Stranger who stayed put: My love affair with the North-east

Stranger who stayed put: An Interview with Journalist Nitin Gokhale

Author, teacher, journalist, student of conflicts and wars. Nitin Anant Gokhale, currently Security and Strategic Affairs Editor with NDTV, is a multi-faceted personality with nearly three decades of experience across mediums–print, web and broadcast. He reported from and on the north-east between 1983 and 2006, based in Guwahati before taking up the current assignment with NDTV. Author of three books, Gokhale teaches at various journalism institutes and Defence Institutions across the country. He takes a keen interest in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood.


North East Monologues: Can you please tell the readers a little bit about yourself. What were your early years like, what made you foray into journalism and how did you start working in the North East?

Nitin Gokhale: I am a fauji kid who travelled with his father all over the country, changed eight schools in 10 years and studied in three different mediums–Marathi, Hindi and English–at different points. I picked up the penchant for adopting languages very early and the skill of adapting to different cultures, situations and places as a result of that exposure. How I strayed into journalism accidentally is a story by itself. In the summer of 1983, the world was at my feet as far as my parents were concerned. I was selected to be a flying officer in the Indian Air Force. All that remained was for me to submit my graduation certificate by June 30th and start my training in July. As luck would have it, my graduation results were delayed by over a month. So the dream of joining the Air Force was put on hold. I had six months to kill before I could appear for another round of Combined Defence Services Exam that December. That’s when destiny dealt a decisive, and now in retrospect, a lucky blow. The Sentinel, a Guwahati based newspaper was just starting out and was looking for trainee journalists for their sports pages. Having played all games—from kabaddi to squash and from kho kho to cricket—as a child, I thought with all the cockiness of the callow youth that I could become a sports journalist, at least for a while. So just for the heck of it, I appeared for the written test that the newspaper held. Five days later, they called me for an interview. With no expectations, I went for the interview and landed a job at a princely sum of 700 rupees. I still remember the entire sequence in my head as if it happened just yesterday.

At the end of the interview that fateful afternoon, the editor asked me: “When can you join?”

My answer was, “Whenever you want.”

Editor: “Can you join, tonight?”

Me: “Why not!” and I joined the newspaper that very evening!

And just like that I became a journalist. Of course at that time, I had no inkling that I would stay the course. I was sure I would do the job for six months and then move on. But that was not to be. As I joined the paper and started picking up the nuances of the job, I felt at home. The thrill of being part of the team that put together a newspaper for the benefit of thousands of readers can only be experienced. It can never be described in words. The duty hours were erratic. One went to office at 2 pm and never returned home before 5 am.

Three months down the line I decided to remain a journalist and not to pursue the aim of becoming a fighter pilot. My parents were aghast and crestfallen. For a Junior Commissioned Officer in the earlier 1980s, there was no greater honour than seeing his son becoming a commissioned officer. But like a true soldier, my father accepted my decision without rancor. All that my parents said at that time: “Excel in whatever you choose to do.” So I stuck on in Assam and never regretted it.

Whatever I am today, it is because of two big influences in life: the army upbringing and my 23-year stay in Assam and North-east

NEM: Having worked extensively in the North East, do you think that the “North East” really exists or is it only a convenient nomenclature? How do you perceive the ‘’Mainland”- North East divide?

NG: North-east exists only in the minds of those who are far away from it–physically and mentally. In my view, every state, in fact every district, in the region has a distinct identity.

The divide between “north-east” and the mainland has lessened over the past decade with more exchange of people and ideas between the two. At the same time, it is certainly true that in Indian metropolises, the North East continues to remain a mystery.

The attitude of the people in rest of India towards the North-east is like our treatment of a distant relative who exists in the mind but about whom we know precious little. Our knowledge about this relative is often based on misinformation, half truths and innuendos, that’s exactly how rest of the country largely treats the eight sisters in the North East!! That gap will have to bridged with careful strategy designed to sensitize people from rest of the country about what the region really means to India in terms of geography, languages, culture, traditions and even from the point of view national security and why the people of the region matter.

NEM: Your profile on the magazine Tehelka’s website says that you chose to report from the North East because of the “lopsided portrayal of the region”. Today you find yourself in the post of Defence Editor of a major news channel. What does that say about the “unsafe” tag that the region has been pasted on the region by many? Does this tag given to the North East make the news from there easier to “sell” in the mainstream media?

NG: I realized early in my career that the region presented a unique opportunity for a newcomer. There were enough newsworthy events happening in the region in the early 1980s and the newspaper I started off with, provided with ample opportunities to newcomers like me. It was win-win for both. I fully immersed myself in work and the organisations kept giving me new opportunities to grow. As I progressed in the profession, I could turn my attention to lesser known aspects of the area and report on them for a wider audience.

As a Marathi, who chose to remain in Assam, I was both an ‘insider’ and an ‘outsider’ which, I believe, allowed me to bring a fresh perspective. Throughout my 23 year stay in the region, I never felt threatened despite a couple of close shaves when I was detained/physically assaulted in remote corners of the North-east. The region is NOT unsafe, it never was.

It was and is unsafe to those with ulterior motives. I have no hesitation in saying that anyone who works without a hidden agenda is safe amongst the wonderful people of the seven states.

However, I must also confess that it was always difficult to “sell’ my story ideas to News Editors based in Delhi and Mumbai if they were not about insurgency, kidnappings, bandhs or ethnic clashes. Fortunately, as one grew in seniority, it became easier to focus on issues other than revolving around violence. But yes, in general the attitude that only violence-based stories from the North East make news still persists since most editors remain ill-informed about the seven (or eight if you count Sikkim) states in the region.

NEM: Why have ethnic divides in many parts of the North East festered and manifested themselves so violently? Do you think there is a military solution to the problem?

NG: Across the world, it’s a given that small groups and ethnic communities have to fight for their survival; to avoid being swamped by larger groups. Many of these struggles began peacefully but later turned violent with easy availability of weapons and lack of deterrent police/security presence in remote corners of the region. And no there is no military solution to any of these problems.

NEM: Some call them “our people” or “self-defense forces” while others call them separatists or undergrounds. What is your perception about the armed movements in the North East and are they different from terrorist or Naxalite violence elsewhere in India? If so, how?

NG: As I said before in the interview, armed movements began after peaceful protests and demands were met with indifference by the authorities.

Take the example of Lushai Hills district now known as Mizoram. For three years in the 1960s, the Mizo National Famine Front (MNFF) kept pleading with the Assam Government then headquartered in Shillong, to send assistance to the famine hit people in what was Lushai Hills district. No one bothered. So finally, Laldenga, a former Army havildar (like Anna Hazare), who had formed the MNFF, dropped the word famine from his organisation and took up arms. The MNF-run insurgency in Mizoram lasted exactly two decades, destroying a generation. The point I am trying to make is simple: Most insurgencies in the region are born out of a sense of neglect and deprivation. So most armed movements in the North East began with noble intentions and were based on ideology. That many of them degenerated into outfits indulging in extortion and wanton killings, is also a fact though.

NEM: The military and paramilitary forces seem to have an uneasy existence in most parts of the North East. In some areas, the people are openly hostile towards them and in others, they are blamed for not being effective enough and simply overseeing ethnic clashes? How does the military respond to these different perceptions and does it make a difference to the attitude they

NG: the military and the Central Police Organisations are in the North-east because the state governments were incapable of handling the emerging situation in terms of security. The state governments–all elected representatives–may pay lip service to the cause of removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and the Army from the states but privately most chief ministers want the Army troops to remain where they are. The army gives them a sense of security!

Remember, the Army in the North East like in J&K- is deployed after State Governments requisition them. It does not come on its own. The state governments also have the power to de-requisition them but none- bar Mizoram and Punjab- has sent the Army back to the barracks despite a return to normalcy!

The military therefore knows that the hostility displayed by people in some parts is but natural-they take it in their stride and make efforts to break down the communication barriers.

NEM: What is or do you think is the (un)official briefing given to:

– a soldier in the Indian armed forces before deployment in the North East?

NG: As far as I know, the soldiers are briefed about the cultural differences between the rest of the country and the states in the region. The Corps Battle School of the Army runs a special orientation capsule for incoming troops briefing them on how to speak, behave with and treat people. They are told to try and distinguish, as far as possible, between an armed militant and a civilian.

– a soldier in Indian armed forces before deployment to other postings?

For other postings, they do not need any special briefing. It is part of their normal training.

– a soldier in one of the “separatist groups” in the North East before they are inducted to fight against the Indian armed forces?

They are told to treat Indian armed forces as enemy of the people

NEM: What do you think will happen if the AFSPA is repealed? Why do you think it has had a blanket application across so many North Eastern states for so many decades?

NG: If the AFSPA is repealed, the Indian army will be withdrawn or be unable to operate. It was applied blindly because the approach by the authorities was uni-dimensional – pump in the Army and treat the problem as a security issue rather than a socio-economic problem.


NEM: When the term “low-intensity conflict” is used to describe military operations in the North East, how is it different from a regular war? Does it really make a difference to the families of those killed in this on either side?

NG: LICO or Low Intensity Conflict is a game of cat and mouse, in which law enforcement agencies often fight an invisible enemy. In regular war, the enemy is clearly identified and therefore it is easy to act against an identified target. It doesn’t make any difference to the families on either side if victims get killed in LICO operations or a full-fledged war. The loss is unbearable in both cases.

NEM: What is your take on the corruption in many parts of the region? Is it different from corruption in the rest of India? How clean in your opinion are the armed forces?

NG: Corruption in the North East, like in other parts of the country, is embedded in the system. In fact, it doesn’t get the kind of attention in the region because corruption has become endemic and is taken for granted. By and large armed forces are clean but they are not immune from corruption as recent high profile instances of corruption, impropriety and nepotism at the highest level have shown. Several efforts are made to keep the armed forces clean but those measures have not always been successful.

NEM: You have argued that it is unfair to call the North East the “Centre’s spoilt child” and yet in many places junior government officials paying little “official” taxes, working a few hours a day and travelling in multiple car convoys! Your response.

NG: It was unfair to call the eight states of the region as Centre’s spoilt children say two decades ago but now it may be the right term since the amount of money that is granted to and spent on the North East is mind boggling. Funds are not a problem, their disbursement is. Loads of money has indeed created a class of corrupt, rich babus in the region, who consider themselves immune from law.

NEM: Is there an inherent problem of viewing the North East as “a strategic point” or a “buffer against China” or a “Gateway to South East Asia”? Doesn’t that devalue the contributions of the people of the North East by viewing them merely as the means to something else?

NG: Not at all unfair. That the North East is geographically well-placed to act as a bridge to south-east Asia or as vital to India’s defense against China is a fact. It does not devalue the people of the region. Indeed, unlike in 1962- when Pandit Nehru abandoned Assam the face of Chinese aggression–the current policy takes into consideration the importance of North East.

NEM: Do you think that one can be hopeful of the ongoing peace talks, suspension of operations and cease-fire between the Indian Government and various groups like ULFA, the NSCN etc. Do you think the talks can succeed with neither side seeming to be willing to budge much and other countries using this impasse opportunistically?

NG: I am hopeful of a solution. After all there is fatigue on both sides and also times have changed from the period these insurgencies were launched. Now, the leaders of these groups also realize that the people’s support cannot be taken as a given. People have become discerning and do not support insurgencies as blindly as they used to say in the 1980s.

NEM: With so many divisive identities, do you think that it is possible to give an unbiased version of the news from the North East?

NG: Of course one can report in an objective manner provided you (as a reporter) do not have any hidden agendas.

NEM: What is your opinion on “embedded journalism” How balanced do you think it can be?

NG: Embedded journalism by its very nature can never be balanced. It is understood that embedded journalists will project the point of view of the organisation/entity they are embedded with it.

NEM: What is your take on community/citizen journalism? Do you think that is a good way to cover the North East more comprehensively? Why has the recent trend of using YouTube, Facebook and Twitter to report violent incidents not been seen much in the North East?

NG: While as a concept CJ is a good idea, it has its limitations. Citizen Journalism can be a good starting point, like an FIR, but can never replace a comprehensive, in-depth, analytic reportage by a trained journalist.

NEM: What is your opinion on print media and television news specific to the North East? How can the “mainstream” national media be encouraged to report regular events from there?

NG: We are witnessing a media boom in the North East for the past two decades. But when it comes to so-called national media, the coverage of the region is now confined to big, violent incidents and except for two newspapers–Indian Express and The Hindu–very few publications give prominence to the events in the North East. On television, it is worse. I have no magic formula to encourage increased media coverage except to say when media practitioners who hail from the North East occupy positions of decision-making in bigger organizations in a few years time, we may witness more coverage. You may turn around and ask why NDTV, in which I am placed in a relatively senior position, does not cover the North East more comprehensively, all that I can say is: yes we can increase the coverage but the saving grace is: we are slightly better off than others.

NEM: What has been your most challenging assignment in the North East?

NG: Well, there have been several difficult assignments. In fact my entire stay of 23 years in the region was challenging since I was continuously judged–by some– on the basis of my surname and not on the basis of the content of my reporting. It was tough to satisfy everyone but in the end friends and colleagues accepted me as an objective observer of events in the region and not as an ‘outsider.’

NEM: Your advice for the youngsters wanting to take up journalism, especially in the North East. Who are some of the role-models that they can look up to?

NG: I don’t have advice only suggestions. Journalism is not like any other 9-5 job, its a way of life. You are either involved in it fully or you are not. There is no half-way house, so if you are prepared to immerse yourself fully in the requirements of the profession, don’t take up journalism as an occupation.

Two names come to mind instantly, when you want to talk about role models: MS Prabhakara, a doyen among media practitioners in the region, who writes for Frontline and The Hindu and Samudra Gupta Kashyap, who has brought the region alive for the rest of the country through his comprehensive, unbiased, sensitive reporting for the Indian Express over the last 20 years!

NEM: What according to you would be the major challenges for the Northeast in the next decade and what gives you most hope for the region?

NG: The biggest challenge the North East faces, in my personal view, is to overcome “We are the victims” mindset that dominates the public discourse in the region. Like I keep telling my friends in the region–and I have more friends in the North East than anywhere else–no one in rest of the country has the time and inclination to conspire against the people of the region. The North East was a victim of circumstances in the early years of Independence. Not any more. It is as much an integral part of the country as any other state.

I am hopeful that the region will shed its reservations against rest of the country and the rest of the country (I am not use the term mainland or mainstream!!) will treat the region not as a distant relative but an essential member of the idea of India.