The report on “anti-NRC” journalists is an attempt to intimidate and target them

The documents contained lists of journalists and activists who, according to the anonymous authors, opposed the NRC. Shahid Tantray For The Caravan
31 August, 2019

A couple of weeks before the final National Register of Citizens, a list of Indian citizens in Assam, was scheduled to be published, a number of PDF documents—all titled, “NRC: The Other Story”—began to circulate on social media. The documents, which used the official NRC authority’s logo and were marked as “copy for circulation,” contained lists of individuals, mainly journalists and activists, who according to the list’s anonymous authors, opposed the NRC. One of these lists was titled, “Journalists involved in the anti NRC propaganda” and contained the names of ten journalists, among whom I was one. The list described me as “a vocal opponent of the NRC because he feels there are no illegal immigrants in Assam.” It added, “He is also planning to write book on NRC.”

This is entirely untrue. I have never said there are no illegal migrants in Assam, nor do I plan to write any book on the NRC. I became critical of the NRC exercise as it became clear that the process was causing great suffering to poor people across communities, many of them quite clearly Indian citizens, who are being victimised by a Kafkaesque bureaucratic process. There are lakhs of human lives at stake—the final NRC list published on 31 August excluded over 19 lakh applicants—and I have consistently maintained that this human dimension must be kept in mind. For this, I have earned the ire of the chauvinists who drew up the list.

The PDF list targeted nine other journalists, starting with Ipsita Chakravarty who writes for the news website Scroll. It described her as “a Bengali chauvinist.” The same descriptor—Bengali chauvinist—was used for the former BBC correspondent Subir Bhaumik and another Scroll journalist, Shoaib Daniyal. However, the Scroll’s Guwahati correspondent, Arunabh Saikia, who has done excellent and often highly critical reporting on the NRC, was left out of the list—probably because he is Assamese, and therefore cannot be labelled a Bengali chauvinist.

While Bengali and Muslim journalists were particularly targeted, two South Indians who are neither Bengali nor Muslim, freelancer Rohini Mohan and Praveen Donthi of The Caravan magazine, found mention in the list for not being sufficiently laudatory of the greatness and glory of the NRC exercise and failing to shriek about the dangers to Assam’s demography posed by the apparently unending streams of Bangladeshis swarming into the state. Both of them had done solid, detailed and unbiased ground reportage from Assam and uncovered flaws in the NRC process that are causing suffering to innocent poor people.

Assam has a long history of hysteria about being overrun by Bengalis, even though analysis of census data by the Rights and Risks Analysis Group, a Delhi-based think-tank, shows that from 1971 to 2011, the state had the lowest average decadal population growth in the Northeast. The irony in the situation is that it may have been overrun by Bengalis long ago. The caste Assamese in the state today are Bhattacharjees, Talukdars, Goswamis, Chakrabortys and Choudhurys. Where did their ancestors come from?

Nonetheless, driving out “outsiders” has been the motivating force of politics in Assam for decades. At its most extreme, this sentiment led to the creation of the United Liberation Front of Asom, the militant separatist group that fought an armed insurgency to establish an Assam independent of India. This underground group enjoyed vast support from a network of over ground workers that had several journalists, including the likely authors of the current lists.

Some months ago, at a small gathering in Guwahati, I was stunned to see Anup Chetia, the general secretary of ULFA, publicly thank two prominent Assamese journalists in glowing terms for help rendered to the group in the past. Chetia also boasted that they used to receive information about planned police and army raids well before the raids took place. The two journalists he thanked were of course not the only ones to have rendered assistance to the underground group. There were others as well, who acted as informants, propagandists and overground workers for the group.

This close relationship between certain journalists, militants and government agencies in Assam has long been an open secret in the state. It has led to casualties on various sides. Atleast 32 journalists have been killed in Assam in the past 30 years. Many were shot dead by ULFA or Bodo militants. One, Parag Kumar Das, the editor of Asomiya Pratidin and a strong supporter of the ULFA, was murdered in broad daylight in a hit that may have been engineered by opponents of the militant group.

Given this history, the circulation on social media of a list of journalists for their reportage is a serious matter. It places those named in the list in some danger. Apart from being an attempt to silence and intimidate, it is also an attempt to target and vilify. The NRC authority has officially washed its hands off the matter saying it had nothing to do with the list. Who is responsible for it?

A number of journalists in and from Assam have suggested the list is the creation of the RSS or the state intelligence wing. Others have suggested that the list may be the handiwork of journalists associated with Assamese chauvinist groups. The RSS and the state government should come clean on whether they have anything to do with the creation of this list. If not, the network responsible for this targeting of journalists should be investigated and identified.