KOHIMA: The Press in Nagaland greeted the National Press Day with blank editorials and placards protesting, what they claimed was an attempt to gag the press, by the Assam Rifles. What a day for the media and its practitioners!

On October 25, 2015, the Assam Rifles issued a rebuke to 5 Nagaland newspapers accusing them of “encouraging collection of funds” by the NSCN (K) and “providing support to an Unlawful Association” and publicly directing the State Government to take Suo Moto action against them under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), 1967. This “request” was given out to the media.

If the intention of the Assam Rifles was to please their bosses in the Home Ministry and to gag or control the media in Nagaland, they have only managed to embarrass themselves, embarrass the Home Ministry, insult the State Government, and turn the media and the public and human rights activists everywhere against themselves. What they achieved was to betray their attitude of arrogance and to prove that they think they are a law unto themselves even while showing off what duffers they really are!

The Assam Rifles come under the Ministry of Home Affairs and not the Defence Ministry of the Government of India. And while the personnel may have come on deputation from regular army units, they remain under the Home Ministry during the period of their deputation. So, their actions get reflected on the Ministry concerned.

In this case, the Assam Rifles decided not only to interpret the intentions of the Home Ministry but also the Constitution of India including fundamental rights guaranteed by it and the finer relations between the Executive, Legislative and Judiciary and take the fight to the media, the Fourth Pillar of Democracy.

Secondly, the Assam Rifles have managed to insult the Government of Nagaland by instructing the State Government the kind of action it should take against the media. Policing and paramilitary forces are here not to instruct the Government of a State but only to assist it. Otherwise, there is no relevance to their presence here. By attempting to give instructions to the State Government the Assam Rifles have turned topsy-turvy the entire relationship. The Assam Rifles are not here to rule or to govern the people. What they have done is nothing less than an attempt to undermine and usurp the powers and functions of the State Government. Instead of the Assam Rifles reprimanding the media, and giving instructions to the State Government, the latter ought to issue strong strictures to the Assam Rifles and tell the Home Ministry in no uncertain terms that the State Government would not tolerate such behaviour in future.

The Naga Political Issue has become, perhaps, the longest running unresolved political and armed conflict situation in the world today. Not just decades but generations have lived through this conflict situation. Countless numbers of people have also died in the conflict, including Indian soldiers. Unimaginable sufferings have been undergone. The people are tired and longing for peace. So, when there is a little semblance of peace or a little thread of hope, they reach out for it. Understanding and reconciliation are the needs of the hour not more misunderstandings and frictions. In a pot-boiling situation the action of the Assam Rifles has managed to stir the pot further.

In so many decades of armed conflict, the media in Nagaland, almost always sandwiched between the opposing fighting forces, have been playing their role intrepidly and with as much fairness and objectivity their situation allows them. Threats to them, from all sides, are constant; even assassinations and deaths are not strangers to them. All the time they are having to walk the tight rope and navigate their way very carefully in order to bring the news to the public. Giving information and supporting are two totally different things. Without adequate accurate information, the public cannot make informed decisions and judgments. It is because of the press reports that the Naga public have come out against the Naga Political Groups for their taxations. The Assam Rifles should be congratulating them instead of castigating them and trying to strangulate them.

Unlike other big publishing houses elsewhere, those in Nagaland have little capital to start and keep their firms going. They have no money to invest to even make improvements or expand their ventures. Not surprisingly, the journalists and other staff are usually poorly paid, poorly facilitated and worked hard. But they all toil on to bring the news to all of us every day. Certainly, they do not deserve to have the Assam Rifles rub salt into their wounds because they are seemingly weak.

But the sorry plight of the media men and women in Nagaland aside, there are bigger issues at stake here. The Constitution of India guarantees fundamental right to all citizens. Among them are the rights to freedom of speech, expression and belief. These rights cannot be trodden under the boots of the Assam Rifles or of anyone.

As readers, it would have been completely within the rights of the Assam Rifles to ask that one-sided or biased stories and reports are checked. But they have no rights beyond that. Who are the Assam Rifles to say what can be written and what cannot be written by the newspapers? In a democracy, press freedom is a given and an essential, not a privilege for which those practising it must become beholden to the Government and certainly not to the Assam Rifles.

The Assam Rifles have taken umbrage because the newspapers in Nagaland have published news about the NSCN-K which has been proscribed by the Government of India. They know, at the same time, that the entire Naga people have been working tirelessly to bring them back to the dialogue process and to create an enabling environment for peace and settlement.

The Government of India itself treads here very lightly. Have they forgotten Naga teams going across the border for talks with the NSCN-K? Are the Assam Rifles opposed to peace and settlement? Some may think that it is in the interest of the Assam Rifles to keep the pot boiling in order to guard the privileges they enjoy in a situation of conflict. For instance, they get a lot of money for development purposes and to win over the local people to their side. These funds would dry up once there is political settlement and peace. The Assam Rifles call themselves “friends of the hill people” and I am sure they also support settlement and peace. But there is no call for them to act more loyal than the king.

On the other hand, the media houses have responded to the unnecessary attempt of the Assam Rifles to gag and control the press with maturity, calmly but clearly explaining their position and how they have been functioning in a difficult situation. They did not like what the AR was trying to do but they gave full coverage to the Assam Rifles’ letter to them. If they wished, the media houses could have ignored the letter and its contents with the contempt it deserves for the reasons stated in this piece. They did not do this. They took their time, studied the letter and gave a reasoned response on November 16, the National Press Day.

They took the opportunity to re-affirm their right to be free and responsible to play their role in society. “We remain open to critical feedback, and believe that the free flow of information and ideas is essential for contributing to mutual understanding and peace in Nagaland”. They listed out a number of rights, responsibilities and values they are committed to, including reporting without fear or favour from any quarter and stated their openness to enter any dialogue to resolve any issue with anyone. There was not a word of anger against or castigation of the Assam Rifles.

As I mentioned before, unless the press reports are biased the news about the NSCN-K are also helpful. They help the public to know who is doing what and whether they are working for or against the people. We have just heard of the horrific terror attacks in Paris. Because the USA and other Governments, including India, have declared the Islamic State (IS) a terrorist group, have they asked any media organisation not to write or report about them? And if they had tried to do this what kind of an uproar there would be the world over! No government would dare face the kind of backlash that would be unleashed in such an event.

In this instance too if there is any objection, it is for the State Government to take action and work things out with the media houses. The State Government has done this in the past and they could do so again. It is not for the Assam Rifles to go interpreting the law and the intentions of the Home Ministry and to issue instructions to the Government. There is also the matter of Centre-State relations and Law and Order is listed a State Subject which the Assam Rifles seem totally unaware. Their only mandate for their being here is to assist the Government. Period. So, if the intention of the Assam Rifles was to please their bosses in the Home Ministry, they have managed to embarrass the Union Government in no uncertain terms!

But in Nagaland and other states in North East (and J&K), the Army and paramilitary forces have been clothed with the bullet proof vests of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, and other undemocratic legislations, for too long and committing criminal acts with impunity has become a way of life for them that now they seem to have mistaken their own identity and think they are the real rulers of the place. The public have been cowed down for too long that now many would keep quiet even when they witness a crime and the leaders are mostly interested in pleasing Delhi. These traits have further emboldened the soldiery.

But, perhaps, this time the Assam Rifles may have bitten more than they can chew?!