Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mainland apathy

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, May 24, 2015

Manipur...centre of unrest.
Manipur...centre of unrest.

There are some stories that are never told. Inundated as our media is with the foreign travels of our Prime Minister, statements and actions of other politicians, Bollywood and cricket, murders and crime, large parts of this country are rendered virtually invisible. Newsworthiness is determined by proximity. So if something happens in our big cities, there will be pages devoted to the incident. In Mumbai, where I live, one newspaper devoted as many as six pages to the Salman Khan case. Excessive? Yes, but also all too predictable.

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to two women journalist friends of mine in Manipur, a northeastern state that I have not visited for over five years. During my last visit, many aspects of life there caught my attention. For instance, journalists had to carry two or three mobile phones, as they did not know when there would be electricity to charge them. Internet connections were patchy.

Apart from their professional lives, these women also had to contend with the daily challenges of living in a place where there is no reliable source of electricity, and water shortages are frequent. In a state where dozens of militant groups operate, curfew could be imposed on any day, making movement after 5 pm risky. Public transport was virtually non-existent even in the capital of the state. The transport that you did notice in abundance was that of Indian army jeeps and trucks, some with soldiers standing ready with guns cocked. Not a happy state of affairs by any stretch of the imagination.

We know that Manipuri women are incredibly strong. Irom Sharmila, still on an indefinite fast demanding the removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), has more than proved that. This resilience is also evident in the faces of the women who run the main marketplace in Imphal, the Ima market, and in the demeanour of those doughty older women, the Meira Paibi, who have been at the forefront of the fight to highlight human rights offences by the security forces. Yet their courage and strength is severely challenged by these vicissitudes of daily life.

So I asked my friends if anything had changed since my last visit, if daily existence had become a little better and also whether the mainstream media had tapped them for reports about their region that went beyond militancy and politics.  Here is what one of them wrote:

“My answer to that would be that most often there is NO work for folks like us. How many times do we see stories about the people, their issues, lifestyle, politics etc?” She pointed out that only when “the body count goes up in some deadly bomb blast or an economic blockade on the highway that goes into a record breaking three months” is when the Indian media takes note. “They send parachute journalists who even get their vehicle drivers to give them bytes as ‘locals’,” she complains. “National media outlets (whose idea of the Indian nation stops at West Bengal!) prefer to pay for a flight, hotel and vehicle charges for their journalists who get in and get out before they can even spell MANIPUR! Many prefer to buy video clips from local video journalists (cable folks etc.) and use them sitting in Delhi or Guwahati.”

And what about the power situation: “It is like five steps forward and three back.  We have now got a pre-paid facility in most parts of Imphal but despite that, we do not get a 24-hour facility. Since pre-paid installation is going on, we have long spells of darkness. No one can say when the lights will be off or on. Suffice to say that it’s somewhat better but definitely not reliable. We had a 36-hour blackout just the other day, no explanations given!”

You will not know this from following the mainstream Indian media. We are informed that Manipur now has a new governor, Dr.Syed Ahmed. But, days before he was sworn in, the main link of Manipur to the rest of the country, NH 37, was blocked following protests against the killing of two labourers by the Kuki Revolutionary Front (KRF), one of dozens of militant groups operating in the state. That was followed by a 24-hour general strike. The blocked highway meant that fuel prices shot through the roof; a litre of petrol was Rs.120, an LPG cylinder sold for Rs.1,600 in the black. For people in Manipur, such blockades are now a fact of life but for the media in the rest of India, this was not a story worth reporting in any detail.

Is it not ironic that “mainland India”, the term used in many northeastern states, continues to emphasise how even the distant reaches of this country like Kashmir and Manipur are an ‘integral’ part of the country? And yet we, who inhabit this mainland, care little about the daily lives of those who live in these regions.

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