India’s Press Comes Under Fire

Should the media repeatedly show the image of a young girl who was stripped naked, chased and humiliated by thugs in a city street during broad daylight? Should the picture of the girl, with some portions blurred, be printed in the front pages of daily newspapers days after the incident? Why didn’t the newspaper and television channels seek permission first from the victim? Moreover, would they have run the picture if the victim had come from an affluent family?

The controversy has arisen because of a shocking incident in Guwahati, the largest city of Assam state, on November 24, and it is raising questions far beyond the incident itself, becoming an issue for India’s traditionally free press. It began when an estimated 1,000 indigenous Adivasis, both male and female, equipped with traditional bows and arrows, marched to the State Secretariat at Dispur – the Guwahati suburb that is Assam’s official capital – to demand their inclusion in India’s Scheduled Tribe list.

Police first tried to prevent the demonstration, which only angered the protesters, who had hoped that inclusion in the list would benefit the poverty-stricken group, many of them former or current tea-plantation workers. Many continued the march. Suddenly some turned violent and began vandalizing anything in sight.

“The angry demonstrators started damaging city buses, private vehicles parked at roadside, shops and even personal property. Even some pedestrians were not spared by them. Many of them carried their traditional bows and arrows, but a few were equipped with sticks and hammers too,” a witness told Asia Sentinel.

Near the government Secretariat complex, police and paramilitary forces finally dispersed the rioters with tear gas. Facing harsh action, the frightened Adivasis fled in small groups, which were then attacked by local people. Clashes continued for about an hour, with many of the Adivasi demonstrators beaten mercilessly by youths. Ultimately one protester died and as many as 250 were injured, some very badly.

Amid the chaos, a high-school-level Adivasi girl was stripped naked by rowdy youths and forced to run from the crowd until local residents braved the thugs to give shelter to the humiliated girl. Pictures show the terrified girl running while people take pictures of her. One resident, Bhagiram Barman, risked his life to save the girl from more physical assault. Before she was handed over to the police, her naked image was recorded by the media and mobile-telephone cameras.

The incident kicked off a storm of protest. Mainstream political parties demanded the resignation of the Congress party-led coalition government. Social organizations demanded action against those responsible for the violence and vandalism. Rising fury led to a 36-hour general strike in Assam. Ultimately the issue reached both the upper and lower houses of India’s Parliament in New Delhi, where the stripping of the girl was condemned as barbaric.

Although India’s trouble-torn and alienated northeast is no stranger to violent demonstrations, the events in the heart of Guwahati shook the conscience of the community, where Adivasis have been an integral part of the society for more than a century. A series of public meetings and editorials ensued.

But it was the media that came under particular assault, and probably for good reason. They described the attack on the Adivasi demonstrators as unprovoked although the tribe originally started the vandalism. The papers remained silent on the bravery of the local residents who sheltered the victim. The media were full of pictures of the naked, running girl. The English-language Telegraph of Kolkata (Calcutta) published her picture on its front page on November 27, a full three days after the incident took place.

A New Delhi-based media-watch portal also highlighted the issue. “Should The Telegraph have carried a front-page picture of an Adivasi girl running naked down a Guwahati street after being stripped by ethnic rioters? It used black strips to conceal part of her nudity but her face was only slightly pixelated.” Three readers from Tezpur University wrote a letter to the paper that “while the strippers showed their barbarism, the editorial board of The Telegraph demonstrated its sadism by publishing the plight of the one stripped."

The Assam Tribune, the oldest English-language daily in the region, editorialized, “When a section of the media continues to come up with the visual of the naked Adivasi girl even days after the incident, it is evident that their purpose is simply to sensationalize and blow things out of proportion. It is in such times that the responsibility and the credibility of the media are put to test. A responsible media should act to defuse tension and not to arouse passions further.”

Bikash Sarmah, a Guwahati-based journalist, asked, “Was there at all any need for the photojournalists to click her naked photograph from the front and then get it published?” But through his media column in The Sentinel, a prominent English daily of northeastern India, Sarmah admitted that “there might be a justification, though: that without the visual, the end would not be achieved – of shaking the conscience of the people, of making them aware of such beastly behavior by a few despite being part of the civilized world, of telling the people bluntly as to how some perverts in their midst would bring disrepute to the entire society.”

The resentment also was high against the Satellite news channels and the cable operators of Guwahati. The Greater Guwahati Cable Operators’ Association blacked out two channels, alleging that they were telecasting a misinterpreted version of the group clash in the city. “The clashes engulfed not the agitating Adivasis and Guwahati people as a whole, but only a section of them joined the chaos. But the news channels went on airing that the residents of Guwahati beat up the Adivasis and also stripped off many girls who took part in the procession,” an official of the association told Asia Sentinel.

Two powerful regional student bodies, the All Assam Students’ Union and Asom Jatiyatabadi Yuba-Chatra Parishad, also criticized the media, alleging that they repeatedly depicted the image of the Adivasi girl in an obscene way while neglecting to report that she had been rescued by a local youth who gave her shelter.

“The media have every right to inform society about the happenings,” a student leader said in an interview. “But they should not use it as a way that only humiliates the victim again and escalates ongoing tension.”

Shantikam Hazarika, an academician based in Guwahati, said the two television channels had replayed the incident for a full day, including visuals of the running girl. “Those channels were cooking up the story, sitting in their studios and playing on the visuals of Guwahati violence,” Hazarika said. “As a Guwahatian I am more angry at the media than ashamed of what has happened that day.”

Sabita Lahkar, a journalist and social activist, said, “My question to those media persons who argue that they have a right to project the things supported by the facts is, if your daughter or sister is stripped off by some miscreants and visuals are available, would you support showing those photographs?

“By accident, if the daughter of a minister or bureaucrat (or your editor/proprietor) was stripped off during the Guwahati violence, would you have guts to project the picture (even if clear photographs were made available)? You should not humiliate a girl repeatedly as she belongs to a less privileged section in the society.”