Our cousin from the jungles: Assam and the Assamese in the Indian imaginary
My research into the Indian general elections of 2014 focused on Assam and regional television, more specifically the particularly popular genre of the outdoor political talk shows.
Most media analysis of general election in nation-state concentrate on just that, the nation-state. In the Global South, as Chakravartty and Roy have shown, such bird’s eye view tend to overlook the various regional subtleties (2010). On one hand, in India, where regional politics play and increasingly larger role in the national arena, I wanted to engage with what Lyotard’s calls the ‘petits recits’ – or localised narratives as a way of countering the meta-narratives of the national (1979). On the other, this was a personal journey.
Our cousin from the jungles: Assam and the Assamese in the Indian imaginary
I grew up in Guwahati, the capital of Assam, in the eighties – a time of violent political upheaval in the state. A secessionist movement, started at the end of the previous decade, had gained popularity and armed conflict between the state and the rebels had spilled out of the jungles and remote mountains onto the urban landscape.[i] There were bombings in crowded buses, retaliatory killings and sudden curfews imposed by the army. The show of military might through marches on our streets became routine; we looked forward to the disruption it caused to our studies.
The reasons for this state of affairs are too varied and complex to account in detail within the scope of this essay (see Hazarika 199 4). There were however two primary grievances that the Assamese people had against the Indian government. First, the influx of unchecked Bangladeshi refugees into Assam and second, New Delhi’s apathy towards the state’s economic development. These issues were intimately linked. The local Assamese felt that the continuous stream of migrants exacerbated their economic woes. The resultant anger expressed in violence led to a brutal repression from the state worsening the situation.
Geographical marginalisation intensified the feeling of isolation from mainland India and its politics. Guwahati was the only major airport and rail links to the rest of the country were unreliable. The main train between Guwahati and Delhi, the North East Express, was supposed to take about 48 hours but usually, when not cancelled, it took 70 hours or more. When I visited cousins in Kolkata, the closest big city, I was teased as the relative from the jungles. Such was mainland India’s perception of Assam.
Though aggravated by these geographical factors, the perception of Assam as a remote and dangerous place was largely a media creation. National newspapers with their headquarters in New Delhi and the lone government sponsored television channel barely bothered about the region and, when they did, it was to depict a place for disasters and catastrophes.[ii] Even in that regard, Kashmir was much more a national concern than the separatist movement that raged in each of the seven north-eastern states. (see Sonwalkar 1999) The region was being articulated out of national consciousness.
This disarticulation helped foster an anti-India sentiment that was only made worse by the political and economic situation. Revolt, revolution and the urge to break away from an Indian hegemony were everywhere. Assam, with the other north-eastern states, wanted out.
To understand how Assam and the north-east were rendered Other by the state, it is important to understand Indian media policy, particularly television, and its post independence nation building purpose. In the next section I offer a brief history of Indian TV, from the early days of Doordarshan, the government-sponsored television initiative, to the explosion of private channels at the end of the century. (For a detailed background see Batabyal 2012 p. 33-46)
Indian television: then and now
Television in India started as a top down educational experiment in the late 1960s and for much of the first three decades of its existence, Doordarshan remained a handy propaganda tool for the government at the centre in New Delhi. Long before the Assamese secessionist movement, other Indian states were registering their disatisfaction with the central government at the lack of representation. “The authorities seem to forget that India is a federal polity, with its multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-cultural components…’ wrote Jyoti Basu, the long-serving chief minister of West Bengal (cited in Page and Crawley 2001 p. 63).
By the late 1980s, things began to change. With a young, modernising prime minister at the helm surrounded by a close coterie of technocrats - cable television was suddenly allowed to enter Indian living rooms. Delhi’s control of televisual communication was immediately destabilised as programmes dreamt up in the West, especially US and sometimes the UK, were beamed via satellites placed in Hong Kong. For viewers etherised with the staid offerings of Doordarshan, 24-hour television marked a watershed moment. More was to follow and by the end of the 1990s, Indian television was unrecognisable to its former black and white self.
The Indian economy opened up in the early 1990s and Rupert Murdoch and his Star TV followed shortly after. If the late 90s saw the entry of the big private players like Zee and Star into Indian television, the 2000s saw the entry of smaller players who entered the market with regional viewers in mind. While daily soap operas in regional languages attracted the majority of the audience, news companies also began to flourish. Cheap technology and political influence guided private players to invest in news channels and by the end of the first decade of this century, several had made their entry, survived and prospered. With more than a hundred and fifty regional news channels, India had by now become the world’s largest television news market (Thussu 2007 p. 96).
Politically, the effect was seismic. With Delhi no longer at the centre, regional audiences and local concerns set the agenda. News no longer started with central ministers, their press conferences and announcements. Places hitherto disarticulated found a place in primetime bulletins.
Regional channels across India benefitted considerably from this dramatic shift in the centre/periphery dynamic. Delhi and national politics became peripheral while local concerns dominated news television. Compared to the national channels, programming quality was inferior and news values questionable, but these were secondary to the issue of expressing the “self” in the news cycle.
These channels performed a dual function. First, they allowed peripheral areas to articulate themselves and their concerns, putting themselves at the “centre”. Second, long marginalised, the symbolism of being able to do so was empowering. The strained relationship with ‘India’ appeared to be on the mend.
A news channel in Assam, NE TV, symbolised the changing nature of the relationship between the peripheral states and New Delhi, in its choice of branding. The tagline of the channel, “Pushing North-East 24x7,” clearly states a regional agenda and identity. Yet the design of the logo is similar to ND TV (New Delhi Television), a national television news company with prominent channels in English and Hindi. Using a tagline that creates a regional space and a logo that evokes the national, NE TV neatly summarizes the present political and economic situation in Assam as well as its troubled history.
The 2000s: A neo liberal backlash
In 2007, after almost fourteen years of absence, I returned to a drastically changed Assam. Even given the economic and cultural transformation that India had gone through in the 1990s, the scale of change was astonishing. Where the Indian army had failed in forcing compliance with the centre, neo-liberalism had apparently succeeded.
I drove straight past the bylane to my childhood home. All the markers were gone: the tin shed paan and cigarette shop and the empty field it stood on, the small printing press at the corner of the lane and that old house with a balcony where we played carom and hide-and-seek. Not gone, but obliterated. Unimaginative building blocks now clogged the view; a hotel of sorts had come up and the sky seemed to have retreated.
All over the city, there were the visible signs of progress that neo-liberal India celebrates: shopping malls, half-finished housing blocks and traffic. Cars now occupied every inch of road space, drove onto pavements and broke every traffic rule possible. Billboards, big city style, were everywhere, mounted on ill-planned flyovers. There were ads for newspapers, and everywhere, the faces of celebrity news anchors. Beaming, smiling, stern, they all promised from their hyper-real, enlarged, messiah-like caricatures to reveal the truth to the masses.
There was nothing particularly unusual about a 1980’s small-town turned unmanageable city of the 2010’s. What was surprising was that Guwahati – capital of famously separatist Assam – should be styling itself as another unremarkable Indian city. A politics of separation had given way to furious attempts to merge and identify with India. The Assamese couldn’t get enough of India’s economic bounty. The post-2000 upturn in the Indian economy had resulted in real estate prices shooting up and Guwahati was amongst the fastest growing markets in the country. Who would have believed that just a decade back separatists and the Indian army ravaged this land?
A similarly spectacular transformation occurred in the world of television. Where once Assam was starved of popular entertainment – with Bollywood hits reaching cinemas only when past their sell by dates – by the time of my research (starting April 2013) several local channels dominated. Soap operas were now being produced regionally with regional stars while local events were given prominence in the news cycles. Four 24-hour news channels had started to operate, with their OB (outdoor broadcast) vans contributing to the traffic chaos of Guwahati and smaller towns.
Appearances however, can be deceptive. Just as the façade of malls and restaurants barely hides India’s infrastructural deficiencies, the number of regional channels and their attempted emulation of national television can hardly conceal the constraints of scant resources and inferior working conditions. New Delhi drains resources from its neighbouring states while cities like Guwahati languish in power cuts and water shortages.[iii]
It is in this context that I examine the outdoor political talk show format.
Elections 2014 and political talk shows
The shows are set up in community buildings, clubhouses, schools or temporary constructions in playing fields. Though in principle open to the general public, because of logistics, the audience is capped at about a hundred. During two such shows that I attended, people began to queue nearly four hours before the shooting started. Local organisers had been brought in to keep order.
The talk shows last one hour, of which 15 minutes is devoted to advertising. They begin with an introduction by the presenter followed by the opening remarks of the candidates (generally three or four) contesting the elections. The candidates’ presentations of the election manifestos – making up the first quarter of the show – reflect party lines but are tailored with an eye to local situations. They are interrupted by two ad breaks. Next, the anchor poses some general questions to the candidates but quickly opens the floor to the audience. It is here that the show becomes animated and the entertainment begins. Language gets colourful and audience members launch into amusing and exaggerated accounts of failed or nonexistent government schemes.
This segment allows the candidates to hurl accusations of incompetence and corruption at one other with the incumbent seemingly at a disadvantage, giving ample airtime to local problems – from a half finished bamboo bridge across a canal, to lack of access to schools, water, basic health facilities and sanitation.
While on the face of it the shows appear to be spontaneous and democratic, my interviewees intimated that anchors skew the format in favour of one candidate or the other and party members are allowed into the audience to ask politically motivated questions. The spontaneity of the discussions is then further curbed on the editing table. Below I summarise a lively exchange that I witnessed during the shooting of one such show on the news channel DY 365, between an audience member and a Congress candidate from Golaghat, Upper Assam, which was later edited out of the show.
Audience member: What are you doing about employment? Why do we have no employment in our towns? We only get jobs in private banks and mobile phone companies. Why can’t you provide government jobs so our youth is secure?
Congress Candidate: It is good that we are getting the private sector to help us in providing jobs in Assam. This is good for the development of the state. The youth wants opportunities and that is what we are providing.
Audience member: Well, can you get my son a job as a judge? He has finished his law degree.
Congress Candidate (looking bemused): Well, the government cannot provide personal job guarantees….
Audience member (interrupting): We will see about that when you personally come to ask for votes the next time
This last comment evoked loud approval from the audience, and the presenter stepped in to cut off the exchange.
Hegel had asked the philosophers of his time to read newspapers to understand and interpret their world. As I embarked on the research for this paper, a frequently aired television advertisement for mobile phones made me think that the same invitation might just as usefully be today extended to television. The advertisement had succinctly captured both the public mood for a more emancipatory brand of politics and then “spectacularly” trivialised it.
It ran as follows: in a rural setting a politician is claiming that if he is re-elected, he will get water to the village. A group of young men at the back of a crowd of listeners start heckling the politician; they play a YouTube video where he is seen making the same promise during the previous campaign. The politician is suitably embarrassed and the advertisement ends with a catchy jingle “No ullu banaoing,” a Hinglish (Hindi/English) neologism which loosely translates into “Don’t make fools of us.”
The advertisement hides a basic infrastructural problem: Internet connectivity in most of rural India is so slow that streaming a YouTube video without endless buffering is impossible. Just as acquiring a sleeker faster car will not necessarily mean more road space or better roads, buying a mobile phone does not ensure connectivity. The spectacle of the audience/mobile phone user as an empowered citizen makes fools of all of us.
Two main implications can be drawn from my research findings. Methodologically, we see how local narratives help reveal larger truths. In this case, the political economy of TV shows reflects and illuminates the country’s national politics, whereby distance from the centre – geographical or political – manifests in marginalisation. This in turn undermines the meta-narrative of democratic pluralism that neo-liberal India prematurely celebrates. In much of the Global South, and in this context, Asia, where the story of the nation-state and democracy is different to their Western counterparts, a focus on the regional therefore becomes essential to understand the parts that form the whole.
Entertaining content delivered in populist ways hides the rot that serious journalism faces in regional news centres across India. Similarly, malls and unplanned bridges jammed with increasing vehicular traffic can barely conceal the severe lack of basic resources. By drawing comparisons between the façade of a reality TV show masquerading as a news programme and the infrastructural deficiencies of Indian cities, I question claims of progress and development and in doing so, problematise the nature of the country’s democracy itself. The media spectacle that accompanies elections highlights the desire for a more emancipatory brand of politics; ultimately it is the same media that undermines it.
Batabyal, Somnath. 2012. Making News in India: Star News and Star Ananda. New Delhi, London: Routledge.
Chakravartty, Paula, and Roy, Srirupa. 2013. “Media Pluralism Redux.” Political Communication 30: 349-370.
Mort, Rosenblum. 1979. Coups and Earthquakes: Reporting the World to America. USA: Joanna Cotler.
Page, David, and Crawley, William. 2001. Satellites over South Asia: Broadcasting, Culture and the Public Interest. New Delhi, London and Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Prasun, Sonwalkar. 1999. “Ethnic conflicts in North-East India.” Thesis (PhD). University of Leicester.
Sanjoy, Hazarika. 1994. Strangers in the Mist: Tales of War and Peace. India: Penguin.
Thussu, Daya. 2007. News as Entertainment: The Rise of Global Infotainment. London: Sage.
[i] For a detailed account of the rise of ULFA and other secessionist movements in the north-east, see Sanjoy Hazarika’s Strangers in the Mist (1994)
[ii] For an entertaining and illuminating account of journalistic practices that highlight how peripheral regions are tackled by news centres see Mort Rosenblum’s Coups and Earthquakes: Reporting the World to America. (1979)
[iii] During my research, I met with a friend in Guwahati who had bought a flat in an apartment complex two years back. Six months after he moved in, the taps ran dry. The complex now is deserted. Such instances abound.