Militant handover morphs into saas bahu soap opera

BY A correspondent| IN Media Practice | 29/12/2009
Critics believe this dramatization by the three television channels only glorifies the ULFA by negating the misdeeds of and killings by the outfit in the past 30 years of their ?armed struggle for sovereignty?.
A CORRESPONDENT reports. Pix: Arabinda Rajkhowa, NDTV.

A ?bahu? (daughter-in-law) is coming home after several years in exile on foreign soil. The elderly ?saas? (mother-in-law) who has lost her eyesight due to old age waits eagerly to meet her ?bahu? and her grandchildren for the first time in life. There is euphoria  when the car arrives and the ?bahu? is ushered in by the family and villagers with all the rituals accorded to a newly-wed bride.

This is not a storyline from a saas-bahu soap opera but the real-life story of wife and children of Arabinda Rajkhowa, the self-styled chairman of the proscribed militant outfit United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) which was beamed live by the three satellite television channels aired from Guwahati.

Ever since the sensational ?arrest? of the self-styled Chairman of the proscribed militant outfit ULFA, Arabinda Rajkhowa, his family and his associates from Bangladesh and their eventual handing over to the Assam police on December 4, the reporters in of  three Assamese channels were competing with each other and were scrambling to get exclusive footage or soundbites.

Conflict sells and if the conflict is laced with drama, passion and emotion, it is bound to yield greater commercial dividends. There has been a incessant flow of ?Breaking News? with claims of ?first visual? on the three channels -- Newslive, NETV and DY 365 who kept their viewers glued to their seats and augmented their commercial viability manifold. The pioneer in satellite television with an exclusive northeast flavour was Northeast Television or NETV which was launched in 2002 while Newslive and DY 365 are more recent and initiated operations in 2008, giving tough competition to each other.

In the nascent history of electronic media in the region, never before had they got such a breathtaking subject which could be projected 24/7 to strike the right emotional chord with the common people of Assam. Reporters waited for hours to bring to light the truth about the speculations of the ?arrest? of ULFA Chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa and his associates, offering conjecture  of their whereabouts, and then a glimpse of them when they were produced in the Chief Judicial Magistrate?s court in Guwahati.

Rajkhowa and his associates were handed over to Assam police on December 4 this year by the Bangladesh authorities. Those who were ?arrested? included Rajkhowa?s family ? his wife Kaberi Kachari, a member of ULFA?s women wing and their two children ? daughter Kanchan Bhagiraj Konwar and son Gadadhar Rajkhowa. Rajkhowa?s body guard Raja Bora was also with them.

His aides who were ?arrested? included Raju Barua, the deputy chief of the ULFA?s military wing, Barua?s wife Nirola Neog and their 10-month-old son, Hemanta. Raju Barua was the most trusted lieutenant of commander-n-chief Paresh Baruah. Also part of them was Runima Choudhury, wife of ULFA?s self-styled foreign secretary Sasadhar Choudhury, and their eight-year-old daughter Shisir Choudhury.

And the climax was the ?poignant? story of the ULFA (United Liberation Front of Assam) ?bahus? homecoming to meet their ?saas? for the first time in their lives. The other bahus to meet their saas were the wife and children of Deputy c-in-c Raju Baruah and foreign secretary of the outfit  Sashadhar Choudhury in their ancestral homes.
Their dramatic homecoming ended all hearsay on whether they will ever manage to reach their in-laws home. The television crew of the three channels stationed themselves in their respective homes at different parts of the state and aired their heroic welcome to everyone in their drawing rooms.

The channels also aired special programmes on the issue. For instance, ?From Bangladesh to Assam? was the special programme aired on Newslive, one of the three satellite television channels in Assam on the emotional homecoming. The programme kept panning from the studio to the ambience in their respective in-laws home and the revelry on seeing their daughter-in-law for the first time. The entire family drama of reunion with the aging parents, how these women were greeted, the hugging and crying, graphic details of the celebratory feast and its menu, the reaction of their relatives on seeing their kin exiled in Bangladesh for so many years, were dramatized by the channels. Back in the studio, there were experts like the lawyer of the ULFA leader Bijon Mahajan and human rights activist Lachit Bordoloi who were analyzing every moment minute to minute.

In a rather insensitive attempt at frenzied reporting, even kids were not spared. There was a tumult to get an exclusive visual of Rajkhowa?s children who had come with their faces covered. As Rajkhowa?s minor son looked bewildered at the television camera, the channels were quick to claim that they managed to get the first footage.

No attempt was spared to embellish the occasion with drama, and more drama. The channels tried to show the women in their long-lost in-laws? kitchen, hugging their mother-in-law or greeting the villagers. There were attempts to get an ?exclusive? soundbyte from these women who have stepped onto their motherland after long years of exile. And none of them had ever met their in-laws as they met their husbands while they were underground working for the outfit.

The overall backdrop was of the need for peace and the ways to attain it. And the constant debates on the ULFA wives? ?explosive? statements on how peace talks were possible without the presence of ULFA supremo Paresh Baruah who is still at large. Little did these women ever realize that they would be mobbed by mediapersons like this after they reach home and their statements would evoke such heated debates.

NETV termed it as ?finally the ULFA wives got a permanent address after long years of exile? by meeting their in-laws and their families. The reporters of these three channels could be seen moving about in every nook and corner of their house, trying to get soundbites from anyone who obliged and had anything interesting to say. The villagers too seemed intrigued by the presence of the mediapersons and television cameras in a house which had always seen the presence of the army or the police personnel.

The three satellite channels Newslive, NETV and DY365 has had enough ?meat? for at least a month now. And there is more to come. The judicial process, the fate of the peace talks, the future of the ULFA leaders, whether they will ever be reunited with their family again. Out of the three channels, Newslive seemed interested in getting more ?emotional masala?, while NETV and DY 365 seemed more sober.

The channels kept coming back to the gates of the Guwahati Central Jail, trying to get any kind of information on the top ULFA leaders who were being lodged there. Its historic that six of the top ULFA leaders have been lodged in the Guwahati Central jail. News Live also gave a vivid description of the first night Rajkhowa spent in the Jail where he was kept as a political prisoner and where he was given VIP treatment. It reported that the ULFA leaders had discussions all night long as they were lodged in the same cell, literally turning the Guwahati Central jail into a makeshift ?ULFA headquarter?.

It was also a relief from the mundane conflict reporting that is done ? of reporting on statistics on the number of people killed and arms and ammunition recovered. This kind of reportage is also significant as something like this was unthinkable say 10 years back. Not because that there were no satellite channels then but because nobody would even dare to mention the term ULFA. The euphemism ?Sangathan? or organization was used to refer to the dreaded outfit which had unleashed a reign of terror in the state.

On the flipside, there were also other reports like the anti-ULFA organization Assam Public Works? decision to present books on Assamese language and culture to the children of the ULFA leaders as they were ignorant about it. It was reported that their children who spent their entire life in Bangladesh could hardly speak in Assamese.

On 28th December, Newslive carried a news item which showed wives and families of those targeted by ULFA and are still waiting for justice. They decried the heroic welcome accorded to the ULFA leaders and their families. They felt that in a way they were romanticizing them instead of criticizing them for killing many innocent people.


According to records, in the past two decades over 7000 people* have died in clash between the rebels and the government. Critics believe this dramatization by the three television channels only  glorifies the ULFA by negating the misdeeds of and killings by  the outfit in the past 30 years of their ?armed struggle for sovereignty?.



1. Killings by extremists included:

civilians: 3395
security forces: 843

Injury by extremists:

civilians: 3971
security forces: 1207

2. Counter-terrorism deaths:

extremists killed: 2110
extremists injured: 130

security personnels killed: 216
security personnels injured: 397

civilians killed: 104
civilians injured: 146


April 7, 1979: ULFA formed
1979-1985: outfit involved in violent acts during the six-year long Assam agitation spearheaded by the All Assam Students Union

May 9, 1990: ULFA kills Surendra Paul, tea planter causing panic in the tea estates

Nov 28, 1990: Presidents Rule imposed. ULFA banned. Indian army launches Operation Bajrang

July 1, 1991: ULFA abduct 14 people including an engineer of erstwhile USSR

Jan 14 1992; Operation Rhino against the ULFA suspended as the group agrees for talks

June 29, 1994: ULFA vice-chairman Pradip Gogoi nabbed

July 4, 1997: kills Sanjoy Ghosh

Jan, 1998: ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia arrested in Dhaka

Dec 15, 2003: Bhutan operation launched

August 15, 2004: Dhemaji blast where 14 school children died

October, 26, 2005: negotiations between centre and ULFA-nominated people?s consultative group

Nov 6, 2009: ULFA?s foreign secretary Sashadhar Choudhury and finance secretary chitraban hazarika surrender before the BSF in Agartala

Dec 4, 2009: ULFA chairman Arabinda rajkhowa along with 10 associates surrender to Indian authorities along Indo-Bangla border

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