts as well as by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests. On January 15, 1998, the Court directed that for forest wealth to be safeguarded in the northeastern States, forest officers in these States should be empowered to investigate, prosecute and confiscate - powers similar to those conferred on forest officers in other States. In January 2000, the Guwahati High Court ordered the Mahanta government to take steps to protect the Sarusola beel and other wetlands around the state capital. On February 18, 2002, the Supreme Court directed the Chief Secretaries of Orissa, West Bengal, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Kerala to submit to it a list of measures taken by them to prevent further encroachment of forest land, particularly in the hilly terrain and in national parks and sanctuaries. On May 3, 2001, the ministry had directed the Assam government to ensure that the eviction operations against encroachments were not eligible for regularization. Forest Department officials demolished the private illegal constructions with the help of elephants in 10 reserve forests including thickly populated Hengrabari, Fatasil, Batahghuli and other reserve forests in Guwahati. It was this directive that prompted the State Forest Department to intensify its drive against encroachers. The felling of trees had continued unabated despite the Supreme Court’s order of 1996, and this had depleted the State’s forests cover to 14 per cent of its geographical area against the stipulated 33 per cent. Out of the 23, 424 lakh hectares of reserve forest area in the State, 2,764 lakh hectares had been encroached upon, according to official figures. A large part of the 10 reserve forests around Guwahati has for long been subjected to encroachment. Encroachment of forestland had begun soon after independence in other districts including Kamrup, Kokrajhar, Sivasagar, Golaghat, Lakhimpur, Nagaon and Darrang. Media was quick in responding to the issue and in highlighting various aspects of human rights condition of the eviction drive. While many of these evictees around Guwahati and other places were well-to-do people who had built two or three-story RCC buildings, and had managed to get power and telephone connections, there were thousands of poor people also who had been living in forest lands for the last 40 to 50 years, who were evicted without any alternative arrangement or compensation. A section of these evicted people have again returned to their original places. However, nearly 5000 people are completely uprooted from their land and property. While, media has a great role to focus on the human rights issues of these displaced people, it has done either very little, or nothing in highlighting the issues relating to the rehabilitation of the displaced persons particularly those who are poor and marginalized.
It has been observed that the local media, particularly the newspapers, have been successful (to a certain extent) to portray the contemporary situation of forced displacement in the state. The problems such as ethnic conflicts, floods etc., and their tangible impact on people, are highlighted. However, the media have failed to address the issues in their totality, as well as objectively. Largely depending on the official sources, the local newspapers have tried to inform the conscious readers about the intensity of the problems, but failed to establish a lively communication between the victims and the civil society at large. The Reporters of most of the local newspapers, as it appears, have hardly tried to communicate the victims of the circumstances while filing their report. It has also been observed that the media is quite reluctant to provide any analysis of the ethnic conflicts considering the historical factors responsible for their frequent occurrence in the state. Although the newspapers have, by and large, shown their sensitivity towards the issues of human rights, preferred to almost completely ignore the issue of gender. The media have hardly made any significant attempt to address the overall condition of women in the situation of armed conflict, in the relief camps, in the situation of floods or other forms of forced displacement.
However, one cannot ignore the constrains the local media have to confront with while addressing particularly the sensitive issues in a society marked by constant ethnic conflicts and armed struggles launched by several militant groups. Yet, the local media should definitely make the required efforts to play a more meaningful role exercising the relative autonomy provided by the democratic state.
1. For an analysis, see, Saikia, Goswami and Goswami, Population Growth in Assam: 1951 – 1991 (New Delhi: Akansha Publishing House, 2003).
2. Monirul Hussain, ‘State, Identity Movement and Internal Displacement in the North East’, Economic and Political Weekly, 16 December 2000.
4. The Assam Tribune, 23 May 1999.
6. The Assam Tribune, 29 April 1999
7. Reports published in almost all the local dailies on 23 May 1999.
8. For an account of the condition of the people in the relief camp, see, The Assam Tribune, 29 April 1999; Amar Asom, 5 April 2000.
9. Many such incidents were reported in the local media.
10. Most of the local dailies have reported on the Hmar-Dimasa conflict.