No candles for Nanao!

Apathy and rank ignorance marked the brutal killing of Nanao Singh by trigger-happy police while he covered a protest in Manipur on December 23,
mourns KISHALAY BHATTACHARJEE, as he draws attention to the absence of safety and training for journalists covering ‘conflict’

I am assuming that all the candles lit on Saturday the twenty ninth day of December 2012 are in memory of the millions of women and girls who have suffered violence and discrimination and have often passed away in silence or survived with stigma and indifference. But forgive me for lighting a candle today in memory of a colleague I have never met Khwairakpam Dwijamani (Thangjam Nanao Singh).

In the disturbing sequence of events the country has been witnessing in the last ten days of this year, Nanao, as his friends called him, is also a victim of brutality, apathy and indifference.

Nanao a freelance video journalist who was a stringer for Doordarshan, was covering a violent agitation in Imphal following a case of assault on a Manipuri actress on stage by an overground armed Naga militant. The self styled Lt Col Livingstone Anal of the terror outfit NSCN(IM), harassed and assaulted her in full view of the audience of a fund raising event.

The actress claimed police and army officers were also present but no one came up to help her as the accused repeatedly kicked her on stage for resisting his moves. When her co-host tried to interfere, Livingstone shot at him. Fortunately no one was hurt in the firing. For two days, her fraternity agitated, demanding the arrest of the accused, but as the government dithered, the protests turned ugly and an indefinite bandh was called. With some residents trying to leave the city under police escort, the agitators clashed with the police. They even set the vehicles transporting the residents on fire. 

It was this clash that Nanao was shooting. Bijoy Krishna Aribam, the only other cameraperson on the site at Thangmeiband, heard gunshots. He recalls cautioning Nanao when he realized that the police had started firing on the crowd. He asked him to go behind a pillar sensing that they are caught in between. These were not tear gas shells or rubber bullets. Bijoy Krishna called out for Nanao and saw him lying on the ground. Nanao had taken the bullets on his chest. He was still conscious and muttered something.

Bijoy Krishna recounted the incident for me, “When Nanao was killed in police firing, I was right beside him and saw him collapse on the ground with his camera intact in his hand………I advised Nanao to take precautions as police were firing indiscriminate live rounds only. I saw him taking visuals from behind a pillar but when I looked again, he was lying with his camera in his hand. At that time I wondered how the police could target a journalist while some agitators were still attacking the police truck.  I would like to state that the police deliberately and intentionally shot Dwijamani for reasons best known to them…” 

Bijoy Krishna started screaming for help asking both sides to stop the clash. The police stopped firing and came up reluctantly to shift him to the hospital. He was conscious for another hour and then he passed away. For the rest of the world, a journalist was murdered and almost without notice.

 A victim all over again!

Nanao was not just a victim of police brutality but is now a victim of indifference by his own fraternity. Like the girl in Delhi who, even in her anonymity, has come to symbolize the suppressed anger of millions, Nanao’s death should have been able to evoke some response within the media, some introspection of how callous we are particularly when we cover conflict.

Bijoy Krishna and Nanao shouldn’t have even been in that situation if they had the basic training of covering conflict or riot or a violent mob. In my twenty years in broadcast journalism, I have myself committed innumerable such mistakes. Conflict reporters in our country are just accidental journalists who either happen to live there or have been posted there. Not one of us is trained in hostile environment. Not even a few are conscious of this shortcoming. ‘Conflict’ is just another word in newsrooms devoid of basic training themselves and very often the requisite qualification to even understand the different environments under which journalists operate.

In March this year I trekked to a Maoist camp with a few of my colleagues and, in a dramatic interview, was handed over one of the two Italian hostages in their custody. In the sixteen hour trek through impossible terrain, we didn’t have drinking water or water purifying tablets. We didn’t have a first aid kit. We didn’t have food. We even forgot the torchlight and I had to exhaust the lights we use for the camera to guide us through the night. With all my colleagues unable to walk further, I was worried of how to make the return journey. We made it but we almost killed ourselves. If we had policy guidelines laid out for such shoots and had undergone mandatory training, this ordeal could have been avoided.

Later this year I covered the Kokrajhar riots in Assam and I cannot recall any media person wearing helmets or flag jackets. These are routine accessories for the media but unheard of in India.

Before and after Kokrajhar, came the successive waves of flood and we covered it from every corner but I don’t remember wearing any lifejackets while travelling to marooned habitats or taking a country boat across vast expanses of water.

Conflict’ is multilayered and is rarely covered live. One of the greatest war photographers of our times James Nachtwey put it pithily:

What you see is unmitigated pain, injustice, and misery. Its occurred to me that if everybody could be there just once to see for themselves what white phosphorus does to the face of a child, or what unspeakable pain is cause by a single bullet, or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someones’ leg off. If everyone could be there just one time to understand the fear and the grief just one time they would understand that nothing is worth letting that happen to one person…. let alone thousands. But everyone cannot be there….and that is why photographers go there. To show them…to reach out and grab them….to shake people out of their indifference.”

Social media hasn’t been able to reach the Indian conflict zones except for a few ‘retweets’ that inform a tiny percentage of internet and smart phone users. ‘Conflict’ is not a prime time discussion topic neither a campaign for event managers (read media houses). It is very easy to get away with misinformed ‘conflict’ reportage. But on a day where millions (this could be an exaggerated media concocted figure) are giving the nation some hope, I hope that Nanao’s death doesn’t go ‘in vain’. There are lessons to be learnt from this death.

Meanwhile the accused in the molestation is still at large. Protests have died down, a few policemen have been suspended but Nanao is no more. 

(Kishalay Bhattacharjee is Resident Editor (north east) NDTV. He has covered ‘conflict’ for over a decade of the two decades he has spent with broadcast television. His book on India's north east 'Che in Paona Bazar', published by  Pan Macmillan, is due to be released in January 2013).


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