As the theme speaker for National Press Day, celebrated on November 16, I had said: “But there comes a time in the life of an individual, as much as in the life of a society, when we must do or die, or die doing, because only a few of us are blessed with the courage of conviction to live beyond and above our own selves. And we solemnly observe National Press Day today because we, those of us gathered here today, have vowed to be guided by our courage of conviction… I think those of us gathered here today will agree that it is worth laying down our lives for.” This was in reference to the Assam Rifles’ censorious “notification” to newspapers in Nagaland, and the Nagaland editors’ joint public statement thereof, which is now in the public domain.
The blank editorials in three Nagaland newspapers — the Nagaland Page, Eastern Mirror and Morung Express — on November 16, were also messages for all who would gladly muzzle the press one way or the other. There are many such agents, though not all of them are armed groups or non-state actors, or even the security forces. In Nagaland, there are too many power centres. The state government does not govern. Rather, it outsources governing, hence creating a huge vacuum that is filled by several parallel governments.
Then there is the ubiquitous Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958, (Afspa), which has been enforced here for over 60 years, empowering the security forces to become one of the several parallel governments. Caught between all these parallel governments, the local media functions in an extremely precarious environment. The blank editorials could be perceived as extreme or drastic for anyone without the experience of living in such precarious situations, but for us, it was a cry to survive, a cry for survival. We have been living between the devil and the deep blue sea for far too long and the time had come “when we must do or die, or die doing, because only a few of us are blessed with the courage of conviction to live beyond and above our own selves”. Notice that of the six newspapers “notified” by the Assam Rifles, only three decided to resort to blank editorials — it was the individual decision of each newspaper.
The blank editorials also reflect the larger issue of the functioning of the press in insurgency-afflicted regions and states, particularly in the Northeast. I also perceive the Assam Rifles’ “notification” to be a tactic to divert attention from its own, as indeed the other security forces’, failure to contain and curb the activities of armed organisations and groups in Nagaland and the region, which is evidence of the failure of Afspa itself — exactly what the Northeast has been saying to the government of India all this time, and whose most assertive message is Irom Sharmila’s fast unto death for the last 16 years.
Contrary to what was tacitly underlined in the Assam Rifles’ “notification” to us, the press is not the cause of the “thriving” of the insurgency or armed groups’ activities, but a victim of the failure of Afspa, the Assam Rifles and indeed the rest of the security forces deployed here to contain and curb them. Also, while the Assam Rifles quoted the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, to control and dictate to the Nagaland press, and we respect this act, the Union ministry of home affairs should have directly, or through the Nagaland state government, consulted with us on the issue of dealing with the publication of press releases/ statements of banned groups. Unless the ministry is trying to gag the Nagaland press obliquely through the Assam Rifles? But is the Assam Rifles constitutionally mandated to issue such “notifications” to any press? But then again, anyone who is well versed with the situation in Nagaland (and the rest of the Northeast) will know that it is very difficult to comprehend the internal working and decision-making logic of the security forces, or indeed of the MHA, given that Afspa is still in force here.
To my knowledge, the Assam Rifles sent such a notice for the first time. But the media in Nagaland is not just a few decades old. Our first newspaper — Ao Milan — started in 1932 or 1934. More newspapers, all weeklies, started in the mid to late 1960s, which was not easy, considering the level of development, or underdevelopment, at that point in our history. Besides, the political situation was not convivial either — it was the height of insurgency and Afspa was in force.
So it wouldn’t surprise anyone if similar notices were formally issued to Nagaland newspapers in those earlier days, or even in the 1970s and 1980s, by the army or the Assam Rifles.
But it is not always through such “notices” that the security forces intimidate the local press. In the last 30 years, I have personally experienced the numerous methods the security forces use to muzzle press freedom in Nagaland. It is only since 1997, after the ceasefire agreement between the government of India and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah), and later with the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Khaplang), that the security forces toned down their actions and have actually reinvented themselves as “friends” of our people. Before that, it was more or less a state of military rule with the writ of Afspa looming large. Still, it must be said that despite the ceasefires between the Indian government and various non-state actors, Afspa is still enforced. So, in one form or another, martial rule continues. This has become more evident after the abrogation of the ceasefire between the government of India and the NSCN(K). Under these circumstances, we had no option but to respond to the censor.
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