How Assam’s upper-caste controlled media reinforces the othering of tribal communities

Media persons in a press meet in Assam’s Nagaon district, on 6 April 2020. Both English and Assamese media houses are largely owned and edited by upper-caste Hindus whose sensibilities greatly affect how any incident of violence is to be read in the state. Anuwar Ali Hazarika/Barcroft Media/Getty Images
21 June, 2021

“Karbi girl’s murder: Caste bashing no solution” screamed a headline in the Assam Tribune, the highest-circulated English daily in northeastern India, on 3 May. The article commented on the media coverage of the arrest of three Brahmins for the brutal murder of a 12-year-old girl from the tribal Karbi community, who worked for them as a domestic help. The Brahmin author wrote, “Upper caste bashing is the new cool in the modern era and anything and everything is used to justify this claim—right from language and status quo.” The reality of how the murder was covered—and how most cases of violence between upper-caste Hindu Assamese and Assam’s many tribal communities are reported—by the Assamese and English press could not be further from the author’s claims.

Despite the 12-year-old girl’s family raising accusations of rape, the Assam Police arrested the three Brahmins—Rina, Prakash and Nayanmoni Borthakur—under charges of murder alone, on 22 April. The mainstream coverage of the incident was not in any way exceptional. It followed the same pattern seen in previous coverage of violence between upper-caste Assamese perpetrators and tribal victims—one where the identity of the perpetrator and the role of caste hierarchies are largely invisiblised. The Assam Tribune’s own coverage of the incident on 24 April did not mention the caste of the perpetrator, instead focusing on how child labour among tribal communities was a social ill.

Both English and Assamese media houses are largely owned and edited by upper-caste Hindus whose sensibilities greatly affect how any incident of violence is to be read in the state. In cases of violence where the victim is tribal, the caste and tribal identity fails to be seen as a factor, and economic or other considerations are often highlighted instead. On the contrary, when the victims of violence are upper caste Assamese and the perpetrators are either Bengali-origin communities or belong to Assamese tribes, the identity of the latter is highlighted. The media’s portrayal of such incidents frames a narrow definition of Assamese identity that has led to the continued marginalisation of Assam’s many tribal communities.

In incidents with tribal victims, the Assamese media also often responds by focusing on the practices of the tribal community, rather than the actions of the perpetrators. In one Assam Tribune report that did not identify the perpetrators by caste, the Assamese daily noted that the Karbi Students’ Association was “doing an awareness program against such practices since the last seven years but people still send their children to work as house help.” The article went on to mention another Karbi student leader who, “blamed the Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council for its failure in establishing proper educational infrastructure in vast areas of West Karbi Anglong district.” For the Assam Tribune, it appeared that only a Karbi is blamed for a Karbi’s death.

An April article in East Mojo, a Guwahati-based news portal, by Anupam Chakravartty—another upper-caste author—similarly omitted any reference to the caste identity of the perpetrators. Chakravartty was more descriptive of structural inequalities between communities in Assam, but limited it to a question of class. This was illustrated in a quote by one person who said, “Rich, aristocratic families promise education to the parents of young children and bring them to work as domestic help.” The article explained how nearly 5,000 Karbi children are employed in Nagaon district and how between ten and twenty die every year—but omits to mention the communities that profit from this arrangement.

When asked for a response, Chakravartty wrote, “I have not omitted any facts from the story as stated by the author. The story was based on the quotes and comments from Karbi students association of Nagaon, human rights organizations in Nagaon and police officials. While it was apparent that it was a caste/tribe atrocity, it was not apparent in the complaints by the victim’s family at Raha Police Station. My report is based on these facts.”

A day after the murder, the digital desk of Prag News, a major Assamese television station, published a report that did not mention that the Borthakurs were upper caste while mentioning that the victim was Karbi. The article also names the 12-year-old victim, while not bothering to name any of the two perpetrators it mentions were arrested.  

The same biases are visible in the coverage of the incident in mainland India. The Times of India mentioned that the victim was Karbi but only refers to the perpetrators as “employers” without any other descriptors. The Guwahati special correspondent of The Hindu failed to mention the communities of the victim or the perpetrator.

Television coverage of the incident did not differ much from print coverage. Some coverage, such as that of the Assamese channel DY 365, highlighted only facts related to the compensations given to the victim’s family and a school that was being built in the victim’s memory in her village. A majority of the coverage framed only poverty or lack of education as a factor in the murder, not social inequalities. This form of coverage ignores the inextricable links between caste, community and structural inequalities in Assam, and South Asia at large.

Child labor and sexual abuse do not happen in vacuum and are continuously produced and reproduced by patriarchal and caste-based structures. Assam’s high rate of violence against women highlights this. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau shows that the crime rate of rape per 100,000 female population increased by 33 percent in Assam between 2005 and 2019. With less than three percent of India’s population, Assam accounted for nearly ten percent of all these crimes in the country in 2019. Children employed as domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, regardless of which households they work in, and certain communities are over represented among the victims of child labour and child sexual abuse.

The 12-year-old was not merely a child labourer, she was also a Karbi. She carried her tribal identity with her. The 2011 census showed that Assam has 3,47,353 children between the age of 5 and 14 years who are engaged in some form of work or seeking work. A majority of the child labourers in the state come from marginalised communities, particularly Assamese tribes and lower-caste Assamese communities. Nagaon district, which recorded the second-highest child-labour employment in Assam, has at least 5,000 children from the neighbouring tribal-majority Karbi Anglong district, most of whom work as household help.

Child labour, like poverty, has social roots. Poverty may or may not be the cause of child labour but child labour definitely causes poverty. Child labour prevents children from attending school, denies them opportunities to learn and develop the necessary skills needed for employment in the job market, thereby trapping the children in poorly paid, low-skills jobs their entire life time. The vicious cycle this creates is a pronounced reality in many of Assam’s marginalised communities.

It is also a reality that cannot be removed from the fact that most tribal child labourers from Karbi Anglong are working in upper-caste houses. The lifestyles of these upper-caste communities thus needs as much scrutiny as poverty in Karbi Anglong when discussing the causes of child labour. The parasitic relationship between the Karbi Anglong district and towns in Nagaon district highlights that a mere economic understanding of this fails to fully explain our everyday realities.

On 25 April, Pratidin Time, ran an hour-long segment on the murder. The anchor, Nitumoni Saikia, who is also the editor-in-chief of Pratidin Time, argued in the segment that “there are all kinds of people, some nice people who treat them like their own sons and daughters, get them educated and married too. On the other side there are extremely evil people like the Borthakurs too.” The same line is later repeated by speaker Maitreyee Patar, an Assamese writer and poet, who said that she “knows few people who have actually brought children from the hills and provided them education, but amongst them there are also bad people like them, as you highlighted.” She however acknowledges that the brutal murder of the Karbi girl was not the first case of such violence, indicating its structural entrenchment. While talking of solutions, she highlights improving educational facilities in the area where the victim was from and financial improvement as means to reduce such crimes.

The language with which the victim and her family are spoken of is deeply personalised or individualised. They are described as  “poor little girl,” “unfortunate family,” and “sad,” further shifting focus from structural inequalities to a narrative of pity and one of where the incident is seen in isolation. Multiple speakers in the segment acknowledged that a majority of the families in Raha, the town where the 12-year-old was murdered, employ Karbi children as household help. Yet, not one speaker mentioned that it was a structural issue. In the hour-long discussion, the word “caste” is only mentioned twice, and both times to deny its role in the crime.

The panel included speakers from the Karbi community, but at no point were any them asked if they believed that caste had a role to play in the crime. This is notable because office bearers of the Karbi Students Association told other news organisations that this was a caste crime and that one of their primary goals was to ensure that charges under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are added in the chargesheet.

Throughout the discussion, none of the speakers, which included a lawyer, mentioned the Prevention of Atrocities Act. It was mentioned once towards the end of the segment by the local police authority after listing out the offences the perpetrators have been arrested under.  

The attempt to not talk about prevention of atrocities act, I believe is deliberate, as it would mean acknowledging the crime as a caste crime. This would necessitate a discussion on caste and structural inequalities in Assamese society, which the media often seems to ignore. The first information report of the case does not mention the prevention of atrocities act, however a Guwahati High Court order on 25 May, instructs the state government to invoke the act within two weeks.

The coverage of Pratidin Times as well as DY 365 quoted people calling for severe punishments of the Borthakurs. Alongside this, social media was also flooded by calls for the Borthakurs to be jailed for life, or given the death sentence. This form of coverage also individualises the crime, and frames it as a one-off event. This prevents us from understanding the systemic social factors that cause child labour or child sexual abuse. Criminal justice, while important, has little effect in changing the social structure of inequality where the root of oppression and such crimes lie. It can also at best serve as a deterrent, even though the evidence for it is sketchy, for such crimes.

Tied closely the media’s framing of these incidents is how Assamese nationalism and Assamese indigeneity are projected by the state’s upper-caste intellectuals, journalists and politicians. Assamese tribal communities are portrayed as icons of authentic Assamese indigeneity when discussing the presence of Bengali-speaking Muslims in the state. But the moment tribal communities assert their sovereignty or there are cases of violence, their “Assameseness” is immediately questioned.

The upper-caste media of the state works to keep the meaning of Assamese identity and nationalism malleable to serve the political interests of Assamese upper-castes alone. The media’s failure to discuss structural issues such as caste hierarchies, identity, gender justice and patriarchy thwarts the self-image Assamese intellectuals advertise—of an inherently tolerant and secular people unaffected by the majoritarian impulses of the mainland.

This is most visible in the coverage of cases of violence where the perpetrators are from the state’s marginalised communities. On 27 August 2020, Siddhi Prasad Deori, a retired medical doctor, poured boiling hot water on a minor boy whom he had employed as a household help. Deori comes from a tribal community. Soon after, Deori and his wife Mitali Konwar fled the house fearing arrest, but they were nabbed a few days later. The print media gave extensive coverage to this crime which was complemented by several posts on social media by journalists.

Mrinal Talukdar, an upper caste senior journalist, gave extensive coverage to this crime by continuously posting videos of the victim. He also shared the job profiles and address of the couple’s workplaces along with pictures. Even though Deori was the primary accused in the crime, the work address of his wife too was shared in multiple articles. The special correspondent for The Hindu, mentioned the workplaces of both Deori and Konwar, while giving no details about the Borthakurs in the first report of the murder. Various social-media accounts highlighted how the wife misbehaved with her students. The past behavior of the couple became a key piece of evidence in the media analysis of the crime. Television coverage repeated emotional monologues and appeals of how education was wasted on the couple.

In contrast, in the coverage of the Raha murder, it was the victim, and not the murderers, who became the object of coverage. Most articles laid out the bare facts of the case without the fervor shown in Deori’s case. Many reports did not even name the perpetrators. We know their names alone, nothing about their jobs or background as was laid out for the Deori couple. Many from Assam’s tribal communities are certain even this small amount of coverage came only as an effect of consistent protest by Karbi groups.

“The ghastly death of the 12 year old was reported by Assamese media only after there was kind of a social-media storm mainly done by Karbi people,” Holiram Terang, a senior Karbi leader and state chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party, told me. “There were of course some conscientious non-Karbi, non-tribal people as well who strongly took up the case in social media. The mainstream media could not ignore the issue after groups of people started staging demonstrations in the place of occurrence and at the police station which was beside the busy Guwahati-Nagaon national highway.”

The coverage following the lynching of Abjijeet Nath and Nilotpal Das—two caste Assamese digital artists—by a group of Karbi villagers who feared they were child abductors, on 9 June 2018, showcases the othering of tribal communities in Assam. The mob had been roused by rumours on social media that there could be child abductors in the area. The case received far more coverage than the murder of the 12-year-old, though this could be because it followed a string of lynchings related to rumours that spread on social media. The reportage of the incident started by painting a picture of an unremorseful stranger, who enjoyed the process of lynching.

For example, a 13 June article in the Guwahati based news website North East Now, by Harekrishna Deka, a former director general of the Assam Police says, “The inhuman passion during the incident rose so high that when one of the victim’s anxious girlfriend rang him up to contact him, someone informed her of the murder in devilish pleasure using the victim’s mobile.” He however, goes on to highlight how the media houses, in a bid to increase viewership, continued to fuel the mob narrative forward with little discussion on the social media rumour which led to the terrible lynching, arousing “retaliatory passion with reactionary effect.”

A demon had been created and he was a Karbi. The immediate fallout of such coverage was that the streets were filled with protestors, who not only demanded justice but threatened violence too if justice was not served soon. Slogans such as, “We are Assamese, we are not scared of you” referring to Karbis, “We are Assamese, save us” were prominently highlighted in media coverage. Suddenly Karbis were no longer Assamese but outsiders.

The media debate around the lynching did not limit itself to the effect fake news or misinformation were having, it became a matter of the Assamese identity itself being attacked. Sanghamitra Baruah, a writer at the online news platform DailyO, noted in an article, “Suddenly, the Karbi is no longer the fellow Assamese who joins you on the streets in protests against the Bangladeshis, or joins you in abusing the Bihari labourer for apparently how dark and smelly he is, or in making fun of the chicken-hearted ‘Bongali.’” She continues, “The Karbis have now become an enemy tribe. On the other side, at the centre of the Karbi angst is the Assamese ‘outsider’ who has always tried to play the big brother and ‘subjugate’ them.”

The inconsistency between how the 2018 lynching and the murder of the 12 year old was not lost on the media. Before asking a question to a speaker from the Karbi community, Saikia, the editor-in-chief of Pratidin Time, in his segment on the Raha murder said, “No matter who it is, a culprit is a culprit.” He continued, “They do not have any caste or religion.” He however specifically described how he had appealed to the “Assamese community” to not blame Karbi society as a whole for the 2018 lynching case. Saikia appealed to Karbis residing in and around Raha to not return to their villages, fearing social conflict. He said that Prakash Borthakur’s crime should not be seen as the “entire Assamese community being against the Karbis.” The moment the crime begins being spoken of as an issue of structural inequalities between communities, there is a push by Assamese media to personalise it.

Assamese nationalism, throughout its history, has largely existed only in reference to an imagined other. The nature of the other depends on the nature and shape Assamese nationalism takes, and the communities that most threaten the upper-caste Assamese control over claims to indigeneity. Till the 1950s, the process of Assamese identity formation saw tribes, especially those living in the plains, as an integral part of the Assamese identity. This was needed to fight the narrative of migration of outsiders, and to construct an Assamese majority.

In the 1960s, there was a shift to redefine Assamese identity based on language, which led to tabling of the Official Language Bill in the Assam assembly. Several Assamese tribes resisted this effort to create a monolithic identity and soon started their own movements to assert their distinct linguistic and cultural identity. The prime example of this movement was the Bodo struggle for territorial autonomy and linguistic rights. In doing so, these tribes became the new other. Over the years, tribes have consistently negotiated their positions, in relation to the caste Assamese. While they have supported the Assamese movement against the imposition of Hindi or Bengali in Assam, thereby assisting the process Assamese identity formation, their own languages and cultural heritage is consistently marginalised through continued apathy and neglect.

The marginalisaton of Assamese tribes by monolithic views of Assamese nationalism continues to this day. On 17 March 2021, only ten days before the first phase of the state’s legislative election, the Assam Board of Education issued a notification that made Assamese compulsory for students until the tenth grade. This was reported by multiple media organisations as an attempt to mollify widespread anger against the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019, which Assamese nationalists feared would lead to the demographic and linguistic marginalisation of Assamese. The notification exempts the Barak valley, where Bengali is spoken, regions under the Bodo Territorial Council and areas under the Sixth Schedule of the Constitution but not several other regions largely populated by Assamese tribes.

On 12 April, the Board of Secondary Education, Assam—commonly identified as SEBA—issued a circular clarifying that high school students would have the option of studying Assamese either as an elective or as their required Modern Indian Language subject. This is largely a cosmetic change, while Assamese language exams might not count towards your final resulting marks, it means that the exam and the course is nevertheless compulsory.

Following the announcement, Dayananda Borgohain, the chairperson of the Assam Higher Secondary Education Council, was given extensive coverage by the news channel Asom Live 24, where he argued that the opposition to the move was coming primarily from Bengali speakers. “If Silchar Bengalis stay in Assam and do not love the Assamese language, they should move out and form a separate state. They can go to Bengal. People will criticize me, let them. I don’t care. The notification of SEBA is self-destructive,” he said. Referring to RC Jain, the chairman of SEBA, Borgohain said, “The chairman writes his surname as Jain. He has to prove that he loves Assam and its language. If he belongs to Jyoti Prasad Agarwala’s”—an Assamese nationalist poet and film maker from a Marwari community—“lineage then it’s fine. But if he is ‘only Jain,’ he has to prove his loyalty.” The concerns of Assam’s tribal communities get buried in a conflict between Assamese nationalism and a constructed Bengali or mainland Indian other.

The effects such a move will have on the culture and identity of tribal communities is rarely discussed in media coverage. The existing media discourse continues the othering process, where tribes are seen as extensions or parts of a larger Assamese culture, which provides no understanding or reportages on their distinct identity and culture. Tribal struggles for linguistic recognition and education in our mother tongues do not get widespread media coverage or the backing of cultural and political groups that routinely claim monopolies over Assamese identity.

In 1985, following a long struggle by the Mising tribal community, the Assam government issued a gazette notification to introduce the Mising language as an additional subject for students in third and fourth grade in Mising-majority areas. It was also made the medium of instruction for primary schooling. Following this, the state government was supposed to take up various tasks such as appointing Mising language teachers, translating books into Mising, and also introducing Mising textbooks. However, till 1994, only 230 teachers were appointed after which the whole process came to a halt. The agreed upon clause of introducing Mising as the medium of instruction never took off.

Census data shows that the progressive extinction of Assam’s tribal languages is an inevitability if the state government follows its current policy. In the 2001 census, for instance, the Mising tribe reported 41.13 percent increase in the number of speakers. By the 2011 census, it was merely 14.28 percent. Similarly, for the Deori language, this fell from 56.19 percent to 15.79 percent. The change in Rabhas speakers alarmingly fell from 18.23 percent to negative 15.04 percent between the two censuses. Other tribes such as the Sonowal-Kacharis and Tiwas have almost completely lost their languages.

It is amid acts of violence in Assam and the frames of reference through which upper-caste controlled media in Assam portray them, that the borders of Assamese identity are formed. These largely work to serve the politics of a wafer-thin minority that nonetheless are over-represented in both English and local media. The mainstream media’s definition of Assamese identity puts tribes in a unique position of constant negotiation with the Assamese society. A complete integration would mean the obliteration of our unique history and identity while non-assimilation would mean, we are stuck at the frontiers of Assamese identity, leading to continued deprivation and marginalisation.

Correction: An earlier version of this article did not include a response by Anupam Chakravartty about an article published by him in East Mojo, which is referred to in the piece. This response has been added after the article was published. The Caravan regrets the error.