Having cut my professional teeth in the then sleepy, laid back Guwahati way back in 1983 and continued to live and work there till 2006, I always was proud about Assam’s gentle, cultured people. Women, I told friends outside the state, had a higher status and greater respect in Assam than most other states.
After last Monday’s shameful incident was aired on YouTube and NDTV, we decided to make it the first headline, my first internal mail instinctively said: “This is not the Assam I knew,” so shocked I was.
And so was my wife. As friends called and we discussed the incident, she also remarked to someone on the phone, “Even at the height of the most violent insurgency in the 1990s, I never felt unsafe in Assam or Guwahati!”
So what has suddenly changed? And changed for the worse, so quickly?
Mind you, friends back there say this is not the first such incident. They are aware of at least three similar incidents in the past six months, reported in local media in bits and pieces. The victims have invariably been young women, dressed as a modern city woman would be. Each time they were abused, beaten black and blue, then humiliated by cops in police stations or, in one incident, by elderly women for daring to break the mould as it were.
Invariably, cameras of local news channels were instantly on the scene, recording the very public humiliation in either police stations or in a public place.
And then who can forget the most shameful incident of all, three or four years ago, when a young adivasi girl, on her first trip to the big city as part of an agitating group, was stripped naked, chased for nearly a kilometre and beaten until a good samaritan took his shirt off and covered her? And video cameras kept recording the chase.
The teenager may never get over what happened with her. Neither would perhaps the young victim in last Monday’s shameful incident.
So why have things come to such a pass when in a supposedly civilised place like Guwahati a mob gathers around a hapless young woman, paws her, beats her, abuses her in the filthiest language possible?
I am neither a sociologist nor a pop psychologist. But my guess is: a culture of impunity has gripped the society in Assam at large. The absence of fear of law among lumpen elements is particularly noticeable in the past decade.
And that has happened because the police, at least a section of them have preferred to turn a blind eye to increasing incidents of petty crimes since they had got into the habit of looking the other way when underground outfits ruled the roost in the Nineties and first half a decade of this century. Worse, a section of police have got into a cosy relationship with militants-turned-big mafia under the patronage of some politicians further giving a fillip to the culture of impunity that has percolated down to the lowest strata of society.
As large scale central funds poured into the state in the post-insurgency period, availability of easy money started contributing to the rise of an alien culture in Guwahati. Wanton display of wealth led to emulation of all the negative traits of a big, bad metro. A simple, almost innocent city culture or its people did not have the bandwith to handle the abrupt change among some of its citizens.
As old notions clashed with the new morality, tensions have got exacerbated. Mushroom growth of media – both print and broadcast – has only added to the problem.
Funded by dubious business houses and politicians, these media houses are forever looking to grab eyeballs and readers by any means.
So some journalists have turned into voyeurs and vigilantes ever ready to ‘expose’ the wrong doings, the ‘loose’ morale displayed by the young and the restless, using the mob as prop for their stories, dispensing instant justice.
From all the information available at the moment, at least one journalist, coincidentally sitting in the vicinity of the pub where the young woman was also partying, was partly responsible in instigating the assembled mob and most certainly calling in the camera to film her humiliation.
It raises many uncomfortable questions about the media, and the new tendency amongst some of us to create news rather than report it.
Police, women’s organisations and social bodies, all are currently investigating the incident.
It is however incumbent upon all of us in the media, and especially our leading lights to thoroughly probe the role of the journalists and take as stringent action as possible, if found guilty.
We owe this to ourselves and to our audience.
Currently NDTV’s Security & Strategic Affairs Editor, Nitin Gokhale lived and worked in Guwahati for 23 years before relocating to Delhi.