Tripura: when reporting is concealing

BY LINDA CHHAKCHHUAK| IN Media Practice | 31/08/2016
The media betray flagrant bias in reporting on the tribes people and, in the process, conceal the truth about a major demographic transformation.
LINDA CHHAKCHHUAK expresses her anger

 

Tiny Tripura claims to be a ‘peaceful’ state but majoritarianism is a heavy cloak to bear for the minuscule community of tribes people in the state. The state has undergone a major demographic shift – the indigenous tribes have been outnumbered by the Bengali speaking community. Out of the total population of 36.73 lakhs, the 19 tribes account for 11.66 lakhs (2011), having fallen from being the majority in the 1940s. At regular intervals, the seething but subterranean political issues arising from this transformation, erupt into the open in the form of rallies or protests which assert the historical tribal claims of rights and ownership. But that’s not how the media report them.

Take the events of August 23 when a procession by the Indigenous People’s Front of Tripura (IPFT) took place asking for the restoration of the historical lands of the tribes. The demand is for a Twipra State.

The violence left dozens injured and, according to some media claims, left some dead. Politicians have demanded a CBI inquiry into the event. But the media squarely put the blame on the ‘tribals’ for attacking the ‘peaceful’ citizens of Agartala without ‘any provocation’.  From the Hindustan Times  , the Indian Express and the India Today website to various obscure news websites, the reporting amounted to racial profiling bordering on the defamatory.

Indiatoday.indiatoday.in said: “Supporters of Indigenous People's Front of Tripura today resorted to violence without any provocation in Agartala”.  It went on: “IPFT supporters walking in a procession through Agartala town today created mayhem and lawlessness in a large part of the town”….. “Taking advantage of the inaction of police the IPFT, known for unruly behavior of it cadres had entered Agartala town with lethal primitive weapons like 'Takkals' , clubs and spears and started stalking the town in a procession.” These comments were made without any attribution.

This is what another website said: “In the name of the rally all the tribals from jungle came out on Tuesday and group-wise were burning vehicles and other things’’. This portal, tripura-infoway.com, has been organising the high profile Tripura Conclave and boasts of some high-profile journalists among its contributors. Here are some more examples of its style of reporting:

 

  • “AGARTALA, Aug 25 (TIWN): In the name of rally tribals from ADC areas thronged to Agartala City on Tuesday, disrupted normal lives, smooth going city life and created a barbaric situation there.”

 

  • “The plan-wise disruption created by the IPTF…. generated much terror among the common people of Agartala city. Riot which was created by the IPFT by attacking non-tribal women, children, resulted in huge resentment among the civilised town people of Agartala.

 

  • “In a minute the smooth running Tripura capital city became a primitive land, as all are killing each other.”

 

The statement by the IPTF condemning the clash, denying that they started it and claiming that it was the CPI (M) cadres who disrupted their procession, was not given much space in the media.

Why do such reports, dripping with hatred for a particular community, masquerade as journalism?  One reason is that small communities do not have any representation in the media houses and therefore their issues remain under-reported or wrongly reported through the majoritarian perspective.

One example is The Hindu which unthinkingly  headlined a shooting in Kokrajhar,  Assam as “14 dead as Bodo men target Assam market”, tarnishing the whole Bodo community in one stroke.  Earlier, this would have gone un-noticed but this time, a wave of anger erupted over this racist headline.

Because the Bodos are a small community, they are not a threat to the Hindu’s  circulation or advertising revenue.

In Tripura, there are 68 enlisted newspapers under the Government of Tripura. Out of these, 22 are dailies, two in English, one in Kokborok, and the rest in Bengali.  In the list of 115 accredited journalists, there is not a single person from any of the tribes of Tripura. This is a clear indication of where the problem lies when discussing the fact that representation in the mass media is important for building up or destroying one’s image, educating the masses about an issue, building bridges, and encouraging debate and the exchange of ideas. 

Tripurians of tribal heritage have told me that they do not dare to give their press releases or their point of view to the state’s newspapers because past experience has shown them that they are not interested. Besides, there is the language divide between Bengali speakers, who have the upper hand and the Kokborok (or other tribal language) speakers who are a tiny number.  In fact, many tribes people say that their many of their brethren, particularly from the rural areas, cannot read what is written about them in the Bengali newspapers.

They are alienated and feel there is no newspaper, media organization or social media site which fairly reports their side of the story. The result of this inequality of representation in the media is a black-out of the tribal perspective which widens the gap between the tribes and the majority.

The media need to reflect the diversity of a region or state. Of course, minorities are usually under-represented in the media, in India and elsewhere. What makes Tripura different is that the tribes are the indigenous people who have been outnumbered by the people of the Bengali speaking community. Tripura is the site of a historical demographic transformation from a tribal to a non-tribal state – that is the heart of the conflict.

Complicating matters further is that the two communities live in different timelines. One is a community with centuries of written intellectual pursuits behind it.  In contrast, the tribes each have their own different dialect or language and a culture based on oral traditions.

The situation in Tripura, therefore, is not simply about representation in the media or about tribal persons becoming journalists. It is about one world poised to completely take over the other. Given this, how does one report the political situation so that the real issues emerge?

One answer might be to follow the age old rule of journalism i.e. when in doubt always report from the perspective of the underdog and never as a member of any tribe, community, race, religion or class. Another could be to set up a media Ombudsman, maybe even by the state government. Or even better, to ask the Editor’s Guild of India or the Press Council of India to take cognisance of such issues and create outlets for the voiceless.

 

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