“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.