By Shruti Pandalai
A view across the Brahmaputra near Sukleswar Ghat, Guwahati, Assam, India. Photo by Deepraj, Wikipedia Commons
Ethnic clashes between Bodos (Assam’s biggest tribal group) and Muslims in lower Assam in early May, forced media attention once again to the myriad conflicts stemming from contested identities in the North East. Election rhetoric around issues of illegal migration into north eastern states, targeted at specific vote banks seems to have further fuelled the reportage. A fortnight on, perhaps understandably, the region has faded from the media’s radar, since action has now shifted to New Delhi with the country ushering in political change.
Typically, issues from the North East despite making headlines, are often lost in translation. The gravity and historic context of the conflict is often lost en masse in the national public consciousness. Mass media’s access to the lowest common denominator makes it a crucial player in building national narratives and breaking stereotypes. These narratives can come handy for the state to make sure the message is clear in areas prone to conflict, where citizens are often victims of misinformation and agenda driven campaigns.
This is not to say that bridging perception gaps will resolve the conflicts in the North East, but the case has to be made to at least inform and build common frames of reference and initiate larger public interest in the region. If attempts have been made already, then we need to investigate their limited presence in influencing opinions and debates in the larger national consciousness. It’s paradoxical that despite the rise in rich academic research on the various problems plaguing the North East, their play in mass public discourse is negligible and incident oriented.
Insurgencies have been raging on is the North East for decades, yet unlike Kashmir – which has become ingrained in public consciousness and the national discourse – one could argue that the North East has not received the same attention. Apart from spot reports on violence, which is definitely a step forward from the early days of complete ignorance; there is little effort to understand the contested narratives of the various conflicts. Images of the Manipuri women protest against the rape of Manorama Devi in 2004, anti-AFSPA activist Irom Sharmila, and shots of training camps of the ULFA are regurgitated time and again in the mass media. While these are powerful and symbolic, they have stereotyped a complex region with a flattened idea of homogeneity.