Out of the Box Journalism Part 2: Be Alsatians, Not Pomeranians!
When I was sent to cover the emerging Bodo movement in Assam, I realised I had to be “Alsatian”, not a “Pomeranian”!
Preface: When there was only one government broadcaster Doordarshan, Aroon Purie and Madhu Trehan – in a quest to bring real pictures to people – created Newstrack. Here, a small band of ambush journalists, led by Madhu Trehan, planted the first seeds of independent reporting. ‘Newstrack’ eventually became Aaj Tak TV channel that we see today.
Writer Nutan Manmohan was part of Newstrack’s first batch of self trained TV journalists who experimented with ways to do investigative journalism at a time when no precedents existed. This series celebrates ‘the unexpected and the unusual’ in that journey.
Read the first part in her series here:
Being the Official Alsatian Hound!
I was in a sweet spot. Despite being a cub reporter, our supervising producer Sona Jha had approved my ambitious trip to Assam to study the newly emerging Bodo movement in Assam. For someone who had clambered on to the journalism bandwagon to bankroll her wanderlust – I could not have asked for more from life.
Loitering around the office for a last minute line-up, I was about to step into the boss‘s cabin when I realised she was in a combative conversation with a senior journalist. It appeared that his investigation had no punch. “Be an Alsatian! Not a Pomeranian!” I heard Madhu Trehan tell him in a tired voice. Not wishing to intrude on a sticky scene, I left for the airport with the crew. In any case I had already got her brief: I was to be the official Alsatian hound of the company!
We landed in Guwahati to a rousing welcome! In those days of scanty security, Chief Minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanto’s official ‘Lal batti wali gaadi’ was waiting on the tarmac right next to the flight of stairs. His protocol officer escorted us into the sprawling colonial bungalow. Mrs Mahanto received us at the porch with her new born. After a quick recording of the CM’s interview, we were ushered towards the dining hall, where we sat around to have an early dinner with the first family of Assam!
I was completely bowled over with this lavish welcome – when the CM brushed aside my profuse appreciation by telling me, “We have to welcome you! After all, it’s not everyday that Newsweek visits India”. With sinking horror, I realised that the red carpet welcome had been organised because they had mistaken us – the desi homegrown Newstrack – with the global superstar magazine Newsweek! Speed shovelling kheer into our mouths before it could be snatched away and, lest our cover be blown, we rushed out of the CM’s residence towards our hotel.
The day’s quota of drama wasn’t over. As we began to climb the steep slope towards Bellevue Hotel – the Ambassador car spluttered to a dead stop. The car was bowed down by 100 kilos of equipment and baggage and it took all four crew members to push the vehicle to the top where a graveyard (a silent colonial relic) awaited us. After much clapping and hollering, an old man appeared from the woodwork to check us in.
We had huge rooms and non-functional phones, and a four poster bed that creaked with every toss and turn as I slept fitfully, worrying over a story that had no leads. Over the next few days, we manually pushed the car to the top everyday…a big learning that a functional hotel in the heart of the city is an essential part of every TV shoot plan.
A big bonus of being the younger TV sibling of India Today magazine was that we could tap into their seasoned journalists. Shekhar Gupta – the brilliant Features Editor at India Today then – was my Sherpa for this story. Assam was Shekhar’s cradle and his beat. He told me how Assam was a hotbed of varied protest movements – each at loggerheads with the other. Many were extremely violent and militant. Shekhar cautioned me on staying in close touch with the army and the police and shared some of his contacts.
The AGP’s violent agitation, followed by political power, was creating clones – according to the Assam DIG Police:
All students want to emulate them. The ruffians who were burning vehicles are now heading the government. Our constables used to handcuff them; now we have to salute them!
We landed up next at the army headquarters, where the army commander rattled off a long list of casualties that the army had suffered whilst battling internal security issues. “My boys can’t go home even if one’s wife delivers a baby!” he said.
Looking at hundreds of jawans exercising in the army camp – young lads from villages of Haryana and Rajasthan putting their lives at stake – I felt a rising anger about the emerging Bodo militia who were holding north Assam to ransom in those days. I decided to look for a way to plant ourselves in their inner circuit.
Caution would have to be abandoned.
Of Poisoned Arrows and a Helpful Bodo President
Very little was really known about Bodo militant leadership. No names, no pictures. Following a random tip, we hung around the Shillong University cafeteria. Over plates of Fish Tenga (a Meghalayan delicacy made of fish cooked in sour sauce) and steamed black rice – we finally got to identify the top Bodo leadership – including the President and the Secretary of the movement. Young and fresh faced, they were almost like adolescents. It was difficult to imagine them stocking ammunition and bumping off opponents.
On the third day, we had to leave for Kokrajhar, the epicentre of Bodo violence. The Bodo President – now rather friendly – offered to accompany us till the city centre. Little did he know that we had decided to carry him off with us to northern Assam. Stuffed between Bharat (our camera person) and Badri (our sound person), we half cajoled, half bullied and sort of abducted the president of the Bodo movement.
We crossed the majestic Brahmaputra and entered the lush, hilly terrain of north Assam. Two hours on, we stopped for a loo break. Our ‘captive’ stepped out of the car – and drawing his diminutive frame up to my five foot seven inches, he asked, “So you kidnap me?” In my mind I was calculating what to do if he fired or fled. Before I could answer he laughed and said, “Ok, but in Bodoland you do as I say. Or we all die”.
I nodded. It seemed like a fair deal.
Kokrajhar was going to be a day-long drive. Our captive told a kid to climb up a tall betel tree near the chai stall and get him some tender green nuts. As we set off for our next leg of the journey, I popped in one small piece of green betel. Soon, sinking into a baffling jumble of hallucinatory dreams, I woke up 8 hours later in Kokrajhar. Green betel nut has a mean kick – I had crossed all the bumpy roads and river crossings in deep slumber. No wonder people in the northeast thrive on it!
Over the next seven days, we travelled to remote villages, lived in huts and began to realise that these were really simple people. Their peaceful way of life was getting disrupted by the huge waves of immigrants from Bangladesh. Their main demand was that their land be protected – a land which was being wrested from them. We saw the brutal burning down of entire villages and scores of children being displaced. We also recorded several CRPF jawans maimed and handicapped in cross firing.
I wondered at the wisdom of a political system that was causing our own troops and our own tribes to inflict heavy casualties on each other! If India was providing asylum to immigrants on humanitarian grounds, I thought, why not settle them in organised camps along the border instead of tucking pockets of them in the heart of tribal areas – toppling the demography and culture of our ancient people?
The Bodo leader was an invaluable navigator. He would sense in advance the booby traps that had been laid by both sides and navigate the car off the road – into soft paddy fields. In one very remote village, as Badri ‘Sound Person’, opened the car door to step out, he was briskly pulled back by the Bodo leader who simultaneously shouted at villagers. Poisoned arrows had been drawn, poised to be shot at us if not for his timely warning that we were ‘neutral’ reporters. I bagged a couple of these deadly arrows – made with thin hollow reeds and a rusted iron tip laced in toxic plant sap – as memorabilia for my office desk.
Stepping out one night from a hut, I looked up to see a sky filled with bright stars. As I looked down, I saw a field ablaze with glittering fireflies. It was a spectacle I will remember forever.
I had set out with certain pre-conceived ideas; I was returning now with vastly different learnings. On our drive back one day, the Bodo leader made us wade through the river. As he stood in knee-deep water, he cupped his gumcha and scooped out out tiny silver fishes. Roasting them over twigs, he turned to the crew and asked, “Now you understand?” Yes, we understood a bit.
Once the shoot was wrapped up, the tape box was locked and we were high up in the air, homeward bound – the crew let loose and started to jabber incessantly. Badri Sound Person began to say, “If I have a baby, I’d like to be in the OT. You?” he asked. I turned around in my seat to look at him. “I HAVE to be in the OT, duffer. I’ll be delivering the baby!” I realised that I had been accepted as one of the boys.
Sign of a great crew!
Post Script: After the story was telecast – I received a handwritten note from the Group Editor Aroon Purie. I felt like one of the ‘Three Idiots’ who had received the prized pen from the principal’s shirt pocket.
(Nutan Manmohan freelances for Discovery, BBC, CNN, Zee, World Bank, UNDP, NFDC – in short for anyone willing to risk it. She’s been Vice President of Star Tv and Contributing Producer, National Geographic Channel, USA. Her film ‘The Last Flight’ got the ‘Wild Wing OBE’ award UK. Her 26-part Children’s Jasoosi series V3 will release on Facebook this year.)
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