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Ratna Bharali Talukdar
Date of Publish: 2017-02-16

Role of Media and Tribal Societies in Assam - Issues, Challenges and Alternatives

When we talk about media and tribal society in a broader perspective, we certainly refer to genuine issues encountered by tribal societies in modern day context that needs to be focused in media. While doing so, we have to keep in mind certain realities – the changes and transitions of various components of media. With globalization, the character of traditional media too, has been drastically changed - from ‘service to the society’ to a ‘profit-making industry’. Recently, print media has been shrinking drastically mainly as advertisement industry made a shift from print to electronic and digital media making it difficult to survive. Big houses have been downsizing their employees, and gradually shutting down different editions. These have tremendous impact on finding desired “space” for genuine issues not only of a tribal society, but people’s issues as a whole that needs to be focused. For their survival, a number of print media houses have gradually shifted to digital media. Secondly, the market driven electronic media too have been facing crisis for survival. Thirdly, and hopefully we have been witnessing proliferation of online journalism on the digital platform, which can also be termed as convergent media with all components of print and visual media as a sustainable alternative media to connect people’s issues with rest of the world.

It is often alleged that there is a gap between the way the issues of a tribal society have been focused in media, and the way people at the grassroots want their issues to be focused. Media being a crucial part of democracy need to be scrutinized, specially, in the context of reflection of social realities- particularly in a state like Assam that is home to large number of tribal and ethnic societies. How far our journalists are aware of sensitive issues encountered by tribal societies today? What is a tribal society meant for them? The Census 2011 figures say that Scheduled Tribes account for 12 per cent of the population in Assam. However, in addition to the Scheduled Tribes that have been recognized by constitution, there are a number of other communities, carrying various components of a tribe in their lifestyle and are also clamouring for recognition of their status as Scheduled Tribes. These Scheduled Tribes and other communities have made not only Assam but the entire north-east region an ethno-sensitive zone with unique socio-cultural components.

Despite considering the changes and transitions of a modern complex world, various elements of a traditional society are still visible in these tribal societies. It is amazing to witness how these tribes and societies have been able to keep unique components of their culture including language, songs and dances, festivals, religion, dress-habits etc. almost intact in the face of a global market driven economy that tremendously pushed them into a crisis situation. Landgrabbing, joblessness and lack of education have forced them to migrate to different places of the country in search of greener pastures. Series of ethnic clashes between different ethnic societies have uprooted them from their original villages. Despite these threats and crisis, basic structures of these tribal societies have remained almost intact.

All these, actually reflect how the sentiment of “identity” is extremely dynamic among these Scheduled Tribes and other communities. As these people still live as “close society” in the larger periphery of greater Assamese society, there is every possibility of misunderstanding and misrepresentations if the issues are not focused properly in media.

The market driven media industry, however, often tend to sensitize issues to increase circulation or to gain visual audience and largely ignore these sensitive issues, internal dynamics and often make mockery of the ground situation.

Particularly, while focusing on crucial aspects of “identity politics” of tribes and communities of the state, media often fails to play its role as a responsible component of democracy. In Assam, the movements of identity politics is visible in three broad categories - demand for a “separate state”, “inclusion of sixth schedule” and recognition as “Scheduled tribes.” Moreover, the “identity politics” is largely connected with as geographical territoryy projected by the concerned tribe or ethnic society. These geographical territories again, often overlap the claimed territory of each-other. These sensitive and ever dynamic issues often need to be taken into consideration while reporting from the ground. It is unfortunate that media often ignore them.

A common example can be drawn while reporting on violent acts of militant outfits or the armed groups. Instead of identifying the particular militant outfit which indulge in such activities, media often label the entire community to be militant by use of phrase like “Bodo militants” or “Naga militants” thus blaming the entire community for such acts of violence! While reporting on stray incidents of “boundary disputes,” media in Assam often use phrases like “Naga miscreants” or “Arunachali miscreants”, bothering the least how the people living in the areas of inter-state boundaries, who always maintain a cordial relation, would actually feel hearing this!

While talking about issues of a tribal society, we must have to consider that media at large have utterly failed to reflect real issues of life and livelihood of common people irrespective of tribes and communities. Even if they highlight certain issues, it fails to create an awareness or impact policy making. According to Assam Human Development Report (ASHDR) in four districts of Bodoland Territorial Area District area only 11.2 percent houses are Pucca, 46.27 are kutcha, and 42.75 are semi pucca. In two hills districts only 6.3 houses are pucca, 81 per cent houses are Kutcha and only 12.4 per cent are semi-pucca. The corresponding statistics for the entire state is 22.7, 43.7 and 33.6 per cent. When we look at the sanitation facilities 76.8 percent houses do not have toilets at home. In two hills districts 88 per cent houses do not have toilet facility at home. Only 69.9 per cent houses in Assam has toilet facilities. These shocking statistics and the realities behind such situation rarely find space in media. The ASHDR also reveals that poverty ratio in Assam is the highest among the scheduled tribes which is 40.5 per cent for all the tribes and in two hills districts it is 44.7 per cent. When media dedicates lot of its space to focus on tribal festivals, marry-making or ethnic delicacies, it often ignores such hard realities as revealed by ASHDR data. Is the ethnic way of life, in which they have been able to preserve unique cultural traits in the face of massive aggression of market a driven economy, all about the festivals, merry-making, songs, dances and traditional liquors! We should change mindset and think beyond to initiate debates and discussions on transitions and unique survival strategies adopted by these ethnic societies for their survival!

However, there are hopes and we can change the situation with the help of digital technology. As the print media is already shrinking, electronic media is facing acute crisis for survival- the digital media or online journalism with responsible editors have unfolded before us huge opportunities and everyone can explore this unique platform to focus his/her own issues. A digital media can be bilingual or multilingual and one can upload news reports, photographs, even videos and make arrangements for live telecast. It is easy to connect with rest of the world through responsible handling of online journalism and connecting it through different platform of social media. What we need today is a change in the mindset. Importance of using digital media also arises out of young generation’s craze for technology and digital platform.

Secondly, we should also take into consideration that many such negative reflections of a tribal society in media and lack of sensitivity have come largely out of the ignorance of a journalist. A journalist needs to have sufficient education on tribal societies, their values and norms to report correctly, particularly in a state like Assam and Northeast as a whole where issues are so sensitive. It is therefore crucial to include “tribal study” in the main syllabus of journalism courses of the media institutions. Students’ bodies and other organizations representing different tribes and communities may initiate necessary steps to in this regard.

Ratna Bharali Talukdar

(This article is based on the deliberations by this writer in a seminar on the theme "Role of Media and Tribal Society" organised by the All Bodo Students' Union as par of it Golden Jubilee Celebrations in Kokrajhar)

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