Nation-making And Construction Of Northeast India
Caught in Frozen Images, Fuzzy Vision
- Part 2 -

Dhiren A. Sadokpam *

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

Narrowing Frame

Despite wider and expanding reach of both the print and electronic media, the "representation" of the Northeast has become more or less frozen with images of gun wielding insurgents, security ring over protestors on the streets, inter community and tribal feuds, kidnappings, extortion and corpses. Why do these 'images' have more enduring value than peace time 'pictures' that capture the cultural mosaic and the natural beauty? The reasons probably hinge on the fact that there is the unconscious 'absence' of the region from the dominant imagination of the Indian national 'Self".

A serious look at the media coverage of the Northeast would reveal that the gap or the 'absence' is filled in by the attempt to construct the 'other'. The nature of most Indian media reportage from the Northeast is primarily concerned with India's counter insurgency strategy and security issues and in recent times it has been the much fancied 'Look East Policy' or now the 'Act East Policy'.

Besides disseminating information on just violence related incidents, the news media have also displayed deliberate or inadvertent conceptual bias during such reportage of events in the Northeast. TV News and Print reportage and showed that there was hardly any difference in the approach and techniques of news gathering thereby producing almost the same content. The study classified the shortcomings of the coverage under three broad categories, A) Inaccuracies, B) Hyperbolic Reportage and C) Absence of Context and Perspective.

The barrage of reports from the Northeast that hit the headlines during acts of insurgent violence or ethnic clashes only sharpens the already entrenched images of the region without the realization that these images only blur the reality. Thus the media in India is not free from constraints inflicted by various shades of consciousness acquired from the ideas of the nation and the state as propounded by Indian leaders in the post-colonial period. What has been often termed as the failure of the media in representing 'narratives' from the 'periphery' is, in fact, the reflection of the vision or the lack of it and the policies on the Northeast framed in post-independent India in the power corridors New Delhi.

The predominance of conflict and violence related reportage of the Northeast by the media in India also mirrors symptoms of colonial perspective on the frontiers. On a closer scrutiny of the media, it is not easy to find out that the media in India reflects the mindset of the people who dominate the 'marketplace of ideas' and shapes the modern Indian nation state.

Post-colonial 'Vision' and colonial 'Images'

While discussing 'alienation' of the Northeast from 'mainstream' India, the dominant discourse floating around is that it is physical distance which has created psychological distance between the two. Underdevelopment, political turmoil and insurgencies in the region have been attributed to this distance. From this thesis, it would indeed be facile to infer that the 'other' or the Northeast constructed by the media over a period of time is also the result of this distance.

Very few have even dared to make a dispassionate inquiry on how this 'physical distance' is the creation of colonial politics and its imagination of the 'frontiers' rather the actual physical geography or cultural pattern in Southeast Asia. Colonial cartography rooted in the ideology of British India persisted and perpetuated itself as a legacy in mainstream Indian 'nationalist' imagination with over-zealous and high-pitched sentiments in the post-colonial period consolidating the idea and practice of 'frontier' governance vis--vis the Northeast.

It is crucial to understand the basic manner in which imperialism and cartography intersect since both are imprinted with common concerns of territoriality and knowledge required to exercise domination over the territory. Colonial imagination has been manifested in introducing administrative cartography or lines like the Radcliffe Line and the MacMohan Line which demarcate the Northeast. The very fact that these lines were allowed to act as the physical boundaries even after the British left India says a lot about the mindset of the Indian leadership.

This mindset has been responsible for the 'exclusion' or the 'absence' of the region in the standard histories of ancient, medieval and modern India in the post-colonial times. The notion and concept of India remain surreptitiously bereft of the existence of a distinctly different experience shaped and developed by centuries of civilization ontology that is beyond the circumscribed confines of mainstream Indian 'imagination' hitherto dubbed and labeled as 'the Northeast'.

Non cognizance of difference and non acceptance in the mainstream 'imagination' of the existence of a different historical experience underscore the conflict inherent in the Indian mindset. Hence, the region becomes a hostile or alien space inhabited by 'tribes' and 'backward' who needs to be integrated to the 'mainstream'. The state's self imposed necessity of physical inclusion driven by the idea of 'protecting the frontiers', contrasts itself sharply with the absence of the Northeast from the popular imagination.

Moreover, the foundation on which the grand project of integrating the 'country' into a post-colonial national entity was laid not on 'confidence and trust' but on 'doubts over loyalty'. As early as the 7th of November 1950, half a decade ahead of the first armed rebellion in the Naga-inhabited hill regions of Assam, Home Minister Sardar Patel, also known as the 'Iron Man' of India, wrote an interesting letter to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Let us also consider the political conditions on this potentially troublesome frontier. Our northern and north-eastern approaches consist of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Darjeeling and the tribal areas in Assam. From the point of view of communication, there are weak spots. Continuous defensive lines do not exist. There is almost an unlimited scope for infiltration. Police protection is limited to a very small number of passes. There, too, our outposts do not seem to be fully manned. The contact of these areas with us is by no means close and intimate. The people inhabiting these portions have no established loyalty or devotion to India. Even Darjeeling and Kalimpong areas are not free from pro-Mongoloid prejudices. During the last three years, we have not been able to make any appreciable approaches to the Nagas and other hill tribes in Assam.

The letter heightened the sense of distrust and the 'loyalty' of the people of the Northeast to the 'idea' of India thereby implicitly contributing to the success in the creation of the 'other'. Re-reading of Sardar Patel's letter or invoking the Constituent Assembly of India debates on Sixth Schedule is to give rigor to any form of analytical gaze on whether the media's representation of the Northeast is the product or the reflection of the politics borne out of Indian nationalism's myopia about the Northeast.

In the age of 'globalization', the 'image' of the Northeast as represented by the media still remains constant as a result of the failure to construct an inclusive 'vision' as well as the rejection of the same. This failure as argued earlier has more to do with the Indian state's conception of the region and policies defined by parameters set by this conception.

The best illustration of this is the negative reactions from the people of the Northeast to the central government sponsored draft "Peace, Progress and Prosperity in the North Eastern Region: Vision 2020" or just known as Vision 2020 draft document prepared by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi. The reactions to the draft necessitated the review of the same document to ensure that the voices of people and their vision drive the final document.

The indispensable features of classical or 'evolving' democracy include the projection of the voices of the people, their aspirations and vision. Shaping a vision requires shedding of frozen images. It involves a willing detachment from a glorified and valorized past, a conscious dissociation with persisting insularity and imagined idea of a monolithic entity labeled and consumed as nationalism.

The task before stake holders in the state is to acquire the power to anticipate through credible minds and fill in the 'gaps and silence' or the 'absence'. Once the task is clear, the media which is the optical counterpart of the state and governance should ideally begin reflecting the realities and generating images of a wholly new and different experience the experience of accepting and living with differences. It is crucial to note that the media must live the process of creating this reality independently and not as a mere appendage of a new state policy.

In other words, the media as an entity should play an independently contributory role in setting agenda and defining processes for the state to successfully embark on this venture. The one burden that mass media might have to deal with in the age of globalization is being 'independent'. In the competitive rush for television rating points or newspaper circulation driven by the desire to capturing the 'text and image' market, the metropolitan based media in India may continue to cold-shoulder realities from the 'margins'.

The fear for 'being brushed aside' in contemporary times is also further complicated by the hard realities of emerging media ownership pattern, attempt at making profit and the media's relation with the state. Despite being exalted as the 'fourth estate', the current national media's representation of the Northeast seems guided more by 'frozen images' from the colonial times rather than aspired 'vision' of consensus.


* Dhiren A. Sadokpam wrote this article for Hueiyen Lanpao
This article was posted on September 01 2015.

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