My last column on Nepal provoked a couple of readers to write to me about another area, within India, that is most often overlooked by the news media. India's northeastern States come into the news only when there is an election, an atrocity so huge that it cannot be ignored, or a natural disaster.
Yet, there is a great deal of "news" that ought to be reported on a regular basis from the northeast. There is a constant flow of stories on violations of human rights and atrocities committed by armed groups, who either belong to the State or to a militant outfit. The condition of those caught in the middle, the ordinary people, is rarely reported. Often they choose not to speak out. Even if they do, they are silenced by the indifference of the rest of the country. Even the local media in these States, often partisan and divided along regional or tribal lines, report selectively.
An example of such an internal divide resulting in non-reporting of events is seen in Manipur. Last year, when the rape and murder of Manorama Devi took place, the news finally reached the national press only after the dramatic demonstration by 11 women who stripped in front of the army headquarters in Imphal to register their protest. Widespread demonstrations against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) did not result in its withdrawal. But the reportage in the national media at least informed people in the rest of the country about what was going on in this northeastern State.
The Hmars for instance, a tribal group living in the hills of Manipur in Churachandpur district have alleged that 21 young girls, some as young as 13 and 14 years old, were raped by "non-State armed groups". This took place, they say, in Tipaimukh, Thanlon and Henglep. The story emerged when these 21 girls went public with their stories. There has been no independent confirmation of the story. The inaccessibility of the areas has been given as one reason why the local media have failed to cover the story.
This is what a young Manipuri wrote to me recently: "I used to believe that media can really help... But, how do we act when the media go silent? This is in special reference to a `mass rape' of 20-plus women, some as young as 13 years. This happened in the month of January in Churachandpur district in Manipur. There was a rally held on April 4 in Delhi for this, yet the mainstream media haven't done much. The media in Manipur took time to report and when reported, did not do justice."
The situation in Manipur is further complicated by the internal divisions between the Meitei, who live mostly in the Imphal valley, and different tribal groups like the Hmar who inhabit the hills. Thus, the conflict is at various levels and the problems people face are perennial. In each area, the people wielding power vary, depending on which armed group is dominant.
The thread that runs through these stories from the region is how unchecked power results in assaults on the rights of the most defenceless. Most often these are women. This is not particular to the northeast of India. Jump to West Africa, to Liberia, and you read of similar developments. Save the Children, the U.K.-based charity, has reported disturbing facts about how young girls in Liberia were being sexually exploited by aid workers employed by international agencies and even by U.N. peacekeepers. Like so many countries in Africa, Liberia's recent history is dominated by conflict and displacement. Thousands of people have had to live in camps, depending on charities and aid organisations for their daily rations. According to Save the Children, girls as young as eight years old have been forced to have sex in exchange for food. Others have had to give in to sexual demands from teachers who are willing to overlook school fees or improve grades in exchange. The head of Save the Children, Jasmine Whitbread, is quoted by the BBC saying, "Men who use positions of power to take advantage of vulnerable children must be reported and fired."
At least in the case of Liberia, a group like Save the Children has investigated and made the facts public. As the organisation is based in a northern capital, London, it has access to the world press. But what happens to a group of Hmars living in distant Churachandpur district of Manipur, India's easternmost state bordering Myanmar? The news of similar developments there, where, over 12 days, these young women were reportedly raped and sexually exploited, does not reach even the Imphal valley leave alone the rest of the country. Before long, it will be one more "unsubstantiated" story that will be forgotten. And Manipur will continue to remain invisible, until there is a "major" disaster inviting national attention.