Often described as a disturbed zone, the North-eastern part of India has slowly developed a “journalist murder index”. Once, the region, particularly Assam, lost working journalists to assailants frequently. But for many years this area, except Tripura, has evaded such incidents. Tripura reported the murder of five media persons in 2013 and 2017, whereas Assam as well as Manipur witnessed such killings last in 2012.
The central Indian states, of course, continue reporting news related to the murder of journalists annually. In this context, it barely warrants mention that incidents of abuse, assault and attacks on scribes alongside other employees from the media industry of the North-east by government forces, political goons and anti-social elements are taking place unabated. The North-east, with a population of over 60 million, supports hundreds of newspapers, published in various languages like English, Assamese, Hindi, Bengali, Mizo, Bodo, Meitei, Karbi, Khasi et al to cater to the needs of dedicated readers. Most of the newspapers nowadays start websites to expand their visibility across the world.
Some have also developed portals as well as e-papers for the benefit of readers. The region, surrounded by Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, hosts many privately owned satellite news channels also along with a few entertainment- centric and localised cable news channels. Most of them are freeto- air in nature; they beam news and other programmes mostly in Assamese, English, Hindi, Mizo and Meitei among other local languages. Till recently, the North-east was a breeding ground for insurgents fighting against New Delhi with demands for self-rule or sovereignty.
Manipur and Assam were affected by the militancy, where more than 30 separatist, armed outfits engaged in disruptive activities like extortion, kidnappings and killings. Even journalists were not spared by those so-called revolutionaries. Both the states witnessed the killing of journalists — Dwijamani Nanao Singh from Imphal and Raihanul Nayum from Dhubri —in 2012. Assam had the worst record of such murders as the state lost more than 30 scribes in 25 years. The slaughter of media persons in Assam began with the murder of Punarmal Agarwala, a local correspondent with The Assam Tribune in Nagaon, allegedly by rebels belonging to the United Liberation Front of Assam in 1987.
The same militant outfit targeted veteran freedom fighter and journalist Kamala Saikia. The 65-year-old teacher was dragged out of his house in Sivasagar Melachawk on the night of 9 August 1991 and his body was recovered next morning with injury marks. The Ulfa leaders were angry with Saikia for a series of articles published in various newspapers, which strongly condemned the outfit. Saikia’s gruesome murder shocked the media fraternity of Assam and a protest meeting was organised at Guwahati Press Club.
It was followed by a silent procession on 11 August which was, in fact, the first public demonstration against the Ulfa in the state. In 1995, Pabitra Narayan of Northeast Times was murdered by the timber mafia at Sonari. Dipak Swargiary of Goreswar also lost his life to assailants the same year. The daylight murder of human rights activist and journalist Parag Kumar Das on 17 May 1996 in Guwahati generated a huge public outcry. The editor of Asomiya Pratidin was targeted by some surrendered militants as he used to write articles criticising New Delhi for its exploitative attitude towards Assam.
The same year witnessed the murder of young reporter Manik Deuri in Diphu by suspected militants. Unidentified gunmen killed Panja Ali at Kokrajhar in 1997 while Nagaon-based local journalist Nurul Haq was murdered in 1998. Ulfa militants then killed Ratneswar Sarma Shastri at Barpeta in 1999. Two local correspondents namely, Dinesh Brahma and Indramohan Hakasam were murdered in 2003. The timber mafia gunned down Prahlad Gowala at Golaghat in 2006.
The next year witnessed the killing of Bodosa Narzary at Kokrajhar and it was followed by slaughter of Mohammad Muslemuddin at Hojai and Jagajit Saikia at Kokrajhar. Alfarid Shazad, Jiten Chutiya, Jogesh Uzir, Girija Das, Monikan Das, Ranbir Roy and Bimala Prasad Talukder, among others, lost their lives to assailants on different occasions. The last reported murder of a journalist in Assam took place in Guwahati on 24 March 2009, when the editor of an Assamese daily, Anil Majumdar was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. Tripura witnessed a gruesome incident relating to the murder of three media employees in their office, where Sujit Bhattacharya (proof-reader), Ranjit Chowdhury (manager) and Balaram Ghosh (driver) lost their lives.
They were working in the office of Agartala-based newspaper Dainik Ganadoot when they were stabbed to death by miscreants on 19 May 2013. It was a depressing year for the fraternity as the country lost 11 media personnel to perpetrators. The state added two more casualties to the list of murdered journalists in 2017. The largest democracy on Earth has emerged as one of the most hazardous places for media persons in the world after Mexico, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen and Somalia. The horrific murder of Kannada editor and journalist Gauri Lankesh on 5 September 2017 at her Bengaluru residence sparked massive protests across the country.
Her murder by unidentified gunmen also invited international outcry from the Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Sans/Without Borders, International Federation of Journalists and the International Press Institute. Then Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar was also influenced by the outcry and personally joined a protest rally at Agartala demanding justice for Lankesh’s killing. But a young television reporter from Tripura, Shantanu Bhowmik succumbed to mob violence on 20 September that year. One more journalist’s murder — Sudip Datta Bhaumik on 21 November 2017 —by a policeman put Sarkar in an embarrassing situation.
While the country has lost six journalists to assailants (K Satyanarayana from Andhra Pradesh, Radheyshyam Sharma from Uttar Pradesh, Muhammed Basheer from Kerala, Chakresh Jain from Madhya Pradesh, Anand Narayan and Nityanand Pandey from Maharashtra) till date this year, the North-east has been relatively incident-free on that front. However, the demand for justice still continues.
(The writer is the Guwahati-based Special Representative of The Statesman)