“The bomb fell short of target and had it entered through the window, it could have been worse,” says Patricia Mukhim, editor of Shillong Times.
Mukhim was just a foot away from the window at which unidentified persons threw a petrol bomb on the evening of April 17. She heard an explosion and looked out to see flames blazing as neighbours rushed in. “Initially, I thought it must have been caused owing to some short circuit and immediately put off the main switch. Only later when the flame refused to die, we realised it was a petrol bomb that was hurled my way,” she says.
Mukhim, who was awarded the Padam Shri in 2000, is a strong voice from Meghalaya who has never deterred from speaking up on sensitive issues that concern public interest. Here are excerpts from an interview where Mukhim weighs in on why it is time for stricter measures to ensure safety of journalists working in the Northeast of India.
We were relieved to know no one was severely hurt in the attack. Do you know why this attack happened?
Well, I usually don’t shy away from speaking on things that I strongly feel about. I presume this attack could relate to a couple of issues that I recently wrote about.
One is perhaps the recent concern I had raised on the unabated limestone mining in south Meghalaya in areas such as Golaganj, Shella, Nongtrai, and so on. The ecosystem there is very fragile and hundreds of truckloads of limestone go through the Indo-Bangladesh borders.
Several crates of limestone go through the ropeways though the conveyor belt. These activities are unchecked and in the absence of any mining policy, there is absolutely no regulation. There are no concerted efforts to reclaim the lost forests.
The other issue I recently wrote about was related to the unruly behaviour of Khasi Students’ Union during their procession on ‘Khasi Awakening Day’ that they started since April 2012.
This year on April 4, the group went berserk during their procession through police bazaar, beating up people and hitting vehicles with flags and creating chaos.
Shopkeepers had to close shutters. What I had questioned was the need for an awakening day and such processions that have the potential for violence that are usually targeted at non-tribals.
The purpose of the procession seems to be nothing more than a need for show of strength and claiming power or authority over the place. On the face of such unruly behaviour leading to destabilising peace among people, there has been barely any strict action to reassure public.
Tongam Rina, associate editor of Arunachal Times, has said that this attack was a sign of the times. Why do you think the attacks on journalists, more so in the Northeast, are turning frequent?
Sporadic attacks on journalists have always been a concern in the Northeast. The sad part is that very little is highlighted and there are minimal efforts to address these concerns unlike what happens in the rest of the country.
The frequency of attacks I believe is a fall-out of a climate of impunity in the country today and the Northeast is no exception. Add to that the volatility of social media. Any issue today gets politicised and communalised, and people are free to speak about and get into heated debates and fights on such issues. Our first approach should be to address the climate of impunity.
You have said that you have been dealing with threats and abuses on social media. Do you think attackers could be from among those threatening you online?
There have been many occasions where people have trolled or stooped down to giving personal comments. I have filed FIRs earlier on social media attacks where people have used abuses and went to say things like I should die, etc. In the recent case, I cannot pinpoint any specific person.
However, my stories and comments did hit the psyche of the masses and there are some people who have been antagonised. I wouldn’t rule out the chance of attacker being from among the social media trolls though. Investigations would reveal the truth.
How is the practice of journalism in the Northeast different from other territories?
Northeast India has several groups and tribes, and naturally there is a high chance of a petty issue snowballing into a bigger unmanageable fight. Reporting here means being vigilant, very careful with words. There are risks associated, including threats from pressure groups.
In Meghalaya, there are many pressure groups lurking around. Their main job is to create issues, demand extortion from businessmen and industrialists, threaten journalists and create chaos. The difficulty in reporting out of the Northeast is a lot understated and a lot less talked about.
How are you going to deal with the recent attack? How has it affected you?
This is intimidating and nasty because it has happened to me for the first time and it could have been really bad. Even during militancy in Meghalaya during the years 1994-2000, when we were vocal about issues, groups made attempts to talk and discuss matters. But this time it was different.
I have filed an FIR and am waiting for the police to take strict action and identify the miscreants. I would take necessary precaution and be watchful and vigilant. True that this attack was disquieting, but it would absolutely not deter me from being vocal about my concerns. Neither would it affect my editorial decision. We will continue to write the truth for the greater good, come what may.( Newslaundry)