A crowd of two-wheelers rushes forward. In the melee, a young man beats the motorcyclists with a thick bamboo stick. The video ends as one of the two-wheelers loses control, as its rider tries to avoid the bamboo stick, and collides with the person recording the video.

Cheery captions appear: “Bholuka bnaah [bholuka bamboo] in the news!”, “Have a bnaah, have a life!” and “In the news, in one strike!” A funny voiceover accompanies the video.

Viewers realise that the bamboo the man is beating the motorcyclists with is called bholuka. But what is funny about beating up strangers?

After Tinsukia

This was a prime time news item that aired on News 18 Assam NE on Sunday. The channel has since taken down the video from its Facebook page, though the promo for it is still available. Three days before the video was aired, unidentified gunmen had shot dead five unarmed Hindu Bengali men in Assam’s eastern district of Tinsukia. The police said that they were operatives of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent). But the group, commonly referred to as the anti-talks faction of the United Liberation Front of Asom, has denied involvement in the killings.

The dead men were working-class people. It has been speculated that the murders were an attritional tactic against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016. Introduced in Parliament by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the bill seeks to grant Indian citizenship to non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The killings sent out a signal: withdraw the bill, or those who stand to benefit from it will be murdered.

The Tinsukia incident was widely condemned in Assam. But that solidarity in sorrow did not last long. Last Saturday, a Bengali organisation called for a bandh to protest the killings. The video clip was from that bandh. The motorcyclists were bandh supporters. Beating people up with bamboo sticks is acceptable, even to be celebrated, if it furthers the cause of the Axomiya jati (the Assamese people), the video seems to suggest. The funny voiceover mentions that the wielder of the bamboo stick is a brave young Assamese man.

For extra effect, the news clip showed comments posted on Facebook praising the bholuka bamboo and its wielder. One post said the “hengdang” – an Ahom sword – was unnecessary and the bholuka was quite adequate. Considering the bandh was called to protest the killing of Assam’s minorities – who have been subjected to several massacres, including in Nellie in 1983 where 2,000 people were killed, by some estimates – one wonders about the Facebook user’s wit and the news channel’s motive.

The front page of Asomiya Pratidin on November 4.
The front page of Asomiya Pratidin on November 4.

Media and nationalism

The television item was not an aberration. The same day it was aired, the main headline of the Asomiya Pratidin, the state’s most popular Assamese newspaper, declared the bandh a “flop show”. The story highlighted the alleged damage to vehicles by protestors, the stoning of the police and injuries to children. The coverage of the bandh on most news channels was along similar lines.

The press in Delhi often expresses embarrassment at the bias its shows and the privileges it receives, and declares that the real work is being done by the regional media. But all is not well with the regional media either. News channels in Assam often distort, defame, suppress and sensationalise. All this is done for a single cause: Assamese hyper-nationalism. News can be vetted and elevated, or smothered and forgotten, depending on where it fits in this narrative of hyper-nationalism. To make things worse, the region’s biggest Bengali language newspaper, Dainik Jugasankha, mirrors this bias by showing a pro-Bengali, pro-Hindutva slant.

There are several reasons for this, many of them to do with politics. Assam’s old brand of exclusivist, sub-nationalist politics is on the wane, as is evident in the declining electoral fortunes of the Asom Gana Parishad. But it still has a lot of purchase among the middle class. The formative years for today’s middle-aged men and women were the late-1970s and early-1980s, when the Assam movement against foreigners (ie undocumented migrants from Bangladesh) played out across the state. The generation before theirs lived through the language riots of the 1960s.

In Assam, the hyper-nationalisms of the years gone by suck dissenting views out of the media to stay alive. It severs the media’s connection with issues that are alive. As a consequence, the condition of tea garden workers and their mysterious deaths, soil erosion by Assam’s turbulent river, and the displacement of people seldom occupy headlines.

This is not a one-way street. The partisan media feeds into the state’s politics. Alternative political views and uncomfortable facts are ignored or silenced. This happened with Assam’s National Register of Citizens, which is meant to be a roster of genuine citizens living in the state, separating them from undocumented migrants. The Assamese media was awash with praise for the register, which is currently being updated for the first time since 1951. The register is being hailed as the saviour of jati. News of the challenges faced by poor, undocumented people is rare.

In early May, a joint parliamentary committee visited Assam for public hearings on the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. An Asomiya Pratidin front page report on May 7 called the public hearing “a historical moment in the war to protect the pride of Assamese people”. “Chase away Bangladeshis,” read one headline, quoting the crowd on the streets that was demonstrating against the bill. Those in favour of it were dismissed as Hindu Bangladeshi supporters.

Asomiya Pratidin on May 7.
Asomiya Pratidin on May 7.

Threatening the minorities with massacres, as pro-talks United Liberation Front of Asom leader Mrinal Hazarika did in October, has no place in civilised society. Hazarika and Jiten Dutta, another member of the pro-talks faction, have justifiably been arrested following the Tinsukia killings. However, so long as the media continues to propagate such incitement and makes its own additions to it, more bloodshed is likely.

A new politics

The solution to this is not a ham-handed throttling of media freedom. It lies in changing the public discourse. In 1960, when the Brahmaputra Valley was engulfed in the fratricidal smoke of the language movement, which pitted Bengali speakers against Assamese, Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika launched a peace caravan of cultural performances through the state. Ordinary working people, both Hindu and Muslim, had nothing to gain from ethnic fights, they declared. During such moments of courage, when organic intellectuals defy the murderous mob, real works of art are forged.

On the caravan route in Nagaon town, Bhupen Hazarika wrote the “Manuhe Manuhor Babe, Jodihe Okonu Nebhabe” (if man does not think of man with a little sympathy, then tell me who will), whose healing touch transcends centuries. Hemango Biswas and Bhupen Hazarika co-wrote and sang “Haradhan Rangman Katha”, employing Bihu and Bhatiyali rhythms and tunes as well as the language of ordinary Assamese and Bengali folk. It is a tale of two working-class men, one Bengali (Haradhan) and the other Assamese (Rangman). If fratricidal fights triggered by the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill are to be stopped, a new politics in the spirit of “Haradhan Rangman Katha” has to be born. Bholuka bnaah and its peddlers must be stopped.

Debarshi Das teaches in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati.