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SANJOY HAZARIKA
NORTH BY NORTHEAST

Sanjoy Hazarika is a columnist, author, filmmaker, Saifuddin Kitchlew Chair at the Academy of Third World Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia.

The media is being stupid about Karmapa

Karmapa Lama

he media hysteria and the failure of New Delhi to deal firmly and deftly with the rubbish floating about "secret accounts" and "Chinese connections", and worse, of the Tibetan religious leader, the Karmapa, the second-highest Tibetan monk after the Dalai Lama, is another example of media's stupidity and the Centre's thick-headedness.

The media should know that such a circus, based on selected doles by intelligence agencies, will only serve to fuel China's delight over India's failure to get its act together on the Tibetans and alienate the latter further. I happened, quite inadvertently, to be sitting in the office of the Foreign Secretary years back when he had just crossed over. Delhi's excitement at have got such a huge "catch" was palpable. For good reason: the Karmapa is the only Tibetan leader who is recognised by India and China.

As usual, there hasn't been any independent research worth the name and the reputation of a spiritual leader is being hurt. Editors need to pull in their reporters and get back to basics of coherent research, instead of being caught in a burst of media one-upmanship.

In the past weeks, the once unthinkable has happened in Assam: leaders of the former United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) are openly attacking Paresh Barua, its one-time unassailable and still intransigent hard-line military chief. Thirty-two years ago, in April 1979, during the Rongali Bihu — the festive New Year for Assam — Ulfa was born in Sibsagar, Upper Assam, with a call for a "sovereign" Assam. A handful of young men took part in that meeting and their names have become part of folklore, romanticism, hard-nosed security talk and the death of dreams, not just in Assam but across the Northeast and even in Delhi — Arabinda Rajkhowa, Pradip Gogoi, Anup Chetia. Barua joined in 1981.

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Editors need to pull in their reporters and get back to basics of coherent research, instead of being caught in a burst of media one-upmanship.

But today, Ulfa has virtually split, after decades of fighting for independence against the state, after the loss of thousands of lives; its few surges of political power have been undone by stunning military and political setbacks. There is public fatigue over the issue of "sovereignty" which has few takers in Assam. Ulfa's leaders have been released from jail on bail, after their capture in Bangladesh.

Barua wanted to pressurise the pro-talks group. But they've denounced him instead. A video tape of the highly secretive Barua, who has not been seen in recent photographs, dancing the Bihu with other uniformed cadres, posing for pictures, and declaring that he would continue to hold out against a settlement, has failed to intimidate Ulfa's crucial Central Committee as it plans unconditional talks with the Centre. "Sovereignty" is not going to be an issue any longer.

Barua's core group of cadres, said to number not more than 150, is reportedly at a camp located on the western bank of the Chindwin river in Northern Myanmar. He is said to have moved close to the Myanmar-China border since that video was shot. He is calculating on the fact that in future, should discord and disillusionment set in, then he could become a major rallying point, asserting, as he has, that the Centre cannot be trusted. Barua has asserted for years that there was no division in Ulfa's ranks, though there has been a visible desertion of former aides, bowing to pressure from the armed forces and a desire to quit an insecure life.

Unspoken in this discussion is the representation of various ethnic groups in Ulfa: while Barua is from the underdeveloped Muttock group, Rajkhowa and several other Ulfa peaceniks are of Tai-Ahom stock, whose ancestors once ruled the state and remain influential in its politics.

After returning to their homeland, Ulfa's leaders have understood how alienated they had become from the public. Since their release, the public pressure on men like Rajkhowa has been extraordinary with civil society, scholars, media, relatives and associates of Ulfa's victims asking tough questions and demanding clear answers. Earlier brush-offs such as dubbing opponents as Indian government agents don't work any longer. It is only through transparency, acknowledging mistakes and dialogue that healing and reconciliation can start in Assam's fractured society.

 
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