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

21 June 2021
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
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

“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.

Manoranjan Pegu is a trade-union activist based in Delhi. He writes on issues of labour and tribes, and is from the Mising community of Assam.

Keywords: Assam Caste in media Assamese nationalism tribal languages
COMMENT