How distance amplifies some protests, ignores others

Nine years ago, vicious sectarian riots broke out between Bodos and Muslims in the Kokrajhar district of Assam. The disturbances left nearly 80 people dead and nearly four lakh people fled their homes and took shelter in makeshift camps. To use a phrase popularised by lachrymose reporters in the Western media, it was a “humanitarian disaster.”

Curiously, the riots left the ‘national media’ in the country unmoved. TV crews didn’t go rushing to this far corner of Assam and there were no gushing reports by award-winning reporters portraying the sheer horror of it all. The tragedy of Kokrajhar was presented to the rest of the country as a set of lifeless statistics in single-column reports, mostly tucked away in the inside pages of newspapers. Subsequently, when questioned about the media lapse, a senior editor who is habitually outraged by the wrongs in society, explained it away as the “tyranny of distance”, meaning that Kokrajhar was too remote to really bother about.

Contrast the indifference that greeted a humanitarian disaster in North-east India with the fulsome coverage of the farmer’s agitation on the outskirts of Delhi. Almost every detail of the protracted negotiations with the government, the course of the hearings in the Supreme Court and even accounts of the wrestling matches that amused the protesters during long periods of waiting for something to happen, were covered by the media in excruciating detail.

The disquiet of the farmers of Punjab and Haryana over the modifications in agricultural marketing was undeniably important. The agitation warranted serious coverage and there was a ‘human interest’ angle too. However, some questions arise. Would the agitation that threatened the Republic Day celebrations in the capital have been in the spotlight had the participants been, say, potato farmers in Bardhaman district of West Bengal or chili growers in some corner of Meghalaya? More to the point, would the Supreme Court have devoted so much time and energy to the agitation had it taken place in a corner of India far away from Delhi? If the Kokrajhar disturbances were blacked out by the ‘tyranny of distance’, did the Punjab-Haryana farmers benefit from the romance of proximity?

The question isn’t academic. For the past year, a clutch of earnest research scholars in West Bengal have been protesting against a state government notification that, in effect, turned guest lecturers — recruited without adherence to stipulated standards — into permanent members of a college faculty. The research students quite rightly felt that the state government had restricted their future opportunities in academia.

Predictably, they took their grievances to the University Grants Commission, a body that funds higher education and safeguards standards. For an entire year they have written to the UGC, despatched delegations to the UGC regional office in Kolkata and even secured a mention of their grievances in Parliament. Tragically, they have met with no response. The UGC offices in Delhi haven’t bothered to reply, let alone clarify its stand. These bright young research scholars have encountered persistent stonewalling. Last heard, the UGC regional office advised them to go to Delhi and present their case there.

The issue may seem minor and probably demonstrates the ingrained indifference of the bureaucracy to a small group that doesn’t have the capacity to take to the streets and secure ‘national media’ coverage. It would undeniably have been different had a similar rule adversely affected researchers in the institutions based in Delhi. They would, after all, have had the necessary clout and information of the system to secure a fair hearing and possibly redressal of their problems.

In the value system of politics, regionalism is decried and the ideal of Ek Bharat, Shresth Bharat is promoted. Quite rightly too for the ideal of One India also assumes equal opportunities and equal empowerment for those living in Dakshin Delhi and Dakshin Midnapur. In reality, however, the ‘tyranny of distance’ imposes serious disabilities on those who lack the necessary clout to be heard in Delhi.

My own experience dabbling in the politics of West Bengal over the past three years indicates that while there is a certain awe attached to the power that stems from Delhi, it is tinged with a significant measure of resentment over being excluded from the inner circles of power. The dissatisfaction is invariably born from small issues — not being seriously considered for ‘national’ awards, being cut off from the information loop and not having sufficient access to the ‘national’ media. But capping it all is the dissatisfaction of being edged out for imperfect command over Hindi.

Equitable federalism doesn’t come from the Constitution alone. It is made by acquiring the right to have an equal voice, distance being no bar.

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