Nation-making And Construction Of Northeast India
Caught in Frozen Images, Fuzzy Vision
- Part 1 -

Dhiren A. Sadokpam *

Map of North East India
Map of North East India :: Pix - TSE

The dawn of modern nation states necessitated a 'rationale' for their existence and the 'means' to consolidate formation of state structures. The first half of 20th century was marked by nation states' attempts to use print and electronic media as means to reinforce the idea of an established order. Like most post-colonial states, India's experience with print media and broadcasting narrates a similar quest for creating an established order amidst the rumbles of frenzied social and political configurations.

Given the backdrop of homogenizing the colossal heterogeneity thrust upon by the compulsions of sustaining a 'rationale' for a post-colonial 'nation in the making', no stones were left unturned by the state in its attempt to impose an ideal frame. This attempt was made visible via the mass media and its interface with different ethnic groups and identity assertions in India.

This process has generated the formation of 'images' which run parallel to the state's own attempt to forge ahead with the idea of a 'composite' India. The state and the national media's attempt to enjoy monopoly over 'imagery' have been both consistent and persistent despite the challenges from within and the world wide surge in 'text and image' industry aided by global capital.

However consistent this attempt may be, a post-colonial welfare state like India is still struggling to produce and construct an inclusive pan nationalist vision, symbolic or mythical. Media observers and analysts have already noted the "modern impossibility" of maintaining this monopoly by the state. The foundation to understand this issue lies in our ability to scrape through the ideas of nationalism, democracy and consensus. Before we probe into the role of the media in constructing the 'Indian national self' or the construction of the 'other', there is a need to locate oneself at a point where we can see the multi-layered hues on the canvass.

India has been struggling to overcome communal/ethnic polarization much before its independence. The issue has been further accentuated with the state's failure to halt the trend. This failure is rooted in a tendency on the part of competing political elites to pursue the politics of dominance and subservience. This political culture also has an overbearing impact on the nature of modern India's engagement with the classical vision of democratic polity.

The state's engagement with this vision should have rested on a model of communication based on consensus. There are numerous fault lines due to "the contestations of meanings, the repression of certain possibilities and the realization of some others." Amongst many, some of these fault lines include the politics of representation, construction and production of perceptions of different communities/ethnic groups in the country via the mass media.

The masses are often fed with inadequate, and at times, distorted information and images of minorities, tribes and marginalized social groups spread over identified zones from North to South and East to West. Over a period of time, this information and images consolidate to become stereotypical representations or oversimplified opinions or judgments repeatedly circulated by agents of modern system of mass communication through the state or private funded media. Once these stereotypes become well ensconced in the realm of the so called civic minds, they become a potent reference point for the powerful to caricature, smudge or even to erase certain reality.

While making an attempt to provide fresh insights into the phenomenon of communication practice, one cannot forget that the intent of an exercise like this one is to critique the reductive discourse that have developed in media representations of minorities, tribes and marginalized social groups in India in general and the Northeast in particular. One has to trace the construction and perpetuation of communal and ethnic 'difference', 'consolidation of group identity' and multifarious ways of 'imagining' the nation.

While tracing the construction of 'difference', it would be wise to tract the state's attempt to forge a 'national identity' through its much critiqued 'Unity in Diversity' slogan since the dawn of independence. The role of state-sponsored media during the pre-liberalization period and the subsequent resurgence of local particularities with the emergence of new media ownership and control in the age of globalization play an important part in not only informing but also in constructing identities.

Media, Power and Control

Print and Television media have been the vehicles for disseminating information and events in the 20th Century. People not only identify with the socio-political perspective which shapes the information, they also acquire a sense of the past and the present through the media. During the last one decade and half, we have witnessed a proliferation of television channels and newspapers in India.

Over 100 channels in India reach approximately 110 million households who have a TV set by 2007. Newspapers in India also continue to grow, from 12.6 million readers in 2005 to 203.6 million readers in 2006. The 2006 National Readership Survey shows that the largest read vernacular newspaper is the Dainik Jagran with 21.2 million readers followed by Dainik Bhaskar with 21.0 million readers. Both newspapers are published in Hindi. The Times of India is the most widely read English newspaper (7.9 million), followed by The Hindu (4.05 million), and Hindustan Times (3.85 million) (See National Readership Study 2006).

The growing expanse and reach of the media do not necessarily translate into actual process of democratization. The "info-images" consumed by the people leave entrenched memories in their consciousness. From children to adults, from popular culture industry to the corridors of power, stereotypical representations by the media have become an integral part of the national framework. In order to understand this phenomenon, one needs to address the concept of 'stereotypes' and how 'stereotypes' are produced and reproduced by the media in the Indian context. While doing so, one has to analyze the internalization of imagery and distinguish between reality and stereotype.

The media in India, particularly Television news channels in recent times have been accused of lacking maturity when it comes to creating content. Critics say most of the channels have been resorting to trivialization of news. It is not only the trivialisation of news that has come under fire from certain quarters. Indian media has also been indicted for getting "crossed into deeply murky ethical territory without even minimal public debate, self-reflection" and caught between a state that wants to acquire more power and a market structure that considers everything should be for sale.

One vital question many have failed to ask is, is it a deliberate ploy to hook and capture the required Target (Television) Rating Points or TRP in specifically targeted segments? And to what effect does the market play a role in determining the content of news broadcasts? Going back to the fundamental principle under which communication was supposed to have been based, i.e. on democratic consensus, it would be worthwhile to evaluate the 'marketplace of ideas', built during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Noam Chomsky says that the media has only been able to feed the beliefs and ideas of the elite while "subverting the ideological and cultural independence of the lower classes". In the Indian scenario, who dominate the "marketplace of ideas" and allow their ideas to shape the country's perception of socio-political reality? How much fire-power do the media in metropolitan cities (metro-media) possess to eliminate or accentuate stereotypical representations?

To make sense of such questions, one has to understand the logic that sets media conglomerates into motion. If one scrutinizes the emerging media ownership patterns, control over the resources and media's relation with the state, one can comfortably conclude that the media in the age of globalization is driven more by profit motive than 'public good'. No wonder that it has been termed an industry, an industry that not only makes profit but also has power over 'texts and images'.

Reflection or Construction

The idea of the Northeast is at least supposed to encompass the eight states of Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Nagaland, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura and the hilly state of Sikkim. It is an inconvenient 'reality' that such a large tract of the country still remains as the 'frontier' in the post-colonial period too. The region is not only 'numerically' poorly represented in the so called mainstream politics but also the national media emanating from metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. This phenomenon has been held responsible by many for de-linking the region from India's national consciousness.

Much blame of course rests with the national news media which brings out news from the region for the consumption of its viewers and readers. When one speaks of the metropolitan based national news media, it includes national dailies - The Hindu, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Asian Age, The Statesman and broadcasting media - NDTV, CNN-IBN, Times Now, Aaj Tak, Headlines Today, Zee News, Star News etc.

The content of the projected news and current affairs programmes from the region via these news channels however inadequate, do impact on the psyche of their audience. The fixation of the media with violence and insurgency in the region is as old as the development of the 'Indian republic'. This fixation has reinforced the process of creating 'difference' which was already set into motion by those who shaped or constructed the destiny of the Indian nation state.

The 'absence' of the region in the Indian national consciousness is the result of the politics of insensible 'exclusion' via the creation of 'difference'. And how is this 'difference' produced and reproduced? On the 6th of September, 1949, the Constituent Assembly of India met in the Constitution Hall, New Delhi. Here is an excerpt from the debate on Sixth Schedule by a member from the then Saurashtra state, Shri A.V. Thakkar.

Talking of Nagas, . . . And who does not know even at the present time of the system of head-hunting that prevails among the Nagas? They are so ill-developed, they are so much behind in civilisation that they go and fight with their neighbouring villagers, not to speak about the fight with the plains tribes. . . . one tribe of Nagas killing another tribe of Nagas, . . . Even last year when a friend of mine visited the Naga hills, he said there were 150 cases being conducted in the court of law wherein 150 people were charged with head-hunting or taking part in it at the present day. Now, what do you say of such a thing as that? Why take no notice of such a state of things existing at the present day?. . . The Nagas are a very difficult race to deal with, I know.

It is not surprising that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru while addressing a public meeting at Guwahati on the October 17, 1956 declared that the Naga hostiles were a "misguided lot" and should not be considered as "enemies of the country." Since the mid 1940s, rebel Nagas were termed 'Naga Hostiles'. This term practically became a keyword and found its optimum usage among the rank and file of military and armed forces who were given orders to maintain peace and safeguard the eastern frontiers.

Many top-ranked members of the armed forces later became heads of the executive of states in the Northeast appointed by the central government. The term of reference for the rebels was picked up by the print media in the country and as late as the 1970s, the Naga rebels were still called 'Naga Hostiles'. The term changed to 'militant' and 'insurgent' in the 1980s and 1990s. The print media's coverage of the Northeast was filled with stories of ambushes, guerrilla campaigns, and attempts for a negotiated deal with the armed opposition groups in the region.

Even in contemporary times, the staple of the national media contents include insurgency related violence in Assam, Nagaland and Manipur and floods and bomb blasts in the same region. The media seem to be content with the definition of news broadly based on what have been mentioned above. And it is indeed interesting to note the change in meaning of terms and words with reference to 'rebel' ethnic groups in the Northeast. It is like the very word 'ethnic' which has undergone changes in meanings from 'heathen' to 'racial, cultural or national minority group'.

To be continued...

* Dhiren A. Sadokpam wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao
This article was posted on August 27 2015.

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