“In journalism, a lot depends on your sources and how genuine they are”: Rajeev Bhattacharya
Hailing from Guwahati, veteran freelance journalist Rajeev Bhattacharya has worked for The Times of India, The Telegraph, The Indian Express and Times Now. He regularly writes for some of the most reputed news organizations in India such as The Caravan, The Huffington Post India among others. He was also the founding editor of the Seven Sisters Post.
A lot of his long and illustrious career has been devoted to the happenings in North-East India, including work that deals with the insurgent and rebel groups active in Manipur and the neighbouring country of Myanmar. He has also authored books extensively covering the same, Rendezvous with Rebels: Journey to Meet India’s Most Wanted Men and Lens and Guerrilla: Insurgency in India’s Northeast.
The Manipal Journal met with the renowned journalist for an interview while he came down to Manipal to deliver a talk on “The state of journalism in North-East India” for Article-19, the School of Communication’s official media fest.
Journalism in India is going through a difficult phase right now. Eminent journalists including the likes of Gauri Lankesh were brutally murdered largely because of intolerance by various groups. You have dealt with a plethora of groups including insurgent groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). Based on your experiences, what should journalists do to handle such intolerant reactions?
I think it is indeed not an easy question to answer. There cannot be one set of safeguards for all stories. A lot depends on your sources and how genuine they are and we always try to check their background. In certain cases, even that may not be possible, and that is when luck plays a crucial role. Therefore, it really depends on what kind of group you are dealing with, and there can’t be a generalized answer.
These militant groups are not supportive of the functioning of the Indian government, with them demanding a separate state or regional autonomy. They claim the Indian rule as involuntary for a long time. How do you, as an Indian journalist, handle such radical views about our nation?
I don’t think the concept of India as a single country exists. There are different Indias. An Indian living in Delhi may not be able to think of India as the same way as an Indian living in Arunachal Pradesh does. I think of myself as a citizen of North-Eastern India before a citizen of India.
There are broadly five insurgent groups currently in North-East India. The separatists, the people who demand the Constitution to be amended. They are the most populous among them all. A small number of Maoists and Jihadis exist in some pockets of North-East India and the ones who don’t have any ideology, who generally vote for the other large groups. There is not a monolithic situation out there, they are different. As a journalist, you should follow what the academic researchers do, and a reporter should not follow any sets of ideologies.
Ever since Manipur was merged with the Indian Union in 1949, the parallel rise of separatists factions was also witnessed. The conflict between the two sides has considerably increased since and a major attack in 2015 saw the deaths of 18 Indian soldiers in an ambush. How has the whole conflict impacted the everyday life of a common man in Manipur?
Earlier, the situation in Manipur, especially in the Imphal Valley was much more disturbed. During early to mid-2000s, after 8:00 PM, we needed to switch on the lights inside the vehicle, so that the Police do not identify us a militant because a militant would never have done that. The Manipur Police is a trigger-happy Police. It was better to take safeguards. The situation was really bad as a lot of militarisation was happening in Manipur.
Things are much better now, largely because of the erosion of support the insurgent groups had. Very talented people come from the state of Manipur, the literacy rate is high. All of this has normalized the situation after fifteen years. Earlier it was really dangerous traveling at night or long distances on roads. There is still danger that exists among the small groups and at times, the police. However, now the Supreme Court is monitoring everything. It has asked the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to probe alleged fake encounter cases and taking other steps. This sums up the change of scenarios better than anything else.
Manipur has one of the highest numbers of HIV cases in the country mostly caused by injecting drug users, with 7.66 percent of the population testing positive compared to 6.26 percent for the rest of India. Despite such alarming figures, why is there little coverage in the Indian media about the drug abuse in the region?
There are many themes which are prevalent in Manipur, not just the high number of HIV cases. Mis-governance is one of the primary themes which is the reason behind the drug abuse. As far as media is concerned, the media houses won’t get the required amount of TRP on television, their print circulation will not increase, or they might not get a large number of hits on the Internet. It is because of this reason that a lot of renowned media houses such as India Today and many premier Hindi news channels do not have any correspondents in the North-East of India, because they believe that they won’t get the same amount of viewership in covering an issue in the North-East as they do from the rest of the country.
Featured image courtesy: Mishal Asif
Edited by: Soumyajit Saha