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Who is Ima Gyaneswari?

By Teresa Rehman

The media portrays the northeast as one homogeneous trouble-torn frontier. Why doesn't the media get behind the statistics of the number killed and ammunition recovered? Why doesn't it find out what makes boys and girls barely out of their teens take up arms? Who bothered to find out what led Ima Gyaneswari and 11 other women protest the Armed Forces Special Powers Act by stripping in front of the Assam Rifles headquarters?

Our car reached the offices of the ceasefire monitoring cell of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland-Issac-Muivah (NSCN-IM) at Diphupar, on the outskirts of Dimapur town in Nagaland. Our escort Apaam helped some men unload groceries from a van. He made a quick call on his mobile and told us there were some protesting villagers on the way. "There could be trouble," he warned. When I insisted, he said: "Okay. It's your decision." He went inside and emerged with an AK-47. "Come, let's go. If someone fires, I will also fire a shot or two." He laughed, hopped into the car and sat next to the driver. He spotted some guavas lying on the dashboard and gobbled up two of them. "I'm hungry," he smiled.

Sounds like a page from a thriller? Well, it was for me. After all, I was going to meet Th Muivah, chief of the NSCN-IM, at his council headquarters in Hebron, some 40 km from Dimapur. As we proceeded, I tried to prod our escort. "When did you join the outfit?" Apaam laughed. "Oh many, many years ago." I asked again: "Was the training tough?" He smiled. "Yes, it was." "Where are you from?" "Ukhrul," he replied. I kept up the questions. "What is your designation in the outfit? Do you enjoy the life of a militant?" Apaam paused for a while and then laughed. "If you have to interview me, you will have to take a prior appointment." He took out a new sim card from his wallet and fixed it on his mobile phone.

My meeting with Th Muivah was candid and invigorating. So much so that at the end of it Muivah commented to his personal security officer: "This reporter is very cunning." I thought that was the best compliment I had ever received. Muivah was smiling all through the interview as I shot questions at him ranging from what kind of person he was, to his love for pork, his gradual conversion to vegetarianism, and whether his religious beliefs clashed with his 'cause'.

The lower-rung cadres at the camp were amused when I asked them to play the keyboard and drums at a sprawling church inside the general headquarters. From their conversation I sensed their deep spirituality, their strong faith in God, and their commitment to the 'cause'.

From my personal experience of encounters with militants, I would like to emphasise that reporting insurgency in this conflict-torn region should not be confined to mere statistics of the number of people killed and the number of arms and ammunition recovered. Media persons should venture down the untrodden path, ask the unanswered questions, and get an objective view of these non-State actors.

The northeast has often been misrepresented by the so-called 'mainstream' national media. Mediapersons reporting in this region have an important responsibility to alter the stereotypical manner in which the northeast is represented in the media.

There are several faces of this militancy-ravaged region which have to be brought into the public domain. The northeast is clubbed together as a homogeneous whole, a trouble-torn frontier that must be protected at all costs. It is therefore a challenge for mediapersons reporting from the field to act as a catalyst in creating an understanding between the State and non-State actors. We need to find a solution for the long-drawn-out conflict and analyse what it is that makes young boys and girls, barely out of their teens, take up arms without batting an eyelid.

With globalisation, the region has witnessed a surge in media activity, with a growing number of vernacular and local dailies, including four private television channels. There has also been a boom in FM radio stations, most of them entertainment-driven.

Many mediapersons today are beginning to raise their voices for a cause. For instance, in Guwahati, the media actively campaigned for pro-democracy crusaders in Myanmar. However, the local media still lacks maturity and must get over the tendency to 'sensationalise' issues. Local TV and FM channels often add spice to their stories and succumb to the national media's obsession with Bollywood and cricket.

Still, representatives of the national media in the region do play a pivotal role in projecting the northeast in an appropriate manner, as Delhi continues to be the decision-maker.

Times have also begun to change for the militants of the northeast. It's now easy to visualise a gun-toting militant sitting with a laptop in the middle of his camp in the forests of Manipur, Nagaland or Assam, e-mailing press releases to the media. As we ill-equipped journalists grapple with the hostile terrain and psychological barriers that accompany dealing with complex insurgency operations, cyber-savvy militants shoot out press releases, e-newsletters and even threats to mediapersons and prominent personalities via e-mail! ULFA's publicity secretary, who writes under the pseudonym 'Rubi Bhuyan', even engaged in a debate on one of Assam's e-groups.

Many big-time militant groups have impressive websites and boast computer engineers among their cadres. Today's cyber age allows them to communicate with the media, which acts as a force multiplier for underground outfits for whom coverage is otherwise hard to come by. Militants are easily able to access Internet editions of newspapers and read what's been written about them; news establishments also provide them tip-offs about impending army operations. The Internet has, in fact, become the militants' latest tool to communicate with the outside world and seek solidarity for their cause.

There is now a definite and marked change in the manner in which the media and cyber-savvy militants operate. The northeast is home to a number of militant groups, some prosperous, many rag-tag. Of late, it has become fashionable for mediapersons to be invited to militant camps so that they can dish out 'exclusive' news to those watching thousands of miles away. I myself have travelled to several militant camps for a first-hand experience of the gun-toting, lower-rung cadres as well as their top leaders.

It's an undeniable fact that journalists working in this troubled region, especially in Manipur and Nagaland, are constantly flirting with danger. In a state like Manipur, where over 20 different underground outfits operate, editors have been killed by unidentified gunmen and journalists stopped from doing their jobs by militant outfits that have gone to the extent of closing down newspaper offices. Mediapersons often have to face the wrath of both the underground outfits and government agencies, including the security forces.

My brush with terror was in a remote village in Manipur's Thoubal district when I was attempting to meet the family of a 'child soldier'. The house was suddenly surrounded by commandos of the Manipur police who, incidentally, are notorious for killing civilians. I had to show my identity card and verify my credentials before they apologised and left.

Terror in these parts, especially in Manipur and Nagaland, is all-pervasive. But in spite of the perils, persons from the media have to be sensitive and perceptive to the real issues. It is important that someone sitting in Delhi or Mumbai knows that there is a lady called Irom Sharmila in Manipur who has been fasting for the past eight years demanding a repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958.

I remember an interesting conversation with Ima Gyaneswari, one of the 12 elderly mothers of Manipur who were catapulted to fame when they stripped and held a banner across their bare bodies, challenging the army to rape them if they had the guts, right in front of the headquarters of the Assam Rifles. Gyaneswari, a wife and mother, smiled as she narrated the events of that fateful day.

She told me she is so traditional, she touches her husband's feet whenever she goes out for an important function. On that particular day however, she simply told him she was taking part in a protest. When she thinks about it now she feels it was a 'do-or-die' situation for her and her associates; she had to protect the daughters of Manipur. Her husband and her sons later reconciled to the fact that what she did was indeed courageous. Gyaneswari believes that the army has become more sensitised in their dealings with women. But she wants the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 to go.

Gyaneswari admits that although the daring act received widespread media coverage, it did not have the desired effect on the authorities. She was amused and touched by my questions. She said nobody had ever tried to delve into their psyche and understand why these mothers of Manipur had done what they did. This was the first time someone had asked her to speak her heart out.

It is the responsibility of the media in the region to also file stories on surrendered militants, portraying their sense of disillusionment etc. There can be balance only when both sides of the story are told. For instance, Sunil Nath, former ULFA publicity secretary and one-time think-tank of the outfit, expressed the futility of any armed rebellion when he told me: "I came in close contact with the top leadership and I could sense that these are ordinary men without the vision to lead a revolution. I did not see a light at the end of the tunnel. It was a dead-end."

In this insurgency-ravaged region there are many stories involving common people waiting to be told in the mainstream media. How many people know that there is a powerful and prolific organisation of women writers in Assam that has been honing new talent and preserving the long-forgotten writings of women? Or that there is a dorbar, or traditional institution, in every locality of Shillong city in Meghalaya which settles local disputes and even takes care of its own garbage? Or how the church in Mizoram and Nagaland actively addresses social problems including combating HIV/AIDS and drug abuse? And how many of you have heard of Shillong's famous 70-year-old radio jockey?

(Teresa Rehman, Principal Correspondent of Tehelka newsmagazine, reports on the myriad hues of India's conflict-torn northeast. She has visited several militant camps in the region. She was awarded the 7th Sarojini Naidu Prize for Best Reporting on Women and Panchayati Raj, instituted by the Hunger Project.)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009