Create forums, not battlegrounds

IN Media Practice | 11/02/2013
The present situation demands that national media cover the Gorkhaland movement as comprehensively as the Telengana movement is covered.
It should take responsibility to get voices heard at the national level, says UGEN BHUTIA Pix: Bimal Gurung

The role of media in democracy extends beyond its universally accepted roles of informing, educating and entertaining. In different situations, media should manoeuvre itself into roles and functions that the situation demands. During elections, media educates  people about the right to vote. It could also during conflict situations act as a forum for participants to present arguments and counter-arguments.  By doing so, it would divert the conflict to discourses and debates and help avoid the possibility of violence. peace journalism Therefore, becomes essential in a nation like India, where political leaders tend to misuse the country’s diversity to create a politics of identity and regionalism. 

 India has been plagued by different forms of conflicts and violence since independence, based on caste, identity, religion, region or other factors. It would be erroneous to hope that there would be no contradictions and conflicts among such a diverse communities and regions. Hence, all the four pillars of democracy should accept this reality and should strive for maintaining what Norwegian sociologist and principal founder of the discipline of peace and conflict studies, Johan Galtung, has termed as ‘positive peace’, where absence of violence is accompanied by equality, justice and rights.  However, the Indian national media seems ignorant of this possibility`, particularly when it comes to statehood demands for Gorkhaland.

The ongoing statehood demand for Gorkhaland has always been neglected by national media in comparison to coverage of the statehood demand for Telangana. Very recently, by merely reporting speeches of leaders, the Indian media has risked the lives of tens of thousands of Indian Gorkhas and Bengalis residing in and around the Darjeeling hills. The Gorkhaland movement got spurred once again when its leader Bimal Gurung threatened to launch a 'violent agitation' for Gorkhaland. This declaration was made by Gurung after the Bengal Cabinet on February 5, 2013 cleared the proposal for a Lepcha Development Council (LDC) which would function under the newly formed Gorkhaland Territorial Authority ruled by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. (The Gorkhaland Territorial Authority was formed after a bill for the creation of GTA was passed in the West Bengal Legislative Assembly on September 2, 2011. According to it, the elected representatives of GTA would have administrative, executive and financial powers but not legislative powers.)

The clearance given by the Bengal government to the Lepcha Development Council is seen as a ‘divide and rule’ policy by Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) leader Bimal Gurung, who has stated that he is not against the development of any communities in the region, but without the proper functioning of GTA, LDC would be a tool to divide people in the Darjeeling hills. Recently, West BengalChief Minister Mamata Banerjee stated the Darjeeling hills are and would remain an integral part of her state. This resulted in the renascence of anger and agony among supporters of the Gorkhaland movement, which had been somewhat lessened after the inclusion of GTA. Surely, the political leaders by making such statements have once again ignited hatred among the people living in Darjeeling hills.

A day after the state government announced its plans for a Lepcha Development Council in the Darjeeling hills, GJM called a 12-hour shutdown on February 9. As Lepchas are indigenous tribes of Sikkim and the Darjeeling hills, the Lepcha Rights Movement is supporting the state government’s move and has already launched an indefinite hunger strike in Kalimpong town. Though LDC would be functioning under the Gorkha Territorial Administration, the GTA leadership has already declared this move as a ‘divide and rule’ policy. Therefore, conflict and contradiction within the supporters of Gorkhaland movement has been aroused and the indigenous Lepcha community seems to be caught in between.

It is still not clear whether the state government’s moves are really for the development of Lepchas or whether it is a ‘divide and rule’ policy as alleged.  But it is clear that if violent agitation starts in one of the most beautiful hills of our country, then many lives would be in danger. The bitter experience of the previous violent agitation during the 1980s is still in the minds of people and if some steps are not taken promptly, it may occur once again.

And in such a situation, one can hope media (both regional and national) will come forward and raise questions about provocative statements by such leaders. If elected representatives of people are on the verge of inciting citizens to violence then it becomes the responsibility of the fourth pillar to criticise them for their deeds rather than merely reporting their statements and speeches.

Each regional newspaper carried reports on the statements given by the leaders and even some of the so-called national newspapers like Indian Express, Hindustan Times and The Hindu did the same. But no reporters from these newspapers questioned either Mamata Banerjee or Bimal Gurung about their violence-provoking speeches. For instance, Hindustan Times in its February 5 edition  under the headline ‘Bimal Gurung may quit GTA post for Gorkhaland’ carried a report on Gurung’s threatening to resign from GTA because he believed that the GTA was “merely a distraction from the collective goal or quest for statehood” and how a section of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha supporters halted the Chief Minister’s speech with raised banners and slogans for Gorkhaland. However, the correspondent did not even try to ask Gurung why he signed the GTA in 2011 if it was a mere distraction from the main goal. Or ask the Chief Minister why her government brought the Gorkha Territorial Administration, an autonomous body, in Darjeeling hills if her government wants to impose policies in the region without the consultation and consent of GTA.

The Times of India in its February 8 edition under the headline ‘Lepchas on hunger strike for board’ reported the response of the Lepcha Rights Movement and its leader Upender Lepcha to the ongoing controversy arising from the state government’s plan to form a Lepcha Development Council. The report simply informs about the indefinite hunger strike launched by LRM and highlights U Lepcha stating that the LDC  is to be non-political and that the problem should be solved between the government and GTA. It also says that “the board would ensure right to education for Lepchas and instruction in Lepcha language in schools up to class IV”. Any policies introduced by government for uplifting the indigenous and other backward tribes/castes should be appreciated but it should also be kept in mind in what context/situation it is being introduced. Therefore, it is important for media to go in-depth into the problems. Why was the CM’s statement of Darjeeling hills to be an integral part of Bengal followed by the decision to form a board for the development of a particular community? Naturally, it would create an atmosphere of misunderstandings and if these misunderstandings turn violent, who would be accountable and responsible for it? These are the few significant questions that media should be asking.

Media reports are more annoying when it comes to television news channels. Most of the national news channels have still not found the issue to be fit for broadcast. On February 7, NDTV broadcast an interview with Jaswant Singh,  BJP leader and  MP from Darjeeling constituency. The interviewer probed BJP’s Hindutva policies for elections in the country next year. The anchor asked him various questions, from Rajnath to Modi, from Ayodhya to Hindutva but the irony is the channel did not inquire about current affairs of his own constituency, where violence can occur any moment. By prioritising issues which would only have impact next year rather than concentrating on the issue which may have a negative impact in the present situation, national news channels in India are completely ignoring the existence of Indian Gorkhas. The issue of Gorkhaland and the grievances of millions of Indian Gorkhas never becomes a topic for debate programmes in these national news channels.  

Politicians will always remain politicians but when media acts as a mere stenographer of these politicians, democracy suffers. 

So what can media do?

On the issue of the Gorkhaland movement, both regional and national media should work simultaneously for sustaining peace in the region.

First, it would be important for regional media to raise the Gorkhaland issue together with the inclusion of different castes and communities in the movement and create communal harmony among them. Second, a message which would spur peaceful means of agitation should be proliferated. Third and most important, it should be free and brave enough to condemn and criticise any statements of leaders who tend to ignite violence among the people.

National media here should take responsibility to get voices heard at the national level. It should not prioritise a particular issue and overlook another. The present situation demands national media cover the Gorkhaland movement as comprehensively as the Telengana movement is covered. In every conflict situation, every stakeholder can go to any extent to attract the attention of national media. This sometimes can result in the destruction of the human lives. Now it is necessary for national media to look beyond its self-constructed area of spectacle and try to avert violence rather than waiting to report the number of deaths in that violence.

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